<
>

Johnson takes checkered for fourth time in 10 starts

RICHMOND, Va. -- Jimmie Johnson's celebration seemed a bit
subdued. Maybe all these trips to Victory Lane are becoming routine
for the Hendrick Motorsports crew.

Johnson gave Hendrick its seventh win in the past eight Nextel
Cup races by leading teammate Kyle Busch to a 1-2 finish Sunday at
Richmond International Raceway. It was the third consecutive
victory for Hendrick, which remained undefeated in the four races
NASCAR has used its new Car of Tomorrow.

But there was no gloating for a team all too aware how quickly
the competition can catch up.

"Our team is in full stride, but this is a very circular
sport," said Chad Knaus, the winning crew chief. "You get your
time at the top and you fall to some degree. What you've got to do
is make sure when you are taking your time at the top, you don't
get too full of yourself that when it's your turn to fall, it
doesn't break you apart."

Johnson, who was second to teammate Jeff Gordon last week at
Talladega, finally broke through on one of the worst tracks on his
resume. The .75-mile oval had given Johnson fits through his
career, and he came in with just one top-10 finish in 15 previous
visits.

In this year of Hendrick Motorsports, everything has gone right
and Johnson finally conquered the track for his series-leading
fourth victory of the season.

"It's cyclical," the defending Nextel Cup champion said. "You
enjoy it while you've got it, but we know that somebody is going to
figure something out. We'll just hope that the valley's aren't that
low and the valley isn't in the final 10."

Johnson used the victory to pull into second place in the
standings, where he now trails Gordon by 211 points. But based on
NASCAR's new seeding system for the Chase for the championship,
Johnson would start the final 10 races with a 40-point bonus on the
competition.

And, five of the 10 Chase races will use the COT.

It's left the competition admittedly frustrated.

"You can argue that Hendrick has all the best drivers," Denny Hamlin said. "It's tough to beat them when they've got four very,
very good teams. We've got three good teams, but when you've got
four like they have -- all competitive and all running up front
every week, the information that they exchange is going to be
better."

Only Casey Mears, the fourth driver in the Hendrick stable, is
struggling. He was wrecked early and finished 18th.

Busch said the entire organization is the class of the NASCAR
right now.

"We've got great race teams and I'd say probably four of the
best 10 or 12 drivers out there," he said. "It's hard to beat the
best drivers with the best equipment and the best teams. You just
have everything all pieced together correctly."

It looked as if Hendrick would finish 1-2-3 for the final 100
laps of the race, as Johnson, Busch and pole-sitter Gordon battled
for the lead. But Gordon faded over the final 15 laps and gave up
third place to Hamlin.

Gordon, who won the past two weeks, settled for fourth as
Chevrolets took the top four spots in the race that began briefly
Saturday night with 12 laps run under caution before it was halted
because of rain. It started fresh on Sunday.

Only Kevin Harvick had a car that could challenge the Hendrick
crew, and the Daytona 500 winner led 106 laps midway through the
race. He was out front when the sixth caution of the race sent the
field into the pits, but as Harvick pulled out, he clipped rookie
David Ragan, who was heading into his stall.

It caused considerable damage to the front of Harvick's car and
forced him to stop for repairs. He was in 17th, with heavy black
tape around the nose of his Chevrolet, when the race resumed and
never challenged again. He rallied to finish seventh.

"We just didn't communicate," Harvick said.

Kurt Busch finished fifth and was followed by his Penske Racing
teammate Ryan Newman in sixth. Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 10.

After Harvick's pit-road error, Kurt Busch briefly moved to the
front, but his stay was brief. David Gilliland wrecked to bring out
a caution and Kurt Busch ducked onto pit road for service. But the
leaders didn't follow him, and Busch shuffled back to ninth on the
restart.

It put the three Hendrick cars out front, as Johnson, Kyle Busch
and Gordon were 1-2-3 when the race resumed. Jeff Green then hit
Dale Earnhardt Jr. to cause Earnhardt to spin and bring out the
eighth caution of the day.

It didn't change the running order, though, as the three
Hendrick cars stayed out front until a debris caution with 82 laps
to go. Dave Blaney broke up the Hendrick party with a two-tire pit
stop that saw Johnson and Gordon come out in first and second,
Blaney third and Kyle Busch fourth with 78 laps to go.

Busch quickly passed him to reclaim third place, then wasted
little time getting past Gordon for second.

He got by Johnson with 44 to go, passing his teammate just as
Greg Biffle brought out the 12th caution of the race. Kyle Busch
stayed out front through a series of late cautions, but lost it to
Johnson on a restart with 20 laps to go.

Johnson drove away and the closest Busch got to him again was
when he visited him in Victory Lane to spray him with Gatorade.