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Johnson sweeps Darlington as championship race tightens

November 14, 2004

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) - Jimmie Johnson took advantage of a pit mistake by Jeff Gordon's team and won the final Southern 500 on Sunday, making the tightest championship chase in NASCAR history even closer with one race remaining.

Kurt Busch, who fought an ill-handling car after his Ford was damaged early in the race, somehow overcame adversity again to post a sixth-place finish and retain the points lead going into next Sunday's finale at Homestead.

"My guys' last two pits stops got me off pit road first and that was the key," said Johnson, who had to overtake rookie Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray. They stayed out when the other leaders pitted for tires during the last of eight caution periods.

The race restarted with 18 to go in the 367-lap event and Johnson, in third, passed Kahne for second place on lap 352 and took the lead from McMurray on 359. Then he pulled away to his series-leading eighth victory of the year and fourth in the last five races.

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He also won the Darlington race in March.

Johnson teammate Gordon, a six-time Darlington winner, appeared on the way to an easy victory until he pitted on lap 337 during another caution period. His car came down on an air hose, costing him precious time and the four-time series champion, who was leading coming onto pit road, came out sixth.

He charged to the end but couldn't catch Johnson or runner-up Mark Martin. McMurray finished fourth, followed by Kahne and Busch.

Heading to Homestead, Busch, who came into Sunday's race leading Gordon by 41 points, now leads Johnson by 18 and Gordon by 21. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had to pit late in the race to change a battery, finished 11th and now trails by 72 points, with Martin 82 behind.

The Southern 500, which traditionally was run on Labor Day Weekend, was moved to November when NASCAR gave the holiday date to the newer, bigger California Speedway. Darlington, which holds only about 60,000 spectators, will lose the second event to Texas Motor Speedway next year and will have only a May race.

For the first time, the race began in sunshine and finished under Darlington's new lights, challenging all the drivers with constantly changing conditions.

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