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Johnson wins 8th race, closes in on Gordon

HAMPTON, Ga. -- The seventh race in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup ended with fits and starts -- or, more accurately, attempted restarts. With a two-tire call on Jimmie Johnson's final pit stop on Lap 319, crew chief Chad Knaus put his drive...

HAMPTON, Ga. -- The seventh race in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup ended with fits and starts -- or, more accurately, attempted restarts.

With a two-tire call on Jimmie Johnson's final pit stop on Lap 319, crew chief Chad Knaus put his driver in position to win Sunday's Pep Boys 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and as it turned out, that was all Johnson needed to capture his series-best eighth win of the season and the 31st of his Cup career.

Johnson inherited the lead on an aborted restart on Lap 323, when Denny Hamlin stalled as he approached the start-finish line. Johnson then won the race after a green-white checkered-flag restart on Lap 328 failed to survive the first corner.

As a result, Johnson took the checkered flag under the track-record 13th caution of the race, completed his third track sweep of the season -- to go with pairs of wins at Martinsville and Richmond -- and trimmed teammate Jeff Gordon's lead in the Chase to nine points.

Plagued with handling problems throughout much of the race, Gordon salvaged a seventh-place finish to keep Johnson at bay and leave third-place Clint Bowyer 111 points back with three races left.

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"I just think it's going to be a real fight to the end," Johnson said of the points race. "We took a bite out of Jeff's lead, and I think it will come down to just a few positions in the last three races."

Carl Edwards was second when the attempt at a green-white-checkered finish ended moments after it started. The left rear tire broke free from Dale Earnhardt's No. 8 Chevrolet and sent the car careening violently into the Turn 1 wall. Earnhardt collected Jamie McMurray in the wreck, which brought out the 13th yellow. The race ended two laps later, four laps beyond its posted distance of 325 laps.

Reed Sorenson ran third, followed by Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, who gained four points on Gordon in the chase standings.

An equally bizarre restart necessitated the extra distance. Hamlin, who gambled on fuel while others pitted on Lap 319, appeared to run out of gas as he led the field to a restart on Lap 323, though his failure to come up to speed also may be attributable to water found in his fuel during the course of the race.

Martin Truex Jr., who had one of the strongest cars all day and led a race-high 135 laps, ran into the back of Hamlin's Chevrolet as the field stacked up behind him.

"Coming to the restart, I saw him (Hamlin) swerving the car a little bit, and looking back at it, I think he knew he was running out of fuel in Turn 4," Johnson said. "He didn't get going, but he left a lane to the outside. It could have been a real mess, but I have to give Denny credit, because he did leave a lane for the lead-lap cars to get by."

That was no consolation for Truex, whose race ended in a crumpled heap and with a 31st-place finish.

Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet began suffering handling problems after the early stages of the race and fell back as far as 21st in the running order before adjustments by crew chief Steve Letarte tightened the car toward the finish. Gordon methodically moved up through the field and salvaged the seventh-place result to remain at the top of the Chase standings.

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"I'm just happy we have a points lead at all after the day we had," Gordon said. "We just overadjusted our car and got ourselves loose. We finally got it turned around there at the end, but it was too late. But if a bad day for us is seventh, I'll be happy with that for the next three races -- if seventh is a bad day."

NOTE: Tony Stewart struggled to a 30th-place finish six laps down and fell to fifth in the points standings (322 behind Gordon) and, for all practical purposes, out of the running for the title. ... Troubles in the pits cost brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch top-five finishes. Though they led 98 and 77 laps, respectively -- second and third most -- Kurt finished eighth and Kyle 20th. ... The first-place prize money of $349,561 earned by Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports will be donated to the Red Cross California Wildfire Relief effort. Matching gifts also have been pledged by Lowe's, Johnson's sponsor; Speedway Motorsports and Sonic Automotive chairman Bruton Smith; and International Speedway Corporation chairman Jim France.

NASCAR - Nextel Cup

Pep Boys Auto 500

At Atlanta Motor Speedway - Hampton, Ga.

(Start position in parentheses)

1. (6) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 329 laps, 135.26 mph., $349,561.

2. (16) Carl Edwards, Ford, 329, $217,775.

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3. (32) Reed Sorenson, Dodge, 329, $203,533.

4. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 329, $180,416.

5. (28) Jeff Burton, Chevrolet, 329, $157,616.

6. (26) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 329, $119,925.

7. (8) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 329, $150,011.

8. (2) Kurt Busch, Dodge, 329, $145,833.

9. (4) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, 329, $146,291.

10. (14) Brian Vickers, Toyota, 329, $100,025.

11. (24) Michael Waltrip, Toyota, 329, $114,008.

12. (15) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 329, $113,825.

13. (39) Kyle Petty, Dodge, 329, $111,133.

14. (10) Elliott Sadler, Dodge, 329, $115,270.

15. (34) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 329, $140,961.

16. (31) AJ Allmendinger, Toyota, 329, $91,775.

17. (38) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 329, $124,508.

18. (43) Bill Elliott, Ford, 329, $112,189.

19. (3) Dale Jarrett, Toyota, 329, $88,450.

20. (19) Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, 329, $108,000.

21. (33) Robby Gordon, Ford, 328, $90,150.

22. (1) Greg Biffle, Ford, 328, $120,975.

23. (40) Tony Raines, Chevrolet, 328, $97,800.

24. (18) Denny Hamlin, Chevrolet, 328, $103,250.

25. (5) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, accident, 327, $128,958.

26. (25) Jamie McMurray, Ford, accident, 327, $94,950.

27. (36) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 327, $85,750.

28. (29) John Andretti, Dodge, 327, $93,408.

29. (27) Scott Riggs, Dodge, 327, $92,875.

30. (30) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 323, $130,461.

31. (20) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, accident, 322, $121,520.

32. (35) Johnny Sauter, Chevrolet, 321, $84,200.

33. (37) David Ragan, Ford, 320, $120,700.

34. (21) Juan Pablo Montoya, Dodge, 283, $118,350.

35. (22) J.J. Yeley, Chevrolet, 275, $111,008.

36. (23) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, accident, 268, $80,450.

37. (9) Ryan Newman, Dodge, engine, 267, $112,375.

38. (42) Dave Blaney, Toyota, 263, $97,722.

39. (7) David Stremme, Dodge, accident, 250, $80,050.

40. (41) Jeremy Mayfield, Chevrolet, 250, $87,925.

41. (11) Bobby Labonte, Dodge, 238, $116,736.

42. (13) David Gilliland, Ford, accident, 64, $106,924.

43. (12) Mark Martin, Chevrolet, accident, 64, $87,861.

Point Standings: 1. J.Gordon, 6,201. 2. J.Johnson, 6,192. 3. C.Bowyer, 6,090. 4. C.Edwards, 5,940. 5. T.Stewart, 5,879. 6. Ky.Busch, 5,873. 7. K.Harvick, 5,809. 8. J.Burton, 5,801. 9. Ku.Busch, 5,782. 10. D.Hamlin, 5,777. 11. M.Kenseth, 5,753. 12. M.Truex Jr., 5,688.

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