Jimmie Johnson overpowered the field Sunday night in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, grabbing his third victory of the season.
The two-time reigning Cup champion was easily the class of the field in the Pepsi 500, leading 228 of the 250 laps on the 2-mile oval. He won the race at the former California Speedway for the second straight year and again gave notice to points leader Kyle Busch and series runner-up Carl Edwards – the two hottest drivers in the series coming into this race – that he remains a serious contender for a third straight title.
Runner-up Greg Biffle had the next best car throughout the race, but he couldn’t keep up with Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet, finishing more than 2 seconds behind the winner.
"This race car was unbelievable," said Johnson, who has struggled at times this season, particularly on the bigger ovals. "We’ve been working hard to get it right. We’ve been burning the midnight oil, burning the wick at both ends, and it’s paid off. We clinched (a spot in the Chase for the championship) and we got 10 more bonus points, which is important. "We’ve been doing all the right things," he added, grinning. In February, Johnson led the most laps here but lost the race when Edwards passed him with 23 laps to go. This time, nobody could touch Johnson, whose car was a rocketship from the start. Time after time he built leads of between 5 and 12 seconds, only to see them erased by yellow flags. But it didn’t faze Johnson, who just rebuilt the margin after the next restart.
On a pit stop on lap 162, during a caution period, Johnson took four tires and found himself in sixth on the restart, trailing five drivers who had each taken two tires on the stop.
After the restart on lap 166, Johnson was fourth after one lap, second after two trips around the 2-mile oval and back in the lead on lap 168.
On the next pit stop, on lap 182 during another caution, Johnson’s jackman got tangled up in the air hose, costing the team valuable seconds. Johnson again came out of the pits in sixth. And, again, he rocketed back into the lead in just three laps after the green flag waved.
On lap 192, during yet another caution, Biffle’s crew pulled off a lightning stop that got the No. 16 Ford out just ahead of Johnson’s Chevy. But it took Johnson less than half a lap to zoom back into the lead this time.
And that was the race as Johnson pulled away over the last 28 laps to get his 36th career win. "This is the same car we won with at Indianapolis (in July), and I’m real proud of that," said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief. "The car was really good, especially the first 15 or 20 laps," Johnson said. "When you have a car like that, it doesn’t really matter where you are on the track." Biffle just shook his head when asked how good Johnson was. "He would get better as the run went anyway. But he had more grip up off the corners," Biffle said. "The 48 was a better car tonight. If it’s not 18 (Busch) beating us, it’s the 48."