One week after wrecking in the opening laps in Texas, points leader Jimmie Johnson set out to prove the No. 48 team is deserving of a record-setting fourth straight title. Starting from the third-spot on Sunday, it only took Johnson 53 laps to find the lead and he never looked back.
Entering the day 73 points ahead of teammate Mark Martin in the standings, the three-time defending champion hoped to extend his lead in the standings headed to the final race of the year. In a dominating performance, Johnson put the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet in front of the pack for 238 of the 312 laps at the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway for his fourth win in five races in the desert.
“What a great car. What a great race team,” Johnson said in victory lane. “We could have been easily beat down and certainly there was some dark moments last week about the points lead and what we lost. These guys have bounced back and have always been good at it.”
Leading final practice and qualifying well, it was clear from the outset of the weekend that the No. 48 team would be amongst the favorite come Sunday. Despite strong runs from Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton, in the end the No. 48 team did what they did best – celebrate in victory lane.
Busch started the day from the outside of the front row and was able to wrangle the top spot away from polesitter Martin Truex Jr. to lead the first 52 laps. Once the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge hit traffic, Johnson closed the gap and went to work. After a short battle, Johnson took the lead as Busch battled to stay in contention.
After a clean start to the 312-lap event, a debris caution on lap 116 brought the field to pit road for the second time and set up the first double-file restart at PIR. Johnson slowly brought the field to the green flag and as he pulled away from Martin on his outside the field stacked up behind him and the caution was quickly thrown again.
As the field checked up on the restart, Brad Keselowski was hit from behind by David Ragan. Michael Waltrip received the worst of the damage, while Erik Darnell, Elliott Sadler, Robby Gordon, Jamie McMurray, John Andretti and David Gilliland were also involved.
Following the restart, Hamlin made his first charge to the front of the field after moving around Martin for second. That charge, however, was stalled when the third caution was thrown on lap 164 for debris. While the leaders hit pit road for service, the clean-up crews searched for the debris with no luck. Even pace car driver Brett Bodine reported to NASCAR saying, “We couldn’t locate it either, tower.”
Johnson again brought the field to the green flag for the restart on lap 168, this time with Richard Childress Racing’s Clint Bowyer trying to knock him from the top spot. However, a nine car pile-up coming off turn 4 slowed the field for the fourth caution of the day just four laps later.
Racing in the middle of the pack, Dale Earnhardt Jr. battled on the inside of Marcos Ambrose with the rest of the field stacked up behind them. Coming off the corner, Earnhardt Jr. lost control of the car and spun the No. 88 as those behind him tried to make their way through the mess. The incident blocked the track and in the end collected Keselowski, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Bobby Labonte, Sam Hornish Jr., Scott Speed and Brian Vickers.
Reports emerged just prior to the incident that the No. 88 was leaking fluid, however the bumper camera from Ryan Newman’s car showed Earnhardt get on the apron and lose control of the car. Frustrated with being caught up in the wreck, Stewart radioed his crew calling Earnhardt Jr. a “no talent SOB.”
After a lengthy clean-up, it was back to racing and more Johnson domination. The final 134 laps saw nothing but green-flag racing as Johnson and his Chad Knaus-led team looked to further solidify their championship season.
With 70 laps to go the cars once again began peeling off the racing surface for the final round of green-flag pit stops. Knowing this was their best shot to gain ground on the No. 48, the No. 11 team got the job done for Hamlin and put him back in the race.
Struggling to get by the lapped car of Logano, Hamlin was able to close to the back bumper of Johnson. Never able to make a challenge for the lead, Hamlin’s car faded after also struggling to get past his teammate. Burton emerged on the scene to take the second spot with 29 laps to go.
Although Burton’s car came on strong in the end, no one was able to touch Johnson as he earned his seventh victory of the 2009 season.
“When we put new tires on, the car came to life and then we had a couple of small adjustments that really really helped it,” Johnson said. “I could get out to a nice comfortable lead and ride and protect what I had and work my way through traffic. Not with ease, but better than the other guys. Had a great finish.”
Taking the win and following a fourth-place finish by Martin, thoughts of a record-setting fourth straight championship are setting in. With one race to go, Johnson enjoys a 108-point lead over Martin. All Johnson will have to do next weekend at the Homestead-Miami Speedway is finish 25th or better and he will be hoisting the trophy once again.
“We don’t need to get too excited about things, but one-o-something is better than 73,” Johnson said.
Burton overcame starting 36th to score his best finish of the 2009 season. A step or two behind the competition all year long, RCR was able to put two cars in the top-10 Sunday in Phoenix (Bowyer finished seventh).
“Everybody has been working really hard,” Burton said. “Todd Berrier (crew chief) has come in and done a great job. Lot of good people on this team. Scott Miller has done a great job helping get our company where we need to be. We are working hard. We’re getting there. We’re not a 100% there, but we’re gaining and real proud of everybody’s effort.”
Fading at the end, Hamlin scored his fourth third-place finish at Phoenix. Expecting more on the day, the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Camry called himself the ‘king of mediocrity’ at PIR.
“Track position meant so much here,” Hamlin said. “You got to try to push when you can and my pit crew did an awesome job closing the gap on that last pit stop. I got within a car length of him (Johnson) but I just used myself up getting there and the [No.] 31 (Burton) came on strong there. Overall it was a great day for us.”
Finishing fourth, Martin lost 35 points to teammate Johnson and perhaps his shot at the title. With one race to go, Martin now sits 108 points back from the No. 48 and is going to a track he has not raced on since 2007.
“I’m pretty proud of what we’ve done this season,” Martin said with a smile. “That’s really all I’ve got to say about it. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
Polesitter Truex Jr. earned his first top five of the season after moving past Kurt Busch late in the race. Busch held on to finish sixth, while Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Gordon and David Reutimann rounded out the top-10.
Sunday’s Checkered O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 presented by Pennzoil saw nine lead changes amongst four different drivers and was slowed four times by yellow flags.
Next week the Chase for the Sprint Cup concludes at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. The season has been long and winding and next week it all comes to an end. Will Johnson falter or will he make NASCAR history by raising his fourth-straight Cup Series title?