-- For 550 miles at Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson proved he had a car that could dominate with a lead. Then a series of waving flags set up several dramatic showdowns in the final 50 miles at Lowe's Motor Speedway. And Johnson, the race's defending champion, showed that his No. 48 Chevrolet could do everything else required by NASCAR's longest test.
A late caution and sluggish pit stop put Johnson in fifth place with 45 miles to go, but in short order the California native made a daring rush to the front look like a weekend drive. And when a red flag parked the field on the backstretch with nine miles to go, Johnson again showed that his card was the class of the field, bursting away from Jamie McMurray to cement the victory as flashbulbs popped around the 1.5-mile oval.
The race ended under caution, after Bobby Labonte went into the wall on turn two on the penultimate lap. But Johnson's closest rivals made it clear that no amount of flag waving would have slowed the winner, who claimed his second victory of the season and moved within five points of Nextel Cup leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"Jimmie not only led and dominated, but when we tried to put pit strategy on his butt he was able to overcome that as well," said Sunday's second-place finisher Michael Waltrip, who earned his first top-five result of the season in the No. 15 Chevrolet.
"I knew we weren't going to run with the 48," said reigning Cup champion Matt Kenseth, who was third after consecutive runner-up finishes at this race.
"Jimmie's car was so fast I don't know that anything would have stopped him," said McMurray, fourth in the No. 42 Dodge.
"The 48 was just ridiculously fast," added Jeff Burton for good measure. "He put a hurtin' on everybody."
Johnson earned $426,350, part of a record-setting purse of $6.2 million. He led for 501 miles and 334 of 400 laps, one short of the record.
"It's nice to deliver when you have the dominant car, and we did that today," said a typically blase Johnson. "It's just about going fast and we have a race car that liked to do that."
But amid all of Sunday's late chaos -- five yellow flags and one red over the final 62 laps -- Johnson's charge from fifth to first was the highlight of a night defined by his unquestioned superiority.
The decisive stretch began when a caution came out with 32 laps (48 miles) remaining. Johnson pitted to get four new tires, while McMurray stayed on the track. Waltrip stopped briefly for two tires and two Dodge drivers -- Kasey Kahne and Jeremy Mayfield -- edged Johnson coming out of pit row, pushing the erstwhile leader into fifth place.
He didn't stay there long. He earned gasps from an estimated crowd of 170,000 by weaving between rookie Kahne and Robby Gordon on the back stretch, a move that Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus called "just sick."
The defending champion went underneath Mayfield and Waltrip to move into second with 22 laps left. He reeled in leader McMurray, briefly toyed with his prey for three laps and then left him behind with 17 laps to go.
A yellow flag that morphed into red with six laps remaining did nothing to halt Johnson's momentum, and his victory continued a 14-year stranglehold that Chevrolet and Ford have built at this race. Rick Hendrick, who owns Johnson's car, and Ford owner Jack Roush have owned the last eight winners at this race.
Johnson's victory finished a sweet weekend for Lowe's, which sponsors the host course, Johnson and Kyle Busch, who won Saturday's Busch Series race. It also put to rest some of Johnson's critics, who had peppered him with complaints about a sometimes cautious style that had him hovering near the top of the Cup standings despite only one first-place finish.
But with his second win of the season, Johnson has more victories than Matt Kenseth did when he won last year's Cup. And Sunday's win, with that breathtaking charge down the stretch, showed that Johnson is concerned with more than the Cup standings.
"There wasn't any thoughts in my mind about a [Cup] championship at that time," Johnson said. "I wanted a trophy."
Johnson's comfort level here was obvious from a cursory glance at past results. In addition to sweeping last year's all-star race and Coca-Cola 600 -- only the fifth man to do so -- he finished third here last October and won the pole at the 2002 Coca-Cola.
Sunday's late drama was atypical in a mostly methodical performance by Johnson, who left no doubt that the fastest car in Thursday's practice and qualifying sessions remained the fastest car during Sunday's race. The blue Chevrolet led when the 43-car field roared off under a hazy late afternoon sun. It led after 150 miles as the track cooled, and it led after 300 miles as dusk settled. When Johnson and early contender Elliott Sadler ducked into pit row just before the 450-mile mark, the hard-charging Kahne briefly took the lead under the lights. But after five laps Kahne pitted, and soon enough Johnson was back in front.
With his impressive Thursday qualifying performance, which set a new overall track record, Johnson was the obvious favorite entering Sunday night's race. He had won here last year -- albeit in a rain-shortened 414 -- mile race -- and entered this weekend with two consecutive runner-up finishes in points races.
Several drivers thought to be threats endured disappointing finishes. Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner at this event, struggled with a loose car and finished 30th. Ryan Newman, second in qualifying, briefly contended but suffered late engine trouble and dropped to 35th.
And Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte, who both had strong histories of top five finishes at this track, finished ninth and 13th, respectively.
Robby Gordon, who aborted his Indianapolis 500 effort during a rain delay after 29 laps, arrived at Lowe's shortly after 4:30 p.m. He missed the drivers meeting for the second straight year and started from the back of the field, finishing 20th in the No. 31 Chevrolet.