Sunday’s Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500k Presented by Pennzoil represented crunch time for the championship contenders, not unlike the later stages of an NBA Playoffs game, or the last event before the Eliminator on American Gladiators (Original run, Seasons 4-7, often referred to as “Crunch Time”). This is where the best of the best are supposed to rise up to the challenge.
Jimmie Johnson decided to channel his inner LeBron James on Sunday.
Much like how James absolutely took over a playoff game (Game 5, 2007 Eastern Conference Finals) versus the Detroit Pistons on May 31, 2007 that helped launch the Cavaliers to their first NBA Finals appearance, Johnson took over Sunday’s race to stake his claim on the Sprint Cup championship.
Johnson started from the pole, but did not take the lead until he passed Kurt Busch on lap 81. From there, Johnson led a race-high 217 laps on the way to his seventh victory of the season (third in the Chase).
“We didn’t have the best day yesterday, but these guys [the crew] worked hard on it [the car] last night. This thing was awesome all day,” Johnson said in victory lane.
Behind Johnson was Busch, who pressed his luck during the first round of pit stops on lap 22 with a two-tire pit stop.
“We really put up a fight. I was proud to finish second today,” the elder Busch said after the race. “We had a great car today and we got beat by a better team.”
Behind Johnson and Busch was the No. 26 of Jamie McMurray, who finished third for the second week in a row. Carl Edwards finished fourth and lost significant ground to Johnson in the points standings. Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.
Johnson’s victory on Sunday has cemented his hold on the championship lead. With only the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend remaining on the schedule, Johnson’s points lead over Edwards is back up to 141 points. This means that Johnson only has to finish 36th or better to win the championship regardless of what Edwards does (38th or better if he leads a lap, 40th or better if he leads the most laps). Edwards is the only driver that is still eligible for the championship after Phoenix. Greg Biffle maintains the third spot in the standings, 203 behind Johnson after finishing 11th. Burton stays in the fourth position, 66 behind Biffle.
Harvick’s seventh-place finish boosted him back up to fifth, after losing the two positions in Texas. Clint Bowyer remains in sixth after a 12th-place finish on Sunday, while Jeff Gordon was the big loser on the day. Gordon suffered from engine problems during the race, which dropped him to a 41st place finish. Matt Kenseth maintains the eighth position in points after a 15th-place finish. However, a post-race penalty could possibly be levied on Kenseth because of a last-lap crash where it seemed that he intentionally hit the No. 10 of AJ Allmendinger, causing a multi-car crash at the finish. The hit may have been retaliation for accidental contact by Allmendinger on Kenseth that caused Kenseth to spin along with Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon on lap 307.
Just one point behind Kenseth is Hamlin as a result of his second consecutive top-five finish. Earnhardt is just three points behind Hamlin after finishing a strong sixth on Sunday. Kyle Busch is seven points behind Earnhardt in 11th after finishing eighth. Stewart is down to 12th after being involved in two crashes in the last eight laps of the race on Sunday, neither of which were his fault. After getting spun out when Allmendinger and Kenseth came together for the first time, Stewart’s engine stalled. This resulted in Stewart losing a lap under caution while trying to get restarted. Then, he was tapped while trying to avoid the last-lap crash and ended up in the inside wall. A 22nd-place finish puts Stewart 22 points behind teammate Kyle Busch and 29 points away from the head table at the banquet.
Ragan continued to show that he is the best driver not in the Chase this season, finishing 10th on Sunday. His lead over 14th place Kasey Kahne is now 273 points.
After Sunday’s Checker Auto Parts 500k, the No. 47 (formerly 00) driven by Marcos Ambrose is back in the Top 35 in owner points. Ambrose, after a brief scare on pole day (the car initially refused to start), went out and qualified the Little Debbie Toyota in 18th position. Once the race started, Ambrose ran steady all day, sticking around in the 15-22 range most of the day. However, he got involved in the big crash on lap 273 and damaged his Camry significantly. The Michael Waltrip Racing team repaired the car in the pits and allowed Ambrose to finish the race in the 18th position, on the lead lap. This moves the No. 47 to 35th in owner points and locks the team into the final race of the season.
The No. 84 for the Red Bull Racing Team finds itself once again having to qualify on speed as a result of a 40th-place finish on Sunday. The poor finish was the result of suffering terminal damage in the same multi-car crash that the No. 47 was involved in. Scott Speed’s No. 84 Toyota ended up wedged underneath the No. 38 of David Gilliland when all was said and done. The No. 84 team trails the No. 47 by 17 points going into Homestead, so this can still flip flop again.
The No. 10 of Allmendinger, despite getting pitched into the inside wall at the finish by Kenseth, still had the best finish for a team outside the top 25 in owner points (16th). The No. 10 team will not make the Top 35 before the season ends, but Allmendinger has certainly done better in the car than Patrick Carpentier was able to. Even though the car (with Reed Sorenson driving) will have to qualify on speed for the first five races of next season, Allmendinger’s efforts have helped the team improve their owner points position (38th, 160 points out of 35th). This will help them in case rain washes out an early qualifying session next season.