FONTANA, Calif. — Recap by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR photo —
Superman showcased his “superpowers” at the end of Sunday’s Auto Club 400, as Jimmie Johnson charged forward late in the going and reminded everyone why he’s still a force to be reckoned with on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Driving the No. 48 Lowes/Superman Chevrolet, Johnson lined up third for an overtime restart behind race leader Denny Hamlin and race-long dominator Kevin Harvick and flexed his muscle. Johnson shoved his fellow Golden State native deep into turn one as the field came up to full song, before shooting up the middle of the race track as Harvick rim-rode the top groove.
Coming off turn two, the six-time Sprint Cup champion was able to get to Harvick’s left-rear quarter panel and used a huge side-draft to slow the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet on entry to the third turn. From there, Johnson worked clear of Harvick and sped away to his 77th career Sprint Cup win over the course of the final lap.
“I knew we had a great car, and that (second-to-last) caution fell at a bad time on the previous run. At that point, I didn’t have the tires on the car to be able to race with the guys who were up front, but to go like we did there at the end — to have good tires on the car — it was great.”
“Harvick and I got by (Hamlin) there going into turn one and when I got the run off turn two, I thought ‘Man, I’ve got a shot at this,’ which I didn’t really expect to have. Harvick’s been so fast lately, but I cleared him and just got away. We saved our best for last today, for sure.”
Johnson also got the better of teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie car battle as well. Earnhardt battled the handling of his race car all day and finished 11th.
“Man, this is cool. I told everyone (before the race) that Superman was going to kick Batman’s butt today, and it happened!”
Beyond Johnson’s win, two stories dominated the race at large – Harvick and tire problems.
Harvick, who led 142 of 205 laps on the day, took the lead from polesitter Austin Dillon on the opening trip around the two-mile oval and dominated early as cars dropped like flies left and right with tire issues. Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers both had to make unscheduled pit stops for shredding Goodyears before Chris Buescher slowed off turn two with a flat tire in his own right, leaving NASCAR to drop the yellow flag for the first time on lap 27.
Carl Edwards won the race off the pit lane and brought the field back to green at lap 32, but it wasn’t long before Harvick was there to scrap with him again. They exchanged the point on back to back laps before Harvick re-setablished control on the 37th circuit — opening up a hefty three-second gap before a hefty crash slowed the pace for the second time on the day.
Kyle Larson lost a left-rear tire exiting turn two that sent him bouncing into the outside wall before he careened across the track towards the inside SAFER Barrier. The California native drilled the wall nearly head-on, with all four wheels lifting off the ground before the car came to rest.
Larson was evaluated and released from the infield care center, saying afterwards that he had no brakes to slow his No. 42 Target Chevrolet before the impact but was okay otherwise.
When the race resumed at lap 54, Harvick fended off a brief challenge from Martin Truex Jr. to control the pace of the race again, but his time out front would be cut short on lap 71. The 2014 Sprint Cup champion peeled off suddenly to pit road after a major vibration began to develop, handing the lead to Truex and nearly going a lap down before a cycle of green flag pit stops broke out.
Under the cycle of service, which lasted from laps 82 to 85, Chase Elliott and Matt Kenseth both spent time out front before Harvick came through to the point — carrying a 12 second gap after his short pit allowed him to make up time on the other front-runners. Johnson would try to chase down his Chevrolet stablemate over the entirety of the ensuing stretch, but would not be able to catch Harvick until the latter made his next pit stop on the 106th circuit.
Two laps after Harvick ducked to pit lane, the caution flew when Trevor Bayne got out of the groove and into the outside wall, allowing Harvick to stay out and assume the point when everyone in front of him came down for their stops.
A seven-lap slowdown would lead to a restart with 86 laps to go and see Johnson grab the point away from Harvick as cars fanned out behind them. However, the scrapping and battles on track would come to a head at the 80 to go mark, when Kasey Kahne and Danica Patrick came together on the frontstretch in a scuffle that saw Kahne hook Patrick in the right-rear, sending her head-first into the outside wall and up in the air much like Larson earlier in the day.
Patrick climbed quickly from her car and walked to the apron of the track, gesturing to Kahne in response to the events that unfolded on-track. Both drivers were called to the NASCAR hauler as a result of the incident.
As the race wore into its final third, the players began to establish themselves. Truex took the lead under the Patrick/Kahne caution and topped the field for 13 laps before Harvick again charged back to the top of the pylon. The Stewart Haas Racing driver appeared to be well on his way to victory, but a yellow for debris with 45 laps to go changed the game and saw Harvick shuffled back to fourth under what many people believed would be the final pit stops of the day.
The restart at lap 161, with 40 to go, saw Edwards, Johnson and Joey Logano all take turns out front before Harvick turned it on one more time.
When he took the race lead with 35 circuits remaining the race looked to be decided, with the No. 4 holding a 2.2 second lead by the time 10 to go rolled around, but second-running Kyle Busch blew a tire with two laps to go that unrolled the caution flag and set up the race-deciding restart.
Harvick was forced to settle for second, with the result marking eight-straight Johnson victories in which the Bakersfield, California native has been the ‘first loser’.
“That was the worst (the car) took off on restarts all day, but we weren’t very good on restarts for four or five laps unless we were all by ourselves,” Harvick said. “The 48 (Johnson) 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 tires turning and the back wouldn’t grip.”
Hamlin rallied from two pit road penalties and a radio issue at the start of the race to finish third in a brilliant performance, with a pair of Fords — Logano and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — rounding out the top five.
Rookie Chase Elliott was a career-best sixth, with Edwards, A.J. Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray capping the top 10.
After a week off for the Easter holiday, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to action on Sunday, April 3 at Martinsville Speedway for the STP 500 (1 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM). Hamlin is the defending winner of the event.
RESULTS: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; Auto Club 400; Auto Club Speedway; March 20, 2016
- Jimmie Johnson
- Kevin Harvick
- Denny Hamlin
- Joey Logano
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
- Chase Elliott
- Carl Edwards
- A.J. Allmendinger
- Brad Keselowski
- Jamie McMurray
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Brian Scott
- Brian Vickers
- Ryan Newman
- Paul Menard
- Landon Cassill
- Casey Mears
- Clint Bowyer
- Matt Kenseth
- Trevor Bayne
- Aric Almirola
- David Ragan
- Regan Smith
- Austin Dillon
- Kyle Busch
- Cole Whitt
- Matt DiBenedetto
- Kasey Kahne
- Michael Annett
- Kurt Busch
- Michael McDowell
- Martin Truex Jr.
- Chris Buescher
- Jeffrey Earnhardt
- Ryan Blaney
- Josh Wise
- Greg Biffle
- Danica Patrick
- Kyle Larson
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network. Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 22-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for both the United Sprint Car Series and the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
Email Jacob at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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