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Darlington: Johnson win means thriller finale

By Andrew Charman

Jimmie Johnson took his eighth win of the year, and his second at Darlington, in the 55th and final Southern 500 to be run at the South Carolina track. But history meant little compared to the fact that the win moved him within 18 points of title leader Kurt Busch and set up an unprecedented five-way final shootout next weekend .

With qualifying rained out the field lined up in owner points order, Kurt Busch heading the 10 championship contenders and the other 33 starters. Busch's #97 Sharpie Ford duly led the first of 367 laps around the tough tyre-killing 1.3-mile raceway before his closest title rival Jeff Gordon eased his #24 Dupont Chevrolet into top spot.

Over the opening laps Gordon and Busch pulled out a gap to the pursuit, headed by Jimmie Johnson's #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, Ryan Newman in the #12 ALLTEL Dodge and Dale Earnhardt Jr's #8 Budweiser Chevrolet. But 19 laps in Gordon's car suddenly went very loose, and Busch, Newman and Johnson were quickly past, only for Newman to slow and head for pit road with a cut right front tyre, losing two laps in the process.

Johnson was next to earn his five bonus points, taking the lead on lap 27, while his car owner Gordon continued to slip down the field, praying for a caution to do some pit road work on the car. In a very different mood was Jamie McMurray, the 11th-place starter taking his #42 Texaco Havoline Dodge past Busch for second on lap 37 as he looked to add the Southern 500 to victory in the Busch series race 24 hours earlier.

Green flag stops kicked off on lap 55, and the top 10 runners all hit pit road for new rubber within the next five laps. Fastest crew was Greg Biffle's, the #16 National Guard Ford taking the lead before moving aside to let team-mate and title contender Mark Martin earn his five points. The #6 Viagra Ford enjoyed 20 laps out front until it was caught by Johnson, Martin moving over to let the clearly quicker Lowe's Chevrolet go ahead. Bigger picture in mind, Mark was determined not to get involved in unnecessary battles on this day.

The first yellow appeared on lap 81, as Bobby Hamilton Jr's #32 Tide Chevrolet found the wall, and everyone headed for pit road and tyres. Martin emerged quickest to lead the lap 88 restart ahead of Biffle, Johnson and the again impressive Robby Gordon in the #31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet. Busch was 10th, Jeff Gordon five spots further back and under pressure from his closest points rival Earnhardt.

On lap 97 Martin again gave up his lead, this time to Biffle, and Johnson quickly went past the Viagra Ford too, within five laps retaking the lead. Behind him Martin was inspired, and on lap 114 he was back at the front, McMurray taking advantage of Johnson's lost momentum to snatch second. Within four laps he became the race's seventh leader, just in time to see the caution fly for a spin by Bobby Labonte.

The yellow proved a big break for Busch, the Sharpie Ford having seriously bent its fender on Brendan Gaughan's Kodak Dodge. Fixing it took time and he resumed 24th, the fast-pitting Robby Gordon leading Martin, Johnson and McMurray back to green on lap 125. Within five more laps it was Johnson back ahead, Martin his closest chaser and McMurray also going past Gordon as the caution flew again for a clash between Michael Waltrip and Todd Bodine.

Johnson, Gordon and Martin led back to green on lap 151, the Lowe's Chevy getting a jump as Martin eased past Gordon. Meanwhile the other Gordon was on the march in an improved Dupont Chevrolet, up to eighth with Earnhardt just behind. Dale Jr's progress stalled there but Gordon was into fourth by half distance and taking McMurray a lap later.



Related Pictures

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The title contenders were all up front early on at Darlington (Photo Autostock/Ford Motor Co).
Jimmie Johnson took his fourth win in five races, victorious at Darlington (Photo, GM Media).
Second at Darlington for Mark Martin kept his title hopes alive (Photo Autostock/Ford Motor Co)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet SS, stops in his pit on his way to a fifth place finish Saturday night, April 9, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. Elliott takes over the #24 car from retired driver Jeff Gordon.  (Photo by Ashley R Dickerson for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS, races to a fourth place finish Saturday night, April 9, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Alan Marler for Chevy Racing)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 as Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage (L) and John Godwin of Duck Commander (R) look on at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas (Photo Credit: Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, celebrates winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Boats Toyota, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 7, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, celebrates with the chequered flag after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, leads Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s/Superman Chevrolet SS, races to his 77th career victory, Sunday, March 20, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Garry Eller for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s/Superman Chevrolet SS, celebrates his 77th career win with a victory lap and checkered flag, Sunday, March 20, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Garry Eller for Chevy Racing)

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