Kevin Harvick was willing to hit the wall again on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California. Just as long as it came on the final turn of the final lap, with only the checkered flag in front of him.
It didn't come to that, not this time. So much of the scenario seemed familiar -- Harvick trying to erase a lead held by Jimmie Johnson, the No. 48 car trying to keep the No. 29 in the rearview mirror, the race approaching its end and the crowd on its collective feet in anticipation. Nearly a year ago Harvick had faced an almost identical situation, but got impatient, slid his vehicle up into the wall with fewer than three circuits remaining, and watched Johnson sail away to another victory in another championship season.
He wasn't going to let it happen again. And he didn't, using the lessons from 13 months ago to squeeze past Johnson through the final two turns and give car owner Richard Childress his first victory on the big 2-mile track.
"I keep going back to last year," Harvick said afterward in a beer-soaked firesuit. "Last year taught me a lot about patience, and the things I needed to do to beat a guy that doesn't make mistakes. In order to do that, you can't make mistakes yourself. This race one year ago is what helped us win today, by being patient, not taking yourself out of the race, having something there at the end until it was time to go."
It was all tremendous theatre on the best day Auto Club Speedway has seen in years, complete with a crowd -- estimated at 88,000 in the NASCAR box score -- likely prodded by NASCAR's realignment of what had been the track's second annual race, and a frantic finish created by shortening the event to 400 miles. Kyle Busch dominated most of the afternoon, leading 151 of 200 laps, but didn't have a good enough car on short runs to win at the end. Into the picture swept Johnson, the Southern California native who had won four of the previous seven Cup events here, and appeared in position to add another to his list.
Busch dropped back. Johnson surged forward. And then Harvick appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and suddenly it was Jimmie Johnson against a car backed by sandwich chain Jimmy John's for the victory.
"Last year I made a mistake and gave the race away with two laps to go," Harvick said. "I was able to not make any mistakes. They didn't make any mistakes on the car all weekend long. I was at least going to get to the white flag lap this year and make sure we had something left."
They did. Plenty. Johnson's battle with Busch allowed Harvick to get a big run on the leader at the white flag, and rolling into Turn 1 the memories of a year ago were foremost in his mind. He didn't want to overdrive the car, didn't want to ask for more than it had, didn't want to be too eager. If he could get by, fine. If not, he could wait. So he did, stalking Johnson as two cars lined up bumper-to-bumper, and hit the backstretch for the final time. As they approached Turn 3, Harvick sent a message, bumping the back of the No. 48 just hard enough for Johnson to feel it.
"I don't think he got into me all that hard," Johnson said. "I actually put my head back against the headrest and thought it was going to be a lot harder than what it was. He did it well. He did his job. I didn't do my mine holding him off. That was racing."
Johnson was having a difficult enough time as it was keeping his loose race car pointed forward. All Harvick needed was a little daylight on the outside, and the bump gave it to him. Johnson's vehicle wiggled down to the middle, and Harvick stormed through on the high side, using the momentum to carry him into the lead as the vehicles charged off the final turn. "Throttle it up, buddy. Stay in the gas," spotter Bill O'Dea urged him all along.
"I knew if I was going to hit the wall today, it wasn't going to be 'til Turn 4 coming to the checkered," Harvick said. "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 2, 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 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 race track or on the bottom or something. So it all worked out."
Johnson knew something was coming. As soon as he felt the impact of Harvick's nudge and heard spotter Earl Barban say "outside," he knew he was finished. "I knew if I was in his shoes, I would be right on the guy's bumper getting in the turn," Johnson said. "He gave me a little shove. It worked out well for him."
It also worked out well for those at Auto Club Speedway, who saw an electrifying finish to a race that Busch seemed to have an iron grip on earlier. And the No. 18 car may very well have run away and hid at the end, had Bobby Labonte not hit the wall with 14 laps remaining, and his wrecked car not come to rest right at the opening of pit road. A long yellow-flag period followed, and as the laps wound down the teams in contention wavered between coming in for tires -- which seemed the consensus immediately after the accident -- to staying out, which the top seven drivers ultimately did.
Gil Martin, Harvick's crew chief, knew his choice was clear. "If we would have pitted," he said, "Richard would have killed me."
So out they stayed, lining up fifth on the final restart with nine laps remaining, close enough for Harvick -- who led only one lap Sunday, the last one -- to make another of his trademark finishing kicks. The result also continued a nice rebound for a driver who had once been buried in points after decidedly uneven start to the season, and moved up six positions to ninth in the standings.
"We've had four weeks [where] we hadn't exactly had everything go right, but our cars have been fast," said Harvick, who won three times and placed third in the title hunt a year ago. "Today we had everything go right, and our car was fast again. As long as we keep our cars running the way that they are, we can overcome things and we can hopefully capitalize on days when our car is fast enough to win."
Sunday the car was fast enough, and the driver savvy enough to learn from what he had done wrong in the past. The groundwork for this victory at Auto Club Speedway was laid a year ago, in a frustrating runner-up finish on the same race track that continued what would become a streak of 115 consecutive winless starts. No question, the setting and the manner in which it unfolded provided some personal satisfaction for another native Southern Californian trying to end Johnson's reign. Time will tell if a different type of foundation was set in Fontana this time around.
"Those guys are five time champions, won a ton of races," Harvick said. "We feel as a team we can race right with 'em, but so does everybody else. There's a lot of other guys that think the same thing, but nobody's beat them in five years. We've just got to keep chipping away at it."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.