DARLINGTON, S.C. (Nov. 14, 2004) – Jimmie Johnson won Sunday’s 55th and final running of the storied Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, earning his eighth victory of 2004 and his fourth in the past five races.
The performance moved Johnson within 18 points of “Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup” championship leader Kurt Busch and completed a Team Lowe’s Racing season sweep at the historic 1.366-mile oval.
“It means a lot to me to win here at this race track,” Johnson said. “It’s such a tough track to race at.”
Johnson was quick to credit his No. 48 Lowe’s crew, which turned lightning-quick pit stops all afternoon.
“These guys here behind me won this race on pit road today,” he said.
Jeff Gordon notched a third-place finish, inching within 21 points of his fifth Cup Series championship going into the Nov. 21 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I’m proud of the DuPont Chevrolet team for the job they did all night long,” Gordon said. “We had great pit stops and an awesome race car. We made some big adjustments to really get the car where it needed to be.
“I’m happy for Jimmie and that Lowe’s team.”
Driving the No. 25 GMAC Financial Services Chevrolet, rookie Brian Vickers finished 21st at Darlington.
“We never found the balance we needed today,” Vickers said. “Midway through the race I thought we were going to be in good shape, but we had to pit under green for a loose left-rear wheel. At the time we were running 15th. The pit stop cost us a lap and we fought hard get back on the lead lap but never could.
“It was tough keeping up with the track today, especially when the sun went down.”
Vickers was followed by teammate Terry Labonte, who came in 28th in the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevy. It was the two-time champion’s 53rd career start at Darlington.
NASCAR’s premier tour will next visit Homestead, Fla., for the circuit’s season-ending event. Johnson and Gordon, both of Hendrick Motorsports’ title contenders, recently tested the track where the NEXTEL Cup championship will be decided.
“The track has definitely lost some grip from last year, but it’s still really fast,” Gordon said. “You really can abuse the tires a lot there because the speeds and the grip there are really good. My car was too tight so we’re going to go back there and try to free the car up over a longer run without giving up too much at the beginning of a run.
“It’s a beautiful facility and a great race track. I love it. I’m certainly looking forward to going there. I think we’re going to put on a great race. And I can’t think of a better place to go to wrap up the season and this championship.”
Team Lowe’s will take Johnson’s race-winning car from Darlington to south Florida.
“We left Homestead (test session) with a good baseline,” said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief. “We have a great idea of where we need to be, but this car also won at (Lowe’s Motor Speedway) and Atlanta. Obviously, it’s a very good race car. We’ll take it home and work on it. We’ve got a good package.
“Our engine shop has stepped it up lately. We’ve got a great engine going to Homestead and this is one of my favorite cars.”
Although to two teammates will be racing each other for a chance at winning the NEXTEL Cup Series championship, Gordon promises the teams will continue to share information and prepare as usual.
“Jimmie and I have always raced each other the same,” Gordon said. “We’re going to be sharing information all year long just like we did this weekend. It benefits us as much as them. We bounce ideas off each other.”
Gordon also knows the pair’s on-track respect for one another will carry over to the season finale.
“Jimmie is a hard-charging driver and we have a lot of respect for one another,” he said.
“We really didn’t get a chance to race each other tonight. We were on opposite spectrums there. But it could happen (at Homestead). If it does, we’re going to race each other like you would anybody else. You respect each other.”
Sunday’s event will be broadcast live by NBC and MRN Radio, with live coverage beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET.