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Victory gives Johnson season sweep

Jimmie Johnson thought he needed a victory to jump back into contention for the Nextel Cup championship.

He got it, and it still wasn’t enough.

Johnson won the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway on Saturday night — leading teammate Jeff Gordon across the finish line for a 1-2 finish for Hendrick Motorsports — but gained almost no ground in the Chase for the Championship.

On a night in which almost all 10 of the championship contenders had some sort of trouble, Kurt Busch and Gordon rebounded the best.

The two bounced back from a wreck in the first turn of the first lap to salvage stellar finishes and retain their hold on the top of the point standings.

Busch finished fourth and now holds a 24-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished third. Gordon, who also had a second minor accident midway through the race, is 74 points back.

Despite a series of bad breaks to most of the contenders, nine of the 10 finished 14th or better.

That meant Johnson, whose victory gave him a season sweep at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, gained just one spot in the standings. The Lowe’s-sponsored driver is eighth, 222 points behind Busch, because of finishes of 32nd or worse the past two weeks

It made no difference to Johnson, who celebrated becoming the first driver to sweep the Lowe’s races since the late Dale Earnhardt did it in 1986 with a series of burnouts.

“What a way to come back and right the ship after the bad luck we’ve had,” Johnson said.

Johnson, the most dominating driver for the first seven months of the season, is more or less out of title contention.

The championship hunt has become a three-man race, and unless the trio has a ton of trouble, no one is going to catch them.

But 10 seconds into the race, it looked as if the rest of the contenders had gotten a lucky break.

Scott Riggs missed a shift at the start of the race that prevented him from taking off. He tried to get his car out of the way, but there was too much traffic behind him and a chain-reaction crash stacked up behind him.

It caused minor damage to Busch and Gordon, who had to pit several times to make repairs.

When racing resumed, Busch was 38th and Gordon 40th.

Another accident brought out the caution just two laps later, and Busch’s Roush Racing team used the time to assess his car. Teammate Matt Kenseth eyeballed the damage, and radioed in that Busch still needed more repairs on a fender.

Busch fixed it and moved toward the front.

It took Gordon quite a while longer to join him.

“We’re in big trouble here if we don’t get a caution soon, guys,” he radioed shortly after Kasey Kahne passed him. “This car is really bad.”

The caution came — but only because Gordon brought it out himself. He wrecked 15 laps after his warning, taking Rusty Wallace with him.

But somehow or another, the four-time series champion managed to pull it together and salvage the night.

“There were so many moments today where we could have crumbled, and we stayed calm and came back and what an amazing finish,” Gordon said. “Now we are still in the thick of things.”

Elliott Sadler finished seventh to remain fourth in the standings.

Mark Martin is fifth in the standings, but had a heartbreaking race. He was leading late, until Johnson passed him, but was still on his way to a second-place finish when his back luck hit.

Jimmy Spencer and Brendan Gaughan got into an accident in front of him and Martin couldn’t avoid it. After stopping to fix the damage, he was only able to manage a 13th-place finish.

Martin, 186 points behind Busch in the standings, was despondent after the race.

“It’s hard for me to believe some of these guys could pass a driver’s test,” he said of the accident that ruined his night.

When asked if his bid to win his first championship was over, Martin paused before answering.

“We gave it a great run,” he said. “I can’t help it.”

Tony Stewart finished 10th after fighting all night with a car that was so bad, he once threatened to intentionally wreck it. He’s still in sixth in the standings.

Kenseth, the reigning series champion, finished 11th despite hitting the wall once and later spinning out in oil that had been leaked onto the track.

Jeremy Mayfield, who has had a rocky time in the first part of the 10-race playoffs, was the only contender to have a truly awful night. He, too, drove through the oil that spun Kenseth, but suffered heavy damage and finished 30th.

Mayfield is 349 points out of the lead.

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