<
>

No criticism, just awe this time

CONCORD, N.C. -- It took him a year of waiting, but Sunday night Jimmie Johnson finally got the vindication he so desperately sought.

When Johnson won last year's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, he and NASCAR were roundly criticized that the race was called due to rain after just 276 of the scheduled 400 laps -- only for the skies to clear shortly after the event was judged official.

Johnson took the criticism to heart, and vowed that if he had a chance to come back this year and had a quality car under him, he would prove last year's win was not a fluke.

Fast-forward 370 days, and Johnson not only did that but also added a few exclamation points for emphasis:

  • He became the first driver this season to win from the pole.

  • He led 334 of the 400 laps, one short of tying the event record set by Jim Paschal in the 1967 World 600 (the predecessor to the Coca-Cola 600).

  • He didn't drop out of the top-10 the entire day.

  • He closed to within five points of series points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who rallied late to finish sixth).

  • He led 501 miles of the 600-mile race and wrapped up things in a final six-lap sprint after the race was red-flagged on lap 394, when the motor in Ryan Newman's car blew up, bringing out a yellow caution flag.

    If all of those elements don't add up to a dominating finish, nothing does. But Johnson didn't have to look far for proof of the amazing job he did -- his fellow drivers were expert witnesses.

    "He was the class of the field all day," said Matt Kenseth, who finished third.

    Added fourth-place finisher Jamie McMurray, "The 48 car was in a league of his own today."

    Runner-up Michael Waltrip chimed in with his two cents: "(Johnson) was a lot better than everybody. You don't see that very often."

    Johnson took home nearly a half-million dollars in winnings for taking the checkered flag. And while he left Lowe's Motor Speedway after last year's race hearing nothing but criticism, this time he left roughly 170,000 fans buzzing, reveling in the driving clinic Johnson had put on.

    "The way it worked out last year worked in our favor, and that was great. And now to come back, to go the full distance and win the race, it throws it back a little bit on that and says, 'Hey, we do deserve to win these 600-mile races.' We took a little criticism last year, but now this year nobody can say a thing," Johnson said.

    The win was Johnson's second of the season, having previously triumphed in March just down the road from Charlotte at Darlington, S.C. It also put a cap on Johnson's last four finishes, with a pair of fourth-place and then second-place finishes heading into Sunday's race.

    But there was one thing Johnson didn't quite get Sunday, namely overtaking Earnhardt for the points lead. Had it not been for Junior's late-race rally, Johnson would have moved into the series lead. Instead, Earnhardt leads Johnson by a 1,798 to 1,793 point margin, with third-place finisher Matt Kenseth also third place in the standings with 1,687 points.

    "I want a recount. Are we in Florida? Is there a hanging chad?" Johnson said with a laugh.

    Johnson becomes only the sixth driver in Cup history to win back-to-back 600s, part of a very select group that includes the late Dale Earnhardt as well as Hendrick Motorsports teammate and three-time overall 600 winner Jeff Gordon, who struggled to an uncharacteristic 30th place showing this time.

    In fact, Johnson could have won his third 600 in a row had it not been for a rookie mistake in the race two years ago. He had led 263 laps but overshot his pit stall late in the race, turning what appeared to be a for-sure win into a seventh-place finish.

    Despite the domination he displayed, winning under caution when Bobby Labonte crashed on the final lap, one moment in the race arguably was Johnson's brightest moment. With 23 laps remaining and coming off a restart following a crash between Derrike Cope and Ryan Newman, Johnson bulled his way between Kasey Kahne and the lapped car of Robby Gordon, moving from fifth to third, and eventually catching then-leader Jamie MacMurray.

    "I knew at that point I had to set it on kill when we got back to the green flag," Johnson said. "I knew I had to clear the 9 (Kahne) as fast as I could. Both (Gordon and Kahne) backed out and I slid through."

    A few laps later and after reeling in Michael Waltrip to take over second place, Johnson finally caught McMurray with 17 laps left to go, prompting crew chief Chad Knaus to tell Johnson over the radio, "Nice and easy."

    And nice and easy is just the way Johnson won, in stark contrast to the not-so-nice jibes he took after winning last year's rain-shortened event.

    "There were some people that said maybe we weren't the best car last year," Johnson said. "So to come back and back it up this year is great."

    Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.