Jimmie Johnson has effectively booked himself into the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship after he secured his second win of the season at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
"Man, this is cool," said Johnson on victory lane. "I'm very thankful for Lowe's and the amazing relationship we have had over the years, Chevrolet, everybody at Hendrick Motorsports, this is going to be a good time."
The race had looked to be a lock for the Stewart-Haas Racing #4, which had taken control of the race from polesitter Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing) on the very first lap, after which Harvick went on to lead for 142 of the 200 laps of the Auto Club 400 at the two-mile superspeedway on Sunday afternoon despite having an early scare with an unscheduled pit stop on lap 71 for a vibration.
Harvick's domination was finally undone by a late caution triggered by a tyre blow-out for Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch who had been in second place with two laps to go, and who had looked to be Harvick's only realistic challenger in the final minutes of the race. The caution put the race into overtime with Busch's JGR team mate Denny Hamlin beating Harvick in the race off pit road, followed by Johnson in third ahead of Penske's Joey Logano, JGR's Carl Edwards and the second Penske of Brad Keselowski in sixth.
It was Johnson who got the best of the restart. The #48 car, outfitted with special Superman livery in accordance with a sponsorship deal from the new Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
, lived up to its superhero alter ego and proved too good for anyone to catch, not even long-time leader Harvick who ended up 0.772s behind Johnson at the chequered flag.
"We saved our best for last for sure. I told everybody Superman kicked Batman's butt and it happened," said Johnson. "I knew we had great car
"I just didn't have the tyres on the car to race with those guys [before the final restart]," he added. "I got a great run off of Turn 2 and I thought 'man I've got a shot at this thing'. Which I didn't expect to have, Harvick has been so fast. I cleared him and kind of got away."
This is Johnson's 77th victory in 512 starts surpassing Dale Earnhardt Sr for seventh place in the all-time wins list, and is his sixth in 22 appearances at Fontana. With two wins already in the books this season - the first coming at Atlanta last month - Johnson is now effectively guaranteed a place in the 2016 Chase play-offs and a chance to secure his seventh Cup title. All Johnson has to do is take part in the remaining 21 regular season races and finish in the top 30 in the points: currently Johnson is in second place, 11 points behind Harvick.
"It would just take us five or six laps to get going, that was worst case scenario for us," said Harvick of how he ended up being denied the win at the last minute. "That was the worst it has taken off on restarts, but we weren't very good on restarts for four or five laps unless we were all by ourselves. The #48 was able to hang with us and we just weren't able to drive it in like I needed to, just didn't have the front tyres turning and the back wouldn't grip. Still, a good day for us."
Behind Harvick, Hamlin finished in third place ahead of Logano, with Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in fifth just in front of Johnson's rookie team mate Chase Elliott.
"Disappointing third, I can tell you that," sighed Hamlin. "But two penalties, radio changes, just a lot of mistakes on my part early on and [still] gave us ourselves a shot a there."
"I was in a decent spot," said Logano of the finish. "I was going to try everything I could to try to get a run and do what I had to do, but I just spun the tyres. I don't know why. It didn't really do that all day. I don't know what made it do that at the end. I'll have to watch the replay."
"“It was really good for us," summarised Stenhouse. "That was a crazy restart there at the end. We had a really good Fastenal Ford on the long run and that's where we excelled, kind of like Atlanta and Las Vega ... Our tyres were good every pit stop, which was good for us, and we made the right adjustments there at the end."
"I thought we had a really good car," contributed Elliott. "Just need to get going a little bit better on those restarts and try to maximize that opportunity. Jimmie did a great job. Congrats to him, it's good to see Hendrick in Victory Lane."
JGR's Carl Edwards was one of the most consistent challengers to Harvick's dominance of the early and middle part of the race, but ended up crossing the line in seventh ahead of JTG Daugherty Racing's AJ Allmeninger. Keselowski finished the race in ninth one place ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing's Jamie McMurray.
"Some of those restarts were just a blast," said Edwards. "That's what it's about. We were really having a blast. At the end, I just got choked up one time behind Brad, he got really loose and kind of killed our momentum."
"It was really good for about 20 laps on each run," noted Allmendinger of the #47's performance on Sunday. "The take-off speed was awesome and I don't know, I just couldn't get the thing to last for a whole run. We just kind of struggled there at the end on each run, that kind of hurt us, but short-run speed that was a lot of fun."
"We got a really good finish," McMurray pointed out. "We ran, I think, around 13th or 15th most of the day. We got caught in the pits on a green flag stop and had to go to the back. And I still made my way up a little bit, but man; right before the caution came out, we were fading fast. The tyres were just gone and I was sliding around and we were going backwards quick. That caution was a big turnaround for us. I think we restarted 17th and finished 10th."
