After months of frustration, Jimmie Johnson gave Rick Hendrick his 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, running away from the rest of the field on a green-white-checkered-flag restart that took the Bojangles’ Southern 500 one lap past its scheduled distance.
On Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, Johnson ended his own winless streak of 16 races, a drought of relative epic proportions for the five-time champion. The victory was Johnson’s 56th, breaking a tie with Rusty Wallace for eighth on the all-time list.
Hamlin ran second, followed by Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
Johnson won the 199th race for Hendrick, outdueling Kasey Kahne in last year’s Oct. 9 Chase race at Kansas Speedway. In subsequent months, the organization has been tantalizingly close to No. 200 — notably at Martinsville, where Hendrick drivers were running 1-2-3 before a late caution.
On Saturday night, in winning for the third time at the Lady in Black, Johnson finally put the question of the 200th win to rest. After pitting for the final time on Lap 299 of 368, however, Johnson had to save fuel to make it to the checkered flag.
All of Johnson’s 56 victories have come under the Hendrick banner.
“You’ve got to love that man,” Johnson said of his car owner during a celebration in Victory Lane. “He said, ‘Two hundred is great, but let’s go get 250.’ So that tells you where his head is. I love it. Oh, man, what a day!”
In the closing laps, with the outcome in the balance, Hendrick left the pit box and paced up and down pit road.
“I had to get away,” Hendrick said. “They said that we were going to make it (on fuel), but I don’t believe them, you know? Everything has happened backward for us. We’ve run so good this year and then had such bad luck…
“I’m kind of numb, but I’m glad it’s over. I think we’re going to win a few more now.”
Matt Kenseth finished sixth and trimmed the series lead of Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, who came home 12th, to two points.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. remained third in the standings, 14 points back, after a 17th-place result. Hamlin is fourth in points, 17 behind Biffle.
Stewart, himself a car owner, had the highest praise for Hendrick, who picked up his first victory on a shoestring budget when Geoff Bodine won the April 29, 1984 event at Martinsville.
“I think it’s phenomenal, especially with the competition over here getting tougher and tougher,” said Stewart, who lost second position to Hamlin when his car temporarily lost fuel pressure coming to the final restart. “It’s getting harder and harder to win these races.
“Especially for it to happen in the Southern 500 — it’s such a historic race. It’s a pretty cool milestone.”
The co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, which gets engines, chassis and technical support from Hendrick Motorsports, chased Johnson in the late stages of the race before the final caution, but Johnson’s Chevrolet was simply too strong.
“I was trying to postpone (No. 200) for another week by trying to get to Jimmie, but I just couldn’t do it,” the reigning Cup champion said. “The closer I got to him, the tighter I got. That was one of the best runs we’d had, but still I wasn’t strong enough.
“He had plenty of car left. He was just riding, trying to save fuel. They won it in dominating fashion. To win a 200th race, you don’t want to back into it. They dominated and took it the way they should.”
Stewart also fields the No. 10 car for Danica Patrick, who started 38th and finished 31st, six laps down in her Darlington Cup debut. The night before, Patrick ran 12th in her first Nationwide Series race at the 1.366-mile track.
“She ran good lap times tonight,” Stewart said. “There was a period in the race when she set her balances at her best — they said she was within a tenth (of a second) of the leaders at that point in the race. So I’m really, really proud of her.”
Johnson, who led a race-high 134 laps, held an advantage of .8 seconds and was saving fuel, when Kurt Busch hit the wall on Lap 361. Ryan Newman checked up behind Busch, only to be turned into the wall by Aric Almirola. Caution flew for the eighth time to set up the two-lap sprint to the finish.
After the race, Newman parked his Chevy near Busch’s and exchanged words with the 2004 champion. Several of Newman’s crew members tried to confront their counterparts on Busch’s team, and the driver himself, but NASCAR officials restrained them.
The hard feelings stemmed from the aftermath of the wreck, when Busch brought his car to pit road for repairs.
“The 39 (Newman’s) guys were mad because Kurt burned out of our pit stall, and I don’t know if they were still there working or whatnot,” said Nick Harrison, Busch’s crew chief. “Their gas man came down there raising hell and wanting to fight Kurt.”
“It’s crazy, pit road,” said Tony Gibson, Newman’s crew chief. “Things happen, and everybody’s emotions run high. It’s a hot night. Everybody settles down and talks about it. We’re all good. We can’t control drivers. Nothing against the team — none of those guys. They didn’t do anything wrong.”
The race was an anomaly. In a track known for wild action, this year’s Southern 500 ran caution-free for the first 172 laps, through three cycles of green-flag pit stops.
By the time NASCAR called the first caution, for debris in Turn 2, Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet had emerged as the dominant car, having opened a lead of more than five seconds over Kyle Busch, who was running second when the yellow flag was finally displayed.