Johnson scrambles from back of pack to win Coca-Cola 600Posted: Sunday May 25, 2003 10:44 PM
CONCORD, N.C. (AP) -- Jimmie Johnson walked into the NASCAR officials' trailer to check on the weather. He walked out of it as the winner of the Coca-Cola 600.
Johnson was declared the winner Sunday night after NASCAR halted the race after 276 laps because of rain. It gave him an impressive sweep at Lowe's Motor Speedway -- he picked up $1 million by winning The Winston eight days ago.
"I went there to check the radar and as soon as I stepped into the front of the red truck they were shaking my hands and telling me I was the winner," Johnson said. "I was surprised. But regardless of how it turned out, we were going to be a contender."
Johnson took the lead 11 laps earlier with a quick pit stop -- perfect timing because heavy rain soaked the track minutes later. The shower was brief, but NASCAR figured it would take at least three hours to dry the track and more rain was expected.
So the sanctioning body shortened the longest race of the year -- stopping it after 414 of the 600 miles -- a decision Johnson and his crew initially didn't believe as word trickled down pit road.
But as the crowd began to boo the decision, the Hendrick Motorsports team knew it was official and began a hesitant celebration.
"I am dumbfounded," Johnson said. "I expected to be doing doughnuts on the frontstretch to celebrate. But we'll take it this way."
Winston Cup points leader Matt Kenseth finished second, Bobby Labonte was third, followed by Jimmy Spencer, polesitter Ryan Newman, Michael Waltrip and Sterling Marlin.
Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Ward Burton rounded out the Top 10.
Robby Gordon, who finished 22nd earlier Sunday in the Indianapolis 500, was 17th and disappointed he didn't get a chance to continue.
"As far as going the distance, 17th place is pretty weak and we had a better car than that," he said. "We could have had a top 10 car and I could have continued racing."
But NASCAR President Mike Helton said the threat of more rain would have dragged the race on long into the night -- if it even got restarted.
"We'll close the books on this one and head on to Dover," Helton said. "Hopefully everybody understands. I know Jimmie does."
But the rest of the field didn't, especially Kenseth, who led three times for a race-high 75 laps.
"I'm certainly not happy about ending the race at 9:30 at night -- the biggest race of the year, especially when it's not even raining," Kenseth said. "Hopefully it will start raining pretty hard soon."
Actually, it's not the biggest race of the year. That's the season-opening Daytona 500 -- which was also called by rain earlier this year.
That wasn't a popular decision either -- especially to Johnson, who was in third when that race was called -- but didn't spoil the celebration for Waltrip, the winner.
Waltrip went to congratulate Johnson in Victory Lane, which was moved into a covered garage stall at Lowe's.
"Can you walk away with a clear conscience?" Waltrip asked.
"Yeah, absolutely," Johnson replied. "Did you? After your win in Daytona?"
By calling the race, NASCAR ended Kenseth's bid to give Roush Racing a fifth consecutive victory in the Coca-Cola 600. He and teammates Mark Martin and Jeff Burton have combined to win the past four events.
But Johnson is the new champion, becoming the fifth driver in NASCAR history to sweep the May events at what's considered the home track for his team because Lowe's sponsors his No. 48 Chevrolet.
It was perfect redemption for the second-year driver, who probably should have won both events last season as a rookie.
He won the first two segments of The Winston last year, only to get shuffled back to 10th in the inversion before the final portion and could only work his way to fifth.
And he was clearly the car to beat in the 600 a week later, dominating the race before an error in the pits on the final stop took him out of contention.
"The success we had last year, we did so well but we just couldn't close the deal," Johnson said. "This makes it all worth it."
It wasn't easy, though.
Johnson didn't make a qualifying lap on Friday because his motor broke before he was scheduled to go onto the track. So he took a provisional to make the field and was scheduled to start 38th.
He was shuffled back even more after his team changed the engine, so he actually started 43rd and worked his way up through the field. Johnson did it quickly with aggressive driving and speedy pit stops from his crew.
He also caught a break when Tony Stewart, thought to be the one to beat, had his own engine problems and finished 40th.
Stewart led three times for 68 laps before he was taken out of contention.
And Dale Earnhardt Jr., second in the points standings and another race favorite, also had problems.
He was running in second place when he spun out and backed his
Chevrolet into the wall. The hit apparently damaged the brake line,
but Earnhardt tried to continue until bright orange flames were
seen shooting out from under his car. He went to the garage and