Back during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports’ teams didn’t look like their dominant selves. Jimmie Johnson suffered from a broken axle late in the race, forcing him to retire on lap 185 and finishing 35th as a result.
In Fontana, the status quo returned.
Johnson had the best car on Sunday, leading eight times for a race-high 101 laps. However, he needed incredible luck to regain the lead after dropping back. On lap 225, Johnson pitted out of fifth for his final pit stop under green. While Johnson was entering pit road, the No. 12 of Brad Keselowski cut a tire and spun out exiting turn 4, drawing the sixth and final caution of the race. Luckily, Johnson was already past the white line marking the beginning of pit road before the red light was displayed, which allowed him to pit without penalty.
Johnson’s team put four tires on the Lowe’s Chevrolet and sent him back out onto the track. Johnson just beat leader Jeff Burton to the pit out line, which allowed him to stay on the lead lap. Other drivers that pitted with Johnson, like Kyle Busch, weren’t so lucky. Those drivers were put one lap down (although they did have the opportunity to take the wave around before the restart).
Burton and the rest of the lead lap drivers pitted for their final pit stops under the caution. As a result, Johnson inherited the lead. Scenarios where drivers have gone from effectively down a lap to leading almost immediately have occurred before in Sprint Cup races. The 1993 Bud at the Glen at Watkins Glen had one example of this. In that race, Geoff Bodine was spun out in the Inner Loop by Ernie Irvan early in the race. Rather than pitting right away, Bodine stayed out until lap 30 so that he could reach the end on one more stop. Mark Martin lapped him right after he exited pit road. However, Bodine un-lapped himself while racing back to the line after Ed Ferree crashed his No. 05 in the Esses. Under that caution, all the leaders pitted and Bodine inherited the lead as a result.
From that point on, all Johnson had to do was hold off RCR teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton. Easier said than done. Even though the Childress teammates battled amongst themselves for second place, the two drivers’ lines through the corners were far enough apart that they were both still able to gain on Johnson.
Eventually, Harvick was able to break away from Burton and run down Johnson on his own, making for a potential close race for the win. Unfortunately, coming down to three laps to go, Harvick lost grip exiting turn 4 and grazed the wall. This allowed Johnson to pull away from Harvick and claim the win. It was Johnson’s fifth career win at California/Auto Club Speedway (second consecutive) and the 48th career victory for the four-time defending Sprint Cup Champion.
After the race, Johnson was most definitely happy that he won, but was realistic about how he was able to win.
“The deal on pit road, we got lucky,” Johnson said during the post-race press conference. “We were in our pit box and the caution came out. We were able to just beat the [No.] 31 car off of pit road where the scoring line is at the end of pit road. [However], we were running third or fourth or fifth at the time [of the caution], so it’s not like we totally backed into this thing.”
After brushing the wall on lap 247, Harvick dropped back into the clutches of teammate Burton, but just held him off for second. Despite losing out on the chance to win, Harvick was still quite pleased with his race.
“Just a great day. The car was good enough to come back through the field,” Harvick said after the race. “Put [ourselves] back in contention in the end. Just came up one short. Good day and a lot of fun today.”
Burton finished third, followed by Martin and Joey Logano. Kurt Busch finished sixth, followed by Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer. Tony Stewart had a relatively quiet run to ninth place, while Greg Biffle just edged out Scott Speed at the line for 10th.
Points Standings (Top 12)
It’s still early in the season, but Harvick’s second-place finish on Sunday allowed him to gain four spots and early possession of the points lead. His advantage is a mere 19 points over teammate Bowyer. Biffle is still in third place, 27 points behind Harvick. Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray dropped three places back to fourth after a 17th-place finish. McMurray, after starting on the pole, fell back quickly with handling issues before rebounding to the top 10 late in the going. Unfortunately, McMurray fell back down the order during the final 20 laps under green.
Burton, as a result of his third-place finish on Sunday gained seven positions in the points. He is now fifth, just two points behind McMurray. Just three points behind Burton is his former teammate at Roush, Martin. Present Roush Fenway Racing driver (and defending champion of the Auto Club 500) Kenseth moved up one place to seventh after a seventh-place finish. David Reutimann dropped two places to eighth in points after a consistent 15th-place finish on Sunday.
Logano, as a result of his fifth-place finish, gained 11 positions to move into the top 10 in Sprint Cup points for the first time in his career. Just one point behind Logano is Carl Edwards in 10th, unchanged from last week. Edwards had a quiet day, eventually bringing home the No. 99 Aflac Ford in 13th place. Kurt Busch, like Logano, is up 11 places this week to 11th after his sixth-place finish on Sunday. Finally, rounding out the top 12 is four-time defending champion Johnson. Johnson’s win on Sunday vaulted him up an amazing 23 places in the standings.
Notables outside of the top 12 include Kyle Busch one point behind Johnson in 13th, the Red Bull Racing Team drivers (Brian Vickers and Speed) in 14th and 15th, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 16th. Stewart is seven points behind Earnhardt Jr. in 17th, while Denny Hamlin is 21st and Jeff Gordon is 22nd.
Around the 35th Place Cut-off
As was mentioned above, it is still early enough in the season for wild swings in the standings. Among the teams that have to qualify on speed for the first five races of the season, three of them are currently inside the Top 35. The best of those teams is the No. 82 Red Bull Racing Team Toyota driven by Speed. Speed has surprised in the first two races of the season, poking himself into potential contention via pit strategy and then holding his own once up front. Speed’s 11th-place finish moved the No. 82 to 15th in owner points. Unfortunately, the No. 82 is only 124 points ahead of the No. 13 for Germain Racing and driver Max Papis, who is 36th. One bad race can put a team in a heap of trouble.
The No. 71 of TRG Motorsports is also inside the Top 35, currently in 25th position after driver Bobby Labonte‘s 27th-place finish (one lap down) on Sunday. The third of these teams in the Top 35 is a relative surprise, the No. 36 for Tommy Baldwin Racing and driver Mike Bliss. More on TBR’s performance below.
Since it is early, there are also some big teams that are currently outside the Top 35 in owner points. One of these teams is the No. 39 for Stewart-Haas Racing and driver Ryan Newman. Newman spun the tires on the restart from the second caution and missed a shift as a result. A couple of laps later, Newman’s engine blew on the frontstretch in a spectacular way, putting him out for the second week in a row. These two DNFs have placed Newman’s No. 39 in 38th in owner points, 18 points out of the Top 35.
Another team that has had serious issues early in the season is the No. 47 for JTG Daugherty Racing and driver Marcos Ambrose. For the second week in a row, the No. 47 team suffered from engine problems (they were attributed to overheating) and was forced to drop out on Sunday. Sunday’s result, coupled with the engine failure in Daytona, have put the No. 47 team 41st in owner points, 36 points out of the Top 35.
Even though we are only two weeks into the season, it is still imperative for these teams to improve their performances so that they can be locked into the field after Bristol in March. Having to qualify on speed even one time at Martinsville is more than enough to derail an entire season.