HAMPTON, GA. Jimmie Johnson had the car to beat Sunday, but it took a late-race charge to catch and pass Tony Stewart three laps from the end and drive away with a victory in the NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Johnson, the reigning Cup champion, made it two in a row after beating Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon the previous week in Las Vegas.
Johnson had some problems with tire wear late in the 325-lap Kobalt Tools 500, and Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, appeared on the way to his first victory of the year after coming off pit lane ahead of Matt Kenseth and third-place Johnson after the final stops by the leaders during a caution flag on lap 311.
After the green flag waved with 11 laps to go on the 1.54-mile oval, Johnson took just three laps to get past Kenseth, then took off after Stewart in a duel of Chevrolets.
Johnson pulled side-by-side with Stewart just past the finish line on lap 322. Johnson got his nose out ahead, and, as the two cars drove through turn two, Stewart scraped the wall.
Johnson easily led lap 322 and pulled away from Stewart, going on to win by about half the front straightaway.
"We just had a great race car," Johnson said. "We just did the right things to get the car hooked up for the short run at the end."
Stewart, who overcame a long pit stop in the early going was happy with second place but said, "I wish he had at least given us room to race for it. But we gained some points today, and that's what this team needed."
Kenseth wound up third, followed Jeff Burton and heralded rookie Juan Pablo Montoya, who barely held off Clint Bowyer to record his first top 10 and by far his best finish in five Cup starts.
"I'm getting the handle of it," said Montoya, who also won a Busch Series race on a road course in Mexico City several weeks ago and got as high as third in Sunday's race before slipping a bit at the end.
Johnson, who has finishes of second, first and first since crashing out in 39th place in the opener at Daytona, earned his 25th career victory in his 187th start.
Mark Martin, who finished 10th, remained in the lead by eight points over Gordon, who overcame a tire problem and a lost lap to finish 12th. Burton remained third, 11 points behind, and Johnson stayed in fourth.