Johnson pulls out victory at Lowe's

Sunday, October 16, 2005

CONCORD, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson overcame every problem thrown his way -- including tire troubles that turned Saturday night's event into a laughingstock -- to win his fourth consecutive race at Lowe's Motor Speedway and move into a tie with Tony Stewart in the Chase for the championship.

Johnson started 41st, battled a failing alternator, a cut right rear tire and overtime to prove no one can beat him on the track his Lowe's-sponsored team considers its own private playground. Johnson has won five of the past six events at the suburban Charlotte facility.

"I can't believe that we always end up somehow toward the front at the end of a race ... this one in the closing laps after a long night of adversity," Johnson said. "We changed batteries, the alternator had some troubles, flat tire, all kinds of crazy things."

He took the lead with nine laps to go and was pulling away until Rusty Wallace brought out the 15th caution of the race with one of the many, many tire problems. It forced the field to be bunched up for one final restart and Johnson held off Chase contenders Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle to lock up the victory.

It moved Johnson up three spots in the standings and into a tie with Stewart -- who finished 25th after crashing while leading earlier in the race -- with five events remaining in the race for the Nextel Cup title. Biffle is in third in the standings, 11 points out

Johnson's win was the one bright spot in a race that was marred by tire problems for 16 drivers -- including five Chase competitors -- because Goodyear's rubber could not stand up to the increased speeds on the smoothed track surface.

It forced NASCAR to issue a mid-race mandate on the minimum air pressure used on right front tires, and led inspectors to police pit road with a threat of docking points to teams who disobeyed.

Stewart, Kyle Busch, Elliott Sadler and Kasey Kahne all lost the lead because of tire problems -- three of them crashed after their tires blew while Kahne avoided the wall.

Many said the tire concerns left them too scared to push their cars to the limit, choosing instead to race at about 85 percent effort to prevent a possible tire failure.

"I need a renewal of my life insurance policy, to tell you the truth," Stewart told his crew when asked late in the race what he needed.

"I just can't wait for this thing to be over so I can get out of here and hopefully not be hurt."

The smooth track surface was a concern all weekend because of the dizzying speeds created after track president Humpy Wheeler twice grinded out its trademark bumps.

Friday night's Busch race gave teams a preview of what to expect when Goodyear's tires struggled to hold over long runs and the race was marred by a record 14-cautions.

It had drivers on edge before the Cup event even started.

"If somebody gets hurt, then whoever made the call to change the race track needs to feel a little bit responsible," said Jeremy Mayfield, who wrecked in the Busch race.

"We're going way too fast here, it's not right."

NASCAR had a scheduled "competition caution" 30 laps into the race to give teams a chance to inspect their tires and assess how well the rubber was holding. Ryan Newman didn't even make it that far, with his right front tire blowing while he was running in second place.

The tire failure didn't cause him to wreck, but put him two laps down very early and forced him to battle back for a seventh-place finish. Newman came into the race second in the standings but dropped to fourth -- only 17 points back.

Newman's problem was the first sign that the tires would be troublesome all night.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s exploded with no warning and sent him crashing hard into the wall.

"It just went 'BAM!' and then I hit the wall," he said.

Moments later, championship contender Matt Kenseth's right front failed, and the eruption tore the entire front panel of his Ford. He needed several stops on pit road to fix it and fell 11 laps down.

That's when Biffle realized just how perilous the situation was for the drivers: "Guys, we're not racing to win here. We're racing for a finish, whatever we can do to survive," he radioed to his crew.

As more and more tires popped -- leading Kevin Harvick to call the problems "the biggest joke in racing I've ever seen" after losing his right front -- NASCAR again called a competition caution and made the air pressure mandate.

It didn't help Stewart, who crashed when he ran over something on the track to cause a right rear tire to go flat while he was leading shortly after racing resumed.

"I'd just like to thank NASCAR for playing God again," he barked over his radio.

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