With all the craziness of the Daytona 500 in the rear-view mirror, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series headed west to Fontana, California, and the Auto Club Speedway. No restrictor plates were needed on the cars this week, and the racing would be much different. Three-wide, four-wide racing and plenty of grooves to race in. Under overcast skies, with a chance of rain in the forecast, 43 drivers were ready to do battle in the Auto Club 500.
Last week’s winner, Jamie McMurray, followed up his win by putting his Bass Pro Shops Chevy on the pole, but he didn’t stay there for long. Shortly after former WWE champion Stone Cold Steve Austin waved the green flag, outside pole sitter Juan Pablo Montoya used the outside line to get a huge run off turn 2, and pushed to the front.
The No. 42 Target car would pull out to over a three-second advantage as the field continued to battle for the runner-up position. But soon, the lead would begin to be cut down, as Jimmie Johnson made a hard charge and passed Montoya on lap 29 for the top spot.
The race would stay under green as the field made the first round of pit stops. Most drivers were complaining of a loose race car, which was based on the adjustments they had made the day before. The cooler temperatures usually would tighten the handle, but unfortunately did not do enough.
The lead would swap between a few drivers during the cycle of pit stops, but in the end, it was Johnson back out front followed by Kevin Harvick.
Harvick then went on his own charge to the front and caught Johnson. The two were ready to battle for the lead, but the race’s first caution came out to stop that effort. Debris off one of the cars caused the yellow to be posted.
The pit stops under caution shook up the top five, with Mark Martin moving up two spots to second. Johnson held his position, but knew Martin would be a tough contender.
As the field came back to green, Johnson was able to hold off Martin, but Harvick was the guy making the strong run. Soon, the No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet would be out front as he made the move on lap 65. He would continue to hold the advantage, but Johnson was reeling him in as the fuel began to burn off. The two would swap the lead multiple times, with one running high and the other low, each with a definite advantage in some areas.
When Johnson finally got the advantage over Harvick, the race’s second caution came out. Kasey Kahne got loose coming out of the fourth turn, sliding his Budweiser Ford through the grass on the front stretch.
Pit stops did not shake up the field much as Johnson continued to hold the lead.
The field would go back to green on lap 97, but Johnson didn’t get the best restart and Martin got the lead one lap later. His lead wouldn’t last long, as Johnson took back the top spot three laps later. This would soon be a common view as the No. 48 car began opening up the gap to over three seconds on the field.
Finally the next round of green-flag pit stops would begin as Johnson and others came in for service. Both Johnson and Martin had great stops and got the top spots back following the cycle.
The race’s third caution came out on lap 140 when Montoya’s engine let go heading into turn one. Some drivers decided to come in and just get right-side tires, but a few decided to stay out having just pitting. The top two drivers on the board became Jeff Gordon and Sam Hornish.
The field went green on lap 145, but just as quickly went back to yellow. Ryan Newman, after spinning his tires on the previous restart, saw his engine blow up in a huge plume of smoke as the field entered into turn one.
No one came to pit road, so Gordon and Hornish once again led the field to green on lap 153. However, Gordon didn’t have a long time out front as Jeff Burton soon made a major run to the front position. At the same time, Kyle Busch was making his case for a good day as he also began battling for the lead.
Busch would lead until lap 165 as Burton again took the top spot, showing that the Richard Childress stable is back and looking for redemption.
Burton held the lead as pit stops began. At the same time, teams then had to deal with a new element: Mother Nature. Rain was forecast in the area and was approaching the track, so teams began debating of whether to risk staying out and holding the lead when the rain started, or to pit thinking it would pass. A majority of the lead cars came in for service, but Denny Hamlin, Scott Speed and Regan Smith stayed out hoping the rain would halt the race.
Finally, the rain made it’s presence on lap 192. Hamlin had the lead, but was running out of fuel and had to pit. This left Speed out in front, and the rain continued. But, soon an issue came as he was worried that he would run out of fuel.
The rain soon stopped, and Speed had little choice but to surrender the lead. Smith soon followed, which handed the lead back to Burton.
The field went back green on lap 199, and Burton was looking extremely strong. He began pulling away from his teammate Harvick and looked to be in strong contention for a victory.
