DARLINGTON, South Carolina – Jimmie Johnson broke free on a restart three laps from the end in the NASCAR Southern 500 and held Saturday to give Hendrick Motorsports its 200th Sprint Cup victory.
“I can’t believe we won 200 of these things,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “I can’t believe it took this long after we won 199.”
Johnson seemed short on fuel and tires and looked vulnerable with Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch right behind and ready to pounce after Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman spun out with six laps left at Darlington Raceway.
But Stewart had trouble once the green flag dropped and Johnson flew into the lead and cruised to his first victory since Kansas last October, breaking a 16-race winless drought for the five-time NASCAR champion and the Hendrick team.
“That guy’s something,” Johnson said about Rick Hendrick. “He said, ‘We won 200. Let’s get 250.”
Denny Hamlin was second, followed by Stewart and Kyle Busch.
It was Johnson’s third Darlington win, but first since he swept the 2004 events at the track — the last season “The Lady in Black” had two Sprint Cup races. This was the place where fireworks took place a year ago when Kevin Harvick went after Kyle Busch for a late collision. This time, it involved crew members for Kurt Busch and Newman fighting after the race.
Martin Truex Jr. was fifth, followed by Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano — the winner of Friday’s second-tier Nationwide race. The race began with longest stretch of green flag racing from the start — 171 laps — since NASCAR began releasing such information, a run which helped speed up a race that’s often slogged through double-digit cautions.
Biffle, the pole-sitter, and five-time Sprint Cup champion Johnson, each had long runs and built big leads. Biffle led 74 of the first 98 laps before Johnson took control for 72 straight laps until the race’s first stoppage for debris.
When the cautions began, they didn’t stop — and played havoc with strategy the rest of the way. Johnson chose to stay out during a caution period 60 laps from the end, leaving him three laps short on fuel. When A.J. Allmendinger and Jamie McMurray tied up a few moments later for another stoppage, Johnson had no choice but to remain on the track instead of surrendering track position to top up his tank. At still another caution a few laps later when Reed Sorenson slid through turn four, Kyle Busch dove low as if he were about to pit but returned to his spot before the commitment line.
The final shootout came after Kurt Busch hit the wall and he and Newman spun out with six laps left. Stewart said there was nothing there when he stepped on the accelerator and was glad to hold onto third. — AP