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Johnson, Hendrick reign at Richmond

May 7th, 2007 1:15 am by JENNA FRYER



RICHMOND, Va. - Jimmie Johnson's celebration seemed a bit subdued. Maybe all these trips to victory lane are becoming routine for the Hendrick Motorsports crew.


Johnson gave Hendrick its seventh win in the past eight Nextel Cup races by leading teammate Kyle Busch to a 1-2 finish Sunday at Richmond International Raceway. It was the third consecutive victory for Hendrick, which remained undefeated in the four races NASCAR has used its new Car of Tomorrow.


But there was no gloating for a team all too aware how quickly the competition can catch up.


"Our team is in full stride, but this is a very circular sport," said Chad Knaus, the winning crew chief. "You get your time at the top and you fall to some degree. What you've got to do is make sure when you are taking your time at the top, you don't get too full of yourself that when it's your turn to fall, it doesn't break you apart."


Johnson, who was second to teammate Jeff Gordon last week at Talladega, finally broke through on one of the worst tracks on his resumé. The .75-mile oval had given Johnson fits through his career, and he came in with just one top-10 finish in 15 previous visits.


In this year of Hendrick Motorsports, everything has gone right and Johnson finally conquered the track for his series-leading fourth victory of the season.


"It's cyclical," the defending Nextel Cup champion said. "You enjoy it while you've got it, but we know that somebody is going to figure something out. We'll just hope that the valleys aren't that low and the valley isn't in the final 10."


Johnson used the victory to pull into second place in the standings, where he now trails Gordon by 211 points. But based on NASCAR's new seeding system for the Chase for the championship, Johnson would start the final 10 races with a 40-point bonus on the competition.


And, five of the 10 Chase races will use the CoT.


It's left the competition admittedly frustrated.


"You can argue that Hendrick has all the best drivers," Denny Hamlin said. "It's tough to beat them when they've got four very, very good teams. We've got three good teams, but when you've got four like they have - all competitive and all running up front every week, the information that they exchange is going to be better."


Only Casey Mears, the fourth driver in the Hendrick stable, is struggling. He was wrecked early and finished 18th.


Busch said the entire organization is the class of the NASCAR right now.


"We've got great race teams and I'd say probably four of the best 10 or 12 drivers out there," he said. "It's hard to beat the best drivers with the best equipment and the best teams. You just have everything all pieced together correctly."


It looked as if Hendrick would finish 1-2-3 for the final 100 laps of the race, with Johnson, Busch and polesitter Gordon battling for the lead. But Gordon faded over the final 15 laps and gave up third place to Hamlin.


Gordon, who won the past two weeks, settled for fourth as Chevrolets took the top four spots in the race that began briefly Saturday night with 12 laps run under caution before it was halted because of rain. It started fresh Sunday.


Only Kevin Harvick had a car that could challenge the Hendrick crew, and the Daytona 500 winner led 106 laps midway through the race. He was out front when the sixth caution of the race sent the field into the pits, but as Harvick pulled out, he clipped rookie David Ragan, who was heading into his stall.


It caused considerable damage to the front of Harvick's car and forced him to stop for repairs. He was in 17th, with heavy black tape around the nose of his Chevrolet, when the race resumed and never challenged again. He rallied to finish seventh.


"We just didn't communicate," Harvick said.


Kurt Busch finished fifth and was followed by his Penske Racing teammate, Ryan Newman, in sixth. Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 10.


After Harvick's pit road error, Kurt Busch briefly moved to the front, but his stay was brief. David Gilliland wrecked to bring out a caution and Kurt Busch ducked onto pit road for service. But the leaders didn't follow him, and Busch shuffled back to ninth on the restart.


It put the three Hendrick cars out front, with Johnson, Kyle Busch and Gordon 1-2-3 when the race resumed. Jeff Green then hit Dale Earnhardt Jr., causing Earnhardt to spin and bringing out the eighth caution of the day.


It didn't change the running order, though, as the three Hendrick cars stayed out front until a debris caution with 82 laps to go. Dave Blaney broke up the Hendrick party with a two-tire pit stop that saw Johnson and Gordon come out in first and second, Blaney third and Kyle Busch fourth with 78 laps to go.


Kyle Busch quickly passed him to reclaim third place, then wasted little time getting past Gordon for second.


He got by Johnson with 44 to go, passing his teammate just as Greg Biffle brought out the 12th caution of the race. Kyle Busch stayed out front through a series of late cautions, but lost it to Johnson on a restart with 20 laps to go.


Johnson drove away and the closest Busch got to him again was when he visited him in victory lane to spray him with Gatorade.


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