With about 30 laps left, it was reported that more rain was possibly coming to the area, and teams again wondered if the race would go under caution. Some of the leaders decided to come to pit road, as it was Johnson and Busch coming in to start the cycle.
But, suddenly, the race took a twist when Brad Keselowski lost the handle out of turn four, bringing out the caution. Both Johnson and Busch completed their service, but it was Johnson getting the lucky break. When he left pit road, he came out ahead of leader Burton, while Busch didn’t. Johnson’s pit stop was classified as a green-flag stop, which meant he got out ahead of the leader when the caution flew and wouldn’t be caught a lap down.
Busch wasn’t as lucky, and he was livid on the radio, saying that NASCAR again made Johnson look good and put him at the back of the pack.
When the leaders came back in for service, Burton got out in front, but it was Johnson who would assume the lead.
The final restart came on lap 229 and Johnson immediately got a strong jump on the RCR contingent. He pulled out to just over a one-second advantage, as Harvick and Burton battled for second.
With just over 10 laps left, the gap began to shrink as despite the battle, the two were catching Johnson. With five laps left, Harvick broke away from his teammate and was closing in, pulling ever so close to the bumper of the No. 48.
With three laps remaining, Harvick caught Johnson and looked ready to make a move. He went high coming into turn three, and held the throttle down. Johnson matched his tire tracks, and it cost Harvick dearly. He got into the outside wall out of turn four, which killed the momentum he had.
At that point, there was nothing anyone could do as Johnson pulled away, taking the checkered flag in the Auto Club 500.
Having won the last three fall races at the track, Johnson had not tasted victory in the early race since he got his first ever win in NASCAR’s top series. But, the win was a much needed boost for this team, who had a dismal run at Daytona. The win puts Johnson 12th in points, and is the earliest Johnson has won in a season since the Daytona 500 in 2006.
But, the RCR cars had a great day as they finished right behind Johnson. Add in the fact that Bowyer finished eighth puts all three Childress cars in the top ten. Harvick also leaves with the points lead, which is a sight that no RCR car has seen in quite a while.
Next week, there’s going to be a lot of gambling as the series stays out west, but this time makes a trip to the neon lights of Las Vegas. Coverage of the Shelby American GT 350 begins at 2 p.m. on FOX, with the race to go green around 3:15 p.m.
RESULTS: 1-Johnson 2-Harvick 3-Burton 4-Martin 5-Logano 6-Kurt Busch 7-Kenseth 8-Bowyer 9-Stewart 10-Biffle
NOTABLE FINISHES: 13-Edwards 14-Kyle Busch 20-Gordon 29-Hamlin 32-Earnhardt Jr. 34-Kahne 36-Newman 37-Montoya
CAUTIONS: Six for 30 laps. Lap 58-61 (debris-T2), 93-96 (No. 9 spin-FS), 140-145 (No. 42 engine), 148-154 (No. 39 engine), 193-200 (rain), 224-230 (No. 12 spin-FS)
LEADERS: 26 lead changes among 13 drivers. McMurray-POLE, Montoya 1-28, Johnson 29-36, Vickers 37-39, Blaney 40-41, Johnson 42-64, Harvick 65-79, Johnson 80-82, Harvick 83, Johnson 84-87, Harvick 88-93, Johnson 94-97, Martin 98-99, Johnson 100-133, Kurt Busch 134-136, Johnson 136-141, Gordon 142-153, Burton 154, Kyle Busch 155-164, Burton 165-182, Bowyer 183, Martin 184-187, Vickers 188-189, Hamlin 190-192, Speed 193-198, Burton 199-226, Johnson 227-250
AVERAGE SPEED: 141.911 mph
TIME OF RACE: 3 hr. 31 min. 27 sec.
POINT STANDINGS: 1-Harvick, 331 points 2-Bowyer, -19 3-Biffle, -27 4-McMurray, -29 5-Burton, -31 6-Martin, -34 7-Kenseth, -43 8-Reutimann -58 9-Logano, -68 10-Edwards, -69 11-Kurt Busch, -77 12-Johnson, -78