NASCAR: Round 36 – Ford 400, Homestead-Miami Speedway – 22 November

Finally, the climax of the long NASCAR season and the end of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. It was all there for Jimmie Johnson to take – or all there to lose. But it was really down to him which way this was going, because he was too far ahead of his rivals for them to be able to do anything about it alone.

Of course, Johnson’s been in this situation before: three times in the last three seasons. He knows how to hold his nerve and bring home the title. And 2009 was to be no different.

Johnson used his pole position to quickly secure the five bonus points for leading the first lap, but pretty soon came under pressure from Marcos Ambrose who was hungry to take the position for himself. He did so on lap 10, but it was a short lived triumph: three laps later and the 47 snapped sideways for a second. Ambrose held on magnificently but the tail end of the car hit the wall, cutting the right rear tyre and forcing Ambrose into the pits and a lap down; he was soon back in the pits for a longer stop with battery/electrical problems playing havoc. The running repairs would put him 15 laps off the lead, and after such a promising start his day was effectively done.

Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick had meanwhile got past Mark Martin – who was struggling with his handling in the corners – to take up the second and third spots, Scott Speed (who had qualified second) having dropped like a brick from the get-go and who was soon circulating outside the top twenty. Stewart caught Johnson on lap 33 and passed him for the lead, but the long green flag opening stint was giving Mark Martin a much harder time: he was overtaken for 4th by Clint Bowyer on lap 38, and then by Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch before lap 50.

Just as Jimmie Johnson was getting caught up in lapped traffic and getting caught by Harvick and Bowyer, it was time for the first round of green flag pit stops. After the stops the running order on lap 55 was Bowyer vying with Harvick for the lead, followed by Stewart, Martin and Johnson, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. up to sixth after being one of the fastest cars on track despite running high and skimming along the wall for a heart-stopping moment.

Tony Stewart emerged in the lead on lap 63, and the race had passed the hundred mile mark when the first yellow came out on lap 81 (for a harmless spin by Marcos Ambrose at the back of the field.) That gave everyone the chance for their first yellow flag pit stop, and the top three came back out in the same order – Stewart, Harvick, Bowyer – while Martin jumped Johnson for fourth, and Kurt Busch gained four places to reach 6th spot after losing a bunch of places during the first round of pit stops under green.

That meant it was time for the first ever double file restart at Homestead, and it went badly for Stewart who went high and dropped to 6th place within a couple of laps: Harvick took up the lead just holding off Bowyer.

The light was fading and the track cooling, accounting for some of the fluctuations in fortunes: on the rise was Juan Pablo Montoya who stormed into second place on lap 91 despite being under the weather and having received IV fluids overnight to keep him going, while Jeff Burton was now surging into the top three. But Jeff Gordon was going backwards and feared a flat tyre, and Johnson, Bowyer and Martin were soon losing places and falling back to the tail end of the top ten.

The teams would have welcomed a chance to tackle their handling issues with the rapid appearance of the second caution of the day on lap 101, triggered by John Andretti hitting the wall and then having his right front tyre explode as a result, showering debris on the track and shredding he 34’s bodywork. Harvick maintained the lead ahead of Burton but Montoya dropped four places to 6th, while Carl Edwards vaulted up multiple places with a two-tyre gambit to restart in 8th. That was ill-advised, however, and he was relieved by a rapid third caution (for a long slide against the wall by the ill-starred Ambrose) which allowed him to come back into the pits for a full set after all, which put him back down in 20th.

After the restart, Harvick came under pressure from Denny Hamlin who had been having a great race after qualifying in a dismal 38th place. But again the green flag was short lived, with Juan Montoya running into the back of Tony Stewart on lap 115 leaving the 42 with major front bodywork damage; Stewart then retaliated and made sure Montoya had a trip to the wall, which left the 42 with a blown tyre that brought out the fourth yellow of the day. They just to add to the confusion, a sudden compression of cars running in the pit lane seemingly triggered by Erik Darnell which then saw Elliott Sadler slamming into the rear of Reed Sorenson in a multiple five-car chain-reaction slow-speed accident that also caught out Paul Menard and Michael Waltrip and forced NASCAR to close pit lane to sort out the problem, in particular Sadler’s disabled and motionless car.

Many cars stayed out this time: Jimmie Johnson was the highest-placed car to pit, and when the situation in pit lane sorted itself out he ended up facing the restart in a dangerous 23rd spot. The good news for Johnson was that at least Martin had been similarly caught out and was still two spots behind him and Tony Stewart was even further back, restarting in 32nd. The championship still looked entirely in hand.

