DARLINGTON, S.C. — Jimmie Johnson broke free on a restart three laps from the end in the Southern 500 and held on Saturday night to give Hendrick Motorsports its 200th Sprint Cup victory.
“I can’t believe we won 200 of these things,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “I can’t believe it took this long after we won 199.”
Johnson seemed short on fuel and tires and looked vulnerable with Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch right behind and ready to pounce after Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman spun out with six laps left at Darlington Raceway.
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 a 16-race winless drought for the five-time NASCAR champion and the Hendrick team.
“That guy’s something,” Johnson said about Hendrick. “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.
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.
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.
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 consecutive 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.
The final shootout came after Kurt Busch hit the wall and he and Newman spun out with six laps left.
Stewart said there was nothing there when he stepped on the gas and was glad to hold onto third.
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 this week she’s grown as a NASCAR driver and that was clear with her performances at Darlington, one of the quirkiest and toughest circuits in the sport. She brushed the wall plenty in Friday practices, but rebounded to finish 12th in the Nationwide Series race that night.
In this one, 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.
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 four-year-old winless Sprint Cup streak increased to 140 races as he finished 17th.