Jimmie Johnson was Superman on Sunday.
Sporting a paint scheme recognizing the superhero’s new movie, the six-time champion powered past Kevin Harvick in overtime to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
Johnson passed the iconic Dale Earnhardt Sr. on NASCAR’s all-time wins list with the victory, his 77th, and did so at his home track.
The driver of the No. 48 machine capitalized on a late caution with three laps to go then gained two spots on pit road when taking four fresh tires, restarting in third place for the two-lap overtime.
Sitting behind Harvick when taking the green, Johnson pushed Harvick’s bumper when getting up to speed and separated the two from the rest of the pack when surging into Turn 1.
Johnson, whose car was at its best on short runs all afternoon, then raced side-by-side with Harvick down the backstretch before making the race-winning pass diving into Turn 3 before taking the white flag.
It was a trademark move that the six-time champion has mastered in many of his 77 career wins, which puts him seventh in NASCAR’s all-time list.
Sunday’s Man of Steel even brought his cape to Victory Lane, via NASCAR:
Here is a look at the rest of the results from Fontana:
|Auto Club 400—Results|
|5||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.|
|11||Dale Earnhardt Jr.|
|32||Martin Truex Jr.|
And here are the updated standings:
Harvick, who was the class of the field most of the afternoon, became the fifth driver in the past six races at Fontana who failed to reach Victory Lane.
His car was strongest on long runs, of which there were plenty with only six cautions waving over the 200-lap event.
But his nearly three-second lead was erased when Kyle Busch, who was running in second, cut a tire with three laps remaining.
It marked the second day in a row Busch fell out of contention because of a blown tire after losing the lead on the final lap; he had the same issue in the Xfinity Series race Saturday.
The reigning Sprint Cup champion was en route to his fifth top-five finish in as many races to start the season.
Harvick, who like Johnson calls ACS his home track, overcame an early issue that cost him significant track position before he rebounded back to the front.
When he felt a vibration on his No. 4 Chevrolet, believing that a loose wheel was causing it, he pitted unexpectedly on Lap 70. Given how early in the race it was, he had no hesitation to relinquish the lead and possibly prevent a major wreck.
However, Harvick’s crew and Goodyear were unable to find any such problem with his tires, per the Fox telecast, and Harvick rolled on.
Restarts on Sunday provided some of the most thrilling action, as cars reached up to 207 mph coming off the straightaways and ran up to four-wide in the turns.
Former Hendrick Motorsports crew chief and current NBC racing analyst Steve Letarte noted how exciting the side-by-side racing was at a track that typically hasn’t produced that:
|NASCAR Sprint Cup Series—Standings|
|1||Kevin Harvick||195 (Leader)|
|2||Jimmie Johnson||194 (-11)|
|3||Carl Edwards||171 (-24)|
|4||Denny Hamlin||170 (-25)|
|5||Kyle Busch||170 (-25)|
|6||Joey Logano||165 (-30)|
|7||Kurt Busch||148 (-47)|
|8||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||145 (-50)|
|9||Brad Keselowski||142 (-53)|
|10||Austin Dillon||139 (-56)|
Sunday wasn’t short of drama either.
Danica Patrick and Kasey Kahne tangled on Lap 120, which left Patrick angry.
Heading into Turn 1—the fastest point on the track—Kahne hooked Patrick’s left-rear quarter panel, and the side drafts as a result of the high speeds sent Patrick spinning directly into the wall, as shown by Fox Sports:
Steve Letarte @SteveLetarte
What awesome @NASCAR racing from @ACSupdates swapping the lead.... Sliding around. #Awesome2016-3-20 21:52:08
“Pretty sure I hooked her right there, but I feel like she started turning up the track,” Kahne said over his radio, per Fox.
Patrick didn’t think that was the case, per Jeff Gluck of USA Today:
FOX Sports @FOXSports
HARD crash for @DanicaPatrick at @ACSupdates after contact with @kaseykahne. Caution is out. #NASCAR on @FOXTV. https://t.co/M2qw0SkvQs2016-3-20 21:32:49
Kahne was a lap down at the time of the incident, and Patrick was in 19th. NASCAR reportedly plans to seek an explanation from the No. 5 team on the accident, per Bob Pockrass of ESPN.com:
Jeff Gluck @jeff_gluck
Danica just walked up the track and did the "What the hell" gesture at Kahne.2016-3-20 21:31:25
Patrick was notably frustrated with Kahne, as she said in an in-race interview with Fox:
I had a run on him and went down low, if you get too close to him, it will drag you both back, so I was going low. I saw him chase me down the track and the next thing I know, I was getting spun off the track.
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 thrown in a position to be that desperate a lap down cause it’s just unfortunate. He must be having a very tough time.
Fox color commentators Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon both called the situation “avoidable” on the live telecast.
Patrick joined Kyle Larson as the second driver to take a scary head-on hit in the wall and walk away unhurt.
Larson lost a tire going down the backstretch on Lap 48, sending him sliding into the interior wall and propelling his car airborne. Here is a look at the replay, via NASCAR:
Bob Pockrass @bobpockrass
NASCAR has called Kasey Kahne, the crew chief and the spotter to the hauler postrace. Not sure on reason. #nascar2016-3-20 21:35:29
Larson gave his assessment of the incident on the air to FS1 after leaving the infield care center with no injuries:
When I was going down the backstretch and my tire, I think it was my left rear that got cut. It must’ve ripped a break line because I went to push the pedal and it went straight to the floorboard and I couldn’t slow down. It was definitely a hard hit there, probably one of the harder ones of my career.
Thankfully, each driver walked away unscathed and didn’t take out any other competitors. In fact, of the five cautions, four were due to one-car wrecks and the fifth due to debris.
That likely won’t be the case when the Sprint Cup Series picks up again in two weeks at Martinsville Speedway, the shortest track on the circuit.
The half-mile paperclip in Virginia will offer much slower speeds but creates logjams of traffic that lead to a lot of contact.
Johnson, who became the first driver this season with multiple wins, leads all active drivers with eight Martinsville wins and will assuredly contend for his third victory at what has been his best track over his accomplished career.
Fox commentator Michael Waltrip reported that Johnson ran his fastest lap on the final lap. During his Victory Lane interview with Fox, the winner noted that the fresh tires on the restart made the difference:
I just didn’t have the tires on the car to race with those guys. To go there at the end and have good tires on the car ... I got a great run off Turn 2 and I thought, "Man, I’ve got a shot at this thing," which I didn’t expect to have [because] Harvick has been so fast. I cleared him and kind of got away.
A disappointed Harvick said his car underperformed at the most inopportune time in his post-race interview with Fox.
"It was the worst it’s taken off on restarts,” Harvick said. "But we weren’t very good on restarts for about four or five laps, unless we were all by ourself. [Johnson] was able to hang with us. I wasn’t able to drive it in like I needed to—just didn’t have the front tires turning and the back wouldn’t grip."
It was the 14th time Johnson and Harvick have finished 1-2, and Johnson has won the last nine, according to the Fox telecast.