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As Jimmie Johnson drove toward Victory Lane after snatching a dramatic victory in the rain-delayed Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on Monday, he spotted Tony Stewart standing on pit road, talking to his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli. Johnson stopped his Lowe's Chevy 10 feet from Stewart, his fierce rival since last season whom he had just beaten to the finish line by .097 of a second, and flashed a one-digit salute: a thumbs-up.
Welcome to the friendly (so far) battle between NASCAR's two most dominant drivers of the 2006 season. They had survived a crash-filled afternoon at Talladega and set up a last-lap duel by using identical strategies: run at the rear of the field the first two thirds of the race, reducing the risk of tearing up their equipment while other drivers played high-speed bumper-car games as they jockeyed for position.
"We weren't comfortable with some of the guys we were around, so we just went to the back of the field," said Zipadelli. "That's how we won the championship last year--being smart."
Said Johnson, "I stayed cautious today until the end, when I got real aggressive."
Indeed, on the seventh lead change in the final 10 laps, Johnson got to the front and then daringly blocked Stewart on the low-line coming out of the last turn in the run to the finish. The tactic worked, and Johnson blazed to his third victory of the year, a blink ahead of the only driver on the Nextel Cup circuit who has more top 10 finishes (31) than his 29 since the start of the '05 season. After nine races this year Johnson holds a 21-point lead in the Cup standings over Matt Kenseth, who finished sixth on Monday, and a 78-point advantage over Stewart.
"I really like where we are right now," said Stewart, who was in a bad spot last Saturday--flipping onto his roof and sliding down the frontstraight in the Busch Series race. (He walked away unscathed.) "For whatever reason, we've traditionally been a slow-starting team. But not this year."
Stewart has proved again this season that, on any weekend, at any type of racetrack, he is the man to beat. He has led more laps (801) than any other driver, and in the last month he has won at Martinsville (short track), finished third at Texas (intermediate), and placed second at Phoenix (flat) and Talladega (restrictor plate). The only other driver who can match Stewart's all-around ability is Johnson, who this year has two restrictor-plate victories (Daytona and Talladega), a win at an intermediate venue ( Las Vegas) and a third place at a short track ( Martinsville).
After acknowledging Stewart on pit road late Monday afternoon, Johnson zoomed off in the number 48 car to get his trophy and a champagne shower. Stewart headed back to the garage, beaten but still able to break out in a winning smile when the King, Richard Petty, gave him his second thumbs-up of the day. "I just didn't have enough to get by Jimmie," said Stewart. "This time."