It’s often said that after NASCAR opens the year at the unique and unpredictable Daytona track, the true nature of its season is revealed at the second race in Southern California.
Yes, Jamie McMurray won a thrilling Daytona 500, but it was only the fourth win of his career. And, yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second there, but even Earnhardt cautioned not to declare his long slump over.
So if the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series really got down to business in race No. 2, at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Sunday, then it only stood to reason that Jimmie Johnson got back to winning.
Johnson — having won an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup championship in 2009 and already the most successful Cup driver at the Fontana track — used another strong car and a stroke of late-race luck to win the Auto Club 500.
Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, teammates at Richard Childress Racing who came close to running down Johnson in the final laps, finished second and third, respectively.
Mark Martin, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, finished fourth and Joey Logano was fifth.
The momentum turned with 26 laps left in the 250-lap race when Burton was leading and Johnson made a pit stop under green-flag conditions.
With Johnson on pit road, Brad Keselowski spun coming out of Turn 4, bringing out the caution flag and prompting Burton and the other leaders to slow a bit.
Johnson’s team, led by crew chief Chad Knaus, hurriedly finished the pit stop and Johnson left pit road just ahead of Burton. That kept Johnson on the lead lap and, after Burton and the others made their pit stops, Johnson inherited the lead.
The sequence prompted the always brash Harvick to say that while “Jimmie is a good friend of mine . . . there’s no way of getting around how lucky they are.”
Johnson agreed that Keselowski’s spin was “a huge gift,” but also noted that he led eight times overall for a race-high 101 laps. Then he held off the furious charge by Harvick and Burton at the end “so it’s not like we totally backed into this thing,” Johnson said.
It was Johnson’s fifth victory at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway oval. The El Cajon native won his first Cup race here and this was his 48th victory — matching his car number.
The win also enabled Johnson to quickly bounce back from his performance in the Daytona 500 when mechanical problems left him with a 35th-place finish.
But Johnson was just following his script. He’s now finished outside the top 25 in four consecutive Daytona 500s, then each time recovered the next week with a top-10 finish at Auto Club Speedway.
As the last 10 laps wound down Sunday, Harvick was catching Johnson. But just as he neared Johnson’s bumper, Harvick slightly lost control and scraped the wall.
“I got tight, just scrubbed the wall, knocked the right front fender and that was it for me,” Harvick said.
Johnson agreed that Harvick — a Bakersfield native who now has the early season Sprint Cup points lead — “had the fastest car” until he hit the wall, but “we have lost plenty of races due to things going the other way for us, and we’ll take this one.”
Even so, it was a good day for the Childress team, which struggled mightily in 2009. The third driver on the team, Clint Bowyer, finished eighth.
“Until you start racing, you don’t know where you are, [but] I had quite a bit of confidence coming in,” said Burton, who hasn’t won a race since October 2008.
Two of the pre-race favorites, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman, had their days cut short when their engines blew as they raced down the front straightaway.
Montoya had started second on the front row alongside pole-sitter Jamie McMurray, his teammate at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, and had led 29 laps before the engine on his Chevrolet failed on Lap 140. Montoya finished 37th and McMurray was 17th. And Earnhardt? He finished 32nd.
The entire race was held under threatening skies and, from laps 194 to 200, it was run under caution due to sprinkles. Radar showed more rain moving toward the track 50 miles east of Los Angeles, but it held off until Johnson took the checkered flag.