By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Heading into the March 2016 running of the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, two drivers in the field went to battle with each other in what would be dubbed the #HeroFaceOff in promotion of the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice movie.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson each sported a superhero paint scheme, with Earnhardt carrying the Batman colors on his No. 88 Chevrolet and Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet adorned with the familiar red and blue colors of Superman.
“The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world: Son of Krypton versus Bat of Gotham!” said villain Lex Luthor in the trailer for the movie, but the race turned into more of a one-sided affair rather than an epic superhero showdown.
Starting 19th, Johnson moved into the top-10 by lap 30 and continued his march through the field from that point, taking the lead for the first time at lap 78, where he would be a fixture for the remainder of the race.
Though Johnson seemed to have found his kryptonite in Kevin Harvick, who led a race-high 142 laps and looked to have the race in the bag, the final caution of the day gave Johnson and his No. 48 team one final shot at showcasing their superpowers.
“Now’s your shot. Dig out that cape, Superman,” crew chief Chad Knaus said to Johnson before the restart.
Restarting third on the final restart, Johnson flew by Harvick and Denny Hamlin like they were standing still, leading the final two laps en route to his sixth win at Auto Club Speedway and his 77th career win, breaking his tie with the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. on the all-time wins list.
“Nothing like winning at home. Thank you so much. Now somebody get my damn cape!” Johnson radioed back to his crew after crossing the finish line.
Johnson and his team donned the familiar red Superman capes in Victory Lane, while the track played the Superman theme song over the PA system and Johnson capped off the celebration by doing a Superman stage dive into the waiting arms of his crew.
“Man, this is cool,” said Johnson. “I knew we had great car and that caution fell at a bad time the run before. I just didn’t have the tires on the car to race with those guys. To go there at the end and have good tires on the car, Harvick and I got by I guess Joey there at the start. I got a great run off of Turn 2 and I thought ‘man I’ve got a shot at this thing’. Which I didn’t expect to have, Harvick has been so fast. I cleared him and kind of got away.
“We saved our best for last for sure. I told everybody Superman kicked Batman’s butt and it happened. I’m very thankful for Lowe’s and the amazing relationship we have had over the years, Chevrolet, everybody at Hendrick Motorsports, this is going to be a good time.”
As far as his #HeroFaceOff counterpart in the Batman colors, Earnhardt, Jr. struggled throughout the day on Sunday. After starting 27th, Earnhardt battled a tight handling car for the majority of the race before the team began to make some gains as the laps wound down.
Earnhardt made contact with Kurt Busch early in the race, causing some minor damage to his “Batmobile,” but would break into the top-10 by lap 110 and hovered in or near the top-10 for much of the remaining laps. The No. 88 car made it as high as eighth at lap 200, but lost a few positions in overtime to end the day in 11th.
In addition to the entertainment brought by Johnson and his heroics at the front of the field, there were a couple of other moments this race will be remembered for.
The first came when Kyle Larson cut a tire heading down the rough backstretch of the Southern California track, sending him spinning out of control toward the inside wall. Larson made heavy contact with the wall, spinning his Chevrolet airborne with all four wheels off the ground.
Larson would be OK after the hit, but noted that it ranked up there with the hardest crashes of his career.
The second moment came when Kasey Kahne appeared to hook the right rear quarter panel of Danica Patrick’s car on the frontstretch, sending her head on into the outside wall.
Much like Larson, Patrick would be OK after the crash, but wasted no time in walking up to the edge of the track to show her displeasure with Kahne by throwing up her arms in disgust, which would eventually earn her a $20,000 fine from NASCAR.