Edwards passes Johnson on final lap to capture Golden Corral 500

Monday, March 21, 2005

HAMPTON, Ga. -- A NASCAR star is born.

Carl Edwards pulled off a daring move on Jimmie Johnson coming off the final turn and won his first Nextel Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, beating Johnson by about a half-car length Sunday.

Johnson, trying to win for the second week in a row, grabbed the lead from Edwards with 25 laps to go and appeared to be strong enough to take it all the way to the finish of the Golden Corral 500.

But, on the final lap, Edwards got a great run coming out of turn two and pulled up on Johnson's back bumper. Johnson went high coming through turns three and four, trying to block his challenger, but Edwards went even higher.

The 25-year-old driver hardly resembled someone in his first full year on the circuit, hugging the wall and actually tapping Johnson's car as they roared through the trioval.

Johnson's car bobbled slightly just a few feet from the finish, and Edwards slipped by on the outside to win by a minuscule 0.028 seconds.

When it was over, Edwards pulled to a stop in front of the main grandstand, climbed out of his Roush Racing Ford and pulled off a move that's sure to become a standard on the Cup circuit -- a backflip onto the asphalt.

"Let me tell you, Jimmie Johnson is an amazing competitor," Edwards said. "That's the hardest I've ever driven in my life. I'm pretty proud of that."

Edwards completed a weekend sweep in Atlanta. On Saturday, he held off Johnson and Tony Stewart to win the Busch race -- his first victory in that series, as well.

Edwards, who moved from trucks to Nextel Cup for the final 13 races last season, is running a full schedule in both series, trying to gain as much experience as possible.

Clearly, he's a quick learner.

"You can see his intensity, his car control," Johnson said. "This guy is our next superstar."

Greg Biffle held on for third, followed by Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne.

Johnson led a race-high 156 laps, followed by Biffle with 151. Edwards led only nine laps, but he was near the front all day.

"I was pretty confident I could beat (Johnson), but I couldn't beat Carl," Biffle said. "I didn't plan on him being there."

Johnson shook off the embarrassment of being docked 25 points and losing his series lead because his Chevrolet failed inspection after winning last week's race at Las Vegas.

"We were thinking about Victory Lane and being able to smile over our critics and everyone who thought we were doing something goofy last weekend," Johnson said. "We're going to prove what this team is capable of and change the impression some people may have of the team."

Johnson's team wasn't the only one to face NASCAR's wrath after Las Vegas. Three crew chiefs were suspended for rules violations -- though two of them were in Atlanta pending appeals -- and Johnson was docked 25 points.

At the driver's meeting before the race, NASCAR president Mike Helton issued a stern warning to the drivers and crew chiefs. He raised the possibility of stiffer penalties -- such as driver suspensions -- if teams continued to flout the rulebook.

Todd Berrier, the crew chief for Kevin Harvick, began serving a four-race suspension even though he's appealing the severity of his penalty. Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus and Alan Gustafson, who works with Kyle Busch, were at the race while they appeal two-race suspensions for failing inspections.

The race wasn't even a lap old when 10 cars got caught up in a huge wreck coming down the backstretch.

Casey Mears spun as he swept off turn two, setting off a wild melee that took out four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Atlanta winner Bobby Labonte. The race was halted for nearly 10 minutes while workers cleaned up the mess.

"I thought I was going to get through there," said Gordon, who rammed the inside wall. "I saw smoke, but they all turned down in front of me."

Gordon and Labonte eventually got back in the race with rebuilt cars, but it was merely to turn laps on the high-banked oval and hope for as many points as possible. Labonte finished 37th, Gordon 39th.

Series points leader Kurt Busch also was involved in the big wreck, but he had only minor damage. The defending Nextel Cup champion managed to climb back into contention, getting as high as second before a shredded tire ruined his day. He wound up 32nd and surrendered the top spot in the standings back to Johnson.

Johnson has an 82-point lead over Biffle, while Edwards is 87 points back. Busch slipped to fourth.

Ryan Newman, who won his fifth straight Cup pole at Atlanta, surrendered the lead to Johnson after the big wreck, quickly fell off the pace and finished 14th. In seven races at this track, Newman has yet to place higher than fifth.

Bobby Hamilton Jr., the biggest surprise of qualifying, started from the outside of the front row but got off to a dismal start. He was passed by three cars before he got to the first turn, then got clipped by Brian Vickers on the backstretch, cutting a tire.

Later, Hamilton was trying to get back on the lead lap when he slammed the wall, forcing him to limp behind the wall. He settled for 38th.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. showed no signs of breaking out of his slump. The race's defending champion was slow all weekend, starting 35th and finishing 24th.

Junior has struggled since a second-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. He had three flat tires at California and finished 32nd. At Las Vegas, he caused a five-car wreck early in the race and wound up 42nd.

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