DARLINGTON, S.C. — Rick Hendrick only got to watch the last 100 miles of the Southern 500. Turns out he saw the best part.
Jimmie Johnson broke free on a restart three laps from the end Saturday night to give Hendrick Motorsports its 200th Sprint Cup victory.
Hendrick drivers had gone 16 races since Johnson won No. 199 at Kansas in October. The car owner was in the North Carolina mountains attending a wedding and couldn’t get to Darlington Raceway until the final stretch. That’s when he watched Johnson overcome fuel and tire concerns to power past Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin on the final restart.
When it was over, Hendrick was hugged by everyone nearby, and Johnson ran the car up to the inside wall as his team members pounded the No. 48 Chevy in celebration.
“I feel very, very fortunate to go along on this ride,” Hendrick said.
Johnson presented his owner with a helmet signed by the 15 drivers who ran for Hendrick since he began his operation. “Thanks, buddy,” the owner said. “This will definitely be the centerpiece of the mancave.”
Johnson looked vulnerable down the stretch with Stewart and Kyle Busch right behind and ready to pounce after Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman spun out with six laps left.
But Stewart had trouble once the green flag dropped and Johnson flew into the lead and cruised to his first victory since Kansas last October, breaking the winless drought for the five-time NASCAR champion and the Hendrick team.
“That guy’s something,” Johnson said about the owner. “He said, ‘We won 200. Let’s get 250.”
Denny Hamlin was second, followed by Stewart and Kyle Busch.
Danica Patrick lasted until the end of her second Sprint Cup race, finishing six laps behind Johnson in 31st.
Johnson led 134 of the 368 laps, including the final 44. It was Johnson’s 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, Geoff Bodine driving to victory No. 1. Johnson took his 56th NASCAR win as a Hendrick driver, second only to teammate Jeff Gordon’s 85 victories.
This was the place where fireworks took place a year ago when Kevin Harvick went after Kyle Busch for a late wreck. This time, it involved crew members for Kurt Busch and Newman scrumming after the race.
Martin Truex Jr. was fifth, followed by Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano — the Nationwide winner Friday night.
Series points leader Greg Biffle won the pole and led 74 laps, second only Johnson, yet ended in 12th. His series lead narrowed to two points over Kenseth.
The race began with longest stretch of green flag racing from the start with 171 laps since NASCAR began releasing such information, a run which helped speed up a race that’s often slogged through double-digit cautions.
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 until the race’s first stoppage for debris.
When the cautions began, they didn’t stop — and played havoc with strategy the rest of the way. Johnson chose to stay out during a caution period 60 laps from the end, leaving him three laps short on fuel. When AJ Allmendinger and Jamie McMurray tied up a few moments later for another stoppage, Johnson had no choice but to remain on the track instead of surrendering track position to top off his tank.
At still another caution a few laps later when Reed Sorenson slid through turn four, Kyle Busch dove low as if he were about to pit but returned to his spot before the commitment line.
The final shootout came after Kurt Busch hit the wall and he and Newman spun out with six laps left. Stewart, who earlier dealt with a broken clutch, said there was nothing there when he stepped on the gas and was glad to hold onto third. “It’s why we won a championship. We never give up,” he said.
Neither did Hendrick’s teams, who carted around commemorative 200th victory caps from track to track as the victory drought dragged on. Johnson and Hendrick were both happy to have the milestone behind them.
“It just looked like we were stuck. It was beginning to feel like, I said, ‘I can’t believe we can go half a year, run that many seconds and lead that many laps,” Hendrick said. “It seemed like all the bad luck was coming at one time.”
Stewart congratulated Hendrick on the milestone and was just as proud of Patrick, who drove the car he fields for Sprint Cup events.
Patrick hadn’t raced in the Sprint Cup series since her debut at Daytona in February. That didn’t go well when she got caught up in early wreck and wound up 38th.
But Patrick said she’s grown as a NASCAR driver and that was clear with her performances at Darlington, one of the quirkiest and toughest circuits. She brushed the wall plenty in Friday practices, but rebounded to finish 12th in the Nationwide Series race that night.
“I know I didn’t have a great result. But, I accomplished all the things I wanted to accomplish,” Patrick said. “Things went good on the Nationwide side. Here on the Cup side, my goals were to be respectable out there. I think I held my own.”
Patrick quickly fell two laps down yet hung as tough as she could as the race went an incredible 171 green flag laps from the start without a caution flag. “You’re doing a hell of a job here,” crew chief Greg Zipadelli told his driver. “Keep racing the race track.”
Patrick was hit with a pass-through penalty for a commitment line violation with less than 80 laps left. Still, Stewart said Patrick kept her cool throughout the night on the difficult track.
“This is a long weekend and what she did in these two days is hard to do,” Stewart said. “This is a hard place to learn.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the owner of Patrick’s Nationwide Series team, had hoped to end a couple of major droughts and collect his first victory at Darlington. But he, too, struggled as he nearly 4-year-old winless Sprint Cup streak increased to 140 races as he finished 17th.
NASCAR director of competition Ryan Pemberton said he was still finding out what happened between the teams of Kurt Busch and Newman after the race.
“It was a long hot night and certainly tempers were hot to say the least on crews and drivers alike to say the least,” he said.