Johnson grabs win with late pass on Stewart

Published 3:46 pm Monday, March 19, 2007

By By MIKE HARRIS, AP Auto Racing Writer
HAMPTON, Ga. — Jimmie Johnson already has his eye on the big prize.
The reigning NASCAR Nextel Cup champion passed Tony Stewart three laps from the end Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway and went on to win his second straight race.
Johnson had the car to beat Sunday, leading 132 of the first 238 laps. But the only laps he led the rest of the way in the 325-lap event on Atlanta’s 1.5-mile oval were the last three.
The 25th victory of his Cup career moved Johnson within 28 points of current series leader Mark Martin, who plans on skipping next week’s race at Bristol and the race the following week at Martinsville.
That would leave Johnson just 20 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and 17 behind Jeff Burton going into Bristol, the fifth of the 26 races that will determine the 12 drivers in the Chase for the championship.
Johnson, who overcame a penalty in the pits at Las Vegas to beat Gordon the previous week, had some problems with tire wear late in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500.
Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, appeared on the way to his first victory of the year after coming off pit lane ahead of Matt Kenseth and third-place Johnson after the final stops by the leaders during a caution flag on lap 311.
After the green flag waved with 11 laps to go, Johnson took just three laps to get past Kenseth, then took off after Stewart in the duel of Chevrolets.
Johnson pulled side-by-side with Stewart just past the finish line on lap 322. Johnson then got his nose out ahead and, as the two cars drove through turn two, Stewart scraped the wall.
Johnson easily led lap 323 and continued to pull away from Stewart, going on to win by about half the front straightaway. He credited crew chief Chad Knaus for making some key adjustments on the last pit stop.
Stewart, who overcame a long pit stop in the early going when one of his crewmen dropped a lugnut, led 121 laps and was happy with second place. But he wasn’t particularly happy with Johnson.
Johnson apologized, saying he wished he had given Stewart more room.
Kenseth wound up third, followed by Jeff Burton and heralded rookie Juan Pablo Montoya, who barely held off Clint Bowyer to record his first top 10 and by far his best finish in five Cup starts.
Martin, who finished 10th, remained in the lead by eight points over Gordon, who overcame a tire problem and a lost lap to finish 12th. Burton remained third, 11 points behind, and Johnson stayed in fourth, moving to 28 points back.
But longtime NASCAR star Martin switched teams this year in order to cut back to a partial Cup schedule and has said he will sit out the next two races, despite leading the points.
The Bristol race next Sunday will also be the debut of NASCAR’s new Car of Tomorrow, which could throw a wild card into the mix, depending on which teams figure out of the all-new, bigger and boxier car first.