When one thinks of Hollywood, they think about red carpets, awards, actors and directors. However, for the second this year, the stars on screen were overshadowed by the stars on the race track. Sunday afternoon, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series made the trip out to the west coast, visiting the Auto Club Speedway. The job at hand for 43 drivers was competing in the Pepsi 500.
Among the headlines coming into the race was Kyle Busch. All week the driver of the M&M’s Toyota was battling illness, officially being diagnosed with the flu prior to qualifying. On Saturday, he gave up the seat of his car in the Nationwide race to teammate Danny Hamlin because of the heat and his body temperature.
On Sunday, Busch felt even worse, and told his car owner, Joe Gibbs, that he felt he could not go the entire race distance. David Gilliland was on standby and would take over the driving duties at the first caution.
It was Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle leading the field to the green flag on an overcast afternoon, with Hamlin getting the lead coming out of the second corner and leading the first lap. Behind the leaders, it was two and three-wide racing all the way around the track. The drivers were using the entire track, getting to the point of getting in the wall coming off the fourth turn.
The car that was making a lot of noise early was Jimmie Johnson. After qualifying third, he ran down Hamlin and took the lead on lap 11. With that change in position, Johnson has led at least one lap in every Chase race to this point.
Johnson held his lead until lap 25. It was then that the surprise driver in this year’s Chase, Juan Pablo Montoya, made the pass on Johnson coming out of turn four, leading by half a car length at the line, and finally completing the pass entering turn one.
Some of the cars began the round of green flag pit stops at lap 39, including Biffle, Johnson and Jeff Burton. Montoya gave up the lead on lap 40 to pit, along with Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon. On lap 41, Tony Stewart made his pit stop along with Hamlin. All the cars electing to go with four tires, with many complaining of a loose condition.
Once pit stops cycled through on lap 43, Johnson found himself back out front, but Montoya was again right on his heels. The two drivers went side-by-side for two laps, with Montoya leading on lap 45, yet Johnson stayed right with him. Finally, the No. 48 had to yield the position coming out of the second corner.
After completing the pass, Montoya began to open a slight lead, stretching out to just over three car-lengths. By lap 53, the lead had grown to just over one second, even with Montoya beginning to put cars one lap down.
The first caution came out on lap 56 as Jamie McMurray had a tire let go on him, sending the No. 26 into the wall. Teams decided to again go with pit stops, with the focus on the leaders, who all went for new tires.. Coming off pit road, Montoya again held his lead followed by Kevin Harvick, Hamlin and Gordon. Greg Biffle would round out the top five.
The big loser on the pit stops was Johnson who dropped a lug nut and lost six spots, dropping him to eighth. One lap later, while the lapped down cars came in for service, Busch came down to make the driver change, handing the duties over to Gilliland.
The field would go back to green on lap 65, and it was Harvick getting the jump from the inside line to get the lead. Montoya would fall to fourth while Hamlin made a charge to the front, barely leading the lap. Martin moved into third, while Montoya got a challenge for his position from Gordon.
Martin would move to second one lap later, and would get the lead on lap 69 from Hamlin. But, once again, it was Montoya making some noise as he would move around the outside for his second lead of the afternoon five laps later.
The caution came out a second time on lap 80 when Ryan Newman blew a tire. A little bit of strategy was in play for this round of stops as it was Martin Truex Jr. coming out in front thanks to a two-tire stop. A majority of the leaders before the caution took four.
On the lap 87 restart, it was Truex with the lead, but Montoya showed that four tires once again would be better than two as he powered around the outside of him to regain the top spot. Montoya then began to show his ability as his lead over second-place Johnson would expand to nearly 2.5 seconds.
That lead would soon begin to shrink as lapped traffic brought Johnson to within two seconds at lap 100. Twelve laps later, the gap had shrunk to less than half a second, and Johnson was coming. Finally, on lap 115, Johnson passed Montoya to take the top spot.
Shortly after, the caution came out for debris on the track, and the name of the game was once again pit stops. This time it was Hamlin getting the top spot followed by Gordon and Johnson. On the restart, Hamlin decided to take the outside lane, and held off a strong charge by Gordon to hold the position. But, the car he couldn’t hold back was Johnson who made the pass for the lead three laps later, at the halfway point.
What soon ensued was a clinic by Johnson on how to run the Auto Club Speedway. His lead soon began to expand. By lap 140, the gap between Johnson and Hamlin was 5.2 seconds, and with 100 laps to go, his lead was nearly seven seconds. But soon, it was time to go into the next round of green flag pit stops.
The round began starting on lap 160 with Johnson coming in for an air pressure change, new tires and fuel. The field would cycle through by lap 163, and once again Johnson held the top spot.
Johnson again took advantage of the early pit stop, holding a strong 7.7 second advantage on second-place Hamlin. His lead soon was erased as debris was found on the track, bringing out the race’s third caution.
Pit stops shook things up again as it was Hamlin getting out front followed by Montoya and then Johnson.
The field restarted on lap 190, and then was back under caution. This time, it was the leader who had trouble. Hamlin got a great restart, and went to move down the track to the inside line. The problem was Montoya had a little bit of a run, and thus Hamlin made a self-proclaimed “rookie mistake” and cut across the nose of Montoya. His FedEx Toyota spun across the front stretch grass, finally hitting the inside wall at the end of pit road. He would take the car back to the garage for repairs, return to the track, but was below minimum speed, ending his day. Hamlin would be credited with a 37th-place finish.
