Johnson Holds Off Gordon At Martinsville

Sunday, April 1st 2007, 6:57 pm
By: News On 6

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) _ Jimmie Johnson withstood teammate Jeff Gordon's bumping and banging for much of the last 53 laps Sunday and held him off by a front bumper to win for the third time in six NASCAR Nextel Cup races this year.

The teammates with Hendrick Motorsports provided a stirring duel at the end of the second Car of Tomorrow race, one that was mostly devoid of the destructive physical driving that normally leaves several cars broken long before the checkered flag.

But for the last 53 laps, the show was all Johnson and Gordon, who tried everything he could short of wrecking his teammate and friend, but couldn't make the pass.

Johnson won for the 26th time in his career and extended Gordon's winless streak to 24, leaving him one short of tying the late Dale Earnhardt for sixth on NASCAR's career victory list with 76. It was Hendrick's seventh victory in the last nine races at Martinsville Speedway, the smallest, oldest and trickiest track on the circuit.

``I'm speechless. I've looked up to him my whole career, before I even was back here racing. I've looked up to him and knew how good he was at Martinsville,'' Johnson said of Gordon, whose seven career wins at Martinsville are the most among active racers.

``That was probably the hardest driving I've ever done,'' Johnson said.

``I gave him the inside lane a few times. I could see him coming. I didn't want to squeeze him and run him up on the curb, so I left him the inside lane, but coming down to the checkered flag, he gave me a shot in 3 and 4 and at that point, I just turned left and crowded him and tried beating him back to the start-finish line,'' he said.

The margin of victory was 0.065 seconds.

Gordon was upset at the finish that he wasn't able to make the pass.

``The only way I could get by him was to wreck him, but he's my teammate and I tell you what, there's going to be some interesting racing going forward because he blocked me really bad,'' Gordon said. ``I thought I had a chance at him a couple times, but he shut the door on me pretty good. ... He did exactly what he should have done.''

Denny Hamlin finished third, followed by Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart as Chevys swept the top seven spots.

Hamlin and Earnhardt, along with the Hendrick teammates, dominated the race. Hamlin started on the pole and led 125 laps, and Earnhardt led 137, the last with 123 to go.

``We're tired of running so good here and not winning,'' Earnhardt said.

Gordon led three times for 92 laps, but none of the last 113. The first 10 of those were led by teammate Kyle Busch, but Johnson passed him on lap 388 and kept going, giving the Hendrick teams both Car of Tomorrow victories. Busch won last week.

``It's kind of one of those starts you dream about,'' owner Rick Hendrick said. His teams have now won four races in a row. In another, they finished second and third.

The race was slowed for 93 laps by 13 cautions, but most of those were one-car spins or accidents, not the kind of multicar accidents common at Martinsville.

In the end, the Car of Tomorrow appeared to have a lot to do with it. Designed with bumpers that don't allow the trailing car to lift and move the car in front as readily as the other race cars have, Gordon said he would have had to hit Johnson really hard _ and on the right spot on the track _ to get him to slide up the track enough to pass.

Johnson, though, didn't feel like Gordon had held back at all.

``I would have been wrecked with last year's car with hits that hard,'' he said.

But, he said, he doesn't expect any problems with Gordon because of the respect they have for each other and the relationship they have forged as teammates.

``It's certainly something that we'll work out,'' he said.

The race almost appeared ready to end before any of the late drama.

With Earnhardt leading, the race was red-flagged by rain with 357 laps to go. Black clouds surrounded the track, but the delay lasted less than 32 minutes.

When it resumed under a yellow flag, Johnson and Hamlin headed for pit road, a move that paid off when another caution sent the leaders to the pits with about 125 left.

Busch had the lead when it went back to green with 118 laps to go, and Johnson passed him five laps later. When Gordon passed Hamlin for second with 53 laps to go, it quickly became a two-car battle, and the pupil held off his one-time mentor.