DARLINGTON, S.C. – Rick Hendrick only got to watch the last 100 miles of the Southern 500. Turns out he saw the best part.
Jimmie Johnson broke free on a restart three laps from the end Saturday night to give Hendrick Motorsports its 200th Sprint Cup victory.
Hendrick drivers had gone 16 races since Johnson won No. 199 at Kansas in October. The car owner was in the North Carolina mountains attending a wedding and couldn’t get to Darlington Raceway until the final stretch. That’s when he watched Johnson overcome fuel and tire concerns to power past Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin on the final restart.
When it was over, Hendrick was hugged by everyone nearby, and Johnson ran the car up to the inside wall as his team members pounded the No. 48 Chevy in celebration.
“I feel very, very fortunate to go along on this ride,” Hendrick said.
Johnson looked vulnerable down the stretch with Stewart and Kyle Busch right behind and ready to pounce after Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman spun out with six laps left.
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 the winless drought for the five-time NASCAR champion and the Hendrick team.
“That guy’s something,” Johnson said about the owner. “He said, ‘We won 200. Let’s get 250.’ ”
Denny Hamlin was second, followed by Stewart and Kyle Busch.
Danica Patrick lasted until the end of her second Sprint Cup race, finishing six laps behind Johnson in 31st.
Johnson led 134 of the 368 laps, including the final 44. 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.
Hendrick won his first race as an owner at Martinsville in 1984, Geoff Bodine driving to victory No. 1. Johnson took his 56th NASCAR win as a Hendrick driver, second only to teammate Jeff Gordon’s 85 victories.
This was the place where fireworks took place a year ago when Kevin Harvick went after Kyle Busch for a late wreck. This time, it involved crew members for Kurt Busch and Newman scrumming after the race.
Martin Truex Jr. was fifth, followed by Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano – the Nationwide winner Friday night.
Series points leader Greg Biffle won the pole and led 74 laps, second only Johnson, yet ended in 12th. His series lead narrowed to two points over Kenseth.
The race began with longest stretch of green flag racing from the start with 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 AJ 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 off 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, who earlier dealt with a broken clutch, said there was nothing there when he stepped on the gas and was glad to hold onto third.
“It’s why we won a championship. We never give up,” he said.
NASCAR director of competition Ryan Pemberton said he was still finding out what happened between the teams of Kurt Busch and Newman after the race.