The field would restart on lap 195 with Montoya in front followed by Johnson. That lead was short lived as Johnson used the momentum on the outside line to gain the top spot one lap later.
It was getting down to the last fifth of the race as Johnson held the advantage with 50 laps left, followed by Montoya and then Kurt Busch. Johnson’s lead would grow to just over three seconds, however one final pit stop was in order for all the leaders. The first car to hit pit road was Gordon, on lap 225, for new tires and fuel. One lap later, Johnson, Montoya and Martin all coming in for service.
With 20 laps to go, the field had completely cycled through except for Tony Stewart, who had recovered from a pit road speeding penalty early in the afternoon. In what was a surprising move, the team wanted to stay out as long as possible so they had the freshest tires. Stewart then yielded the lead on lap 234, giving the top spot back to Johnson.
Stewart then caught a lucky break as the caution came out for the fifth time one lap later for debris on the back straightaway. Because of the pit stops, no cars came to pit road, but it was teammates out front as Johnson now held the advantage over Gordon.
On the restart, Johnson opted to go with the outside line, but it was Gordon getting a big run out of the second turn to get the lead. Shortly after Gordon made the pass, the caution came back out. Kurt Busch got loose in turn four, bouncing off the outside wall, then bounced down onto Kasey Kahne who then slid into Greg Biffle. Busch was able to continue, but Kahne and Biffle both came to pit road for some repairs.
Gordon decided to use the outside line for the restart, but this time the choice did not pan out as Johnson was able to get some momentum on the inside and get the lead coming out of the second corner.
One lap later, everything went to chaos. In the middle of the pack, Elliott Sadler was giving a big push to Dale Earnhardt Jr, both of whom came to pit road two cautions prior for new tires, but Sadler pushed too hard, spinning the No. 88 and creating a huge wreck heading into the first turn. Among the cars involved were the entire Richard Petty Motorsports group of Sadler, Kahne, Reed Sorenson and A.J. Allmendinger plus Earnhardt Jr, Burton Marcos Ambrose and Brian Vickers.
The race was red flagged so that the crews could clean up the mess that was created on the track. After nearly 22 minutes, the track was cleared, and it would be time to settle the race and decide a winner. The race would be run under green-white-checkered rules as there would be only two laps left in the race.
Johnson decided to use the inside lane for the final restart. Both Johnson and Gordon ran door-to-door through the first corner, but Johnson was able to get the advantage just barely out of the second corner. Gordon soon got a challenge by Montoya for second, and that gave enough time for Johnson to begin pulling away.
There is no doubt that Johnson is the “golden boy” of NASCAR as for the third consecutive year, he would win the Pepsi 500 at the Auto Club Speedway. The win not only swung momentum in Johnson’s favor, it also put him on top of the point standings. He now leads Martin by 12 points.
That could prove very crucial as in just six days, it will be the midway point of the Chase, and it is going to be held at what Johnson proclaims as “his house.” This coming Saturday night, it will be the NASCAR Banking 500 at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
Johnson is the heavy favorite, and it will be hard to bet against the Lowe’s Chevrolet. The other driver to watch will be Kasey Kahne. Yes, he’s had a rough Chase, but he is a three-time winner at this track, plus one victory in the All-Star Race. Do not slouch on the Budweiser Dodge.
It will be different kind of Saturday night shootout as NASCAR returns home under the lights in Charlotte, North Carolina. Coverage will begin at 7 p.m. on ABC.
RESULTS: 1-Johnson 2-Gordon 3-Montoya 4-Martin 5-Stewart 6-Edwards 7-Ragan 8-Kurt Busch 9-Bowyer 10-Harvick
NOTABLE FINISHES: 14-Logano (R) 15-Newman 20-Biffle 24-Kyle Busch* 25-Earnhardt Jr. 29-Vickers 34-Kahne 37-Hamlin
CAUTIONS: Eight for 42 laps. Lap 56-64 (No. 26 in wall-T1), 80-86 (No. 39 tire), 117-121 (debris), 186-189 (debris), 190-194 (No. 11 wreck-FS), 235-238 (debris), 240-243 (No. 2, 9, 16 wreck-FS), 245-248 (No. 88, 9, 19, 43, 44, 83, 31, 47 wreck-T1)
LEADERS: 21 lead changes among eight drivers. Hamlin 1-10, Johnson 11-24, Montoya 12-40, Kurt Busch 41-42, Johnson 43-44, Montoya 45-68, Martin 69-73, Montoya 74-80, Truex Jr. 81-86, Montoya 87-114, Johnson 115-117, Hamlin 118-124, Johnson 125-159, Gordon 160-162, Johnson 163-189, Hamlin 190, Montoya 191-195, Johnson 196-225, Stewart 226-233, Johnson 234-238, Gordon 239-243, Johnson 244-250
CHASE STANDINGS: 1-Johnson, 5728 points 2-Martin, -12 3-Montoya, -58 4-Stewart, -84 5-Gordon, -105 6-Kurt Busch, -121 7-Biffle, -188 8-Edwards, -192 9-Hamlin, -219 10-Newman, -223 11-Kahne, -306 12-Vickers, -351