Commentary

Timely pit stop turning point for JJ

Updated: December 20, 2010, 4:18 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FONTANA, Calif. -- Kevin Harvick wasn't mad at Jimmie Johnson, who did his job and blocked Harvick from passing him in the final laps.

Harvick also wasn't mad that Johnson won again at Auto Club Speedway, claiming his 48th career victory in the No. 48 Chevy and his first of 2010.

But Harvick did want to make one thing perfectly clear.

"They're really good, but they're really, really lucky, too," Harvick said. "Jimmie is a good friend mine, but there's no denying how lucky they are. They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their a--."

Alrighty then. Point taken.

Whether you agree or not is debatable considering Johnson has the Sprint Cup field covered, winning the past four championships. However, Harvick was dead-on about this race.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesKevin Harvick, right, challenged Jimmie Johnson down the stretch before getting blocked, scraping the wall and settling for second.

Plain and simple, Johnson got lucky this time in winning the Auto Club 500. He pitted at just the right moment with 26 laps to go. A split second later and his day was done as far as winning was concerned.

But that golden horseshoe was there. Not where Harvick said it was, but somewhere with the 48 team. Johnson pitted just before a caution flag flew when Brad Keselowski spun out.

"No way around it, we got lucky," Johnson said. "We were able to just beat the 31 car [leader Jeff Burton] to the scoring line by about half a car length or we would have been a lap down."

Burton, who finished third, wondered if he should have gone just a tad bit faster on the track after the yellow flag came out.

"If I had been around two-tenths [of a second] quicker I would have had him a lap down,'' Burton said. ''But there's a fine line on slowing down and not slowing down. They ask you to slow down and you can't come around wide open.

"I don't know what the right thing to do is. If I can carry more speed next time, I certainly will. I'm going to ask [NASCAR's] opinion. I went around as quick as I thought I could."

Not quite quick enough. With 20 laps left, Johnson was able to restart first after the other leaders pitted under caution. He stayed there to the finish, but not without a fight from Harvick in the No. 29 Chevy.

With Johnson more than a second ahead, Harvick and Burton battled for second place for several laps, but Burton couldn't get by his Richard Childress Racing teammate.

"We weren't slowing each other down," Burton said. "I ran the low line and Kevin ran the high line. But I got looser and Kevin got better at the end. The 29 by far had the best car."

Harvick's car was good enough to run down Johnson and get to his bumper with four laps to go. He moved high to try to shoot past Johnson, but Johnson reacted quickly and blocked the high line.

Yes, today we got a huge gift. But I was running fourth or fifth at the time [of the last caution], so it's not like we totally backed into this thing. And I still had to hold Kevin [Harvick] off.

-- Jimmie Johnson

"When he moved up I got tight and caught the wall a little bit," Harvick said. "If he doesn't move up, he gets passed pretty easily. He did what he's supposed to do to take the line away. He did exactly what he had to do."

It was an exciting finish at a track that rarely produces exciting racing. Too bad not many people were there to see it.

The announced crowd by track officials was 72,000. They must have added in the sparse Saturday crowd from the Nationwide race. The 92,000-seat grandstands were half full at best.

The field still gets separated out single file at times over the super-wide 2-mile oval, but the Fontana faithful saw some good moments with passing up front.

"Today was a great race for NASCAR and a great race for this track," Johnson said. "I know it got spread out some, but there [was] some really good racing from what I saw."

And the fans saw the best driver in NASCAR catch a lucky break.

"Yes, today we got a huge gift," Johnson said. "But I was running fourth or fifth at the time [of the last caution], so it's not like we totally backed into this thing. And I still had to hold Kevin off."

Crew chief Chad Knaus said it took more than luck for the 48 to stay on the lead lap.

"We did have a little bit of good fortune," he said. "But when that happens, you have to have a crew capable of reacting quickly, and we did."

As for that horseshoe thing, Johnson chuckled at Harvick's thought. And Johnson had a message of his own. "You don't get lucky in winning four championships and 48 races," Johnson said. "I've had plenty of races go the other way. This stuff happens [winning on a fortunate moment] because we have a good race team. And I drove my butt off today."

Golden horseshoe placement notwithstanding.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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