This year, the Pepsi 500 was moved from Labor Day weekend to Columbus Day weekend to avoid triple-digit temperatures. Also, the race was moved to the daytime in order to make the racing better. It did improve the overall product.
However, all those changes didn’t change the outcome of the race.
The race started under unexpectedly cloudy skies, and the No. 42 of Juan Pablo Montoya ran away from the field and hid. However, the sun eventually came out, and when it did, Montoya’s Chevrolet got loose.
When the sun came out, Jimmie Johnson once again became the driver to beat. Montoya was still a contender, but too loose to really mount a charge on Johnson. Denny Hamlin briefly challenged, then made a mistake and crashed on a restart. Jeff Gordon briefly took over the lead late in the race on a restart from Johnson, but Jimmie quickly reassumed control.
Johnson led 10 times for 126 laps on his way to his third consecutive fall race victory at Auto Club Speedway. It is his fifth victory of 2009, and his second in the Chase. It also vaults him into the points lead.
After the race, Johnson was very pleased with his performance, but knew just what helped him to victory.
“We did work on the car some, but I think [the track] came to us,” Johnson said in the post-race press conference. “I think [the sun] made the track slick, and the lines I was running and the balance we had with the car really helped us. So it really came in our direction.”
Gordon, who finished second for the second week in a row, was happy with his run, but disappointed that he could not beat his teammate.
“They’re in another category,” Gordon said after the race. “We’re good, but we’re not good enough. We’re doing everything we can to be good enough, but it’s just not there. We’ve got to search and find something. We’ve got to be better than that.”
Carl Edwards, whose car was out to lunch for much of the race, finished sixth, followed by David Ragan with his first top-10 finish since the Daytona 500 in seventh. Kurt Busch with a smoking No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge finished eighth. Richard Childress Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top 10.
Seven Chasers finished in the top 10 on Sunday. There were eight cautions for 30 laps and the average speed was slowed to 143.908 mph.
Points Standings (Top 12)
Johnson’s victory on Sunday allowed him to claim the points lead. However, his margin is only a scant 12 points over Martin, who still finished a strong fourth on Sunday. Montoya, who had the best car early on Sunday when the skies were cloudy, is still third in points, 58 behind Johnson. Even though his car didn’t like the sunshine very much, Montoya still brought the No. 42 home in third place. Stewart maintained his fourth spot in points, 84 behind Johnson, but it wasn’t easy. Stewart was caught speeding on pit road and was forced to serve a drive-through penalty with less than 100 laps to go. A quick couple of cautions allowed him to get back on the lead lap via the wave-around. With the chaos and wrecking late in the race, along with good moves, Stewart eventually finished fifth.
Gordon moved up two positions this week to fifth after a second-place finish on Sunday. He’s still 105 points out of the lead. Kurt Busch dropped down a spot to sixth after an eighth-place finish. Truthfully, he’s lucky that he even finished that high after hitting the wall on lap 239, inadvertently causing the Kasey Kahne–Greg Biffle wreck. The car smoked for the rest of the race after that point. Biffle is up one spot to seventh despite only a 20th-place finish, while Edwards is up two places to eighth.
Hamlin is down three places to ninth after wrecking on lap 189. Hamlin, who was leading the race at the time, tried to cut off Montoya. Unfortunately, he “…made a rookie mistake” and didn’t clear him before cutting down. The resulting crash effectively put Hamlin behind the wall for repairs. Once out of the garage, the car wasn’t up to minimum speed, so JGR had to retire the car. The 37th-place finish effectively ends Hamlin’s championship aspirations.
Ryan Newman is down one position to tenth after a 15th-place finish. Newman drew a caution early in the race after cutting a tire, but luckily didn’t damage the car. After that point, he simply toured around the track towards the back of the lead lap. Kahne is 11th, over 300 points out of the lead after getting caught up in two wrecks on Sunday and finishing 34th. Brian Vickers, who drove much of Sunday’s race without his right rear shock, rounds out the top 12. Kyle Busch still maintains the 13th position, but a mediocre 24th-place finish put Matt Kenseth within 14 points of him. Busch, who was sick all weekend, got out of the car after 60 laps and David Gilliland, who had started-and-parked the No. 71, relieved him for the remainder of the race.
Around the 35th-Place Cutoff
For Front Row Motorsports, Sunday’s Pepsi 500 was one of their best runs of the entire 2009 season. John Andretti took advantage of the wave around a couple of times, and got lucky with a late caution flying before he made his final pit stop. Andretti then avoided the late-race crashes that took a toll on some teams, and brought the Taco Bell Chevrolet home in 19th position.
This allowed the No. 34 team to gain on the No. 82 in the owner points standings, if only by a small amount. Scott Speed brought the No. 82 home exactly where he started, in 21st place. Since Andretti led a lap, in addition to finishing two positions ahead, the No. 34 gained 11 points. The margin is now 122 points with six races to go.