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Jimmie Johnsonedged Tony Stewart at Talladega in a battle of NASCAR's best

As Jimmie Johnsondrove toward Victory Lane after snatching a dramatic victory in therain-delayed Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on Monday, he spotted TonyStewart standing on pit road, talking to his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli.Johnson stopped his Lowe's Chevy 10 feet from Stewart, his fierce rival sincelast season whom he had just beaten to the finish line by .097 of a second, andflashed a one-digit salute: a thumbs-up.

Welcome to thefriendly (so far) battle between NASCAR's two most dominant drivers of the 2006season. They had survived a crash-filled afternoon at Talladega and set up alast-lap duel by using identical strategies: run at the rear of the field thefirst two thirds of the race, reducing the risk of tearing up their equipmentwhile other drivers played high-speed bumper-car games as they jockeyed forposition.

"We weren'tcomfortable with some of the guys we were around, so we just went to the backof the field," said Zipadelli. "That's how we won the championship lastyear--being smart."

Said Johnson,"I stayed cautious today until the end, when I got realaggressive."

Indeed, on theseventh lead change in the final 10 laps, Johnson got to the front and thendaringly blocked Stewart on the low-line coming out of the last turn in the runto the finish. The tactic worked, and Johnson blazed to his third victory ofthe year, a blink ahead of the only driver on the Nextel Cup circuit who hasmore top 10 finishes (31) than his 29 since the start of the '05 season. Afternine races this year Johnson holds a 21-point lead in the Cup standings overMatt Kenseth, who finished sixth on Monday, and a 78-point advantage overStewart.

"I reallylike where we are right now," said Stewart, who was in a bad spot lastSaturday--flipping onto his roof and sliding down the frontstraight in theBusch Series race. (He walked away unscathed.) "For whatever reason, we'vetraditionally been a slow-starting team. But not this year."

Stewart hasproved again this season that, on any weekend, at any type of racetrack, he isthe man to beat. He has led more laps (801) than any other driver, and in thelast month he has won at Martinsville (short track), finished third at Texas(intermediate), and placed second at Phoenix (flat) and Talladega (restrictorplate). The only other driver who can match Stewart's all-around ability isJohnson, who this year has two restrictor-plate victories (Daytona andTalladega), a win at an intermediate venue (Las Vegas) and a third place at ashort track (Martinsville).

Afteracknowledging Stewart on pit road late Monday afternoon, Johnson zoomed off inthe number 48 car to get his trophy and a champagne shower. Stewart headed backto the garage, beaten but still able to break out in a winning smile when theKing, Richard Petty, gave him his second thumbs-up of the day. "I justdidn't have enough to get by Jimmie," said Stewart. "Thistime."

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Quick Laps

After nine races this season Clint Bowyer (left) hasemerged as the most impressive driver in one of the deepest rookie classes inrecent Nextel Cup history. Although he got caught up in an early wreck and wasrelegated to 40th in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega on Monday, the 26-year-oldBowyer has shown an unrookielike maturity behind the wheel and benefited fromthe resurgence of the Richard Childress Racing team. He ranks 18th in the Cuppoint standings, tops among rookies, and is expected to make a run at a spot inthe Chase.... The speculation in the garage is that next season Dale Jarrett,the 1999 Cup champion who currently drives for owner Robert Yates, will move tothe new Michael Waltrip--owned Toyota team, which will debut in 2007.



STAND-UP GUY After beating Stewart (20) by .097 of a second, Johnson could crow.



[See caption above.]