Jimmie Johnson can finally check a road course win off of his impressive list of accomplishments in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
A miscue under caution by Marcos Ambrose opened the door for Johnson to claim the checkered flag in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway. It was the 51st win of his career with the first 50 all coming on ovals.
Johnson started on the front row and led the first 33 laps of the race but was following Ambrose through the late stages until a caution came out with eight laps to go. Ambrose shut down his car under caution to save fuel and couldn't get it re-fired quickly enough to maintain his lead over Johnson. That mistake pushed Ambrose back to eighth position with seven laps to go after the green flag came out.
"It was definitely a gift handed to us like Chad said to me on the radio," said Johnson, who led a race-high 55 laps on his way to his fourth win of the season. "It's the last type of mistake that I would expect to see. I wanted to put as much pressure on him as I could and try to force a mistake. You can count on a mistake from a lot of guys but I didn't think I could make him make a mistake."
Johnson took the lead on the first lap and had the car to beat through the first half of the race but complained about a loose handling car while trailing Ambrose late in the race. He slowed in the final laps to save his rear tires but once he got the lead, he pulled away from Robby Gordon and Kevin Harvick in the final green flag segment and took the checkered flag by more than three seconds.
The win moved Johnson to second in the championship point standings.
Robby Gordon qualified 16th for the race but worked his way into the top-10 a third of the way into the race. He was up to fifth with 25 laps to go and moved into second on the final caution.
"It was obviously a good run for us," said Gordon, who earned his first top 10 finish of the season. "We came here to win the race but second place is pretty darn close to winning it. It was going to be edgy to make it from where we did on lap 66 on fuel. But we did get enough cautions -- we were able to save enough fuel."
Harvick started fourth but slipped back as the race wore on. He came on late in the race to claim a third place finish and put some distance on both Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin in the championship standings. Busch was knocked out of contention early and finished 39th and Hamlin also had a difficult day and limped to a 34th place finish.
"It was a good day for us," said Harvick, who leads Johnson by 140 points with 10 races to go before the cut-off for the Chase for the Championship. "I felt like we had a car that was good on speed there at the end. We're fortunate to be where we're at in the points right now. Today we were racing in the top five all day."
Ambrose looked like he may claim his first career win in the Sprint Cup Series until the miscue under caution. He returned to the front of the field after he got his car back under power but NASCAR moved him back in the pack before the restart. He finished sixth.
"I had the motor turned off trying to save a bit of fuel and just had trouble getting it fired again," said Ambrose, who led 35 laps. "It's NASCAR's house and I'll always play by the rules. I don't agree with it. I don't like it and that's only because I lost the race."
It was Ambrose's third Sprint Cup Series start at Infineon. He finished third here last year.
Pole sitter Kasey Kahne slipped back in the pack early but rebounded late in the race for a fourth place finish while Jeff Gordon, a five time winner here, started and finished fifth.
"We were a little bit off at the start, but I just needed to settle in and we made the car a little bit better there," said Kahne, who won here last year. "I felt pretty good the last 70 laps so it was a good race."
There were seven cautions during the race and the red flag came out on lap 66 when several cars got stacked up coming to the line on a restart. That wreck cost Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Sam Hornish Jr. and stopped the race for just over 21 minutes.
Elliott Sadler and Clint Bowyer were both running in the top 10 with 11 laps to go when they both got collected in an incident going through the tight Turn 11. That brought out the final caution of the day.
Hamlin was looking for his third straight win but he had troubles early on the road course. Shortly after an early pit stop, his hood popped up and gave him an interesting blind drive back to pit road.
The field set a new track record with 12 lead changes during today's race. The previous record of 11 was set in 2007. There were 10 lead changes last year.