NASCAR: Round 35 – Auto Parts 500, Phoenix International Roadway – 15 November

So here we are, the penultimate outing of the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup, and the end is in sight. And for Jimmie Johnson, that means a historic fourth consecutive championship is within his reach. Having had his disaster of the Chase last time out in Texas, surely nothing would get the in the way of the 48 in Phoenix?

Kurt Busch took the lead from polesitter Martin Truex Jr. at the start, with Jimmie Johnson comfortably slotting into third. Further back, an unusually hooked-up Sam Hornish Jr. was running in the top ten, and the likes of Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Juan Montoya were working their way from further back as the cars bedded themselves in and made themselves at home on the roadway. On the downside, Dale Earnhardt Jr was dropping back through the field, while Max Papis became the first driver to be lapped as early as lap 27 of 312 on this one mile oval.

With Mark Martin breaking into the top five, Johnson decided it was time to head for the front and on lap 57 he took the lead from Busch, with Denny Hamlin now in 3rd followed by Martin, Truex and Gordon. Still with no incidents, the first pit stops approached under green, and Greg Biffle was the first in on lap 70 from 17th place complaining of poor handling, followed by others including Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The leaders were in within the next five laps, and Kurt Busch managed to reclaim the lead during the pit sequence by coming out ahead of the 48 with Martin now in third. Jeff Gordon had a scare, narrowly colliding with Sam Hornish as he made his way into his pit box, but still emerged in fourth place ahead of Hamlin and Truex.

Busch’s lead didn’t last long, with the 02 getting held up behind the lapped traffic of Reed Sorenson allowing Johnson to pounce and take the position back on lap 90. Things were looking pretty good for Johnson as the race hit one third distance without any cautions despite the occasional sighting of debris here and there. Finally the debris materialised in turns 1 and 2 on lap 115 and the first yellow of the afternoon came out; during the ensuing pit stops, Kurt Busch’s crew had a problem with the front right tyre change and dropped the 02 three places.

Cautions breed cautions, and as the field got underway on lap 119 for the first ever double file restart at Phoenix a series of small wheel spins and braking starting in the vicinity of Greg Biffle amplified as it echoed back through the tightly-packed field causing bigger and bigger collisions until toward the back Erik Darnell was spun around and then rolled back up the track to get hit on the side by Michael Waltrip, whose front end was badly damaged as a result. Others caught up in the slow speed incident were Brad Keselowski, David Ragan and Robby Gordon.

At the restart on lap 127, Johnson got a good break over Martin but Jeff Gordon starting from 3rd struggled, the car not to his liking this stint; he survived a scare after a rub with Kyle Busch sent him flying up toward the wall, and he was quick to go and give the 18 a little tap in return next lap around.

As the race hit half distance, Johnson continued to lead (having led 86 of the 156 laps so far) ahead of Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Martin, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon recovering to 6th after his earlier dramas. Truex had dropped to 7th while Tony Stewart had dropped way back to 22nd position complaining that the handling on the 14 was wildly inconsistent from lap-to-lap.

More debris in turn 1 was the cause of the third caution of the afternoon on lap 162, and the big winner in the ensuing pit stops was Clint Bowyer who had a brilliant stop and leapt up into second spot behind Johnson despite taking a full set of tyres, pushing Hamlin to 3rd, Kurt Busch to 4th and Mark Martin to 5th ahead of Gordon in 6th. Jeff Burton also got a big boost from the pit stops and was suddenly in the top ten, having started from 36th after a deeply disappointing qualifying in a car he knew was a lot faster than that – and today was proving it.

