On a typically warm, sun-splashed day in Southern California, a native son made the most of a late opportunity and gave the fans in attendance another Sprint Cup race worth talking about.
Jimmie Johnson, who grew up down the road in El Cajon, got by Kevin Harvick on the final two-lap overtime restart to win the Auto Club 400 on March 20. Johnson became the first two-time winner of 2016 and moved past Dale Earnhardt into seventh place with his 77th career victory.
Johnson’s good fortune may not have happened if it weren’t for Kyle Busch’s No. 18 car blowing a tire to bring out the race’s sixth and final caution at lap 198, only two short of the scheduled distance. Harvick led 142 laps on the day, but Denny Hamlin won the race off pit road as the lead-lap cars came in to replace tires.
On the restart, Johnson momentarily fell behind Hamlin, but gave Harvick a push to the front before maneuvering to the inside of the No. 4 and pulling away for the win. It was Johnson’s sixth win at Auto Club in 22 starts at the track.
And it all came on a day when Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet was adorned with a Superman logo in honor of the upcoming “Batman vs. Superman” movie. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, drove the Batman car at Auto Club and finished 11th.
Johnson’s fire suit was emblazoned with the hallmark red “S” with yellow trim across the chest, but he felt like the whole team could have easily worn the distinction with just as much pride.
“Yeah, it's fun to have a paint-out like this on the race car,” Johnson said in his post-race interview. “We had the Madagascar 3 movie and won with it, had these goofy wigs that we wore. Everybody was waiting for a chance to pull out a cape if we won here.
“All the wins are special, but when you have props and a cause like this, it takes it to the next level.”
Harvick, who was looking for his second straight win, lamented his ending misfortune.
"We weren’t very good on restarts for four or five laps, unless we were all by ourselves," said Harvick in a NASCAR Wire Service story. "The No. 48 was able to hang with us, and we just weren’t able to drive it in like I needed to, just didn’t have the front tires turning and the back wouldn’t grip.”
With Earnhardt now in the rear-view mirror on the wins list, Johnson knows the march up the ladder toward the likes of the now-retired Jeff Gordon with 93 victories, David Pearson’s 105 and Richard Petty’s untouchable 200 won’t be easy.
“There are no guarantees about when you're going to win and have success,” Johnson said. “I've been very, very fortunate to win 77 of these things, which blows my mind by itself.
“It's easy to look at trends and say we win X a year, but at some point that stops, that stops for everybody. I don't know when that point is for me. I certainly hope it's not soon.”
Since he started his full-time Sprint Cup career in 2002, Johnson has won at least twice in every season – 15 years in a row and counting. As long as his health holds up and the racing is still fun, don’t be surprised if the debate heats up on not only if, but when Johnson – who doesn’t turn 41 until September – passes Gordon and joins Pearson and Petty in the century club.
The six-time champion picked up his 77th win in his 512th career start, an average of once every 6.6 times Johnson gets in the car. With success like that, only the foolish and cynical would have reason to doubt that he can take his true place among the greats of the sport when all is said and done.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.
NEXT WEEK'S RACES
All series are off March 27 for Easter.
Martinsville Speedway (.526-mile short track oval), Martinsville, Va.
-SPRINT CUP: STP 500, April 3, 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, Fox Sports 1 (check local listings). Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN affiliate.
Race distance: 500 laps, 263 miles.
2015 champion: Denny Hamlin.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Alpha Energy Solutions 250, April 2, 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN affiliate.
Race distance: 250 laps, 131.5 miles.
2015 champion: Joey Logano
-XFINITY SERIES: Off until April 8 for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway.