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Half-mile milestone

Jimmie Johnson revels in ruining a rival’s day and in grabbing his first Sprint Cup win at Bristol in 17 attempts.

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Jimmie Johnson revels in ruining a rival’s day and in grabbing his first Sprint Cup win at Bristol in 17 attempts.

BRISTOL, Tenn. — There's an aura about Bristol Motor Speedway, a track that drivers and fans love equally for its electric, throwback-style racing.

Jimmie Johnson never chalked it up as one of his favorites.

The four-time defending NASCAR champion could never get a handle on the 0.533-mile bullring, where he struggled far more than he ever succeeded.

Until Sunday.

Johnson finally knocked Bristol off his to-do list — and joined an elite group of drivers with 50 Sprint Cup wins — plowing from sixth to first in three laps Sunday to grab his first victory at the revered Tennessee track.

"Everything around Bristol is what people focus on. There are parties for it. The fans get excited for it. You walk into this facility and look around, and you want to run well," Johnson said. "It's really been a downer for me to walk through the gates, look around, 'Man, I'm going to (stink) today.' I really had that mind-set coming here."

That changed in 2009 when he led laps in both Bristol races, grabbing a pair of top-10 finishes while giving him a guide on how to get around the concrete track.

"I started building my confidence," he said. "Those two races gave us clear direction where to work, me a clear direction on how to drive the car."

And that was all he needed to deny rival and agitator Kurt Busch, then needle him by saying: "When we're winning at tracks we aren't supposed to, the boys better look out—even that No. 2 car (Busch) that doesn't want the No. 48 to win."

Johnson's pointed reference was to Busch's "Anybody but the 48" campaign.

Busch led 278 of 500 laps and led easily when a debris caution with 17 laps left ruined his easy drive. All the leaders pitted and Busch and Johnson both took four tires on the final stop.

Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart all took two tires, giving them the first four positions. Busch was fifth, Johnson sixth.

But having four new tires was the way to go on the restart with 10 laps left. Johnson weaved his way to second. Stewart moved into the lead but Johnson needed just over one lap to pick him off.

Busch, a five-time Bristol winner, was irate over his radio at the loss. He settled for third behind Johnson and Stewart.

"I'd rather lose to any of the other 41 cars out there than the 48 car," Busch said. "I thought we had him beat. I gave it my heart today, but we came up short."

At the start of each season, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus write down their goals and finally grabbing a checkered flag here was a big one.

"It was pretty high on his list," Knaus said.

Biffle was fourth, followed by Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Edwards. Dale Earnhardt Jr. overcame a speeding penalty to finish seventh.

Johnson hit 50 wins in his 296th start, and only three drivers did it faster: Jeff Gordon (232), Darrell Waltrip (278) and David Pearson (293).

Half-mile milestone 03/21/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 21, 2010 11:06pm]
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