McMurray's team mate Kyle Larson had earlier been the cause of the second caution of the day when his left-rear tyre blew. Larson spun into the outside wall on the backstretch and ricocheted into the inner wall, and while both surfaces were protected by SAFER barriers it was still a huge bit that sent the car briefly airborne and left Larson shaken and winded, although he was soon out of the car, evaluated and cleared by the in-field medical centre.
"I was going down the back stretch and I think it was my left-rear tyre got cut," Larson told reporters afterwards. "It must have ripped the brake line because I went to push the pedal and it went straight to the floor board. I couldn't slow down. It was definitely a hard hit there, probably one of the harder ones of my career. Even before that we were pretty sub-average there, we were pretty bad. Disappointed in our run today, but glad I'm all right."
Earlier in the race there had been multiple incidents for cars brushing the all including Kyle Busch and SHR stand-in Brian Vickers, and a collision between SHR's Kurt Busch and Hendrick's Dale Earnhardt Jr. who was in the Batman-themed #88 car for the day to balance out Johnson's Superman livery. However the first caution wasn't until lap 27 when Front Row Motorsports' Chris Buescher blew a tyre and scattered debris on the track after hitting the wall in turn 2.
"It's unfortunate we had the flat tyre there because we had a lot of speed," said Buescher, who finished in 34th place after repairs. "I had a lot of fun today. We've made a lot of really big gains in a short period of time. If we hadn't had that happen, we would have been in the top 20, no doubt, and probably a little bit better than that. It's a bummer that it happened the way it did."
Roush's Trevor Bayne was the cause of the third caution when he hit the wall at turn 1 on lap 108, while SHR's Danica Patrick spun out at the same place on lap 121 while battling with Hendrick's Kasey Kahne, and suffered a heavy wreck as a result.
"We were on a restart and I had a run on him so I went down low," said Patrick of her clash with Kahne. "If you get too close to them then it will drag you both back. I was going low. I saw him chase me down the track and then the next thing I know I was getting spun up the track.
"I was passing him. He was behind me in the right rear. I don't know what kind of day he was having. I just heard he was a lap down actually," she continued. "I was having a pretty good recovery day, kind of like last weekend. I was just running good race laps and on the lead lap at the end of the race back up into the top 20 from a bad starting position. And I was looking forward to a good finish and a good off week. Unfortunately now there is more work to be done at the shop."
"I felt really bad because it was far from anything than just trying to hold my position," said Kahne, who finished the race in 28th place. "I've never had an issue with Danica at all. It was an avoidable accident in the middle of the straightaway that was far from anything but just trying to hold my position that I had just gained.
"I passed her in 3 and 4 and then she had the momentum off the top and went back under me going down the front stretch, so I went just to kind of catch a side draft to make sure I was in position getting into Turn 1 and it didn't hold me up when I got there because I was the one coming and I just got too close and the car was moving around and we hit and she had a bad wreck."
There was a further caution on lap 156 for debris, and then the sixth and last yellow of the race occurred two laps from the end for Kyle Busch suffering a tyre failure. Busch had been running second at the time and the incident meant the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion ended up finishing in 25th place, ending his run of consecutive top five finishes in 2016; as a result he tumbled from second to fifth place in the standings behind his JGR team mates Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin.
NASCAR now takes a week off for Easter, meaning that the next Sprint Cup race will be in two weeks time at Martinsville Speedway on April 2.
Full race results and updated Sprint Cup Championship standings
For the fourth race in a row, Joe Gibbs Racing took the top three positions on the starting grid for this week's TreatMyClot.com 300 at Auto Club Speedway, with Daniel Suarez pipping his team mates Erik Jones and Kyle Busch to claim his fourth pole in 40 Xfinity races. As usual, Busch - who had won the three previous races - was quick to go to the front by lap 5 and went on to lead for 133 of the 150 laps at the two-mile superspeedway. However, Busch was denied a fourth win when he suffered a flat tyre as he tried desperately to eke out his remaining fuel long enough to complete the final lap, which gave Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon the opportunity to slip past in the final run to the line and stage an upset victory. Dillon bumped the wall while getting around Busch on his way to clinching his seventh series win in 102 starts by 0.714s. Suarez also ran out of gas on the final lap but held on to limp across the finish in fourth place behind Roush Fenway Racing's Darrell Wallace Jr. JR Motorsports's Elliott Sadler and Kevin Hendrick rounded out the top six while Erik Jones finished in 15th place after finding himself three laps short of fuel to make the finish. The race saw cautions for turn 4 spins by Ryan Preece (lap 10) and Ray Black Jr. (lap 48), and also for David Starr and BJ McLeod stopping on track with engine issues on laps 30 and 100 respectively. In the championship standings, Suarez now holds a ten point lead over Sadler whose team mate Justin Allgaier is nine points further back in third ahead of a trio of RCR drivers consisting of Brandon Jones, Ty Dillon and Brendan Gaughan.
Get the latest NASCAR news straight to your Twitter feed! CLICK HERE to follow Crash.net's new dedicated NASCAR Twitter feed