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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, holds his daughter, Lydia Sunday, November 22, 2015 before final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Johnson and other Jeff Gordon teammates at Hendrick Motorsports wore tribute hats to honor the retiring Chevy driver prior to the start of the race. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, races to a sixth place finish Sunday, November 22, 2015 in the final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Gordon finishes third in the Chase for the Cup Championship. This was Gordon`s last race as a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver. He has made 796 consecutive Cup Series starts, earned 93 wins, and 81 poles - all behind the wheel of Chevrolets. (Photo by Andrew Coppley/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Defending Sprint Cup Champion Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS, races to a second place finish, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS finishes in sixth place, and Martin Truex, Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Visser Precision finishes in twelfth place Sunday, November 22, 2015 in the final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. This Chevrolet drivers finished 2nd, 3rd and 4th (respectively) in the Chase of the Cup Championship. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Series championship contenders Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 AXALTA Chevrolet, Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, take part in pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Former racing driver Mario Andretti, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 AXALTA Chevrolet, and Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton pose during pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 AXALTA Chevrolet, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 AXALTA Chevrolet, and Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, celebrates winning the series championship and the race with a burnout after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, celebrates winning the series championship and the race in Victory Lane after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, celebrates winning the series championship and the race with his team after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, celebrates with the trophy in Victory Lane after winning the series championship and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, and Daniel Suarez, driver of the #18 ARRIS Toyota, lead the field on the first lap of the NASCAR XFINITY Series Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 21, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Defending Sprint Cup Champion Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS, qualifies for thirteenth position Friday, November 20, 2015 for Sunday`s Championship 4, the final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Harvick will be joined by Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS and Martin Truex, Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Visser Precision Chevrolet SS to compete for the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)

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