Sunday, November 15, 2009

NASCAR Sprint Cup: Jimmie Johnson Dominates in the Desert

Photo Credit: Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR

Making the perfect recovery from last week's 110 point loss at Texas Motor Speedway, the quest for vengeance drove the #48 Lowes Chevrolet Impala going into the penultimate round of the 2009 Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship. Starting third in the field, Jimmie Johnson was very much ready to return to common form during the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. Hendrick Motorsports teammate and Sprint Cup championship challenger Mark Martin, on the other hand, would like to have another uncharacteristic stumble from Johnson to liven the hunt for the 51 year old veteran's first Cup championship.

The green flag dropped for the 312 lap race on the Phoenix one-mile oval under the supervision of Arizona Senator and 2008 US presidential candidate John McCain. polesitter Martin Truex Jr enjoyed only the briefest lead as his #1 Rain-X Chevrolet was overhauled by front row companion Kurt Busch on the first lap. Riding momentum form his win next week in Texas, Busch led 90 circuits around PIR until a racy Jimmie Johnson grabbed the front position as the field approached green flag pit stops.

After a round of green flag pit stops shuffled the lead back to Johnson, caution came out for the first time on lap 115 for debris. Attended to by a track clean up truck was on track, it should be noted that the piece of debris was not seen on television. Nonetheless, this much needed breather set up the first of two restart incidents in the race. As green returned on lap 119, missteps on the restart by some cars ahead in the double-file lineup caused an accordion effect that caught David Ragan, Brad Keselowski, Robby Gordon, and Michael Waltrip (the latter three cars sustained crash damage).

Johnson's Chevy continued to lead handily until a 3rd yellow flag dropped for debris (an unidentified piece of debris similar to the first caution). As the green flag fell on lap 167, two laps later the caution came out again for the biggest incident of the day at Phoenix International Raceway. Amounting from a Dale Earnhardt Jr losing control of his #88 Chevrolet on the low side of the track, an 8 car pileup ensued collecting Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, and again Brad Keslowski in the #12 Dodge. 2000 Cup Series champion Labonte, in his #71 TRG Motorsport Chevrolet, was immediately out of the race due to the extent of his race vehicle's damage. Tony Stewart faired better but could only muster 25th place through falling two laps down for repairs to the #14 car. As for Earnhardt Jr, he finished 56 laps down in 35th position likely taking solace that the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup campaign is almost over. With members of the Hendrick Motorsports #88 crew caught up on a non-serious traffic accident before the race, questions should surround whether Dale Earnhardt Jr is being haunted by jinx for 2009.

As the race went green at lap 178, it was all Jimmie Johnson who, with exception to a final pit stop exchange, led the Sprint Cup field uncontested to his 7th win of the 2009 season. Almost 2 seconds behind Johnson, the #31 CAT Chevrolet driven by Jeff Burton quietly enjoyed their best finish in what has been a dismal 2009 season for the whole Richard Childess Racing organization. Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, and Martin Truex Jr filled out the remainder of the top 5 after 312 laps at Phoenix.

The win for the #48 Lowes Chevy was also the Hendrick Motorsport squad's 6th straight team victory at Phoenix International Raceway and 9th in a row for auto manufacturer Chevrolet.

While benefiting Hendrick Motorsports, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin have seen their chances dwindle for stealing the Chase Championship. While Martin can pose a risk to Jimmie Johnson at Homestead-Miami, Gordon's "Drive for 5" opportunity will be put to rest once the #48 car takes the green flag in the finale.

Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500
Phoenix International Raceway
Race Results

1. Jimmie Johnson #48 Chevrolet (C)
2. Jeff Burton #31 Chevrolet
3. Denny Hamlin #11 Toyota (C)
4. Mark Martin #5 Chevrolet (C)
5. Martin Truex Jr #1 Chevrolet
6. Kurt Busch #2 Dodge (C)
7. Clint Bowyer #33 Chevrolet
8. Juan Pablo Montoya #42 Chevrolet (C)
9. Jeff Gordon #24 Chevrolet (C)
10. David Ruttimann #00 Toyota

11. Marcos Ambrose #47 Toyota
12. Kyle Busch #18 Toyota
15. Kasey Kahne #9 Dodge (C)
16. Carl Edwards #99 Ford (C)
18. Matt Kenseth #17 Ford
20. Ryan Newman #39 Chevrolet (C)
25. Tony Stewart #14 Chevrolet (C)
35. Dale Earnhardt Jr #88 Chevrolet
37. Brad Keslowski #12 Dodge
38. Brian Vickers #83 Toyota (C)

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