CONCORD, N.C. - Thanks to a rocket-fast No. 48 Chevrolet, Jimmie Johnson made the Coca-Cola 600 look as lopsided as a 3-0 soccer match Sunday night.
While he did have to sweat some things out in the final 50 laps, Johnson still put a major-league hurting on the field to complete a Hendrick Motorsports weekend sweep at Lowe's Motor Speedway, the 1.5-mile track located only a mile or so from the headquarters of the team that capped off a weeklong celebration of its 20th anniversary in grand style. Johnson led 334 of 400 laps - 501 of 600 miles.
In 1967, Jim Paschal led 335 laps in this race. And if that record performance was anything like this one then it, too, was a good old country butt-kicking. Johnson did have to endure five caution flags after Lap 338 in a race that had seen only two before that point. Two of those late yellows presented the eventual winner with his most significant challenges of the evening.
On Lap 368, when Ryan Newman and Derrike Cope got together and into the Turn 2 wall, that yellow brought the leaders to pit road for fresh tires. But Jamie McMurray gambled and stayed on the track, while Michael Waltrip and Jeremy Mayfield took just two tires. Johnson took four tires on his stop and was fifth, also behind Kasey Kahne and his four new tires, on the restart on Lap 374.
He didn't stay there long, mounting a charge with a daring pass between Robby Gordon's lapped car and Kasey Kahne's No. 9 Dodge in Turn 4 on Lap 376 on a move that crew chief Chad Knaus later called "sick" - meaning that in the best way possible.
"I had some urgency there," said Johnson, who followed up Hendrick driver Kyle Busch's victory in Saturday's Busch Series race. "I knew I needed to get going and make quick work of the 9 (Kahne) and 19 (Mayfield) and get going. I knew those guys were on old tires, but I still needed to be quick."
He passed Waltrip for second on Lap 379 and grabbed the lead from McMurray on Lap 384. He seemed to be home-free, but Newman's engine let go on Lap 393 and NASCAR stopped the cars on the backstretch on Lap 395 - just a lap before the red flag would not have been used to get a green-flag finish.
It didn't matter. Johnson pulled away easily after the last restart, leaving a pack of cars behind him to battling for positions. They were still battling when Bobby Labonte's car slapped the outside wall in Turn 2 on the final lap, and when the caution car came out that froze the field. Michael Waltrip was credited with second, but the positions immediately behind the top two had to be reviewed by NASCAR immediately after the race. Matt Kenseth was eventually credited with third, with Jamie McMurray fourth and Elliott Sadler fifth.
"That car was so good," said Johnson, who became the first pole-winner to win a Nextel Cup race this season. "We stuck to our game plan all night long and we knew what we needed to do. It all worked out, and that was cool."
Last year, Johnson won a race shortened to 276 laps by rain. This time, it looked like nobody could have caught him if the cars had run 800 laps.
"I don't think anybody had anything for Jimmie tonight," McMurray said. Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought his way back to a sixth-place finish and held on, barely, to the lead in the season's standings. He's now five points ahead of Johnson. Kenseth is third, 111 back.
"We came in and got two tires and took advantage of some of those guys there at the end," said Earnhardt Jr., who got his first top-10 finish in the Coca-Cola 600 since he was fourth in 2000 at a Cup rookie. "It wasn't a good day for us, though. We struggled with the handling all day. We were really a 10th-place car. "But I'll take it. This is one of Jimmie's best tracks, and we didn't lose a whole lot to him. We'll leave here with the points lead, and that's important."
It was important, too, for Johnson to bounce back after being caught up in a wreck early in last week's Nextel All-Star Challenge that ruined his chances of sweeping to wins in that event and the 600 as he did in 2003.
"How can you beat winning at home?" Johnson asked after getting his second victory of the season and the eighth of his career. "Kyle did it yesterday and we did it today.
"The race was rain-shortened last year and there was some controversy about that. Some people said that maybe we weren't the best car. So to come back and back it up this year was great. It's nice to deliver when you have a dominant car and we did that tonight.