For 198 laps in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 from Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, it looked like Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet was Superman and Jimmie Johnson’s kryptonite. But when the ninth caution of the afternoon came out, it created another overtime finish, and the six-time champion came out on top.
Harvick, who led 142 of the 205 laps (200 scheduled laps, but the race went into overtime) and dominated all afternoon, stretched his lead over then second-place driver Kyle Busch to 3.1 seconds before Busch blew a tire with two laps remaining, the same problem that sealed his fate in the Xfinity race a day earlier That brought out the final caution of the afternoon, setting up a final round of pit stops. Everybody took four fresh tires and went back out to race for the win.
Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 crew won him the race off pit road, with Kevin Harvick’s Freaky Fast pit crew getting the No. 4 car off in second place. Superman’s crew (Jimmie Johnson) came out third with Joey Logano in fourth place for the final restart.
Hamlin spun his tires briefly, which gave Harvick the lead going into turn one after Johnson pushed him from third place. Harvick opted to go high in turns one and two, leaving the bottom open for the No. 48. Johnson got to Harvick’s inside, side drafted him down the back straightaway, cleared him coming off turn four, and drove his Superman Chevrolet SS into victory lane for his second win of 2016, the 77th of his career and his fifth at Auto Club Speedway.
Johnson, who led 25 laps, including the most important one (the last one), gave his post-race interview like a champ – wearing a Superman cape, like the rest of his crew.
— Miss Sprint Cup (@MissSprintCup) March 20, 2016
“There’s nothing like winning at home!” Johnson yelled, elated on the radio after crossing the start/finish line. “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 had 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 (teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. was driving the Batman car and finished 11th).”
Harvick was disappointed by the second place run, his 20th runner-up finish in his 77 starts since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, which equates to finishing second in just over 25 percent of his races.
“That sucks,” said Harvick on the radio after Superman shot out in front of him in overtime. “Just way too tight right there. Couldn’t put the throttle down. Wouldn’t turn.”
Harvick described the late-race caution as a “worst-case scenario,” due to the inability of his car to take off on restarts.
“We weren’t very good (on restarts) for four or five laps, unless we were all by ourselves,” said Harvick, who still holds the points lead over Johnson by 11 points. “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. We’ll keep at it.”
Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers was also disappointed with their finish.
Can't even describe how much it hurts when you have a car that dominant and don't win.. Great job by @KevinHarvick and all the guys…
— Rodney Childers (@RodneyChilders4) March 20, 2016
Wins will come for the No. 4 team – it’s only a matter of time before they’re multi-race winners in the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rounded out the top five, with Stenhouse Jr. grabbing one of his best career finishes as he made some moves late in the race in the No. 17 car. Chase Elliott finished sixth (career-best finish), Carl Edwards was seventh, AJ Allmendinger eighth (season-best finish), Brad Keselowski ninth and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top ten when the checkered flag flew on Sunday’s 200+ mile race.
Some other notable finishers included Brian Vickers in 13th (had tire problems early on), Matt Kenseth in 19th, Austin Dillon (started on the pole) in 24th, the aforementioned Kyle Busch in 25th, Kurt Busch in 30th and Ryan Blaney in 35th.
Danica Patrick was running in the top 20 when she encountered issues with Kasey Kahne on lap 120.
Patrick got a good run off turn four and dove to Kahne’s inside on the frontstretch. Kahne, it seemed, turned left and hooked Patrick, sending her smashing into the wall and ending her day. She finished 38th and was okay after the crash, whereas Kahne finished 28th.
Kahne, his crew chief and his spotter were called to the NASCAR hauler after the race, signifying some trouble. The accident could’ve easily been avoided, so expect fines, point deductions and probations to be handed out later this week to the No. 5 team.
Kyle Larson, who finished dead last in 39th, had a very scary moment early on in the race as well. A tire on his No. 42 machine blew out on the backstretch, sending him spinning out of control. He ended up shooting straight for the inside retaining wall at 160 MPH and slammed it head on as his car got airborne – all four tires off the ground.
Thankfully, due to SAFER (The Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers and the safety improvements NASCAR continues to make, Larson was able to walk away okay with just the wind knocked out of him.
Martin Truex Jr. finished 32nd, but it didn’t come without controversy. Joey Logano got into the rear of the No. 78, sending him into the wall (lightly), damaging his car, and it was never the same from that point on.
This race saw tons of passing throughout the field. From the leaders battling with the top six cars under a blanket fanning out all across the racetrack to find speed, to cars battling for 25th position, Auto Club Speedway has emerged as the best track for racing on the NASCAR circuit, and the drivers and fans alike agree wholeheartedly.
Fontana was a great race and a perfect place to end NASCAR Goes West 2016.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is off next weekend for Easter, but will return to the track in two weeks back on the East Coast at Martinsville Speedway.