NASCAR – Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, Phoenix International Raceway – Sun Nov 9

The mission of the Sprint Cup contenders this weekend: to stop Jimmie Johnson from marching away with maximum points at all costs, before the title was completely decided. Did they manage it?

Carl Edwards started back in 15th and it fell to his team mate Jamie McMurray starting 2nd to do his best to contain polesitter Johnson until Edwards could arrive. That included keeping Johnson from leading a lap (which gives a driver 5pts) – and he managed it by taking the lead in the first lap and maintaining it through to the first yellow on lap 19 when Sam Hornish Jr. got loose and spun, collecting Elliott Sadler who came off the worst for the encounter.

McMurray and Johnson both opted for four new tyres and were beaten out by other cars that went for just two, including Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman who now led the race for the next six laps until the second yellow on lap 30 caused by a tyre blow-out for Brian Vickers putting the 83 into the wall.

Only a handful of cars pitting this time, including Greg Biffle who had started at the back of the field after having to change his transmission. Martin truex Jr was also in the pits, but for a more serious problem – the car was overheating because of clear plastic that had wrapped itself around the air intake on the nose of the car. Truex’s day was done from the damage caused by the overheating. There was also a clash between Kasey Kahne and Sam Hornish on pit lane that tipped the latter into a dangerous spin into an empty pit box right in front of Carl Edwards who was delayed as a result of the contre-temps.

Kurt Busch had barely brought the field to the green flag on lap 36 when the yellow was out again: there was rain along the backstretch, as dark clouds massed overhead. The red flag came out and the car were pulled into the pit lane for 26 minutes, and everyone shook their heads at the sight of rain falling in the dry desert of Arizona. Only NASCAR could have such ‘luck’ with the weather!

When racing finally got underway, it was Kurt Busch still in the lead with Jimmie Johnson lurking in second ahead of Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Further back, Carl Edwards was failing to make much of an impression and getting caught up in some scary close quarters bumping while running in midfield back in 17th, struggling for rear grip and not comfortable on the high line that was working so well for team mate McMurray up front – or the lower line, either.

Johnson finally took to the lead on lap 81 – snapping up those delayed 5pts – while behind Ryan Newman had fallen out of contention when a tyre went down on him and forced him to pit – and then he got handed a pass-through penalty for leaving before the tires were out of the way dumping him to 41st from 6th. Even worse, the deflated tyre had damaged his swaybar and Newman lost more time in the pits as his crew worked to complete repairs and ended up some ten laps down.

After a fitful early start to the race, then, finally things settled down and the cars got a good long stint of caution-free running. By lap 100 the cars started to come into the small, cramped pit lane for green flag stops. Greg Biffle inherited the lead after Johnson pitted, but normality was restored on lap 110 when Biffle took his turn in the pits and Johnson resumed his lead, 2.3s ahead of McMurray in 2nd, ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr in 3rd and Jeff Gordon in 4th – but Gordon was reporting potential engine power problems. Some way behind them, Carl Edwards was finally finding his form and starting to charge back through the field – he was up into the top ten by lap 133, but got stuck here and started trading blows for 9th position with Kyle Busch

The fourth yellow came out on lap 141 for debris, giving everyone the chance for a pit stop under caution and giving Juan Montoya the free pass. McMurray lost two places during the stops and fell to 4th but otherwise everyone pretty much maintained the status quo. McMurray took to fighting hard for 3rd with Jeff Gordon and finally managed to take the spot on lap 163 and then started haemorraging a bunch of places with the power supply problem worsening and forcing him out of the top ten by lap 175, and a lap down by lap 195 as he fell to the back of the top twenty. He lasted until lap 269 before the engine took up smoking heavily and finally had to be retired to the garage.

A yellow was narrowly averted on lap 161 when averted Kasey Kahne got into the wall trying to pass the lapped David Reutimann. Kahne saved it but did some fender damage, and he bumped teammate A.J. Allmendinger who was having another good run in the number 10 in 14th place. Fortunately everyone avoided anything more serious and racing continued unaffected.

With Jimmie Johnson having led 80 of the first 169 laps, the next points milestone – an extra 5pts for leading the most laps – was looking a pretty safe bet, as was the race win – which would be the perfect finish for him with regards to the Sprint Cup championship, especially with Edward still down in 8th position. What had started as “MIssion: Stop Johnson!” was now clearly becoming “Mission: Impossible.”

After over sixty green laps, the fifth yellow (for debris) came out on lap 211 at the perfect time for some pit stops: a rare fumble by a member of the pit crew reaching for some tape to add onto the front splitter to increase downforce cost Johnson the lead spot as McMurray exited the pits just in front of him, with Kurt Busch back up to 3rd ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr, Casey Mears, Denny Hamlin – and Carl Edwards inching his way up to 7th. At the restart, Johnson made short work of McMurray overtaking him out of the second turn and all was well again upfront.

With the race pushed later in the day with the rain shower, the sun was now getting very low in the sky causing visibility problems – and the track was rapidly cooling off, meaning that handling was going to change but fast. Who could adapt the best?

At a little over 50 laps remaining, the decision on the final pit stop timing was becoming critical – when the sixth yellow came out with almost suspiciously perfect timing (again for debris) allowing everyone to come in at the same time under yellow. Johnson got back out in the lead, but the bug winner from this final stop was undoubtedly Edwards, who took on four tyres but still managed to make up three spots to take the restart in 4th behind Johnson, Busch and McMurray.