Once again, cautions bred cautions: within two laps of the restart we had a major multiple-car pileup on the front straightaway on lap 169. It started when Dale Earnhardt Jr – running on the inside of Marcos Ambrose – lost the 88 and slid the car sideways – apparently on oil already leaking from the car – which caused a chain reaction behind him as cars tried, and mostly failed, to avoid the developing accident. In total 11 cars were caught up in the wreck, with eight of them ending up locked together in a clump that almost blocked the roadway until they fired up their engines and started to limp away and back to the pits. While only Bobby Labonte’s car was unable to get underway, others had serious damage – Brian Vickers’ right front wheel was almost completely torn off and his race was done, Earnhardt hit the garage after multiple impacts, and Tony Stewart’s Sprint Cup chances also looked finished as his steering was badly affected by damage and he was soon at the back of the lead lap, finally getting passed by Jimmie Johnson on lap 220.

But up front, little seemed to trouble Jimmie Johnson who cruised serenely on to claim the bonus points for most laps led, with more that 3s over Kurt Busch in second. Bowyer, Hamlin, Martin and Jeff Burton rounded out the top six. As the sun began to set, turns 1 and 2 were completely in shade and track conditions cooled, Bowyer fell back out of the top six complaining of a serious lack of grip.

Another lengthy incident-free period meant that the final scheduled pit stops of the afternoon would be under green, commencing with 70 to go to the chequered flag. Johnson’s 5s lead meant that he was back out in front after the pit stops cycled through, but Denny Hamlin had cut that lead back to under a second and the win was by no means assured for the 48, but Johnson gradually started to ease out the lead again as the green flag laps wore on. Kurt Busch, meanwhile, was struggling in this late stage, a poor pit stop meaning that he had fallen out of the top six for pretty much the first time all afternoon as the conditions changed and left him struggling for grip.

The changing conditions seemed to best suit Jeff Burton, who was having his best race in a very long time, slipping past Denny Hamlin for second place on lap 289 but then unable to do anything about the 2s lead that Jimmie Johnson enjoyed. Only a yellow flag seemed to offer any threat to a Johnson victory now.

And no yellow flag materialised. The race ran green for an impressive 133 laps right to the chequered flag, and Johnson was peerless throughout, the victory never in doubt. He had indeed rebounded from the disappointment in Texas in the best possible way, and the title was now finally within reach: all Jimmie has to do is finish 25th or better at Miami-Homestead regardless of what his rivals do, and the title is sealed.

Just one more week, one more race, and Jimmie Johnson makes history.

Race result

FIN ST  CAR  DRIVER             MAKE       PTS/BNS  LAPS
1   3   48   Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  195/10   312 
2   36  31   Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  170/0    312 
3   5   11   Denny Hamlin       Toyota     165/0    312 
4   10  5    Mark Martin        Chevrolet  160/0    312 
5   1   1    Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet  155/0    312 
6   2   2    Kurt Busch         Dodge      155/5    312 
7   13  33   Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  146/0    312 
8   17  42   Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  142/0    312 
9   14  24   Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  138/0    312 
10  15  00   David Reutimann    Toyota     134/0    312 
11  21  47   Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     130/0    312 
12  7   18   Kyle Busch         Toyota     127/0    312 
13  16  44   A.J. Allmendinger  Ford       124/0    312 
14  6   16   Greg Biffle        Ford       121/0    312 
15  4   9    Kasey Kahne        Dodge      118/0    312 
16  25  99   Carl Edwards       Ford       115/0    312 
17  12  77   Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge      112/0    312 
18  28  17   Matt Kenseth       Ford       114/5    312 
19  30  26   Jamie McMurray     Ford       106/0    312 
20  24  39   Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  108/5    312 
21  27  20   Joey Logano *      Toyota     100/0    310 
22  22  7    Robby Gordon       Toyota     97/0     310 
23  33  6    David Ragan        Ford       94/0     310 
24  31  29   Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  91/0     310 
25  8   14   Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  88/0     310 
26  40  43   Reed Sorenson      Dodge      85/0     310 
27  9   07   Casey Mears        Chevrolet  82/0     308 
28  35  19   Elliott Sadler     Dodge      79/0     308 
29  41  98   Paul Menard        Ford       76/0     308 
30  29  09   David Gilliland    Chevrolet  73/0     308 
31  39  96   Erik Darnell       Ford       70/0     306 
32  23  113  Max Papis *        Toyota     67/0     304 
33  37  82   Scott Speed *      Toyota     64/0     303 
34  42  34   John Andretti      Chevrolet  61/0     268 
35  18  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  58/0     256 
36  11  55   Michael Waltrip    Toyota     55/0     251 
37  26  12   Brad Keselowski    Dodge      52/0     239 
38  19  83   Brian Vickers      Toyota     49/0     170 
39  20  171  Bobby Labonte      Chevrolet  46/0     169 
40  34  187  Joe Nemechek       Toyota     43/0     47  
41  38  36   Michael McDowell   Toyota     40/0     36  
42  32  66   Dave Blaney        Toyota     37/0     9   
43  43  37   Tony Raines        Chevrolet  34/0     6   

