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Jimmie Johnson passes Tony Stewart late to win NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway

Jimmie Johnson earns his fourth Dover victory.

Jimmie Johnson earns his fourth Dover victory.

DOVER, Del. — Jimmie Johnson went from running away from the field to running down Tony Stewart.

Johnson nipped at Stewart's bumper, went nose-to-nose, then soared past him on an outside pass on the concrete track.

One Sprint Cup champion outdueling another in the battle for the checkered flag.

Johnson thrashed the field, then rebounded from a late pit stop that dropped him back into traffic to catch Stewart with two laps left in a thrilling finish in Sunday's Autism Speaks 400 at Dover International Speedway.

"We just couldn't hold off Jimmie," Stewart said. "He was like a freight train coming."

Johnson had one of the more dominant performances of his career, taking control early on the concrete to lead a career-high 298 laps. That seemed to be enough for the three-time defending Cup champ until a botched pit stop on a four-tire change with 36 laps left knocked him from the lead.

Johnson was far from sunk.

"It was a small hiccup," Johnson said.

One by one, he picked off the drivers in front of him. He charged past Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch until only Greg Biffle and Stewart were ahead of the No. 48 Chevrolet with 10 laps left. Johnson passed Biffle to set up the frantic finish.

"I don't know how it gets much more exciting than that," Stewart said.

Johnson knew Stewart was his once Biffle was out of the way.

"That allowed me enough time to set Tony up and really work on that last little bit to find my line and perfect it and get by Tony," Johnson said.

Johnson won for the second time this season and the fourth time in a Cup race at Dover. He has 42 career Cup victories.

Stewart was second, followed by Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 12th in his first race with crew chief Lance McGrew.

"We've got to do this a lot," Earnhardt said. "I don't want to give ourselves any credit yet until we can perform at this level more consistently, but I'm really proud of my guys today."

Earnhardt posted his best finish since finishing second at Talladega in April. Sunday was his first race since 2005 without crew chief Tony Eury Jr.

Stewart passed Jeff Gordon for the Cup points lead and became the first owner/driver atop the standings since Alan Kulwicki won the title in 1992.

"That stat there is pretty cool to be leading the points standings this early into the new venture," Stewart said.

Gordon ran two laps down in his backup car most of the race and finished 26th to fall 46 points behind Stewart.

Johnson appeared to have the race under control and was never really challenged for most of the 400-mile race. When he came in for the last four-tire pit stop, a faulty exchange by his crew slowed him and dropped him back to ninth place.

David Reutimann of Zephyrhills, the pole-sitter who was coming off his first series victory in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600, led twice for 25 laps. But he fell back, then had to spin to avoid David Stremme's wreck and finished 18th.

Jimmie Johnson passes Tony Stewart late to win NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway 05/31/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 1, 2009 8:04am]

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