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Jimmie Johnson up to his old tricks

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By Ngozi Ekeledo

CONCORD, N.C. ( Dave Newton / ESPN.com ) -- A television graphic incorrectly showed Jimmie Johnson should have entered pit road 11th instead of fourth on the mandatory four-tire stop before the final segment of Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race.

It started a social media outcry for those who didn't know the facts.

It grew louder when Johnson left pit road second.

It grew even louder when the five-time Sprint Cup champion won for the second straight year and a record fourth time overall, breaking a tie with Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt and future Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon.

"People just want to hate," Johnson said with a laugh inside the media center at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "That's fine. I'm just lucky. NASCAR rigs the races and whatever they want to believe. I'm going home with a cool trophy and a big check and we all really know what happened.

"So whatever."

Crew chief Chad Knaus lowered his head and laughed.

Both are laughing all the way to the bank as the Hendrick Motorsports team collected a cool $1 million.

They can change the format for this nonpoints race, but they can't keep Johnson out of Victory Lane.

And luck had nothing to do with it. Johnson won an event dominated by the Busch brothers for four segments because he put himself in position to make the front row on the final pit stop with a steady climb from his 18th starting position. He won because his revamped pit crew -- three crew changes this season -- had an unbelievable 11.8-second stop.

That moved Johnson from fourth going onto pit road to second beside teammate Kasey Kahne leaving it.

Kurt Busch, who won segments one and four, came down pit road first but emerged fifth after a 13.5-second stop. Kyle Busch, who won segments two and three, restarted third.

That was pretty much all she wrote.

Once Johnson got around Kahne and grabbed the clean air that helped Jamie McMurray win the preliminary Showdown event, he pulled away for an almost two-second victory over Joey Logano.

"How about that last pit stop?" Knaus radioed his driver during the cool-down lap.

"Yeah, that was money," Johnson said.

And it wasn't lucky.

It wasn't as easy as it was a season ago. Johnson and Knaus outsmarted everyone by figuring out how to beat the format -- Johnson won the first segment and then took advantage of a set of rules that allowed him to sandbag for much of the next three segments and still get to pit road first for the final stop.

It was, as Kyle Busch referred to then and again on Friday, a "stupid" format.

So NASCAR changed it.

And Johnson still prevailed.

Not that anybody should be surprised. Johnson has won the All-Star Race under four different formats now.

If NASCAR wants to change something, it should look at a way to create more passing. There has been only one pass for the lead over the final five laps -- Tony Stewart in 2009 when he passed Matt Kenseth for the victory -- in the past eight All-Star events.

Much of it has to do with the nature of the 1.5-mile track, but Knaus did have a suggestion that could work. It involved Goodyear giving teams different sets of compounds in their 11-set allotment.

Force crew chiefs to use tire strategy with half the tires so soft that there will be extreme wear.

"When those tires fall off, that's when you're going to start to see some passing," Knaus said. "It could be very exciting to see who plays the tire strategy."

Johnson still probably would win more than his fair share. Before the track was resurfaced and tire wear became a big factor, the No. 48 team owned CMS. From 2003-2005 Johnson and Knaus won five of six points races here.

"We certainly want that magic [again]," Johnson said.

Maybe he already has it.

Johnson has been the season's most consistent driver, winning the Daytona 500 and again at Martinsville. He entered the All-Star break with a 44-point lead over Carl Edwards, who finished 10th in this race after starting on the pole.

It wouldn't surprise if Johnson won here again next weekend in the Coca-Cola 600 on a track which he has seen him win six times in points events..

It wouldn't surprise if Johnson rode this momentum to a sixth title the way he did in 2006, when he won the Daytona 500 and All-Star Race en route to his first championship.

He could frustrate NASCAR fans the way he frustrated the Busch brothers on this night, which was interrupted by a 41-minute rain delay in the first 20-lap segment.

Kurt and Kyle were at the head of the field for the final trip down pit road as the order was set by average finish in the four segments. Neither was happy with the way he restarted or finished, fifth for Kurt and third for Kyle.

"Just another missed opportunity here with the best car with me behind the wheel and come home without a win," said Kyle, who dominated last week's race at Darlington only to finish sixth because of a tire issue in the final laps.

Kurt was almost despondent when he realized he would start the final segment fifth but, in the end, gave his team an A-minus.

It's hard not to give Johnson an A-plus. He and his team did everything they needed to be in position to win and then capitalized the way we've seen them do countless times.

"I really felt we were in trouble starting that far back," Johnson said. "Track position was difficult to maintain with all the strategies taking place. When we started on the front row that last segment, I knew we had a good shot."

Everyone in the house knew it then.


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