So at the restart it was Harvick, Hamlin, Burton and the two Busch boys, Kurt and Kyle, making up the top five. Johnson was able to start picking his way back up the field, slowly and deliberately without taking any risks, followed by Stewart; but Mark Martin wasn’t able to go with them and remained mired in the mid twenties, struggling at times to save the car from some very loose handling and spectacular sideways slides.

Kurt Busch took the lead from Harvick for the first time today on lap 134 as the race hit the midway point and transitioned into a true night time floodlit affair. Harvick was to lose even more positions at the next pit stop on lap 156 which took place under yellow after the Stewart/Montoya grudge match flared up again: Montoya was determined to pay back Stewart and ploughed into the back of the 14, tapping Stewart into a spin that sent him down the track on the infield and light contact with the inside wall. Unsurprisingly, Montoya – already 28 laps down – got black flagged for two laps for dangerous driving and told that if he did it again, his season was done. And Kasey Kahne also got a memento of the moment, when a piece of brake duct sheered off the 42 in the collision and flew across the track to dent the top of the number 9.

This put Hamlin in front for the first time today ahead of Kurt Busch for the restart, then Jeff Burton, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon, with Jimmie Johnson back in 10th and Mark Martin in 14th. Busch pulled off a neat move to reclaim the lead on lap 181 as Hamlin started to fade in the longer run, Jeff Burton also taking second spot away from him three laps later. Kyle Busch was now threatening in fourth, but more significantly Jimmie Johnson was back in the top five after the mid race hiccup.

Just when green flag pit stops loomed, a sixth caution came out – Robby Gordon lost the car to a spin and ended up lightly hitting the wall. Denny Hamlin’s crew proved the cream of the crop at the subsequent round of pit stops and got their man out in front, while Kurt Busch dropped to 4th behind Jeff Burton and brother Kyle. Jimmie Johnson’s crew once again opted for slow-but-sure, dropping to 9th place by making extra sure every lug nut was in place. With 72 laps still to run, it was too far to make it without one final pit stop.

At the restart, Hamlin lost the lead to Jeff Burton and the Busch brothers also stormed past, Kyle for second spot and Kurt for third. Jimmie Johnson got into an uncomfortable three-wide battle with Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr. for sixth, and with so many cars still on the lead lap he had to be mindful that a wreck at this point could still lose him the title – even though Martin would have to do much better than his current 15th place.

Debris on the track on lap 216 gave the field the opportunity to come in for that final pit stop under yellow; Kurt Busch emerged in the lead, but he did so by opting to take only two tyres; given Carl Edwards’ mid-race experience with that tactic had been quickly re-thought, this seemed at the very least a brave move, and more likely a kamikaze one for the blue deuce. Kurt was ahead of his brother Kyle, with Hamlin, Burton, Bowyer and Harvick forming the rest of the top six.

Sure enough, the strange two-tyre gambit meant that Kurt fell off the lead almost at once, leaving Kyle and Denny Hamlin battling for the top spot which the 11 car finally won on lap 223. Johnson was safe enough battling Jeff Gordon for 7th, while Mark Martin was still stuck in 15th having failed even to win the bonus points for leading a lap today. The Chase was winding down, and the room for a shock ending was rapidly diminishing.

Somewhat against expectation, the race ran all the way to the chequered without further incident or caution. The longer run ill-suited Kyle Busch who started to fall back and ended up 8th; by contrast, Kurt Busch stabilised after the two-tyre gambit and ended up a strong 4th just ahead of Jimmie Johnson in 5th and Jeff Gordon in 6th. Jeff Burton had an impressive late burst of speed, but by this point Denny Hamlin had built up such a strong lead that there was no reeling him in and he won the Ford 400 for his fourth victory of the season.

But of course the real story and spotlight was on the 48: the first driver in history to win four consecutive titles; it was also the first time a pit chief in the form of Chad Knaus had achieved the feat, and a similar first for Rick Henrick in becoming the first owner to pull off a 1-2-3 in the final Cup standings (a real shame then that a family medical emergency had called him away from Miami on the night.)

It was a moment of motor sport history richly deserving of the fireworks that broke out in the Miami night sky. The Sprint Cup was over for another year: and Jimmie Johnson was once more the best of them.

