Jimmie Johnson made it a Super Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.
Johnson, whose No. 48 Chevy was adorned with Superman’s colors and logo to help promote an upcoming movie, won NASCAR’s Auto Club 400 Sprint Cup race in a green-white-checkered finish, ahead of hard-luck Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.
The victory was the 77th of Johnson’s career, moving him into sole possession of seventh on NASCAR’s all-time list ahead of Dale Earnhardt. Johnson, a six-time Cup champion, also became the first multiple winner of the season through five races.
It was a man-of-steel worthy performance for Johnson, who needed a late caution to overcome what had been a dominant performance by Harvick.
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But while Harvick’s car was superior on long runs, Johnson’s was better on restarts. That was the difference Sunday.
Harvick, who led a race-high 142 laps, appeared to be on his way to backing up his victory last week at Phoenix. He had a comfortable lead over Kyle Busch on Lap 198, when Busch hit the wall, forcing a caution.
Johnson, fifth at the time, came out of the pits third, behind Hamlin and Harvick. When the race restarted, Johnson jetted past the leaders and won going away.
“That was the worst it has taken off on restarts, but we weren’t very good on restarts for four or five laps unless we were all by ourselves,” said Harvick, who retained his points lead by 11 over Johnson. “The No. 48 was able to hang with us and we just weren’t able to drive it in like I needed to.”
The race produced several stretches of compelling racing, made possible by NASCAR’s new low down-force aerodynamic package. During one stretch, Johnson, Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Carl Edwards battled for the lead, slipping and bouncing around the 2.0-mile track’s old, bumpy surface. There were 26 lead changes among eight drivers.
“It was great racing,” said Hamlin. “Low down force is obviously the way. This package is obviously something we can build on and I can’t wait until we take another chunk of down force out of these things and, really, then you’re going to see some great racing.”
It also gives Johnson’s team a chance to not only continue thinking about the Chase (in which it has now further cemented a spot), but how to perform better in the warm-weather months leading up to the postseason. Johnson racing well in the early part of the season – as he is now – and then taking steps back in the summer has been a problem before, including last season.
“That’s obviously been the Achilles’ heel of the 48 car going through the summer months,” said crew chief Chad Knaus. “Years where it’s great, it fantastic. Years where it’s bad, oh, my gosh, you want to slit your wrists. This year we’re not going to worry about the summer months as much as what we need to, obviously, especially now since we’ve been able to capture this second victory which essentially locks us into the Chase.
“What we’re going to do, we’re going to focus forward, put our efforts into going into Chicago, New Hampshire, those first few races of the Chase. That’s our main focus at this point. This provides an opportunity for us to go out there and be aggressive, do things that might be a bit uncharacteristic, atypical.”
Sunday’s victory had a whimsical quality to it, thanks to the promotion of the upcoming movie “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Playing the Batman role was Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 11th and whose No. 88 Chevy was decked out in the caped crusader’s décor. Johnson appeared at his post-race news conference wearing a red cape after diving (or flying) onto the shoulders and outstretched arms of his team in victory lane.
“More than anything, I just wanted to beat the 88 so I had bragging rights over Junior all week,” said Johnson. “Then we won the race. So I think I got the upper hand on him for a little bit. I don’t expect it to last for long.”
The victory also comes before an off week for Easter. The Cup series’ next race is April 3 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
“Everybody gets to fly home, catch their breath, take a week to enjoy it,” said Knaus. “We make sure to emphasize with our guys that they do celebrate the victories, go out and enjoy it, whether that be going out and partying at a club, or going out and getting an ice cream with the kids.
“Whatever your way of celebrating is, we want to make sure they do that. This will give the guys plenty of opportunity to do that before we go to Martinsville.”