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NASCAR rookie closer to title



Published: Mon, September 23, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



With a win, Jimmie Johnson boosted his Winston Cup chances; Dave Blaney finished a career-best 11th.

STAFF/WIRE REPORTS

DOVER, Del. -- Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin are drivers with a common goal: winning NASCAR's ultimate prize.

Martin has a plan to win a Winston Cup championship, something that has eluded him for nearly two decades on the circuit.

Johnson, who trails Martin by 30 points in the standings after a victory Sunday at Dover International Speedway, is just beginning to formulate one.

The contrast was obvious to those who saw them battle to the end in the MBNA All-American Heroes 400.

"I drove my butt off today," Johnson said after barely holding off Martin. "We did everything we could."

Opportunity knocks

That attitude has carried Johnson to unexpected heights. He has a great chance to become the first rookie to win the title.

A season that began with his all-rookie team using liberal chassis setups has not turned sour, as one might have expected. Perhaps even Johnson thought he would be nothing more than an impressive novice by the end.

"Here we are with eight races to go and we're in this points battle," he said. "It's a reality that we need to look at."

Martin knows a lot about reality, especially the cruelty of it. He has finished in the top five in points nine times, three as the runner-up.

Now, he has perhaps his best chance. But when he had an opportunity to take one that might have resulted in victory, the 43-year-old driver declined.

"We could have made an adjustment on the last stop, but we decided not to because we wanted to be conservative," Martin said after a second-place finish. "We didn't want to let something slip through our fingers.

"I didn't really think we had a shot to win, but maybe if we would have made that adjustment we would have given him more trouble."

Charging forward

Dave Blaney made a charge in the final 72 laps to challenge for a top-10 finish before finishing 11th, which represented both the best-ever team finish (in 20 starts) for a Jasper-sponsored car at Dover and also the best career finish at the track for Blaney (in six starts), whose previous best was 25th in his first-ever NASCAR Winston Cup start at Dover in June 2000.

Blaney went one lap down with 157 laps remaining, but steadily worked his way back through the field, narrowly missing his fourth top-10 finish of the season and his second in three weeks.

"We really worked well together as a group and found a solution to some of our problems with the car at the time we needed most," said Blaney, who remained the Winston Cup leader in laps completed (98.4 percent). "The car [was] so much better at the end of the race that we were probably one of the fastest cars at the finish."

Blaney remains 19th in the standings.

Rookie prevails

Johnson held off a late rush by Martin and tied the Winston Cup rookie record for most victories when he got his third of the season, matching Tony Stewart's 1999 mark. Johnson, 27, also became the first since Stewart in 2000 to sweep the races on The Monster Mile, where Johnson won in June.

Johnson joined Richard Petty as the only drivers to win their first two races at Dover.

After the Ford of Martin came the Fords of Dale Jarrett and Matt Kenseth. Stewart was fifth in a Pontiac.

Hideo Fukuyama of Japan, the first Asian to compete in NASCAR's top division, finished 39th.




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