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GM'S BIG DAY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DOVER, Del. - -The high banks of Dover International Speedway did on Sunday what the free market has been unable to: turn General Motors into a world-beater.

Over the waning laps of the Autism Speaks 400, two of NASCAR's best drivers staged a thrilling battle of wits and horsepower in their high-octane Chevrolets, reducing the rest of the field of Fords, Dodges and Toyotas to distant afterthoughts.

It was dazzling stuff, with Jimmie Johnson, who clearly had the superior car and engine, frantically making up ground after a botched pit stop dropped him from first to eighth with 35 laps remaining.

Round and round Johnson went, picking off rivals like a vulture until he met his most formidable foil in Tony Stewart. With worn left-side tires and an engine that wasn't quite as strong, Stewart darted high and low in an effort to keep Johnson in his rearview mirror.

But Johnson was too good. And with three laps to go, he pulled alongside Stewart on the backstretch and blasted past. Once his car's snout was out front, Johnson roared on for his 42nd career victory and his most satisfying in memory.

Stewart came home second, 0.861 of a second behind. That showing, combined with Jeff Gordon's 26th-place finish in a backup car that wasn't as stout as the one he wrecked during qualifying, vaulted Stewart to the lead in NASCAR's Sprint Cup standings.

While Stewart has won two NASCAR titles with Joe Gibbs Racing (in 2002 and 2005), he is his own boss now, as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing. And as of Sunday, he's NASCAR's first owner-driver to sit atop the standings since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth finished third and fourth, respectively, in Roush-Fenway Fords. Kurt Busch was fifth in a Dodge.

And NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished a respectable 12th in his first race since his cousin and longtime crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., was replaced by car owner Rick Hendrick.

Much like Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR was overdue for a great race after a Memorial Day weekend deluge turned its 600-miler into a two-day dud.

And Sunday's 400-miler at Dover delivered - particularly after the late-race shuffling that followed the ninth caution of the day.

Until then, it was a Jimmie Johnson show.

The three-time and defending NASCAR champion was fully in charge after taking the lead on Lap 49, ceding the front spot for just a few laps at a time.

Kenseth wrested it with quick pit work on Lap 278. But each time Johnson was overtaken, he roared back with ease.

The complexion of the race changed abruptly after NASCAR threw a caution for debris 365 laps into the 400-lap race.

Biffle, Stewart, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne gambled by taking just right-side tires - a move that put them back on track ahead of the front-runners who took the conservative tack and changed all four.

Johnson's task was compounded after his crew had a miscue changing his left rear, and he exited the pits eighth.

The biggest wreck of the day followed moments later, when David Stremme got knocked into the inside wall, then spun around and drifted back up the track, his nose pointed into onrushing cars.

No one was injured in the melee that ensued. But things got more interesting from there.

Biffle led the field back to green, and Johnson, buried farther back, went on a tear.

He dived in between the lapped cars of Gordon and Martin Truex Jr., who respectfully eased off the gas to give him room, and squirted out in front. Meantime, Stewart gained ground on Biffle, snatching the lead with eight to go.

Johnson then whipped around Biffle to make it a two-man race.

It was Johnson's 42nd victory in 268 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts, which means he has won roughly every six races he has entered - a staggering statistic for a driver who competes in a 43-car field.

Asked afterward how he pulled this particular victory off, Johnson gave credit to his Chevrolet.

"Great racecar!" he said. "We had an awesome, awesome racecar!"

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