What a long strange trip it was for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Chevy team at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Wrecks. Endless yellow flags. Flat tires. Blown motors. A red flag. Pit strategy and pieces of the race track flying up and damaging cars were just some of the exclamation points in the story of the Coca-Cola 600.
"It's been a tough month for us," Johnson said. "Tonight was a tough race for us. We didn't have the best car until the end when it mattered.did you see me almost hit the 01? I asked Chad (Knaus, crew chief) to bring me clean underwear but I don't see him anywhere."
The cars that managed to be running at the end of the race looked like escapees from the junkyard by the time the checkered flag finally waved. Twenty-two yellow flags broke the all-time NASCAR record for cautions in any Cup race, ever. The red flag with nine to go was just the icing on the cake.
The ceaseless interruptions to the race setup all sorts of strategies amongst teams. Johnson, as well as most of the lead cars, got mired mid-pack with 49 to go when they were on pit road under green when a caution came out. That put an unlikely cast of characters into the lead spots, battling for the win.
Labonte was in the catbird seat with five to go when the field restarted stalked by Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson. Labonte and Johnson raced side- by-side down to the line; in the end Johnson won by 2/100ths of a second to earn his third consecutive win at Charlotte.
"I got impatient when we took the white, I made a bonzai pass underneath him," said Johnson. "I lost a bunch of momentum, got sideways and thought I lost it. But I went into turn three a little mad and determined and made it stick.this is a really special win for me."
Labonte held on for second, his best result of the season.
Carl Edwards scored third. Edwards may have been able to pull the No. 99 Ford into victory lane if not for heavy nose damage on the car sustained during contact with Dale Jarrett late in the race. Edwards appeared to try and bump draft Jarrett causing significant damage to the nose of the 99.
"I am glad Bob Osbourne (crew chief) is a good liar," said Edwards of the damage to his ride. "He told me it was just a little hole. If I knew it was that big we might not have ran so well.to come out of here third is awesome."
Jeremy Mayfield and pole sitter Ryan Newman complete the top five.
Johnson's three-peat may be the final result but the cautions were the star of the day of the marathon event.
While many of the cautions were due to single car incidents, teammates got the short end of the stick during many of the multi-car crashes. Casey Mears and Sterling Marlin made contact on lap 216 effectively taking both cars out of the race.
Several laps later, DEI teammates Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Michael Waltrip got together taking out the cars of Matt Kenseth and Terry Labonte in the process. Waltrip's crew chief Tony Eury, Sr. was not amused.
"I don't know what his problem is with Michael, but it'll be fixed tomorrow I'll guarantee it," said an incensed Eury. "He acts like he's friends with (Waltrip), but every time he gets around him on the racetrack he ends up wrecking him."
At times, it seemed that if you wrecked once, you could pretty much bet that you were going to wreck again. Reigning series champion Kurt Busch crashed early and fell some hundred plus laps down; upon getting the No. 97 Ford back on track he promptly ate the wall again.
"It just snapped around on me real quick," said Busch. "I don't know if there was fluid on the track or not. There was a bunch on the windshield and it just came around. Obviously, I was in no hurry, it's 600 miles, but it just snapped around on me."
The big melee came with 22 to go, when Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Brian Vickers, Bill Elliott, Elliott Sadler and Jeff Gordon got together. All of those cars, at one time, were in contention to win at different points during the race.
"It was a long, long battle royal," Sadler commented. "I felt like I was at Martinsville with all the cautions. It's just hard to pass here.we had a great race car and we had just gotten up there and took the lead some - running in the top five - and when we pitted the caution came out.we had to come back on pit road a few times to fix the fender we knocked in on pit road and then we got our fender knocked in during the wreck in turn one. We just had an up-and-down night. So to come out of here with a 12th-place finish is a great, great finish for everybody here at Robert Yates Racing."
Jimmie Johnson continues to head the 2005 Nextel Chase for the Championship class. Greg Biffle (-71), Elliott Sadler (-205), Ryan Newman (-217), Jeff Gordon (-231), Tony Stewart (-259), Kevin Harvick (-262), Carl Edwards (- 288), Jamie McMurray (-296), and Kurt Busch (-306) complete the top ten.