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Jimmie Johnson catches break to earn 48th Sprint Cup victory in No. 48 Chevy

A break during a pit stop, in which a caution flag came out before he could go a lap down, helps Jimmie Johnson on Sunday. “No way around it. We got lucky,” he says.

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A break during a pit stop, in which a caution flag came out before he could go a lap down, helps Jimmie Johnson on Sunday. “No way around it. We got lucky,” he says.

FONTANA, Calif. — That's 48 for No. 48.

A week after another Daytona disappointment, Jimmie Johnson held off Kevin Harvick through the final laps to win Sunday's Auto Club 500, reaffirming his place as the dominant force in Sprint Cup.

The victory — narrower than the 1.523-second margin would indicate — was the 48th in Johnson's career and helped distance him and his team from their 35th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500.

With a dark cloud hanging over the edge of Auto Club Speedway (a sprinkle on some parts of the track had caused a brief caution), and with Harvick filling his rearview mirror, Johnson won for the fifth time at the track where he won his first Sprint Cup race in 2002.

"Life is good," said Johnson, a native of El Cajon, Calif., about 120 miles from the track.

So was Johnson's fortune.

Though he led more laps than anyone (101) including the final 24, Johnson caught a huge break while pitting on Lap 224.

While Johnson was in his pit stall, Brad Keselowski spun, bringing out a caution flag.

Johnson got back on the track an instant before leader Jeff Burton came around, allowing the winner of four straight Cup championships to stay on the lead lap.

Burton later wondered if he backed off the throttle too quickly when the caution came out. Johnson took full advantage.

Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch were also on pit road when the yellow showed. But they didn't get out quickly enough and fell off the lead lap.

Johnson acknowledged his good fortune while Harvick, on the winner's back bumper before brushing the wall with three laps left, was frustrated.

"They're really good, but they're really, really lucky," said Harvick, the points leader after two races.

"There's no way you're getting around how lucky they are. They did a good job winning the race, but they have a golden horseshoe. …"

Johnson just smiled.

"No way around it. We got lucky," Johnson said. "We got a really nice gift."

Just a week ago, however, Johnson's Daytona 500 was ruined by a problem related to the pothole that developed in the track.

This time, in a 20-lap race to the finish, Johnson pulled away from Harvick and Burton, who were running together behind him, to lead by more than a second. What appeared to be an easy win for Johnson, however, quickly became a question as Harvick chased him down.

Johnson knew Harvick was there. Handling had become an issue for Johnson over the final 10 laps, so he changed his line, hoping to find something to keep Harvick behind him.

He chose the same high line that had been so good for Harvick, a change from his first 240 trips around the 2-mile track.

"If he doesn't move up, he's gonna get passed pretty easily," Harvick said. "He moved up and did what he was supposed to do to take that line away …

"I caught the wall there just enough to knock the right-front fender in."

After it was over, someone pointed out to Johnson he was wearing a driving suit that listed him as a three-time Sprint Cup champion, one year out of date.

It didn't matter. Everything fell right for Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team, which ended Roush Fenway Racing's five-race winning streak at this event.

"Yes, we were lucky," Johnson said. "But you don't get lucky and win four championships and 48 races."

Jimmie Johnson catches break to earn 48th Sprint Cup victory in No. 48 Chevy 02/21/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 21, 2010 11:13pm]

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