A career came full circle for Jimmie Johnson, who won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in 2002 and on Sunday claimed his fifth victory at the 2-mile track and the 48th of his career — matching the No. 48 on his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
After gaining the lead in the Auto Club 500 during a fortunate exchange on pit road, the four-time defending series champion held off Kevin Harvick during a 20 lap green-flag run to the finish. Harvick had narrowed a one-second lead to .311 seconds on Lap 246 of 250 before a brush with the wall slowed his progress.
Jeff Burton ran third, followed by Mark Martin and Joey Logano. Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle completed the top 10.
With the win, Johnson tied Herb Thomas for 12th on the career victory list and showed the rest of the field that he’s back on course after a 35th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500.
The key sequence came on Lap 223, when Brad Keselowski spun his Dodge off Turn 4 after contact with David Reutimann’s Toyota and brought out the sixth and final caution of the race. Johnson was on pit road when NASCAR called the caution but beat the pace car to the scoring line at the exit.
When the rest of the lead-lap cars pitted under the yellow, Johnson inherited the lead and held it for a restart on Lap 231.
“They’re really good, but they’re also really, really lucky,” Harvick said. “They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass—there’s no getting around that.”
Johnson acknowledged his good fortune after climbing from his car in victory lane.
“Today, fortune came our way,” Johnson said. “We hit pit road, and the caution came out and gave us track position. We lost the handle in the second half of the race. We were making gains coming back, but a lot of other guys were ahead of us, and I knew it would be tough to pass them.
“I’m not going to lie — the fact that we were on pit road gave us track position, and I drove my butt off. We finally got the car turning — it was just a little too loose. The 29 (Harvick) was coming, but then he hit the wall and let us get it.
“Yes, we were lucky today, but you don’t get lucky and win four championships and 48 races.”
Just as intense as Harvick’s pursuit of Johnson was Burton’s battle with Harvick, his Richard Childress Racing teammate and the new Cup points leader through two races.
“I kept running the bottom, because if (Harvick) slipped, I could get the spot,” Burton said. “But me running the bottom, him running the top — we weren’t slowing each other up. Just the way he was running his fastest line, I was running my fastest line.
“I think when we were doing that, we were running (Johnson) down. And then we got a little bit looser. Kevin looked like he got better. When he did, I thought he was going to win the race.”
The brush with the wall, however, ended his prospects for victory. Harvick’s Chevy slid into the barrier after Johnson moved up the track to block the line he was running.
“I caught the wall there just enough to knock the right front fender in,” Harvick said. “You know, if he doesn’t move up, he’s going to get passed pretty easily. He moved up and did what he was supposed to do to take that line away. He was able to drive off. So he did exactly what he had to do.”