By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
With the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rolling into Southern California this weekend for the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, the time has come again to dive into the past at the two-mile oval in this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater”.
This week, with Kevin Harvick on a hot streak, winning the last three races in a row, we look back at the 2011 running of the Auto Club 400 and the fantastic finish between two California natives, Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.
Heading into that race, the fifth race on the 2011 schedule, Johnson had practically owned Auto Club Speedway, winning four of the previous seven races and scoring two top-five finishes and one top-10 in the other three events that he did not win. So it was clear that Johnson would be the man to beat in Southern California that day.
After getting underway under cloudy and cool conditions, it became the “Kyle Busch Show” for the majority of the event, as Busch led 141 of the first 187 laps.
When Bobby Labonte spun and crashed in Turn 2 on lap 187 to bring out the fourth and final caution of the day, the field was bunched back up, giving the others one final shot at Busch, who had seemed to be bulletproof up until that point in the race.
Restarting alongside Busch on the final restart, Johnson fell in behind the No. 18 once the race went back to green with nine laps remaining.
Johnson would stalk Busch for six laps before making his way past him into the lead with just three laps remaining. However, the battle for the lead was far from over as a new challenger emerged in Harvick, who had driven from sixth on the restart up to third, just behind Johnson and Busch with three laps to go.
Heading through Turns 1 and 2 on the penultimate lap, Busch drove in too deep and washed up the track, allowing Harvick to drive past him into second, setting his sights on Johnson and the race lead.
Harvick followed directly in Johnson’s tire tracks for the next lap, until the two made their way down the backstretch for the final time. Using his momentum from the high line, as well as the draft from Johnson’s car, Harvick was able to pull right up to the rear of the No. 48 car. Harvick then began bump drafting Johnson as they made their way toward Turn 3, which caused Johnson to enter the turn faster than he wanted to and forced him to abandon the low line that he had been running.
As Johnson drifted up the track as he tried to stay in front of Harvick through Turns 3 and 4, Harvick took advantage and blasted into the very top lane of the track and powered by Johnson, clearing him as they entered the frontstretch for the final time. Harvick was able to keep his No. 29 car in front of Johnson by the time they got to the finish line, winning the race with a margin of victory of .144 seconds, the closest finish in the track’s history.
“I knew I had a little left in the tank on the last restart,” said Harvick. “I didn’t want the fenders to be knocked in and not have a chance. There were several times where I was probably a little too conservative, but with the high line up there, you don’t have much room for error.
“I knew if I was going to hit the wall today, it wasn’t going to be till turn four coming to the checkered. It was tight, but it was the right time to go. We were able to keep pace. I really had a good run coming off of turn two, and he 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 three. 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. So it all worked out.”
The win for Harvick was the first for him at Auto Club Speedway and also the first win for Harvick when he passed Johnson for the race win.
“Him being that close and kind of breaking the plane of our bumper, certainly affects how my car drove,” said Johnson. “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.
“I decided to stay at the top. When I went off into three 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.”
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