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Johnson Wrecks, The Chase Is Back On

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 8 2009
Chad Knaus pushes Jimmie Johnson's damaged car into the garages at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Chad Knaus pushes Jimmie Johnson's damaged car into the garages at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fort Worth, Texas – The aura of invincibility surrounding Jimmie Johnson was shattered early during Sunday’s Dickies 500, and just like that, NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup is worth the price of ambition.

Talk of Johnson’s bid for an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup title was muted when a crash involving Sam Hornish Jr. on Lap 3 of the scheduled 334 sent J.J. spinning and pin-balling into the outside and inside backstretch walls at Texas Motor Speedway. After spending more than an hour strapped inside a battered No. 48 as his crew scrambled to rebuild it, Johnson returned to the race 119 laps down en route to a 38th-place finish.

That result – Johnson’s worst of the 34 races run to-date – allowed championship runnerup Mark Martin to trim 111 points off the 184-point lead Johnson began the day with. Martin, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, finished fourth and will roll into Phoenix International Raceway for Round 9 of the 10-race Chase next weekend only 73 points behind the leader. And four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who began the day 192 points behind his HMS teammate/protégé, now is 112 points in arrears.

“It was definitely not the day we wanted,” said Johnson, understating the obvious. “We did not want to lose points like that. Luckily we had a big margin. We’re going to two great tracks (PIR and Homestead-Miami Speedway) and we’ll just keep racing.”

Johnson’s lowest finish during the previous seven Chase races was ninth on the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway.  Sunday’s result tied his previous worst at TMS, during the spring race in 2007.

“You know, it’s still a respectable lead. Seventy-three with two to go is still a good position to be in,” said Johnson, whose repaired Lowe’s/KOBALT Tools Chevrolet Impala SS sported a completely new front clip and patched right rear quarter panel in basic black. The front suspension and plumbing also was repaired and/or rebuilt by a cadre of HMS crewmen with spinning wrenches and welding torches ablaze.

“We’ve been saying all along that anything can happen,” said Johnson, who handled the setback diplomatically. “I just wish that Sam could have waited a little while longer before he hit something. Instead, he lost it and hit me and off we went. There’s not much we can do about it. We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Martin – at 50, the oldest of 12 drivers who qualified for the Chase – blew a kiss to his teammate and crew chief Chad Knaus…and issued a media advisory.

“When it comes right down to performance, you know you can’t beat those guys – Jimmie Johnson and those guys,” said Martin, driver of the No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg’s Chevy. “It’s not over yet. The top six, I’m still kind of baffled why everybody is so preoccupied with first and second. The top-six spots are being raced for like a dog fight.

“But yeah, we can go head-to-head with them, no doubt about it. There could still be swings in the points. There’s two races left, you never know what’s going to happen.”

Just ask The Brothers Busch.

Johnson’s day-long soap opera overshadowed Kurt Busch’s first Cup victory on the 1.5-mile TMS quadoval, which came at the expense of his brother. Kyle Busch was absolutely killing the race and poised to make NASCAR history when his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry ran out of fuel down the backstretch on Lap 331 of 334. Kyle Busch, who had led 232 laps to that point, coasted around the apron and into the pits for a splash of fuel as brother Kurt inherited the lead. Kyle Busch finished 11th and declined comment.

Kurt Busch and his Team Penske Dodge went on to finish a massive 25.686-seconds ahead of Denny Hamlin, followed by Matt Kenseth, Martin and Kevin Harvick. Kurt’s sudden victory was bittersweet, as Kyle – winner of the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series races here on Friday and Saturday, respectively – was attempting to become the first driver to win in each of NASCAR’s touring series on a single weekend.

Meanwhile, Kurt’s victory made an instant millionaire out of 25-year-old Oklahoman Michael McGee, who had picked this Busch to win the race as part of the 17th annual Dickies American Worker of the Year promotion.

“I can tell you now, I’m Kurt Busch’s favorite fan,” said McGee, an agricultural teacher and horse-training businessman from Broken Bow, Okla. “Go No. 2!”

“That’s unbelievable!” said Kurt Busch, who scored his second victory of 2009 and 20th of his career. “Racing my little brother head-to-head for the win is bittersweet. I was rooting for him but at the same time, we wanted to put our Dodge in Victory Lane. We raced hard. Then it came down to the crew chief, Pat (Tryson), putting in the right calls and getting us the fuel mileage to bring it home.”

Kurt Busch also pulled to within shouting distance of Johnson in the championship, 171 points behind the leader in fourth. He began the day 312 points out. And two-time series champion Tony Stewart, who was 279 points behind Johnson, now sits 178 out following a sixth-place finish.

“It’s very competitive, no matter who is in the lead, who is behind trying to gather points,” said Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger and the 2004 series champion. “Jimmie Johnson, they’ve won an incredible amount during the Chase. For them to stumble today puts everyone back in the picture, within a reasonable amount.”

Kurt Busch led the second-most laps, 89, while averaging 147.137 mph. “For us, I’m kicking myself for what happened to us last week at Talladega (30th-place finish),” Busch said. “Running sixth place with a lap-and-a half to go, I put the car on the hauler at 30th. I didn’t do my job last weekend. We find ourselves too far behind, but we’re still within a reasonable distance.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 8 2009
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