Sunday, November 22, 2009

NASCAR Sprint Cup: Denny Hamlin Wins Ford 400, Johnson Gains 4th Sprint Cup Championship

Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Heading into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series final race of 2009, there were at least 43 stories of success, despair, and change relating to the past 35 events. Heading into Homestead-Miami Speedway's Ford 400, headlines included the magnificent comeback of Mark Martin, the most recent resurgence of Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton, the dismal year for Dale Earnhardt Jr, as well as the final race for Michael Waltrip in full-time Sprint Cup competition. However, those story lines would serve only as sidebars to the quest of Jimmie Johnson attempt to capture a record-setting 4th straight championship.

Having already asserted himself in qualifying for the Ford 400 by grabbing pole, Jimmie Johnson and the #48 Lowes Chevrolet made is clear that the winner of 3 consecutive Sprint Cup championship chases were by no means willing to play a conservative effort in the 2009 season's finale. Being 108 points ahead of Hendrick Motorsport teammate Mark Martin, Johnson's sole challenger chance for his long-fought championship trophy rested on the slim hopes.

Polesitter Jimmie Johnson used his early race positioning to gain him some additional cushioning in the points by leading the first 9 laps. Adding 5 points for leading the event, Johnson needed only to finish 27th place or better to hold off Martin's best efforts. Taking the front spot from Johnson was the #47 Toyota of Marcus Ambrose. A proven road course ace from Tazmania, this first full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series displayed better than expected abilities for a rookie driver on ovals. Ambrose's time at the front would be short-lived as a right-rear tire caused Ambrose the first of many headaches in the 400 mile race which resulted in a 35th place finish.

Through the early stages of the Ford 400, JR Nation fans had a reason to cheer as the #88 National Guard Chevrolet inventively used the high line to maneuver from 32nd to 8th by lap 67. By this time in the race, the #14 car of Tony Stewart led the way with Richard Childress Racing's cars Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer running in tow. Stewart, having led NASCAR Sprint Cup points before the chase, saw himself holding onto 5th in the 2009 chase standings entering into Homestead.

The race's first caution came out on lap 82 as Ambrose's #47 spun off turn 4. Setting up the ideal conditions for the full field. Two Hendrick Motorsport cars who had been running well prior to the caution, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jeff Gordon, experienced difficulty keeping pace with the field on the restart. While Gordon was able to recover to 6th in the final running order, Earnhardt Jr's #88 suffered a flat tire just before the half way point. A 28th place finish was the result of the final race of 2009 for the #88 Chevrolet as Earnhardt is certainly ready to put behind him.

Within 35 laps, the caution came out 4 times for single car incidents. In final one of those cautions the lap 117, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya began what became an incident trilogy past amongst the mid-way point of the Ford 400. Started when the two drivers were jockeying for position out of the Homestead-Miami Speedway's turn 4 a lap prior to caution, Montoya's #42 Chevrolet used the higher groove to gain a faster exit speed. A Stewart's #14 sled up in front of the swifter #42 car, Montoya maintained his momentum as he slammed into the back bumper of Tony Stewart. Suffering no lingering damage from the squarely-targeted shot, Stewart nonetheless felt displeased with the contact. As the pair exited turn 2 side-by-side, Stewart repaid the avoidable contact by shoving into Montoya's passenger side. The impact not only mangled the sheet metal of Montoya's car but cut down a right side tire. The #42 Chevrolet slammed the turn 3 wall hard enough to shatter a brake rotor. Requiring several laps to repair, Montoya lost valuable ground on the once existent opportunity to grab 5th place in the Sprint Cup chase standings. A position held ironically by Tony Stewart leading into Homestead.

Digressing from the Stewart/Montoya clash, that lap 117 caution brought fought one of the race's most chaotic wreck on pit road. In a reaction to an almost stopped #96 car, several cars entering the pits were forced to brake causing four cars to be damaged through the chain reaction accident. The worst damaged cars in the incident were the #19 of Elliott Sadler and the #43 of Reed Sorenson, both belonged to Richard Petty Motorsports.

Eventually returning to the track, Juan Pablo Montoya remained mindful of what caused him to endure some costly repairs. Back on track, the #42 commissioned the three act in the Stewart/Montoya feud. In a move of blatant payback, Montoya turned Stewart around in turn 4 sending the #14 spinning during lap 157. With Montoya receiving a 2 lap penalty for rough driving, the on-track confrontations between the two drivers finally ended.

As the race progressed, the #11 Fed-Ex Toyota of Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch's #2 Dodge fought between themselves for the Ford 400 victory from lap 135 to 198. Following their battle, a new contender emerged after in the #31 CAT Chevrolet. Jeff Burton, who left 19 laps later in the race's running, became the third RCR car to lead on the day.

Burton led as a yellow flag for a debris caution flew. Unknowingly the final caution which would slow the Ford 400, the lead lap cars entered pit road; the majority of those cars took 4 fresh tires in response to the abrasive surface of Homestead-Miami Speedway. In an effort to replace a tight sensation and win track position, the #2 car's crew chief Pat Tryson elected that only two right side tires be changed. Tryson, spending his last race with the Penske Racing team before going to Michael Waltrip Racing for 2010, last decision for the Miller Lite Dodge was not the winning move for Kurt Busch. The two-tire strategy bit the #2 Dodge immediately on the lap 220 restart as he lost 5 positions the time he exited turn 2. Fighting back as the tires equalized against the competition, Busch captured 4th place on the checkered flag.

Starting on the second row for the lap 222 restart, Denny Hamlin #11 Toyota powered by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch (who earlier in the weekend celebrated his first NASCAR Nationwide championship). While Jeff Burton in 2nd place showed pace equal to Hamlin, he was unable to catch the speedy Denny Hamlin who took the Ford 400.

Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

An impressive win by Denny Hamlin and his #11 Joe Gibbs Racing team, his victory was instantly foreshadowed by the 5th place finisher Jimmie Johnson's effort. Johnson won the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup, the 4th straight year the driver of Hendrick Motorsports' #48 Chevrolet completed the feat. "I am just blown away by the things we've been able to accomplish over the last eight years in the sport. Obviously the last four years have been just unbelievable." Johnson said as he went on the pay thanks to everyone from NASCAR, to long-time crew chief Chad Knauss, and to team owner Rick Hendrick. Due to a family emergency, Mr. Hendrick was unable to be on attendance for the celebration. Wishing the best outcome for Rick Hendrick's emergency, he'll hopefully be celebrating his 9th Cup series championship with Johnson and crew some time before the December 4th Sprint Cup Awards Banquet in Las Vegas.

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