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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)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS qualified for sixth position September 19, 2014 for Sunday`s Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. Johnson is in the Chase which continues with the Challenger 16 for this and next week`s race. (Photo by Christa L Thomas/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Toyota, smiles at Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 5-hour Energy Toyota, during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 19, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Toyota, leads Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, and Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 14, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois.  (Photo Credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Toyota, leads the field past the green flag to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 14, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #51 Dollar General Toyota, crosses the finishline to win the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 225 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 13, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #51 Dollar General Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 225 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 13, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #51 Dollar General Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 225 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 13, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #51 Dollar General Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 225 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 13, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Toyota, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 12, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois.  (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
(Back Row L-R) Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Toyota, Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Kelloggs/Frosted Flakes Ford, Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Catepillar Chevrolet, Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, Aric Almirola, driver of the #43 Gwaltney Ford, (Front Row L- R) Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M Call Before You Dig Ford, AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #47 Bush`s Beans Chevrolet, Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet, and Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, pose with the Sprint Cup Trophy after qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
(Back Row L - R) Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Toyota, Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Kelloggs/Frosted Flakes Ford, Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Catepillar Chevrolet, Miss Sprint Cup Madison Martin, Miss Sprint Cup Kim Coon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, Aric Almirola, driver of the #43 Gwaltney Ford, (Front Row L- R) Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M Call Before You Dig Ford, AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #47 Bush`s Beans Chevrolet, Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, pose with the Sprint Cup Trophy after qualifying for the Chase  (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, races Casey Mears, driver of the #13 GEICO Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 6, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, and Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, lead the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 6, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS, finished in second place Saturday, September 6, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. Gordon leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Eight Chevy drivers are in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins next week at Chicagoland Speedway. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, celebrates with the chequered flag after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Virginia529 College Savings 250 at Richmond International Raceway on September 5, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)

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