The Rapidly Changing NASCAR Landscape….
Gordon is all smiles heading into the race at Texas. Gordon won at the track earlier this year and is looking for the sweep while trying to cut into teammate Johnson's Championship lead (photo courtesy: Chris Graythen, Getty Images Sport)
Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya entered Chase Race No. 7 at Talladega Superspeedway hoping to gain ground on Championship points-leader Jimmie Johnson, who began the race with a 118 point-lead en route to the Sprint Cup Champion being crowned Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
And with roughly 20 laps to go at Talladega, Martin, Gordon, Stewart and Montoya were among the race leaders, while points-leader Johnson was in danger of losing the draft. TV analysts speculated that were these positions to hold for the final laps of the race, Johnson would have lost more than two-thirds of the 118-point lead with which he entered Talladega.
But while the No. 48 appeared headed for a dismal finish in the race, he avoided two wrecks and somehow rallied from position 29 on Lap 183 (of 188 scheduled), to 21 on Lap 186, to 16 on Lap 187, to 11 on Lap 188, to 9 on Lap 189 and finally to position 6 on Lap 191 of the green-white-checkered.
"I was so concerned about this race," said Johnson. "I thought I was going to lose points with about three or four [laps] to go. So to have it turn around and [gain] points over the guys, I didn't expect it."
So instead of making inroads toward the Miami Championship, Johnson’s closest trailers became victims of crashes and watched what had looked to be a solid points day turn into a disaster. Here’s how it all played out….
Johnson’s Championship-contending Hendrick Motorsports teammates, South Florida-resident Montoya and Stewart all were racing in the pack as the green-white-checkered finish began, when suddenly Brad Keselowski made contact with Kurt Busch, causing Busch's Dodge to shoot across the track.
Cars began to slide, sending Montoya-teammate Martin Truex Jr. into the side of Martin, who then flipped. Gordon got hit and had fuel issues to finish 20th; Martin tried valiantly to get his car pointed in the right direction and limp past start/finish for a 28th-place result; and Montoya also was caught up in the carnage of the 13-car crash to finish 19th.
It was the race's second major incident in the closing laps—Ryan Newman’s Kevin Harvick-hood dance being the other—but this one dramatically impacted the points standings, as Johnson escaped unscathed to finish sixth on a day when he was relegated to the back of the pack for most of the running. Remarkably, he was not among the 26 drivers to lead a lap at Talladega
Johnson now heads to Texas with history at stake as he looks to become the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver to win four consecutive Championships.
“I know Texas will be a good race for me, but at the same time it will be a good race for my teammates,” Johnson said. “We finished second in the spring so as excited as I am for myself going back to Texas Motor Speedway, I know Jeff and the No. 24 team won there and Mark has been super strong on the mile-and-half tracks all season. We’ll have to see.
“I can lose 165 points [Sunday] if I miss a shift and blow the engine at the start of the Texas race, and Mark has a perfect day,” said Johnson. “Our strategy might change some moving forward until we're [sure] we can get to Homestead[-Miami with the lead].”
Indeed, Johnson understands that his closest competitors—Martin, Gordon and Montoya—each has fared well on the 1.5-mile speedways this year. In fact, Martin and Gordon both have wins and rank among the career leaders in Top 5 finishes at Texas; Gordon won there this spring to narrow the tracks at which he hasn’t won to just one: Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he’ll race during the Sprint Cup Championship finale on Nov. 22.
Just two races remain before the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship culminates Nov. 22 at Montoya’s “home track” of Homestead-Miami Speedway. Tickets for the Sprint Cup Championship start at just $55 and are available by clicking here or by calling (866) 409-RACE.