Fuel gamble pays off for Johnson

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AVONDALE, Ariz. - Jimmie Johnson gave Hendrick Motorsports its first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory of the year, winning a fuel gamble Saturday night at Phoenix International Speedway.

As leader after leader dove for the pits to take on gas in the waning laps, Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet stayed on track and the two-time reigning Cup champion made it to the finish, beating Clint Bowyer - another gambler - by 7.002 seconds.

Forty-nine-year-old Mark Martin, now a part-time driver in the Dale Earnhardt Inc. No. 8, battled at the front with its former driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., for a lot of the 312-lap race on the mile oval.

And it appeared Martin had his first win since 2005 locked up after he passed Earnhardt for the win on lap 272 and began to pull away, building leads of more than a second. But, with the end in sight, Martin was called into the pits on lap 301, giving up the top spot to Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet.

With crew chief Chad Knaus telling him to keep conserving gas and that he had a big enough lead to slow down and save more, Johnson stayed on track and stayed in front to the end.

"I ran out of gas on the backstretch," Johnson said, grinning. But he still had enough left for a celebratory burnout after taking the checkered flag.

"We're back. We've been working very hard to get back. I couldn't be more proud of the folks back at Hendrick Motorsports."

We got out off cycle and got a little behind there and had to drive to front, and still wound up saving gas at the end," Johnson said.

Knaus said he messed up at one point in the race, leaving Johnson on track when the other leaders pitted, said he knew his driver was doing a good job of saving gas.

"When the (No.) 07 (Bowyer) was behind us and he was about 10 seconds back, I knew we had it," Knaus said.

Denny Hamlin, who did pit, finished third, followed by Carl Edwards, Martin, Jeff Burton and Earnhardt.

Martin, who shares the No. 8 with rookie Aric Almirola, was disappointed, but said, "I'm just really, really proud of this team. We just about pulled that one off tonight."

He said he might have been able to get to the finish like Johnson and Bowyer.

"I saved a lot of gas, probably more than they knew," he said. "You can't stop if somebody else stays out."

It was the 34th career win for Johnson, who had 10 of the Hendrick team's 18 victories last season, including a win here last fall.

He and teammates Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt and Casey Mears has been shut out in the first seven races of 2008.

Mears finished 11th, while four-time Cup champion Gordon, who crashed and finished last in Texas a week ago, wound up 13th.

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