Race result

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER             MAKE        PTS/BNS  LAPS 
1   38  11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota      195/10   267  
2   26  31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet   175/5    267  
3   6   29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet   170/5    267  
4   12  2   Kurt Busch         Dodge       165/5    267  
5   1   48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet   160/5    267  
6   20  24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet   150/0    267  
7   24  99  Carl Edwards       Ford        146/0    267  
8   30  18  Kyle Busch         Toyota      147/5    267  
9   14  1   Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet   138/0    267  
10  13  44  A.J. Allmendinger  Ford        134/0    267  
11  10  33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet   135/5    267  
12  4   5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet   127/0    267  
13  34  17  Matt Kenseth       Ford        124/0    267  
14  8   16  Greg Biffle        Ford        121/0    267  
15  22  00  David Reutimann    Toyota      118/0    267  
16  9   21  Bill Elliott       Ford        115/0    267  
17  25  9   Kasey Kahne        Dodge       112/0    267  
18  11  26  Jamie McMurray     Ford        109/0    267  
19  15  07  Casey Mears        Chevrolet   106/0    267  
20  33  83  Brian Vickers      Toyota      103/0    267  
21  29  77  Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge       100/0    267  
22  5   14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet   102/5    267  
23  7   39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet   94/0     267  
24  35  20  Joey Logano *      Toyota      91/0     267  
25  27  12  Brad Keselowski    Dodge       88/0     267  
26  36  98  Paul Menard        Ford        85/0     267  
27  2   82  Scott Speed *      Toyota      82/0     267  
28  32  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet   79/0     267  
29  17  202 David Gilliland    Toyota      76/0     267  
30  39  55  Michael Waltrip    Toyota      78/5     267  
31  19  171 Bobby Labonte      Chevrolet   70/0     267  
32  16  78  Regan Smith        Chevrolet   67/0     267  
33  40  34  John Andretti      Chevrolet   64/0     267  
34  41  6   David Ragan        Ford        61/0     267  
35  3   47  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota      63/5     251  
36  31  96  Erik Darnell       Ford        55/0     247  
37  28  37  Travis Kvapil      Chevrolet   52/0     243  
38  23  42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet   49/0     235  
39  37  7   Robby Gordon       Toyota      46/0     227  
40  42  43  Reed Sorenson      Dodge       43/0     116  
41  21  19  Elliott Sadler     Dodge       40/0     116  
42  43  08  Terry Labonte      Toyota      37/0     88   
43  18  36  Michael McDowell   Toyota      34/0     35   

Final Sprint Cup standings

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Jimmie Johnson      6652    Leader  36  4   7   16  24
2   --  Mark Martin         6511    -141    36  7   5   14  21
3   --  Jeff Gordon         6473    -179    36  1   1   16  25
4   --  Kurt Busch          6446    -206    36  0   2   10  21
5   +3  Denny Hamlin        6335    -317    36  1   4   15  20
6   -1  Tony Stewart        6309    -343    36  0   4   15  23
7   --  Greg Biffle         6292    -360    36  0   0   10  16
8   -2  Juan Montoya        6252    -400    36  2   0   7   18
9   --  Ryan Newman         6175    -477    36  2   0   5   15
10  --  Kasey Kahne         6128    -524    36  0   2   7   14
11  --  Carl Edwards        6118    -534    36  0   0   7   14
12  --  Brian Vickers       5929    -723    36  6   1   4   13
======== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13  --  Kyle Busch          4457    -2195   36  1   4   9   13
14  --  Matt Kenseth        4389    -2263   36  1   2   7   12
15  --  Clint Bowyer        4359    -2293   36  0   0   4   16
16  --  David Reutimann     4221    -2431   36  2   1   5   10
17  --  Jeff Burton         4022    -2630   36  0   0   5   10
18  --  Marcos Ambrose      3830    -2822   36  0   0   4   7
19  +2  Kevin Harvick       3796    -2856   36  0   0   5   9
20  -1  Joey Logano*        3791    -2861   36  0   1   3   7
21  -1  Casey Mears         3759    -2893   36  0   0   0   4
22  --  Jamie McMurray      3604    -3048   36  0   1   1   5
23  --  Martin Truex Jr.    3503    -3149   36  3   0   1   6
24  +1  A.J. Allmendinger   3476    -3176   36  0   0   1   6
25  -1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3422    -3230   36  0   0   2   5
26  --  Elliott Sadler      3350    -3302   36  0   0   1   5
27  --  David Ragan         3252    -3400   36  0   0   0   2
28  +1  Sam Hornish Jr.     3203    -3449   36  0   0   2   7
29  -1  Reed Sorenson       3147    -3505   36  0   0   0   1
30  --  Bobby Labonte       3128    -3524   36  0   0   1   2
31  +1  Paul Menard         2979    -3673   36  0   0   0   0
32  -1  David Stremme       2919    -3733   33  0   0   0   0
33  --  Michael Waltrip     2839    -3813   34  0   0   0   2
34  --  Robby Gordon        2699    -3953   35  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        2690    -3962   35  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       2597    -4055   34  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1928    -4724   31  0   0   0   0
38  --  Brad Keselowski     1528    -5124   15  0   1   1   4
39  --  Regan Smith         1440    -5212   18  0   0   0   0
40  --  Joe Nemechek        1342    -5310   30  0   0   0   0
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