Johnson wins second restrictor-plate race of '06

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Almost every move Jimmie Johnson made at Talladega Superspeedway seemed to be the wrong one.

Rivals said he was too aggressive, showed too little patience. Dale Earnhardt Jr. even called him an "idiot" for his role in accidents that wrecked 39 cars last year.

Johnson took the criticism, and then tried to learn from his mistakes.

Boy, has he ever.

Johnson erased a career full of Talladega troubles, barreling past teammate Brian Vickers with one lap to go and holding off a charge from Tony Stewart to win the rain-postponed Aaron's 499 on Monday.

"I got into some situations last year, and I just felt in my heart that maybe I was being too aggressive on the track," Johnson said. "I really just stayed cautious. I didn't want to be aggressive. I didn't want to block anybody.

"And then at the end, got really aggressive and raced for the win," he said.

It made Johnson 2-for-2 in restrictor-plate races this year. And this one won't have an asterisk.

His season-opening Daytona 500 victory fell under intense scrutiny when crew chief Chad Knaus was suspended for cheating during race preparations. Although Johnson rallied to win the race in a legal car, he was forced to defend himself and his team from a wave of criticism that spoiled the victory.

Now he has a plate win that was fair and square, in a brand new car that no one can question.

He also had Knaus with him to celebrate in Victory Lane. The Daytona scandal cost Knaus four races, and he had to watch from home as Johnson won two of them.

"He's worked his butt off -- to finally be present for one of them means a lot to him," Johnson said.

Using a similar strategy from Daytona, when he stayed low under the radar until the very end, Johnson powered to the front only when it mattered. He pulled his Chevrolet alongside Vickers and eased it past him and into first at the start/finish line of the final lap.

Vickers, seeking the first win of his career, knew the move was coming and he knew the competition would trust Johnson enough to give him the push he needed to get to the front.

"You come down to the last couple of laps, and teammates or not, all bets are off," Vickers said. "He learned what he had to do, obviously, because those guys still respect him out there and they're still pushing him to wins."

Once out front, Johnson still had to contend with Stewart.

Stewart was the leader with nine to go, was shuffled out of the draft and out of the top 10. He sliced his way through traffic and onto Johnson's bumper for the final lap.

He was right there coming out of the final turn, but Johnson used a huge block to hold him off and seal his third win of the season and move into first place in the points standings. He has 21-point lead over Matt Kenseth.

Stewart wound up second -- his sixth runner-up finish in the past 11 races at the track.

"That's still better than third, so there's 41 guys that wish they ran as good as I did," Stewart said. "As volatile as this place can be ... to be able to get to second is something I feel we can be proud of."

Vickers was third, followed by Jeff Burton and Jamie McMurray. Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Scott Riggs and Robby Gordon.

Jeff Gordon, who was seeking his third straight victory in this race, led a race-high 62 laps and was battling teammates Johnson and Vickers for the win in the final laps. But he fell off when Johnson roared to the front, fading back to a 15th-place finish.

"We led so much that I knew that we weren't going to get any help," Gordon said. "It was our job to maintain that lead, and I just wasn't able to do it."

Earnhardt, hoping to cap a weeklong tribute to his late father, had his day come to a disappointing end when his engine failed 37 laps from the finish.

Although he ended up 31st, he thrilled the fans who returned to pack the frontstretch seats by taking a brief lead 71 laps in.

"Wow, man, the grandstands are shaking," his spotter radioed from his perch high on top of the stands.

Earnhardt was driving a black car painted as a replica to the famed No. 3 Chevrolet his father drove. It was part of a tribute on the weekend Dale Earnhardt was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and would have celebrated his 55th birthday.

"We honored my father this weekend and I wish we could have had a better finish," he said. "But the day's over with. It was a tough day, but oh well."

The drivers raced with soft new bumpers on the front of their cars in NASCAR's attempt to limit the bump-drafting practice that created dangerous conditions at Daytona.

The bumpers were designed to keep drivers from slamming into the car in front of them, and they seemed to work when the only big accident wasn't caused by the practice.

Instead, intense racing was to blame for the 15-car wreck just nine laps into the race. The nature of plate racing had all the cars bunched together in one pack, and five drivers spread wide in one line as they jostled for position.

It was too many, too close together, and Kyle Busch's slight bobble triggered the pileup.

Mark Martin, who began the day fourth in the points, was one of the drivers involved and was disgusted by yet another frustrating finish in Talladega. Martin finished 35th and dropped three spots in the standings.

"It's ridiculous, it's way beyond angry -- it's stupid," he fumed. "It would be ignorant for me to be mad about it. It was one of the most fun places I ever came, in 1982 it was just a blast to race here. But in today's day and age, it's hard to have fun when you know that the pin is out of the grenade.

"It's just a matter of time before it goes off," he said.