Johnson gets break, wins at California
Jimmie Johnson knows he got lucky. So do the Richard Childress Racing drivers who went from leading to chasing him during the final laps.
The fortunate break for Johnson in his victory at California came because he was already in the pits when a late caution flag came out Sunday. The No. 48 Hendrick team completed the stop and Johnson passed the scoring line at the end of pit road before Childress’ Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick were able to cross the start-finish line.
That split-second kept Johnson on the lead lap, and allowed him to regain the lead when everybody else – including Burton and Harvick, who were 1-2 whenBrad Keselowski spun in Turn 4 — pitted under yellow. Johnson stayed in front the final 20 laps after the restart.
"There’s no way of getting around how lucky they are," Harvick said.
"Yeah, the deal on pit row, there’s no way around it, we got lucky," Johnson said. "We were running fourth or fifth at the time, so it’s not like we totally backed into this thing. We got a really nice gift with the way things worked out and it was up to me to kind of hang on to it."
Consider the drive for five under way after he held off a charging Harvick on the closing stretch.
After winning his unprecedented fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championship last year, Johnson started this season by finishing 35th in the Daytona 500. And there he had some bad luck, a flat tire possibly caused by that pothole before his race ended later because of a broken axle.
With Harvick trying to get around him with just more than three laps to go on the slick two-mile California track, Johnson moved to block. Harvick scrapped the outside wall out of Turn 4 and lost his momentum, allowing Johnson to go on to his 48th career victory, and fifth in 15 races at his home track.
"Caught the wall there just enough to knock the right fender in," Harvick said. "He moved up and did what he was supposed to do to take that line away. … He did exactly what he had to do."
Harvick had cut the margin by more than six-tenths of a second in a matter of laps — from 0.983 to 0.311. He was making his move at the end of lap 247 of 250 when he brushed against the wall.
Burton, who finished third, was on Johnson’s bumper on the restart but never could get around him. He was eventually passed by Harvick.
When Keselowski spun and that last caution flag came out, Burton and Harvick both slowed down on the track. That was just enough for Johnson to get out of the pits still on the lead lap.
"There’s a fine line between slowing down and not slowing down. … I came around as quick as I thought I could without NASCAR getting uspet at me," Burton said. "If I had come around probably two-tenths of a second quicker, we would have had him a lap down. Nonetheless, I did what I thought was right."
Johnson won the last three fall races at California, but Roush Fenway drivers had won the last five February races before Sunday.
Johnson led eight times for 101 laps and won with an average speed of 141.911 mph. It was his fifth victory in the last 11 Sprint Cup races.
Despite not winning, it was another strong showing for the Richard Childress Racing trio, with Clint Bowyer’s eight-place finish backing Harvick and Burton.
Richard Childress didn’t win any races — or even have a top-five finish — last season with four full-time cars. All three drivers finished in the top 11 at the Daytona 500 last week before another strong showing in Southern California.
"We felt good about what happened in the fall, over the winter. … I had quite a bit of confidence coming in," Burton said. "But until everybody gets out here and they’re going to give somebody a trophy you don’t really know where you stand."
Harvick is the points leader after two races, 19 ahead of Bowyer.
Mark Martin, Johnson’s Hendrick teammate, finished fourth, followed by Joey Logano and Kurt Busch. Matt Kenseth started 20th and finished seventh with new crew chief Todd Parrott on his pit box, the best result for Roush Fenway.
Earnhardt Ganassi teammates Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya started on the front row.
After passing his teammate, polesitter and Daytona 500 champion McMurray, Montoya led the first lap and stayed in front the first 29 laps. He was down to 15th on lap 140 when his engine blew. McMurray finished 17th.
Montoya stayed in front until Johnson went under him for the lead on lap 30. Then it took the late lucky break to put Johnson ahead for the eight and final time.
"Yes, we were lucky today," Johnson said. "But you don’t get lucky and win four championships and 48 races."