Harvick re-emerges with last-gasp win

Kevin Harvick crosses the finish line just before Jimmie Johnson, who he passed in Turn 4 of the final lap

FONTANA, Calif. – When asked Friday if Carl Edwards, given his fast start, is the driver to beat this season, Kevin Harvick took umbrage.

"I don't think so," Harvick shot back. "He hasn't won every race has he?"

Well, no, he hasn't, but in the first four races he'd won once, finished second twice and sat on the pole in the other before getting wrecked. So it's reasonable to wonder if Edwards is the driver to beat right now, no?

Forty-eight hours later, Harvick showed why everything isn't necessarily as it seems, coming out of nowhere to win the Auto Club 400 with a final-turn pass of Jimmie Johnson.

It was a stunning victory and a thrilling end to a mostly forgettable race.

For most of the 200 laps, it was a Kyle Busch parade. The rowdy one led 151 laps, went virtually unchallenged and appeared on cruise control as he headed toward his second-straight weekend sweep. Seemingly the only thing that could stop his march to victory lane would be an engine issue. There was concern of that after teammate Denny Hamlin went to the garage with a busted motor, but ultimately Busch's held up.

His lead, however, would not.

As the laps wound down, the once-invincible Busch appeared vulnerable as a hard-charging Johnson came to life. The five-time defending champion hasn't been his usual dominating self in the early stages of this season, and wasn't for much of Sunday's race. But with only a handful of laps to go, there he was, inching closer and closer to Busch's bumper.

With three laps to go, Johnson caught him and appeared on his way to victory lane.

So when does Harvick come into this story?

Right about now.

Harvick started 24th and for much of the day languished around 15th. But in a fashion that's become his signature, he was in position to win come money time. As Johnson and Busch battled, Harvick made up more and more ground. He got around Busch with two laps to go, then set his sights on Johnson.

Five-time had the lead as they took the white flag, with Harvick right behind. As they made their way down the backstretch of the two-mile Auto Club oval, Harvick was right on Johnson's bumper, giving him a shove.

"I knew if I went low I was not going to beat him," Harvick explained. "So I just pushed him and was just hoping that I needed that one line to open up on top and it opened up and we were able to roll through there."

Harvick passed Johnson as they exited Turn 4 of the final lap, then bolted down the frontstretch to beat him to the checkered flag.

When asked about his proficiency in the closing laps of races, Harvick explained it this way: "I always was taught to race, just go fast enough to put yourself in position to be around at the end and make sure your car still has all the fenders and tires and everything still underneath it. When it's time to go, you have a little something left, your car is hopefully fresher than the guys around you. Probably somewhat of a bad habit that I have, but I guess it works out."

For those in attendance and watching at home, the winning pass was the one and only highlight of a race devoid of any action. Busch led 104 of the final 109 laps, most of which played out as a single-file game of follow the leader. Of the 200 laps, maybe five provided drama. In real-time terms, that's 3 minutes, 20 seconds out of a 2-hour, 40-minute race.

Not that this wasn't predictable.

Auto Club Speedway is too wide and the turns too sweeping to create any semblance of the kind of side-by-side racing that fans enjoy. While the crowd was better than in years past – an estimated 88,000 were in attendance, which is a bloated figure but not egregiously so – the action, save for the final-lap pass, was not.

As for that whole driver-to-beat question, Edwards was never a factor on Sunday. He finished sixth, but failed to lead a single lap. And while he is now the points leader, there have now been five different winners in five different races this season, so it's worth taking a step back to re-evaluate if anyone outside of Johnson should be considered the driver to beat.

"We feel as a team we can race right with [Johnson], but so does everybody else," Harvick said. "There's a lot of other guys that think the same thing, but nobody's beat them in five years. We've just got to keep chipping away at it."

Harvick not only lopped off a decent chunk Sunday, but planted himself right back into the championship conversation, too.