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Johnson cleans up with Talladega win

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- No controversy this time. Jimmie Johnson's win was fair and square.

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

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

His season-opening Daytona 500 win fell under 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.

Not this time.

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 knew the move was coming.

''You come down to the last couple of laps, and teammates or not, all bets are off," Vickers said.

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

Stewart had been the leader coming out of the final caution, racing out to a huge lead on the restart with nine to go. The pack behind him quickly caught up and Stewart was shuffled out of the top 10. But he sliced his way through the traffic and onto Johnson's bumper for the final lap.

Johnson used a huge block to hold him off and seal his third win of the season. It was also redemption for him -- he was widely blamed for at least three accidents last year at Talladega that wrecked 39 cars.

Stewart finished second, Vickers was third, and he was followed by Jeff Burton and Jamie McMurray. Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, and Scott Riggs rounded out the top 10.

Jeff Gordon, who was seeking his third straight victory in this race, led a race-high 62 laps. But he was shuffled out of the draft when Johnson roared to the front and he faded to a 15th-place finish.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., 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 packed 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 bumpers on the front of their cars in NASCAR's attempt to limit the bump-drafting practice that created dangerous conditions at Daytona.

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