DARLINGTON, S.C. — Jimmie Johnson broke free on a restart three laps from the end in the Southern 500 and held on Saturday night to give Hendrick Motorsports its 200th Sprint Cup victory.
"I can't believe we won 200 of these things," team owner Rick Hendrick told Fox TV. "I can't believe it took this long after we won 199."
Johnson seemed short on fuel and tires and looked vulnerable with Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch right behind and ready to pounce after Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman spun out with six laps left in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
But Stewart had trouble once the green flag dropped and Johnson flew into the lead and cruised to his first victory since October in Kansas, breaking a 16-race winless drought for the five-time NASCAR champion and the Hendrick team.
"It really was a lot of drama," Johnson said in Victory Lane. "It's very special for me. Darlington's an awesome racetrack."
Denny Hamlin was second, followed by Stewart and Kyle Busch.
It was Johnson's third Darlington win, but first since he swept the 2004 events at the track — the last season "The Lady in Black" had two Sprint Cup races.
This was the place where fireworks took place a year ago when Kevin Harvick went after Kyle Busch for a late wreck. This time, it involved crew members for Kurt Busch and Newman scrumming after the race.
Danica Patrick lasted until the end of her second Cup race, finishing six laps behind in 31st. Dale Earnhardt Jr., another Hendrick driver, was 17th as his winless skid hit 140 races.
The race began with the longest stretch of green-flag racing at the start since NASCAR began releasing such information, 171 laps.
But the second half saw eight cautions including the spin involving Kurt Busch and Newman that brought on a green-white-checkered finish.
Greg Biffle, the pole-sitter, and five-time Sprint Cup champion Johnson each had long runs and built big leads. Biffle led 74 of the first 98 laps but wound up 12th. Then Johnson took control for 72 straight laps until the race's first stoppage for debris.
When the cautions began, they didn't stop — and played havoc with strategy the rest of the way. Johnson chose to stay out during a caution 60 laps from the end, leaving him three laps short on fuel. When AJ Allmendinger and Jamie McMurray tied up a few moments later for another stoppage, Johnson stayed on track.
But it all worked out in the end, as it has so often for his team, which joined Petty Enterprises (268) as a 200-win team.
"I want to thank all of the drivers and all of the crew chiefs and everybody else," Hendrick said. "…I'm kind of numb but I'm glad it's over. I think we're gonna win a few more now."