Jimmie Johnson claimed his and Hendrick Motorsports' first victory of the season and the team's 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup win on Saturday night at Darlington Raceway.
The five-time champion led 133 of the 368 laps but had to fend off Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch and reigning champion Tony Stewart (Stewart-Haas), while saving fuel to make it to the finish without an extra stop, following his last visit to the pits with 67 laps remaining.
While Busch seemed to be his main opponent for a while, Stewart eventually emerged as the greater threat until fuel pressure issues at the final restart cost him a last shot at the lead in the green-white-chequered finish.
That allowed Johnson to pull away and claim his third career win at Darlington, but more importantly Rick Hendrick's long awaited 200th win, following 16 races without a victory for Johnson or the leading NASCAR organisation.
"We've been awfully close to getting the 200th win for the last month or two and I'm very happy that we closed the deal today," said Johnson, who had led the most laps during the season entering Saturday's race but had not won since the Kansas Chase race in October 2011.
"My mind goes back to the early days of Hendrick Motorsports, the people that won those early races, worked on those early cars, helped Rick build Hendrick Motorsports to what it is today."
Denny Hamlin led 56 laps through the night and eventually finished second behind Johnson, following a good final restart that allowed him to go past his team-mate Busch and the struggling Stewart.
The three-time champion battled through a broken clutch in the closing stages to finish third, matching his best career result at Darlington, one of only two current Cup tracks where he has yet to win.
Busch was fourth for JGR ahead of a frustrated Martin Truex Jr (Waltrip Toyota), who gave up the lead during the fifth caution of the day, pitting for fuel and tyres as Johnson and Busch, among others, stayed out and gambled on saving fuel.
Roush Fenway's Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards were sixth and seventh respectively but it was their team-mate and points leader Greg Biffle who seemed to have the edge to fight at the front, leading 74 laps before dropping back in the end with handling issues to finish 12th.
Kasey Kahne also led laps for Hendrick Motorsports and finished eighth ahead of Australian Marcos Ambrose (Petty), who recovered from being a lap down on the leaders. Joey Logano rounded out a great day for JGR with 10th as all three team cars finished in the top 10.
Danica Patrick finished 31st on her second Cup outing, running trouble-free to cross the finish line six laps down after being penalised for hitting the commitment cone on pit entry in a late stop.
Despite Hendrick's milestone, the team's day was not all joy as Jeff Gordon carried on his streak of bad luck - suffering two different punctures that caused yet another poor finish.
Results - 368 laps: Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap 1. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet 3h25m45.000s 2. Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota + 0.781s 3. Tony Stewart Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 1.164s 4. Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota + 1.389s 5. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 2.037s 6. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford + 2.442s 7. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 2.701s 8. Kasey Kahne Hendrick Chevrolet + 2.872s 9. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford + 3.213s 10. Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota + 3.303s 11. Clint Bowyer Waltrip Toyota + 3.479s 12. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 3.947s 13. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 4.016s 14. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet + 4.068s 15. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge + 4.086s 16. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet + 4.163s 17. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet + 4.265s 18. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet + 4.480s 19. Aric Almirola Petty Ford + 5.035s 20. Mark Martin Waltrip Toyota + 6.085s 21. Kurt Busch Phoenix Chevrolet + 7.748s 22. Casey Mears Germain Ford + 1 lap 23. Ryan Newman Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 1 lap 24. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt-Ganassi Chevrolet + 2 laps 25. David Gilliland Front Row Ford + 2 laps 26. Landon Cassill BK Toyota + 2 laps 27. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet + 3 laps 28. David Ragan Front Row Ford + 4 laps 29. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 4 laps 30. Reed Sorenson FAS Lane Ford + 5 laps 31. Danica Patrick Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 6 laps 32. Travis Kvapil BK Toyota + 6 laps 33. AJ Allmendinger Penske Dodge + 11 laps 34. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt-Ganassi Chevrolet + 23 laps 35. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 29 laps 36. David Reutimann BK Toyota + 54 laps Retirements: JJ Yeley Robinson Blakeney Toyota 132 laps Cole Whitt Turn One Chevrolet 35 laps David Stremme Inception Toyota 32 laps Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 27 laps Mike Skinner Hamilton Means Toyota 20 laps Scott Speed Go Green Ford 20 laps Josh Wise Front Row Ford 19 laps
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