Joe Jennings, NASCAR correspondent
Jimmie Johnson raced to victory in Saturday night’s 63rd annual Bojangles’ Southern 500 at the treacherous Darlington Raceway. In winning, he put the legendary Hendrick Motorsports team into victory lane for the 200th time, second only to the Petty Enterprises organization with 268 Sprint Cup victories.
The milestone victory for the Rick Hendrick team triggered an emotional celebration in victory lane and during the post-race media session, Johnson presented Hendrick with a helmet autographed by the team’s current and former drivers.
“I thought we had it (the 200th) at Martinsville,” Hendrick said. “It was going to be special because of the (airplane) accident there. But Darlington is special, too. In 1976, I had a little Chevrolet dealership near here and my wife and I came here about a third of the way through the race and walked into the stands without buying a ticket. It has been a lot of years since then, and I am really proud to be a part of it. One of the neatest things for me are the friends that I have in NASCAR; the NASCAR family is special.”
It has been a lot of years since then, and I am really proud to be a part of it.
Said Johnson about his boss’s accomplishments, “I am very proud of the effort the whole No. 48 team put together. I am really happy we closed the deal today.”
Crew chief Chad Knaus stated, “To run and win at Darlington, which is one of the crown jewels of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing is pretty awesome. And to be a part of this and get the 200th for Hendrick Motorsports is special.”
Johnson won at Darlington for the third time and earned his 56th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory in 374 races. In winning for the first time in 2012, the former champion led 133 laps and finished .7 seconds ahead of the runner-up car of Denny Hamlin.
The victor’s Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet was running low on fuel as the race wound down, so he kept turning the engine on and off during the caution flag periods that dotted the closing laps.
“Track position was everything and we caught some cautions that helped us out,” Johnson said. “We had a really fast race car, and I tried to save as much fuel as I could, but I was really nervous with the No. 14 behind me – he’s the guy that can go the distance. I was trying to pace myself off him, but I was definitely nervous even on the white-flag lap. There was a lot of concern over the fuel.”
A late-race incident between Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman sent the race into over-time but Johnson had managed his fuel sufficiently even though the race ran an additional lap, topping off at 368 laps around the 1.366-mile oval.
Hamlin led 56 laps in the Sport Clips Toyota and made a desperate attempt to catch Johnson during the final laps but couldn’t quite make it happen. But he did pass third-place finisher Tony Stewart three laps from the end to gain the runner-up position.
Said the Virginia driver, “It was a great effort for our team. Our finishes are because of our crew chief making good calls and the pit crew giving us good pit stops. These kept us in the ball game and allowed us to keep our track position up front. On our last stop, we were planning on taking only two tires but when I slid through the pit box, we had to take four tires, which took the lead away from us. At that point we were fifth or sixth and we had to battle back. It was a good run for our team, even though we wished we could have won.”
In spite of a clutch problem and low fuel pressure at the end, Stewart drove gamely to take third place.
“We struggled in the first half of the race as our car was loose in (turns) 1 and 2 and right in (turns) 3 and 4. It is really hard to balance the car when it is doing different things at opposite ends of the track,” Stewart said. “And then I broke a clutch with about 85 laps to go. I came in and my crew jacked up car (to fix it) and we managed to keep going. We dropped back after coming in again but after another caution, we got up to eighth and I had really good restarts after that got us up to second.
“Coming up to the green with one to go we lost fuel pressure. I got it back but lost it again headed for the green, which dropped us back to third. Considering the hurdles of the day, I am pretty happy with our third-place run.”
Kyle Busch, a front-runner throughout, earned fourth place. He led 44 circuits.
Fifth went to Martin Truex Jr., who led 25 laps and if not for a pit strategy that backfired, he may well have had a stronger finish.
Positions six through 10 went to teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards followed by Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano.
Other notables and their finishes were Sprint Cup point leader Greg Biffle in 12th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 17th and Jeff Gordon 35th.
Gordon ran well early on but two flat tires just a few laps apart dropped him far back in the field, and he fell 29 laps back at the finish.
Danica Patrick started her second Sprint Cup race and she brought her car home 31st. “I got to watch her a lot tonight,” Stewart said. “And I am ecstatic with the results; she ran good lap times and they said when the car was running the best, she was within 1/10th of a second of the leaders. I am really proud of her.”
A post-race altercation took place between team members of Kurt Busch and Newman. The two drivers triggered one of the late race caution flags after Busch slapped a wall and spun in front of Newman, who got booted from behind.
In the points tally, the race has tightened up with Biffle’s lead down to two points over Kenseth. Earnhardt is in third 14 behind, Hamlin is fourth 17 off and Johnson gained three positions to fifth, although 39 behind the leader.
Sixth through 12th are Truex, Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Edwards, Clint Bowyer Jr. and Brad Keselowski.
Gordon is mired in 24th place 170 points in arrears.
Eight caution flags slowed the race for 38 laps. The first 172 laps were caution-free.
Next weekend, the Sprint Cup competitors will race in a non-points All-Star race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.