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Closing in on the Cup
Johnsons sweep of AMS cuts Gordons lead
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HAMPTON - Jimmie Johnson didn’t have the best car Sunday. But he had the best luck.

Johnson avoided the wrecks, bad pit stops and disastrous restarts that plagued the day’s front-runners to steal a win in the Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and cut a big slice out of teammate Jeff Gordon’s lead in the championship race.

Johnson’s second straight win, and season sweep at Atlanta Motor Speedway, put the points margin at nine with three races remaining in what has become a two-man Chase for the Nextel Cup.

"It’s going to be a shootout to the end," Johnson said.

The race left team owner Rick Hendrick nearly assured of a title. Which driver will give it to him remains unsettled.

"It was a wild finish," Hendrick said of the race, which had 14 cautions for 55 laps. "We’ll see if our nerves can handle three more events."

The two Hendrick cars were hardly the class of the field through much of the race. Gordon, who salvaged a 7th–place finish, ran as far back as 20th with an ill-handling race car. Johnson was in 12th place late in the race.

But the day’s dominant cars were out of the picture by the final lap.

With nine laps remaining, it was shaping up to be a four-car battle between Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr. and brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch. The latter three drivers had combined to lead 310 of the first 316 laps.

But pit strategy proved their undoing. While the top four took four tires, a host of other cars took on two. Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin didn’t pit at all, looking to push his fuel mileage eight laps beyond the pit window.

On the following restart, Hamlin was leading the field to the green flag when he ran out of gas, sparking a frontstretch melee as cars fanned out four-wide around him to avoid a collision. Truex, who led a race-high 135 laps, slammed into the back of the stalled car, wrecking both drivers out of the race.

That set up a green-white-checkers finish with Johnson, who on the advice of crew chief Chad Knaus had taken on two tires instead of four in the previous pit stop, as the leader.

"We had a good car today, not the fastest, but Chad’s pit call today was really what put us in contention to win the race," Johnson said.

The race ended under the yellow flag when Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost his left rear wheel and slid up into the outside wall in turn 3, wrecking a chance at a top-3 finish.

"Man, that was a hit," Earnhardt said afterward. "I knew when I was sliding up there it was going to be big and it was."

It was Earnhardt’s final race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the Budweiser No. 8 Chevy. Next year he moves to Hendrick Motorsports, where he will join the two drivers now battling for a championship. It would be Gordon’s fifth title or Johnson’s second.

"All I can say is when we had a 58-point lead coming in, we didn’t feel like we had a lead and the pressure was on," Gordon said. "Now we have a nine-point lead and the pressure is even more."

Gordon said the championship would come down to which teammate had problems on the track during the final three races.

"There’s a lot of ways to lose this championship," Gordon said.

Johnson, who counts Gordon as a friend and mentor, said it’s still possible to remain friends and battle for the cup.

"I think there’s more drama in the fact that you have two teammates racing each other for a championship," Johnson said. "It’s not like we’re out there giving each other positions on the track."

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