Jimmie Johnson won Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at historic Darlington Raceway, at long last delivering team owner Rick Hendrick his much-coveted 200th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.
The five-time champion dominated the proceedings for much of the evening, as a variety of drivers took their turn up front.
But in the end, it was Johnson holding off Denny Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart on a green-white-checkered restart to score the 56th victory of his career and his first since Kansas last October. Then came Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
Pole-sitter Greg Biffle took the lead at the start over Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Kasey Kahne, staying out front through the first 48 laps until he pitted under the green.
Busch and Johnson took turns out front afterwards, as the race went caution-free for the first 173 laps, until finally a yellow waved for debris.
A second caution on Lap 189 came out when the snake-bitten Jeff Gordon had a flat tire and shed debris on the track. This time, Hamlin stayed out and took the lead, the next eight drivers took two tires and Johnson rejoined the fray 10th, the first driver on four new Goodyears.
Hamlin’s lead under green was less than half a lap before Kahne blew by him for the lead.
On Lap 231, a debris caution put Dale Earnhardt Jr. back on the lead lap and sent all the leaders back down pit road. Kahne had a terrible stop when his jackman slipped on pit road. That allowed Hamlin to take the lead on pit road over Biffle, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano.
On the restart, Biffle took the lead briefly, but slipped and nearly crashed at the exit of Turn 2, falling to fourth. He then began complaining of handling issues and fell back to seventh, as Hamlin and Truex led.
Bobby Labonte spun at the exit to Turn 4 on Lap 298, setting up another round of stops. Under caution, Truex, Kyle Busch, Johnson and Logano all took two tires, while Hamlin came out fifth, the first car on four fresh tires.
Johnson moved to second on the restart and immediately set off after leader Truex.
Last year’s winner, Regan Smith spun in Turn 4 on Lap 306, sending the track yellow again.
Johnson, Kyle Busch and seven others stayed out, while Truex and several other cars on the lead lap pitted, anticipating going the distance. Truex rejoined the race 11th, albeit on four fresh tires.
Busch passed Johnson on the restart, while Biffle closed up in third, the race suddenly wide open. Then, more chaos as AJ Allmendinger and Jamie McMurray wrecked in Turn 4 on Lap 316.
Once green, Busch again took the lead, but Johnson went under Busch going into Turn 1 on Lap 326, with Hamlin starting to close on teammate Busch for second.
Thirtieth-place Reed Sorenson was the next to crash, spinning out on Lap 328 at the exit of Turn 4. The spate of late-race cautions was a huge help for those who didn’t pit during the yellow for Smith’s spin. Without all the caution laps, they’d have had to pit or surely would have run out of gas.
On this restart, Stewart used the high lane to move to second behind Johnson, Busch falling to third.
With seven laps to go, Kurt Busch spun, taking Ryan Newman setting up one final shootout for the victory with two laps to go.
Johnson was on the outside, with Hamlin behind him, Stewart on the inside ahead of Kyle Busch. And at the green, Johnson broke clean, winning easily as Hamlin passed Stewart for second.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.