It took one lap longer than it should have, but Jimmie Johnson’s dash to the green-white-checkered flag at the Bojangles’ Southern 500 gave owner Rick Hendrick the 200th victory on the Sprint Cup circuit, on Saturday night.
Johnson always looked in control of the race. He was out front for the final 44 laps and led for 134 of the race’s 368. He sped to the front of the pack after a caution flag came out with six laps remaining, when Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch spun and tapped the wall. Once debris was cleared and officials felt it was safe to proceed, the race came under NASCAR’s green-white-checker rule which makes provision for a race not to end under yellow-flag conditions despite the actual number of laps raced and the total distance scheduled for the race. Johnson reacted quickly on the restart and raced to the win. Denny Hamlin was second and Tony Stewart finished third.
The win at Darlington Raceway, in South Carolina, had extra meaning for the NASCAR driver. In making his 56th trip to Victory Lane, Johnson broke a winless string of 16 races and moved into eighth place on the all-time NASCAR winners list. More importantly, perhaps, it put him in contention in this year’s Sprint Cup drivers’ standings. Johnson climbed three spots and now sits fifth, 39 points behind series leader Greg Biffle. Johnson is looking to regain the form that saw him win five straight Sprint Cups, between 2006 and 2010. He finished sixth overall in 2011, his lowest ranking in 10 full seasons in the Sprint Cup Series.
For Hendrick Motorsports, it felt like an eternity between wins. The team’s 199th came last October in Kansas. The milestone win was within reach earlier this year. Hendrick drivers held the first three places late in the April 1 race at Martinsville. It would end up looking like a cruel April’s Fool prank as a late caution flag wiped the Hendrick Motorsports drivers from the top five. The team owner was almost stoic in recalling the moments leading up to the end of this week’s race, though his actions moments earlier indicated otherwise.
“I had to get away," said Hendrick, who left the pit box and paced up and down pit road during the final laps of the race. “They said that we were going to make it (on fuel), but I don’t believe them, you know? Everything has happened backward for us. We’ve run so good this year and then had such bad luck. I’m kind of numb, but I'm glad it’s over. I think we’re going to win a few more now.”
The win places Hendrick Motorsports second on the NASCAR all-time list for total victories. Only Petty Enterprises’ 268 wins are better. Johnson couldn’t be happier for his his team owner.
“He said, ‘Two hundred is great, but let’s go get 250.’ So that tells you where his head is,” said Johnson, whose 56 career wins have all come with Hendrick Motorsports. “You’ve got to love that man.”
While the Sprint Cup chase takes a week off, drivers certainly won’t. The Sprint All-Star race will run May 19 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in North Carolina. The Sprint Cup Series resumes on May 27 with the Coca-Cola 600, also at the Charlotte race track.