Jimmie Johnson broke free on a restart three laps from the end in the Southern 500 and held on Saturday night in Darlington, S.C., 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 he 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 to go at Darlington Raceway.
But Stewart had trouble after 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.
Kasey Kahne of Enumclaw finished eighth – his fifth consecutive top-eight finish. He led twice for a total of 33 laps and climbed three spots in the points standings to 16th.
Vancouver, Wash., native Greg Biffle, the series points leader, led 74 laps – second only to Johnson’s 134 – but finished 12th. Biffle’s lead over Matt Kenseth narrowed to two points as Kenseth placed sixth.
Johnson led the final 44 laps. It was his 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, when Geoff Bodine drove to victory. Johnson’s victory was his 56th as a Hendrick driver, second only to teammate Jeff Gordon’s 85.
Martin Truex Jr. was fifth, followed by Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kahne, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano.
The race began with 171 caution-free laps – the longest stretch of green flag racing from the start of a race since NASCAR began releasing such information.
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
American Josef Newgarden is back on top of the speed chart in Indianapolis. Last year’s Freedom 100 winner and Indy Lights champion was the only driver to top 220 mph on the first full practice day for the Indy 500. The rookie posted a fast lap of 220.250 mph. Last year’s Indy 500 runner-up, JR Hildebrand, was second at 219.693. … Lewis Hamilton lost pole position over a fuel irregularity, giving Pastor Maldonado first place on the starting grid for the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, Spain. Ten of the past 11 winners at the Catalunya Circuit have started from the pole.