Is it Kevin Harvick's horseshoe now?
FONTANA, Calif. -- The question had to be asked.
Begged to be.
Demanded to be.
Does Kevin Harvick now have a golden horseshoe where the sun doesn't shine?
Look at the facts:
A year ago, Jimmie Johnson was in position to hold off Harvick for the win on the final lap at Auto Club Speedway because (A) Harvick hit the wall with two laps to go and (B) Johnson got off pit road a split second before the leader got to the start-finish line with 26 laps remaining to avoid going a lap down.
Afterward, a frustrated Harvick said the eventual five-time Sprint Cup champion and the 48 crew had "a golden horseshoe stuck up their a--."
So when Harvick was able to take advantage of a late caution that derailed a Kyle Busch runaway and put him in position to pass Johnson coming off the final turn of the final lap Sunday, it had to be asked.
Has the golden horseshoe shifted positions?
"I hope it stays right up there," Harvick said with a smile. "I'll be more than happy to tote that thing along this year."
Actually, last year's race is a big reason Harvick won. He learned it was more important to be patient and have something for the final lap than to get too aggressive too early, hit the wall and not have a car capable of doing what it did on Sunday, which was fairly uneventful until the final three laps.
He learned that if you're going to beat a driver who seldom makes mistakes then you can't make mistakes of your own.
"That race a year ago helped me win today," Harvick said.
Harvick won by sticking his No. 29 Chevrolet into the rear bumper of Johnson's car. That got Johnson a little too fast and loose going into the final two turns, allowing Harvick to take the high line he wanted.
It worked to perfection.
WHAT THEY TWEETED
Some driver tweets after Kevin Harvick's victory in Sunday's Auto Club 400 in Fontana, Calif.:
• @JimmieJohnson Great job @KevinHarvick, took some balls to pull off that outside pass. Congrats
• @maxpapis Man @KevinHarvick is an animal ... Great race with @JimmieJohnson between 2 champ
• @Elliott_Sadler Way to go boss man!!!!!
• @JimmieJohnson A big thanks to all my fans for your support. We are getting there, the 48 is getting stronger and stronger.
• @Tbayne21 Thanks for all the support guys.. Its hard not to be tough on urself.. We wana run good as bad as anyone does! We'll get there!
• @jpmontoya I'm really excited that we got a top 10 with the @Target car!!!! Next stop martisville!!! Heading home tonight!!!
And there was no luck involved.
"Last year I made a mistake and gave the race away with two laps to go," Harvick said. "I was at least going to get to the white flag this year and make sure we had something left."
The finish turned another California snoozer into a thriller. There were times when Busch had more than a five-second lead with nobody making a strong run to threaten him.
There were times when you were thinking track officials who reduced the race length from 500 to 400 miles should knock another 200 off.
"I wish it was a 300-mile race," said Busch, who led 151 of the 200 laps before settling for third.
Said Johnson, "Three-hundred and ninety-nine."
Harvick needed all 400 miles, but the track that has taken much criticism for its small crowds and lackluster events deserves praise for shortening the event. It definitely impacted the outcome.
Had there been another 50 laps the entire field likely would have pitted when caution came out with 15 laps to go. Instead, leader Busch and the next five directly behind him were forced to stay out, understanding track position would be more important than fresh tires when they restarted with nine laps remaining.
Had there been another 50 laps, there would have been at least one more pit stop for fuel and the race could have been decided on mileage, as often has been the case here.
We don't know how all that would have played out. What we know is that Harvick had a fast car all day and that when he was put in position to make a run he was able to make it.
Just as important to him and his team's confidence, Harvick was able to make the run against two of the top drivers in the garage in Johnson and Busch, who was attempting to sweep his second straight weekend in NASCAR's top two series.
It was particularly significant that Harvick passed Johnson at the end, because he's never done that to win a race.
"We as a team feel we can race right with them," Harvick said. "We've just got to keep chipping away."
Harvick started chipping away at Johnson a year ago, finishing third in the final standings behind the Hendrick Motorsports driver and Hamlin. You could sense his momentum then, and it never went away despite a rough start to 2011 with a blown engine early in the Daytona 500.
Although Harvick wasn't a factor on Sunday until the end, his car was so solid that crew chief Gil Martin made only one adjustment the entire day.
Last year I made a mistake and gave the race away with two laps to go. I was at least going to get to the white flag this year and make sure we had something left.” -- Kevin Harvick
"We haven't had exactly everything going right, but today we had everything go right," Harvick said.
In other words, he had a little luck because without that late caution Busch likely would have cruised to the win.
"For all the fans that went home early when I was leading, they missed a good finish, an exciting finish," Busch said. "Yeah, it was disappointing. Frustrating. A letdown, a little bit."
But there was nothing Busch could do about it. He was like a sitting duck when Johnson went by with two laps remaining. Then it was Johnson's turn to look into his rearview mirror as Harvick charged.
All of a sudden there was a finish that seemed scripted for Hollywood -- two California drivers battling it out for the win with NASCAR's bad boy not far behind.
"I knew he was coming," Johnson said of Harvick. "They said he was coming. If I could have gotten by [Busch] a lap sooner that might have been enough to give me the margin I needed. Just way loose."
And Harvick was way too strong.
"There were several times when I was probably too conservative," Harvick said after moving up six spots in the Cup standings to ninth in points. "With the high line we didn't have much room for error. I knew if I hit the wall it would be in Turn 4 coming to the checkered."
Not really, although luck played a role in Harvick being in that position, as it does for most drivers in most wins. In reality, the golden horseshoe doesn't exist, but it sure made for a good question -- one that had to be asked.
Demanded to be.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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