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Johnson finally on track at Bristol

He changes his fortunes with a dramatic victory

Jimmie Johnson, tossing a loaf of bread in victory lane, overcame Kurt Busch with 10 laps to go to win the Food City 500, his first career triumph at Bristol. Jimmie Johnson, tossing a loaf of bread in victory lane, overcame Kurt Busch with 10 laps to go to win the Food City 500, his first career triumph at Bristol. (Chuck Burton/Associated Press)
By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press / March 22, 2010

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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 never could get a handle on the .533-mile bullring, where he struggled far more than he ever succeeded.

Until yesterday, that is. Johnson finally knocked Bristol off his to-do list, plowing from sixth to first in just three laps for his first career win 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 and say, ‘Man, I’m going to [stink] today.’ I really had that mindset coming here.’’

That changed last season when Johnson 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’s all he needed with 10 laps to go and an opportunity to deny Kurt Busch a chance to gain any ground on Johnson’s championship No. 48 team.

Busch led 278 of the 500 laps and had a decent gap on Johnson when his easy drive to victory was clouded by a debris caution with 17 laps remaining. All the leaders headed to pit road, 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 on the restart. Busch was fifth, Johnson was sixth, and the race resumed with 10 laps to go.

Kenseth’s difficulty getting up to speed stacked up traffic behind him, including Busch, who lost his opportunity to leapfrog his way to the front.

Not Johnson, though. He weaved through the mess up to second, Stewart moved into the lead, and Johnson needed just over one lap to pick him off, too.

“When we’re winning at tracks that we’re not supposed to, boys better look out,’’ Johnson warned. “Even that 2 car [Busch] that doesn’t want the 48 to win.’’

Busch, a five-time Bristol winner who hasn’t been to Victory Lane at the bullring since 2006, was irate over his radio at the loss. He settled for third behind Johnson and Stewart, missing his chance to win his second consecutive race of the season and prove his Penske Racing team has made enough gains to run consistently with Johnson and the Hendrick Motorsports bunch.

“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.’’

It was Johnson’s third win of the season and 50th of his career. More important, it was his first at Bristol, where his previous best finish in 16 starts was third. Nine of his finishes here had been outside the top 16.

Next up for Johnson is Martinsville Speedway, where he’s won five of the last seven races, a stat not lost on Busch.

“They’re going to be tough next week at Martinsville. We’ll be lucky to finish 10th,’’ Busch said. “That’s why I was really pouring my heart and soul into winning this one.’’

Biffle finished fourth and was followed by his Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Edwards. Dale Earnhardt Jr. overcame a speeding penalty to finish seventh, Jamie McMurray was eighth, and Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 10.

Kevin Harvick maintained his lead in the Sprint Cup Series standings by finishing 11th.

Johnson became the 12th driver in NASCAR history to win 50 races. He reached the milestone in his 296th start, and only three did it faster: Jeff Gordon (232), Darrell Waltrip (278), and David Pearson (293).