Mon, May 22, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Johnson rises to the challenge

ALL-STAR CHALLENGE Jimmie Johnson, who has won the last four Cup races here and five of the past six, added the Challenge title to his extensive collection

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA

Cars line up down the front stretch to start the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina, Saturday.

PHOTO: AP

Lowe's Motor Speedway featured a new surface and a different feel for the annual NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge Saturday night. But the result was familiar.

Jimmie Johnson, who has won the last four Cup races here and five of the past six, added the All-Star Challenge title to his collection after passing Kevin Harvick with 19 laps to go and pulling away from the field. Johnson collected more than US$1 million for the victory in a race that featured a series of wrecks that reduced the 20-car field to nine cars at the end.

"It's the Nextel All-Star crashfest," Tony Stewart said after he was knocked out in a wreck involving Matt Kenseth.

Johnson made his way through a difficult 90 laps in the event, which is broken into a series of races -- a 40-lap segment, a 30-lap portion and a 20-lap sprint to the end. A red flag in the first segment delayed the race for several minutes because of rain.

After the first leg this year, the order of the top 10 finishers was inverted to start the second segment. Kyle Busch won the first segment but started the second part in 10th. Ryan Newman, who was 10th after the first segment, started first.

Johnson was penalized for speeding on pit road in the first segment, and he finished 11th. He was second after the second segment.

A seven-car crash took out the leaders in the second segment. Moments after a restart on Lap 49, the race leader Kasey Kahne lost control coming off of Turn 2 and slid into Mark Martin's car on the outside, slamming him into the wall. Five more cars were collected in the wreck, including those driven by Busch, Stewart, Jamie McMurray, Jeremy Mayfield and Greg Biffle.

"Just lost grip," Kahne said. "It was all there and great and gone just like that. It's tough. There's not a lot of grip out there."

Stewart was the only driver able to return with the field down to 12 cars at that point. But it was Harvick who emerged as the leader after that second segment, with 20 laps to go. He was then passed by Johnson.

Earlier Saturday, Scott Riggs won the Nextel Open. The event is a 30-lap race for drivers who did not win events in the Cup series in 2005 and 2006 and were not former All-Star winners or Series champions. As the winner of the Open, Riggs advanced to the Challenge.

Also advancing was Kyle Petty, who finished 22nd in the Open but was voted into the Challenge by fans. Fans can vote one driver into the Challenge, and Petty had openly campaigned for the vote. He vowed to donate all of his winnings to the Victory Junction Gang Camp for chronically ill children. Coca-Cola also promised to donate US$250,000 to the camp in Randleman, North Carolina, if Petty was voted into the field.

DRIVER RATINGs

Through nearly 25 years of racing in NASCAR's premier series, Mark Martin has competed against an all-star list of champion drivers from Dale Earnhardt to Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough. But ask Martin to name the best he has ever chased, and he mentions none of them.

"Tony Stewart," Martin said Tuesday during a telephone conference call with reporters. "He's just the man, in my opinion."

Martin has no statistics to back up his choice, no numbers to quantify Stewart's talent and dominance beyond the 25 career victories and two points titles since joining NASCAR's Cup Series in 1999 after winning the Indy Racing League title.

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