Sports

Jimmie Johnson wins Auto Club 400 to move ahead of Dale Earnhardt Sr. on all-time wins list

Jimmie Johnson hasn’t lost his golden horseshoe, much to Kevin Harvick’s chagrin.

It was six years ago when late-race fortune enabled Johnson to hold off Harvick for a win at Auto Club Speedway, prompting Harvick to say Johnson’s team, while very good, also had “a golden horseshoe” in an inappropriate place.

The same thing happened again Sunday. Johnson, aided by a caution period with only two laps left in regulation, again won the Auto Club 400 at Fontana in overtime and left Harvick, who had dominated the NASCAR Sprint Cup race, in second place.

“I knew we had a great car,” Johnson said of his No. 48 Chevrolet in Victory Lane. “We just saved our best for last, for sure.”

It was the Johnson’s 77th career victory, which lifted the six-time champion past the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. into seventh place on Cup series’ all-time wins list.

The victory also extended Johnson’s remarkable performance at the two-mile Fontana track; he’s now the only driver to win six Cup races at Auto Club Speedway.

And it was Johnson’s second victory in just five Cup races so far this season; he also won last month in Atlanta.

Denny Hamlin finished third, Joey Logano was fourth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. fifth.

Harvick, who led 142 laps, was cruising toward his second consecutive victory in his No. 4 Chevrolet — he won the prior week in Phoenix — when Kyle Busch's No. 18 Toyota blew a tire with two laps remaining.

That brought out the caution flag and set up the two-lap overtime restart. Johnson moved ahead of Harvick on the first lap and then was never challenged.

“Those last two laps . . . the car was incredible,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s car carried the ‘S” shield of Superman to promote the upcoming movie “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” and Johnson was wearing a red Superman cape during post-race interviews when he recalled Harvick’s “awesome quote” of six years ago.

“I’ve wondered where that horseshoe has been,” Johnson said with a laugh.

But Johnson said that, this time, he had to overcome worn tires and battle back to be in a position to win, “so it was a much more challenging set of circumstances.”

Johnson, who started 19th in the 39-car field, said he also gained a few spots on the final pit stop to challenge Harvick.

“My guys crushed the pit stop,” he said of his crew chief, Chad Knaus, and his Hendrick Motorsports crew.

Harvick, in contrast, said a two-lap shootout “was the worst-case scenario for us” because “it would just take us five or six laps to get going” to reach enough speed to lead.

The final restart “was the worst” of the day “but we weren’t very good on restarts for four or five laps unless we were all by ourselves,” said Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion who drives for Stewart-Haas Racing.

By passing Earnhardt, the question arose how far Johnson, 40, could climb on the list.

“I feel like physically and mentally I’m the best I’ve ever been in my career,” Johnson said. “I’m in the space I want to be in.

“It makes me want to stick around and do this for a lot of years,” the El Cajon native said. “I’ve been very, very fortunate to win 77 of these things, which blows my mind.”

Meanwhile, Johnson teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. — who finished 11th on Sunday — was asked how he felt about Johnson passing his father.

“It’s something inevitable, I guess,” Earnhardt said. “I remember when Jeff [Gordon] passed Daddy” and Gordon “got all the way up to 93 wins.”

“Jimmie is going to have quite a few more,” Earnhardt added. “He may surpass Jeff.”

Elsewhere in the field, Busch finished 25th, pole-sitter Austin Dillon was 24th and rookie Chase Elliott finished sixth.

The Cup series is off next weekend for Easter and resumes April 3 in Martinsville, Va.

Follow Jim Peltz on Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 21, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "AUTO CLUB 400 - Caution to the win - Johnson gets a break and turns it into an overtime victory over Harvick, sending him past Earnhardt Sr. on all-time list" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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