Johnson holds on for third win at Darlington

Jerry Bonkowski, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Darlington Raceway is known as "the track too tough to tame," but Jimmie Johnson had little trouble doing just that, holding off Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart to capture Saturday night's Bojangles Southern 500.
Johnson grabbed the lead in the closing laps and made it look easy as he cruised to the checkered flag and his third win at Darlington. The former five-time Sprint Cup champion also snapped a 16-race losing streak.
It also gave Rick Hendrick his 200th career Cup win as a team owner.
Kyle Busch finished fourth, followed by Martin Truex Jr. Rounding out the top 10 were Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Marcus Ambrose and Joey Logano.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 16th, while Danica Patrick wound up 31st in only her second Sprint Cup race.
After an almost sedate first two-thirds of the race, things began to heat up around Lap 235 of the 367-lap event as drivers who had sat back early on to watch how the race would unfold suddenly and collectively began to make aggressive moves to the front, a trend that continued all the way to the checkered flag.
Of note, Jeff Gordon's string of bad luck this season continued on Lap 193, when he made contact with Denny Hamlin, prompting an unscheduled pit stop for fresh tires. The damage initially appeared minor and Gordon was able to get back on track after a pit stop to change tires, while Hamlin's car suffered no damage and continued on.
Just over 10 laps later, Gordon was forced to pit road again when the left rear tire on his Chevrolet went flat, causing him to go two laps down to the race leaders. The seven-time Darlington winner eventually was forced to take his car to the garage so crew members could repair an issue that caused that second flat tire.
Meanwhile, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kahne pushed his way up through the pack to assume the lead, but he eventually gave it up as his car's handling went away.
Greg Biffle, who has led the Sprint Cup points standings for the past eight weeks and started from the pole in this race, was in command from the start. He led the first 48 laps before pitting for fuel on Lap 49. Biffle's biggest challengers were Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kahne and Johnson.
Busch took over the lead and held the rest of the field at bay for 23 laps before Biffle, who was seeking his third Sprint Cup win at Darlington, regained the top spot.
Biffle gave up the lead for a second time on Lap 99 for his second pit stop, with Hamlin briefly taking over the top spot of the 43-car field before Johnson found his way to the top of the leaderboard and remained in command as the race transitioned from the first third to the middle third. Johnson came into Saturday night's action not having won a race in his last 16 starts.
Patrick, making only the second Sprint Cup start of her stock car racing career, chose to race conservatively, essentially feeling her way around the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval that has the reputation of being one of the toughest tracks in the sport.
Patrick qualified 38th and worked her way up to 20th during the first series of pit stops, but by Lap 75 she had fallen back to 34th place, one lap off the lead. By Lap 115, she had fallen to two laps off the lead lap.
Earnhardt, meanwhile, started 24th and was unable to climb any higher than 17th during the first 100 laps. He had complained about his car following Friday's mediocre qualifying session. Earnhardt came into Saturday's race with a winless streak of 139 races and just one win in his last 215 Sprint Cup starts.
Surprisingly, the race almost reached the halfway point caution-free until Lap 171 (for debris), at a track known for lots of banging, beating and crashing and caution flags. Busch grabbed the lead on the restart in a race that was on target to potentially set a track record for fastest event and fastest average speed.

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