FONTANA, CA (Sports Network) – Kevin Harvick saved his best for last to win at his home track in Southern California for the first time.
Harvick, who hails from nearby Bakersfield, CA, led only one lap, but it was good enough to give him the victory in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. Harvick chased down Jimmie Johnson, also a native of California, on the final lap and then moved to the outside of Johnson between turns three and four to take the lead. He held off the five-time defending Sprint Cup Series champion by 0.14 seconds.
Kyle Busch dominated the race by leading 151 of 200 laps, but Busch lost ground in the closing laps and then gave up the top position to Johnson when he scraped the wall along the backstretch with two to go.
During the fourth and final caution for an incident involving Bobby Labonte, several of the drivers on the lead lap made a final pit stop, but Harvick, Johnson and Busch remained on the track with older tires.
Busch, Johnson and Harvick ran first through third, respectively, for the final restart with nine laps remaining.
Harvick notched his 15th career Sprint Cup win. His first victory at this wide two-mile track came in his 18th start here.
“What a great day,” a jubilant Harvick said. “All of these guys did a great job on pit road, and [crew chief] Gil [Martin] made the right call. When I saw all of those guys pit at the end, I thought, ‘Man, we might be in deep trouble.’ Our car just kept on going, and we held those guys off.”
The first five races this season have featured five different winners. Trevor Bayne (Daytona), Jeff Gordon (Phoenix), Carl Edwards (Las Vegas) and Busch (Bristol) have also won this year.
Johnson is a five-time race winner at California. He had won three of the last five events here.
“I just couldn’t hold him off with those old tires, and that made the difference” Johnson said. “I knew he was coming, and I could hear my guys say he was coming. If I could have got by [Busch] a lap sooner, it might have been enough to give me the margin I needed.”
One year ago, Harvick chased down leader Johnson after a late-race restart, but Harvick made contact with the wall four laps away from the finish, allowing Johnson to drive away for the win.
“We had everybody beat here, but I gave it away last year,” Harvick added.
Last year’s spring race at California was 500 miles in length.
Busch, who won Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, wound up finishing third. He was attempting to win his fourth straight NASCAR national touring event. Busch recorded a weekend sweep last weekend at Bristol, TN.
“It’s really unfortunate, frustrating and disappointing all in one,” Busch said. “We weren’t able to seal the deal today. It just came down to the last few laps there with Jimmie first and then Kevin got into it with us too. If you ask a little bit more from your race car at the last moments, it just doesn’t have anything else to give, so you’re essentially a sitting duck while waiting for those guys to drive by you.”
Matt Kenseth finished fourth, while Ryan Newman took the fifth spot.
Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, Kasey Kahne and pole sitter Juan Pablo Montoya completed the top-10. Edwards moved into the points lead, holding a nine-point advantage over Newman. Kurt Busch dropped from first to third (-10 points) after his 17th-place run.
Denny Hamlin’s season woes continued when he suffered engine failure just past the halfway point and ended up finishing 39th. Hamlin dropped to 21st in points (-75). He finished second to Johnson in last year’s championship Chase.
“Our engine department definitely has to go to work and try to figure out how to get the reliability back,” Hamlin said.