When Jimmie Johnson climbed out of his Chevrolet in victory lane at Auto Club Speedway in California, it was only appropriate that across the front of his uniform was the Superman emblem. It took another one of Johnson’s Superman-like efforts to capture the checkered flag in the Auto Club 400 as the 200-lap race had to be extended five extra laps because of Kyle Busch’s blown tire that caused the caution flag to come out on lap 198.
The race came down to the final restart after Denny Hamlin beat all of the lead-lap cars off pit road, followed by Kevin Harvick in second with Johnson set to take the green flag in third. Hamlin decided to restart from the outside lane leaving Johnson behind Harvick in the inside lane. Once the green flag waved to restart the race Johnson, immediately pushed Harvick by Hamlin as they entered turn one. Johnson’s run was good enough that as soon as Harvick took the lead he made a move to the inside and completed the pass for the lead coming out of turn two.
It was the second overtime win of the young season for Johnson, but more importantly it was the 77th win of his career that moved him past Dale Earnhardt for seventh on the all-time victory list. With the recent retirement of Jeff Gordon, Johnson is now the highest ranking active driver on the all-time victory list and the drivers he now trails are all in the sport’s Hall of Fame with the exception of Gordon, who is not yet eligible for consideration.
Richard Petty leads the list with 200 wins followed by David Pearson in second with 105 wins. Jeff Gordon, who is in his first year of his retirement, ended his career in third with 93 wins followed by Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip who both notched 84 trips to victory lane in their careers. The next driver ahead of Johnson is Cale Yarborough, who ended his career with 83 wins.
NASCAR’s new downforce package that was introduced at the beginning of this season once again provided the drivers with cars that were able to pass and use different lines around the racetrack. The Auto Club 400 produced 26 lead changes among eight drivers, which goes a long way in supporting the changes that were mandated to put more of the racing back into the hands of the drivers. While the lead is still the place to be, those cars attempting to make the pass are no longer as affected as much by the aero push.
PIT NOTES: Kevin Harvick is the only driver to have notched five top 10’s in the first five races of the season. Three of those actually ended with top-five finishes, including a win at Phoenix. It is this early season consistency that has him leading the point standings with 195 points, which is 11 points better than Jimmie Johnson even though he is the only driver to have posted multiple wins (two) this season. Carl Edwards is the highest-ranked driver in the points without having made a trip to victory lane. He sits third in the standings behind Harvick and Johnson, thanks to the kind of consistency that a driver needs to make the Chase field if he can’t post a win during the 26-race regular season. Edwards has four top 10’s with three of those finishes landing inside the top five. Rookie Elliott’s sixth-place finish at California was the best of his young career. The finish was good enough to make him the big mover of the week as he improved five positions in the standings to 16th, which is the final cutoff position for the Chase field at this time.
Race Preview Event: STP 500 Track: Martinsville Speedway (.526-mile oval, 12o of banking in the turns) Date: April 3, 1 p.m. TV: FOX Radio: MRN Defending Cham: Denny Hamlin