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Kevin Harvick makes last-lap pass, wins in California
by Matt Taliaferro
As the saying goes, the only lap that matters is the last. And in no race was that more evident than Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
Kevin Harvick pushed Jimmie Johnson into Turn 3 — loosening the five-time Cup champion — and burned by, using the high line as the duo came to the checkers, to lead his only lap of the day, giving Harvick his first win at Auto Club Speedway and first of the young season.
An accident on lap 187 of 200 set up a three-man, nine-lap dogfight consisting of Harvick, Johnson and Kyle Busch. Busch, who dominated the event to the tune of 151 laps led, led the field to green and, along with Johnson, sprinted away from the field. However, as the two battled side-by-side, Harvick caught them by keeping his momentum up working the high groove.
By the time Johnson slid past Busch with two laps remaining, Harvick was there. He quickly disposed of Busch and set his sights on the leader.
“We led the right one, that’s for sure,” Harvick said. “We were able to keep pace with them (Busch and Johnson) for a few laps. When they started racing side-by-side, we made up the ground. Kyle started to get loose (and I) drove around him.”
Harvick pulled flush with Johnson’s bumper on the backstretch of the white-flag lap, shoving the leader into Turn 3. He then sailed high and passed the No. 48 Chevy, which had led only three laps throughout the afternoon.
“I knew if I was going to hit the wall today, it wasn’t going to be till Turn 4 coming to the checkered,” Harvick explained. “It was tight, but it was the right time to go.
“I really had a good run coming off of Turn 2 and he (Johnson) rolled up in front of me, so I just laid on the back bumper all the way down the back straightaway, gave him a couple seconds to think about what was going to happen going into Turn 3. The reason I did that, I just needed the one lane up top. I knew what I was going to do. I was hoping he would just roll through the middle of the racetrack or on the bottom or something.”
He did, and Harvick blew by and beat Johnson to the line by .144 seconds.
“Him (Harvick) being that close and kind of breaking the plane of our bumper, certainly affect(ed) how my car drove,” Johnson said. “When he got to my bumper down the back, I felt like if he turned into the bottom and followed me, I was in trouble. I kind of wanted to run the bottom coming to the checkered flag. Felt like that was the place to be.
“When I went off into (Turn) 3 with the extra speed, had my car kind of sideways getting in there, I couldn’t get a real good arc into the corner. I heard that he was looking outside near the middle of the corner. Once he got there and broke the plane of my bumper, spotter said, ‘Outside,’ I was dead in the water.”
Busch had been the only story of the day until the final dramatic laps. He first jumped to the point on lap 22, when he passed his Joe Gibbs Racing teamamte, Denny Hamlin. He lead 151 of the next 175 laps but took the loss as well as could be expected.
“Just real, real unfortunate and frustrating and disappointing — all in one — that we weren’t able to seal the deal today,” Busch said afterward. “(It) just came down to the last few laps there with Jimmie first and then Kevin got into it, too, with us.
“You ask a little bit more from your racecar at the last moments, (and if) it doesn’t have anything left to give, you’re essentially a sitting duck waiting for those guys to drive by you. Couldn’t get any more out of the car. That was it.”