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Monte Dutton, Gaston Gazette

Quite Simply, Chaos

LONG POND, Pa. – This alone can be said about Sunday’s Pocono 500: The right man won it. Justice won out over heaping mounds of confusion, ineptitude and indecision.

An officiating blunder almost cost Jimmie Johnson the race. Almost. Ultimately, his Chevrolet was just too strong. Ultimately, the driver and crew were able to neutralize the ineptitude that fleetingly imprisoned them.
Johnson’s crew chief could afford to be charitable later when he said, “They make mistakes. They made a mistake. I don’t know if they owned up to it or not. We were told not to pit as those guys were coming down pit road.”

It was yet another day when the NASCAR umps stole the show from the outfielders. Prior to the race, drivers had been instructed that the pits would be open under caution on the leader’s second trip around the track after the yellow flag waved. Johnson was the leader on lap 156 when “oil on the track” caused a speed stoppage.

In the pits, an official assigned personally the team told Knaus the pits weren’t open. Johnson drove past the entrance. Other drivers noted that the official there held up a green flag signifying that the pits were open. Most all of them pitted while Johnson remained on the track.

In terms of track position, the officials’ crossed signals – which NASCAR president Mike Helton later admitted – proved devastating to Johnson, who had dominated the race before and would dominate it again.

After an interminable period of soul searching and agonizing by teams and officials alike, Johnson, who had led by more than nine seconds not long before, found himself in ninth place.

What if he’d lost?
“I’d be furious,” Johnson said, “absolutely furious. Still, there’s anger inside from what took place. … I’d definitely be saying things I shouldn’t say and be very upset if it hadn’t worked out.”

Johnson’s dominant performance was the only redeeming feature of a race that was otherwise a hopeless muddle. It was the slowest race ever run at Pocono Raceway. Two drivers – Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick – almost alone prevented a green-flag finish by engaging in a childish tirade that would have been embarrassing had they been riding tricycles around a roller rink.

The fans, deprived of an opportunity to see one more bid by Dodge driver Jeremy Mayfield to deprive Johnson of the victory, registered their annoyance by pelting the track with beer cans and the like. The race’s flagman was hit by a flying beer cooler, still laden with beer, no less.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, after finishing fourth behind Johnson, Mayfield and Bobby Labonte, said he didn’t condone the fans’ behavior, but he understood it. He said he was embarrassed by being a part of the whole shameful day.

The race ended amid almost nothing except confusion. NASCAR officials seemed to waffle between stopping the race with a red flag that would have perhaps produced a green-flag finish and letting it end under caution with Johnson idling around the track. When they opted to let it end without further competition, Johnson had to dodge debris as he idled.

Would he have won anyway? Maybe. Mayfield’s Dodge surprisingly stuck to Johnson’s Chevy during the four laps, 193-96 – that provided almost the only semblance of excitement. He even got alongside once.

“I think the best car won the race,” Mayfield conceded.

“He was very strong on a short run,” said Johnson. “I could pull away from him off of (turn) one. The tunnel turn (two) I could get a little off him, then three, and as I’d come off one again, he’d be right on my bumper. If the race would have continued, I had a problem of being loose in the start of runs in one. … The short runs worked against me. I was a little nervous and had to put up with a lot of pressure from Jeremy. I still think we had the car to win the race.”
The two halves were almost completely different. The first 100 laps – Johnson led 59 of them – were run at an average speed of 133.617 mph. There were only three caution flags for a paltry 14 laps. The final 100 laps were marred by eight caution flags encompassing 42 laps.

Johnson carved 40 points off sixth-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Nextel Cup points lead, leaving him 58 behind entering the next race in Brooklyn, Mich., on June 20. At one point, the winner’s team, Hendrick Motorsports, had its Chevrolets running 1-2-3 and all our of the team’s entries in the top 10. As it was, Johnson finished first, Gordon fourth, Terry Labonte seventh and rookie Brian Vickers 13th.

Attrition consigned Michael Waltrip to 33rd place – he and Rusty Wallace (32nd) wrecked ostensibly because Wallace’s brakes failed – and engine failure left Dover winner Mark Martin in 36th. The engine failed late in Dale Jarrett’s Ford, leaving the three-time Pocono winner 26th. Tony Stewart was running at the end, but was only 27th after transmission problems put him six laps off the pace.

Knaus could afford to be understanding at the end, but when the pit-road snafu buried his driver deep in the field, he was furious.

Secure in victory – Johnson’s third of the season – Knaus just said, “It’s kind of a moot point now. There’s nothing to say. We were fortunate to win the race, and that’s fine.”