Things started getting very hairy at this pint, with Casey Mears only just saving massive power slide shortly after the restart and losing a buch of places while keeping off the wall. And it was Mears a second time, on lap 273, who triggered the major wreck of the day and brought out the second red flag of the afternoon: Mears got his rear bumped by Montoya, ricochetted off the wall and went into a second prolonged slide travelling perpendicular to the normal racing line that sent up clouds of rummer tyre smoke which unsighted the rest of the field behind him. In the chaos that ensued, cars either hit Mears or ran into each other trying to work out where to go: David Gillland ended up wedged high up on the hood of Scott Speed’s 84 car, and it was this situation – that was clearly going to take some time to pull apart – that meant the red was needed to facilitate the clean up. Marcos Ambrose, Michael Waltrip and Scott Riggs were also listed as being involved.

After over twenty minutes of clean-up activity, racing was back on with 35 laps to go and the stadium floodlights were now on as Jimmie Johnson led the restart, which lasted only 6 laps under green before Kyle Busch and Reed Sorenson rubbed wheels resulting in a blow out for Sorenson and a heavy impact into the wall. Although the leaders – Johnson, Kurt Busch, McMurray and Edwards – didn’t pit, some of the drivers lower down on the lead lap including Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer decided it was worth trying for fresh rubber.

The race inched closer to the end, but frustratingly there was another yellow for debris after just three laps of green running with 20 to go, increasing tension levels up and down pit lane. This was particularly bad for Carl Edwards, whose car was clearly stronger over longer runs and wasn’t finding this stop-start period very appealing; but didn’t seem to bother Jimmie Johnson who just seemed to get stronger and stronger with every restart, dominating at the front and crushing the hopes of all those who had sought to “Stop Johnson!” here.

Caution number 10 came out with six laps to go when Allmendinger, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart clashed when running three wide (with Allmendinger’s wobble starting the incident) and went into spins that again sent out clouds of smoke and left the cars behind them unsighted, but no one sustained any serious damage in the incident.

That left the race to finish under green-white-chequered conditions: Kurt Busch threw everything he had into it, almost sliding into the wall off the final turn, but was unable to catch Johnson who took his seventh win of the season. Edwards finished 4th behind his team mate McMurray who had one of his best races of the season. And behind them, one final post-race wreck occurred when Kenseth hit Allmendinger (perhaps as revenge for their early encounter?) and collected some ten cars in the ensuing chaos.

But by this point it no longer mattered; Johnson was busy doing his victory burn-outs, and all was well in his world.

It doesn’t quite seal the Sprint Cup deal – mathematically Johnson can still be overcome if Edwards wins and Johnson finishes lower than 36th. And it could happen – but realistically, the failure of the “Stop Johnson!” strategy at Phoenix means that Johnson should have a pretty relaxed valedictory outing at Homestead in one week’s time to lock up his third consecutive title.

Pos  Driver              Car        Laps
 1.  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   313
 2.  Kurt Busch          Dodge       313
 3.  Jamie McMurray      Ford        313
 4.  Carl Edwards        Ford        313
 5.  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      313
 6.  Dale Earnhardt Jr   Chevrolet   313
 7.  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   313
 8.  Kyle Busch          Toyota      313
 9.  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   313
10.  David Ragan         Ford        313
11.  Greg Biffle         Ford        313
12.  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   313
13.  Kasey Kahne         Dodge       313
14.  Mark Martin         Chevrolet   313
15.  Matt Kenseth        Ford        313
16.  A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge       313
17.  Juan Montoya        Dodge       313
18.  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota      313
19.  Bobby Labonte       Dodge       312
20.  Dave Blaney         Toyota      312
21.  Travis Kvapil       Ford        312
22.  Tony Stewart        Toyota      312
23.  Regan Smith         Chevrolet   312
24.  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      311
25.  David Reutimann     Toyota      311
26.  Paul Menard         Chevrolet   311
27.  Ken Schrader        Toyota      311
28.  Robby Gordon        Dodge       311
29.  Bill Elliott        Ford        311
30.  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       310
31.  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       309
32.  Sterling Marlin     Chevrolet   309
33.  Sam Hornish Jr      Dodge       308
34.  Ryan Newman         Dodge       302
35.  David Gilliland     Ford        298
36.  Casey Mears         Chevrolet   278
37.  Johnny Sauter       Chevrolet   274
38.  Scott Riggs         Chevrolet   271
39.  Kyle Petty          Dodge       270
40.  Scott Speed         Toyota      269
41.  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   266
42.  Brian Vickers       Toyota       29
43.  Martin Truex Jr     Chevrolet    27

Chase For The Cup - Points Standing:

Pos  Driver              Change  Points
 1.  Jimmie Johnson               6561
 2.  Carl Edwards                 6420  +141
 3.  Greg Biffle                  6358  +203
 4.  Jeff Burton                  6292  +269
 5.  Kevin Harvick         +2     6233  +328
 6.  Clint Bowyer                 6226  +335
 7.  Jeff Gordon           -2     6151  +410
 8.  Matt Kenseth                 6091  +470
 9.  Denny Hamlin          +3     6090  +471
10.  Dale Earnhardt Jr     +1     6087  +474
11.  Kyle Busch            -1     6080  +481
12.  Tony Stewart          -3     6059  +502


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