Sprint Cup standings after 35 races

Only Mark Martin can stop Jimmie Johnson now – Jeff Gordon is eliminated the minute Johnson takes the start at Homestead. After that, just 25th or better sees Jimmie Johnson take the 2009 title.

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Jimmie Johnson      6492    Leader  35  3   7   15  23
2   --  Mark Martin         6384    -108    35  7   5   14  21
3   --  Jeff Gordon         6323    -169    35  1   1   16  24
4   --  Kurt Busch          6281    -211    35  0   2   9   20
5   --  Tony Stewart        6207    -285    35  0   4   15  23
6   --  Juan Montoya        6203    -289    35  2   0   7   18
7   --  Greg Biffle         6171    -321    35  0   0   10  16
8   --  Denny Hamlin        6140    -352    35  1   3   14  19
9   --  Ryan Newman         6081    -411    35  2   0   5   15
10  --  Kasey Kahne         6016    -476    35  0   2   7   14
11  --  Carl Edwards        5972    -520    35  0   0   7   13
12  --  Brian Vickers       5826    -666    35  6   1   4   13
======== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13  --  Kyle Busch          4310    -2182   35  1   4   9   12
14  --  Matt Kenseth        4265    -2227   35  1   2   7   12
15  --  Clint Bowyer        4224    -2268   35  0   0   4   16
16  --  David Reutimann     4103    -2389   35  2   1   5   10
17  --  Jeff Burton         3847    -2645   35  0   0   4   9
18  --  Marcos Ambrose      3767    -2725   35  0   0   4   7
19  --  Joey Logano*        3700    -2792   35  0   1   3   7
20  --  Casey Mears         3653    -2839   35  0   0   0   4
21  --  Kevin Harvick       3626    -2866   35  0   0   4   8
22  --  Jamie McMurray      3495    -2997   35  0   1   1   5
23  +3  Martin Truex Jr.    3365    -3127   35  3   0   1   5
24  -1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3343    -3149   35  0   0   2   5
25  --  A.J. Allmendinger   3342    -3150   35  0   0   1   5
26  -2  Elliott Sadler      3310    -3182   35  0   0   1   5
27  --  David Ragan         3191    -3301   35  0   0   0   2
28  --  Reed Sorenson       3104    -3388   35  0   0   0   1
29  +1  Sam Hornish Jr.     3103    -3389   35  0   0   2   7
30  -1  Bobby Labonte       3058    -3434   35  0   0   1   2
31  --  David Stremme       2919    -3573   33  0   0   0   0
32  --  Paul Menard         2894    -3598   35  0   0   0   0
33  --  Michael Waltrip     2761    -3731   33  0   0   0   2
34  --  Robby Gordon        2653    -3839   34  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        2608    -3884   34  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       2533    -3959   33  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1852    -4640   30  0   0   0   0
38  --  Brad Keselowski     1440    -5052   14  0   1   1   4
39  --  Regan Smith         1373    -5119   17  0   0   0   0
40  --  Joe Nemechek        1342    -5150   30  0   0   0   0
Advertisements



    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

    Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: