Jimmie Johnson flew to victory in the Auto Club 400 after passing Kevin Harvick with two laps to go at Auto Club Speedway.
Draped in Superman red, Johnson brought the Man of Steel to Victory Lane for the sixth time at Fontana and second time in the 2016 Sprint Cup Series season.
“I knew we had a great car,” Johnson said. “That caution fell at a bad time the run before. I just didn’t have the tires on the car to race with those guys.”
With two laps remaining, Kyle Busch cut a right-front tire, resulting in a caution flag. With the field all taking four tires, it came down to the restart to decide the winner.
“To go there at the end with good tires on the car,” he continued. “Harvick and I got by, I guess it was Joey [Logano] there at the start. I got a great run off Turn 2 I thought ‘Man, I 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 that Superman can kick Batman’s butt and it happened!”
Leading a race-high 142 laps, Harvick was the victim of the late-race power move by Johnson, falling to finish second place at the finish.
“It was the worst it’s taken off on restarts,” Harvick said after a second straight runner-up finish at Fontana. “But we weren’t very good on the restarts for four or five laps unless we were all by ourselves. 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.”
Denny Hamlin was the ultimate comeback story of the afternoon in California as he suffered radio issues in the early going before getting caught with two pit road penalties in the 400-mile event. Despite the setbacks, Hamlin lead on the final restart and came home third.
“A disappointing third I’ll tell you that,” Hamlin said. “Two penalties, radio changes, just a lot of mistakes on my part early on. The [No.] 22, for the one time he didn’t get a good restart, we didn’t have the push there. It hurt us.
“I thought going early in the zone was probably the thing to do. In hindsight, maybe later.”
The last two-lap shootout was not the only thing impacted by a tire issue as a number of drivers suffered flat rubber on the heavy, abrasive surface of Fontana.
Just 25 laps into the race, Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers and Chris Buescher were forced to pit with tire problems as the opening yellow waved shortly thereafter.
As they each were able to continue on, the same couldn’t be said for Kyle Larson after a cut left rear hooked his No. 42 Chevrolet head-first into the inside SAFER barrier wall on the backstretch on lap 47.
In one of the year’s hardest spills, Larson emerged uninjured, calling it one of the hardest hits of his career.
“I was going down the backstretch and I think it was my left rear got cut,” Larson said. “It must’ve ripped the brake line because I went to push the pedal and it went straight to the floor board. Was definitely a hard hit there, probably one of the harder ones of my career.”
Though not caused by any tire failures, a similarly hard impact was suffered by Danica Patrick who was hooked in the right-rear corner panel by Kasey Kahne with less than 80 laps to go. The No. 10 Chevrolet turned violently into the outside wall on the frontstretch and got airborne before the roof flaps brought the Illinois driver back down on all four tires.
“I saw [Kahne] chase me down the track and the next thing I know I was getting spun up the track,” said Patrick who approached Kahne’s car while the field rotated under caution following the crash. “I don’t know what kind of day he was having. I just heard he was a lap down actually. I feel bad if he felt like he was put into a position to have to be that desperate a lap down.”
With spectacular accidents spread over Sunday’s race, it was the spectacular racing that will take headlines in the coming week. As expected, the six-lane surface of Fontana partnered with the low-downforce package produced thrilling fights for the lead.
Additionally, there was passing and side-drafting maneuvers showcased from first to 31st throughout the entire 202-lap race. On a few occasions, there was contact made in the lead positions, one of which involved Martin Truex, Jr. and Joey Logano on lap 150.
“I have no excuse besides it’s racing,” Logano said after Truex suffered rear damage. “I tried to go underneath him and fake that and go back to the top. I think he was going to go to the top as well.
“We never touched but I was right on him. When you’re going that fast and you take the air off the spoilers, the cars get out of control a little. I hate that I hurt his day.”
Completing the top 5 was the Roush Fenway driver of Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who nipped rookie Chase Elliott to score the team’s first top-5 finish of 2016.
Carl Edwards grabbed seventh after fierce battles with Harvick in the early going followed by AJ Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray in the top 10.
Brian Scott tied his career-best finish of 12th in his No. 44 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford while Landon Cassill drove his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford to a 16th-place finish, the best non-restrictor plate finish for the Bob Jenkins team since Martinsville in 2014.
Cole Whitt finished 26th, earning Premium Motorsports their second ever lead-lap finish in the Sprint Cup competition.
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