Jimmie Johnson may not be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he was up front when it counted and scored the victory in the Golden State.
The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Superman Chevrolet led 25 laps and beat Kevin Harvick in overtime to win the Auto Club 400. It’s the sixth career victory at Auto Club Speedway and 77th of his career.
“Man, this is cool…I knew we had great car and that caution fell at a bad time the run before,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t have the tires on the car to race with those guys. To go there at the end and have good tires on the car, Harvick and I got by I guess Joey there at the start. 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. We saved our best for last for sure. I told everybody Superman kicked Batman’s butt and it happened. 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.”
With it, he moves past Dale Earnhardt into sole possession of seventh-place on NASCAR’s all-time wins list.
“Man, it’s hard to believe,” he said. “I grew up out in the desert as a desert rat having fun and going to the river a little bit and having some fun over there too. To have those early childhood memories kind of shape me into the racer I am today and to be here in Victory Lane is pretty awesome.”
Despite leading nearly three-quarters of the laps, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet had to settle for runner-up. It’s the ninth time he’s finished brides maid to Johnson.
“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,” Harvick said. “The No. 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 tires turning and the back wouldn’t grip. Still a good day for us, just have to thank everybody from Jimmy John’s and Busch. We will keep at it.
“They just had us beat for a couple of laps. That was even worse than it was the previous restarts. I don’t know. We just had a really good car today with our Jimmy John’s Chevrolet. It would just take us five or six laps to get going. That was worst case scenario for us.”
Despite being busted for speeding early in the race, Denny Hamlin took his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota home to a podium finish.
“Disappointing third, I can tell you that, but two penalties, radio changes, just a lot of mistakes on my part early on and gave us ourselves a shot a there,” Hamlin said. “I just – the 22 (Joey Lugano) for the one time he time didn’t get a good restart, we didn’t have that push there and that hurt us. I thought going early in the zone was probably the thing to do – hindsight maybe later, but who knows? Those two (Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick) linked up on the bottom and there’s really nothing we could have done at that point, but thanks Sport Clips, Toyota, the Greenbrier, the Jordan brand, Coca-Cola, Toyota for everything they do. Good day – just not a great day.”
Joey Logano brought his No. 22 Team Penske Ford home to a fourth-place finish. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. continued his run of great finishes to start the season by bringing his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford home to round out the top-five.
“It was really good for us,” Stenhouse said. “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 Vegas. On the long run we excelled and that really paid off today. Our tires were good every pit stop, which was good for us, and we made the right adjustments there at the end. Nick did a great job. The pit crew did a great job and we were able to get the adjustments that we needed and was able to really rip the top there and gain a few extra spots at the end.”
Chase Elliott was the highest finishing rookie with a sixth-place finish in his No. 24 HMS Chevrolet.
“We were able to get up to third,” Elliott said. “I thought we had a really good car. 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. We’ll try again at Martinsville.”
Carl Edwards finished seventh in his No. 19 JGR Toyota.
“Some of those restarts were just a blast,” Edwards said. “That’s what it’s about. We were really – I was having a blast. At the end, I just got choked up one time behind Brad (Keselowski), he got really loose and kind of killed our momentum. We had a really fast Subway Toyota. I wish we could have done better with it.”
After starting from the rear of the field, AJ Allmendinger rallied to finish eighth in his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet. Brad Keselowski finished ninth in his No. 2 Team Penske Ford.
“We seemed to be about a fifth to 10th-place car, probably with everybody having some troubles we should have finished fifth,” Keselowski said. “I slid back to eighth there, which was frustrating, but, all in all, it was a decent day.”
Jamie McMurray rounded out the top-10 in his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
Martin Truex Jr. had a race-winning car for most of the event after leading 21 laps. But in the closing laps, he made contact with the wall in turn 1. This would lead to him cutting down a tire and finishing 32nd. Although FOX showed that he got loose on his own, the driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota believed it was due to contact with Logano.
“We had a good run going until the No. 22 (Joey Logano) put our car into the fence,” Truex said. “There was a lot of right-side damage to the car, and we were pretty much toast after that incident. Not sure what he was thinking about at the time, but that hit spoiled our day. We went from being a contender to the back of the field. Really frustrating to have a good car and not have anything to show for it. I think we were running in or close to the top five when the 22 rammed our Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Toyota.”
While Logano took the blame, he said he never touched Truex.
Danica Patrick finished 38th after being hooked into the wall by Kasey Kahne on lap 122. She was turned into the outside wall on the front stretch and slammed it head-on. Her car got airborne and came to a halt off the track in turn 1. Understandably upset with Kahne, Patrick approached the racing surface to show her displeasure. As Dustin Long of NBC Sports pointed out on Twitter, that’s a violation of NASCAR rules.
— Dustin Long (@dustinlong) March 20, 2016
If any penalty results from this, it will be announced either Tuesday or Wednesday.
Kyle Larson cut down his left-rear tire early in the race. He kissed the outside wall, turned down the track and slammed the inside wall head-on. Just like Patrick, Larson’s car got airborne after collision.
The race lasted two hours, 59 minutes and 17 seconds at an average speed of 137.213 mph. There were 26 lead changes among eighth different drivers and six cautions for 33 laps.