FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson somehow saved his fastest lap for last, and Southern California’s favorite racing son soared to another historic victory.
Johnson pulled away in overtime to beat Kevin Harvick on Sunday for his record sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win at Fontana.
With his 77th career victory, Johnson passed Dale Earnhardt for seventh place in NASCAR annals. And he did it in style: Johnson was third on the late restart, but he surged past leader Denny Hamlin while giving a little bump to Harvick before side-drafting and pulling away.
After showcasing his famed skills to snare another landmark win, the 40-year-old Johnson got a bit reflective when asked about his place in the sport.
“I feel like physically and mentally, I’m the best that I've ever been in my career,” the six-time series champion said. “I’m in the space I want to be in, which makes me want to stick around and do this for a lot of years. There’s no guarantees about when you’re going to win and have success, so I’ve been very, very fortunate to win 77 of these things, which blows my mind.”
Johnson finished with his fastest lap of the race to claim his second overtime win of the young season, adding Fontana to Atlanta. He has won three of his last eight races after a 20-race winless skid in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Harvick was in position to win for the second consecutive week before second-place Kyle Busch blew a tire with two laps to go. Hamlin got off pit road first for his first lead of the race, but Johnson's fresh tires and cleverness gave him the speed needed to get ahead.
“I knew we had a great car, and the caution fell at a bad time,” Johnson said. “The run before, I just didn't have the tires on the car to race with those guys. I got a great run off of Turn 2, and I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got a shot at this thing,’ which I didn't expect to have. Harvick has been so fast.”
Johnson is from El Cajon, just outside San Diego. He won at Fontana in 2009 and 2010, but hadn't finished higher than ninth in his last four races at his closest thing to a hometown track, one hour east of Los Angeles.
Harvick finished second to Johnson for the ninth consecutive time that the California natives have occupied the top two spots.
“That was the worst it's taken off on the restarts,” Harvick said of the last lap. “But we weren't good on the restarts for four or five laps unless we were by ourselves. We weren’t able to drive it in like I needed to. Just didn’t have the front tires turning, and then the back wouldn’t grip. Still a good day for us.”
Hamlin was third, followed by Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Martin Truex Jr. was in contention until late contact with Logano, who left Truex furious.
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The combination of Auto Club Speedway’s aged asphalt and NASCAR's new low-downforce package led to the excellent entertainment value that most drivers expected in the closest race to Hollywood. Fontana showcased uncommonly close racing and multiple passes on one of the series’ fastest tracks.
MAN OF STEEL: Johnson soared to the win with the Superman logo emblazoned on his hood to promote Warner Bros.’ upcoming “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” film. Johnson later donned a red cape, knowingly grinning at the cheesiness.
“Everybody was waiting for the chance to pull out a cape if we won here,” Johnson said. “All the wins are special, but when you have props and a cause like this, it takes you to the next level.”
ROUGH WEEKEND: Busch’s blown tire while he was in second place capped a hard-luck weekend for the defending Sprint Cup champion, who won here in 2013 and ’14. A day after Busch blew a tire while leading on the last lap and closing in on his fourth straight Xfinity Series victory, his streak of eight straight top-five Cup finishes also ended in dismaying fashion.
BIG CRASH: Kyle Larson was unhurt after a frightening solo crash on the 48th lap that sent his entire car flying into the air. The Northern California native hit the wall head-on when he blew his left rear tire, but climbed out after landing on his wheels.
BAD CRASH: Danica Patrick then hit the wall hard with 79 laps to go after contact while passing Kasey Kahne, who was a lap down. Patrick and her team were angry with Kahne for the bump, with Patrick calling Kahne “pretty desperate.”
BIG FINISH: Fontana ended with a green-white-checkered finish for the second straight year. Brad Keselowski took it away from Harvick last year on the late restart. This track has a wealth of fantastic finishes—including 2011, when Harvick got around Johnson late to win.