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Kevin Harvick uses late passes to win Auto Club 400

Kyle Busch leads for most of the race, but a caution flag bunches the field and opens the door for Harvick.

March 27, 2011|By Jim Peltz
  • Kevin Harvick celebrates in victory lane after winning the Auto Club 400 in Fontana, his first victory in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway.
Kevin Harvick celebrates in victory lane after winning the Auto Club 400… (Tom Pennington / Getty Images )

In NASCAR, as in life, second chances seldom come along. But Kevin Harvick got one Sunday and with it sweet redemption.

After Kyle Busch dominated most of the Auto Club 400 in Fontana, a late caution flag gave Harvick and Jimmie Johnson one more chance to catch Busch's Toyota.

What followed was a thrilling finish as Johnson and Harvick passed Busch with three laps left and then Harvick swept past Johnson on the final lap to win for the first time in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway.

For Kyle Busch, a different view of defeat

In the same race a year ago, Harvick was running down Johnson for the win when Harvick pushed his Chevrolet too hard and scraped the outside wall, leaving Harvick with a second-place finish behind Johnson and a year's worth of disappointment.

"Last year I made a mistake and gave the race away with two laps to go," Harvick said. This time, he said, "my whole goal was to not give it away [again]. Today we had a fast car and the circumstances played in our favor."

Johnson, who was seeking a record sixth win at Fontana, settled for second and Busch was third. Three-time Fontana winner Matt Kenseth finished fourth.

Busch led 151 of the race's 200 laps and, with a record low number of caution periods, most of the 42 cars behind him largely were strung out in the type of single-file racing for which the two-mile Auto Club Speedway often is chided.

But all that changed with 14 laps remaining when the Toyota of former NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte hit the wall and brought out the final caution flag, bunching the field one more time.

In the race's previous restarts, Busch's car had shown the horsepower to quickly leave the pack behind. Not this time. Busch "got loose" and "took himself out of contention there at the end," Harvick said.

Indeed, Busch scraped the wall himself on the final lap, and the finish was "real unfortunate and frustrating and disappointing, all in one, that we weren't able to seal the deal," Busch said. "It's never over till it's over; that's why it's called racing."

On the final lap, Harvick pushed his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet right up to the bumper of Johnson's Chevy on the back straightaway, then moved to the outside of Johnson to make the pass as they sped through the wide third and fourth turns to beat Johnson by less than 30 yards.

The race a year ago "taught me a lot about . . . patience, and the things I needed to do to beat a guy that doesn't make mistakes," Harvick said of Johnson. "You can't make any mistakes yourself."

Harvick, a Bakersfield native, thus became the fifth winner in five Cup races this season. Busch won last week at Bristol, Tenn., and Johnson, a fellow Californian who is seeking an unprecedented sixth consecutive Cup championship, has yet to win this year.

Nonetheless, Johnson climbed to fifth from seventh in the Cup standings; he is 14 points behind leader Carl Edwards, who finished sixth Sunday. Harvick is ninth in the standings, 30 points behind Edwards.

Edwards said that for his Roush Fenway Racing team "to come out of here leading the points is big, considering how we ran all day. We really weren't that good."

This was the only Cup race scheduled to be held this year at Fontana. After several years of hosting two 500-mile races annually, and struggling with attendance declines, the 92,000-seat Auto Club Speedway had one of its races removed from this year's schedule.

But despite morning rain, the crowd was estimated by NASCAR at 88,000, up from 72,000 when the race was held last year in late February. The race's distance was cut to 400 miles from 500 a year ago.

Tony Stewart, who won the final fall race at Fontana last year, ran in the top five again for most of Sunday until his Chevrolet faltered badly in the closing laps. He finished 13th.

Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 12th after starting 30th, and the Hendrick Motorsports driver — still looking for his first win since mid-2008 — has finished 12th or better in four of the season's five races.

"This is the most consistent I've ever been in my whole career," Earnhardt said. "We're a top-10 team."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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