California native Jimmie Johnson won his second race of NASCAR's Chase as the series visited Auto Club Speedway in California.
“Just a solid day all along,” said Johnson in Victory Lane to TV crews. “What an awesome car, what an awesome day.”
The win moves Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsport team to the top of the point standings for the first time in the Chase, moving ahead of teammate Mark Martin who could 'only' finish fourth.
The race was the first time the Fontana track had hosted a Chase race, moving from a traditional September date in hope of finding better weather for racing, and more fans in the seats at a track that has become infamous of monotonous racing in front of empty grandstands.
In truth the racing was, maybe, a little better with lead changing peppering the race despite the early and middle stages being run primarily under green.
A majority of those lead changes happened between two drivers, Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya. Both had brought the same chassis that battled earlier in the year at Indianapolis, when Montoya dominated the race, only to be penalised for speeding in a late race pit stop, a call he refuted at the time.
The pair had already both led laps by the time of the first caution on lap 61 when Jamie McMurray brushed the wall. The resultant stops saw the first of two rare slip-ups from Johnson's pitcrew, as well as David Gilliland jumping into the No.18 Toyota normally frequented by Kyle Busch. Busch, suffering from flu had already handed his Nationwide car over to Denny Hamlin the day before and was again forced to delegate, this time to Gilliland, who will race a fourth Joe Gibbs car later this year (and had already parked the TRG entry he started the race in.
The restart saw pole sitter Hamlin lead the pack off, having been first off pit road largely thanks to his position in the last pit stall. However, it wasn't long before Montoya retook the lead after Mark Martin got his five bonus points. Then came the first of three debris cautions in 100 laps. Smart pit strategy and set-up changes as the weather and sun changed the track saw new driver come to the front of the pack.
Montoya's teammate Martin Truex Jr. led briefly, trialling a two tyre strategy, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart both led (although Stewart was later slapped with a pitlane speeding penalty), all the while Dale Earnhardt Jr. was lurking in the back of the top ten, offering more hope to his legions of followers.
Then on lap 191 the race's character changed as tempered flared and drivers' eyed slipped away from the big picture and onto the trophy awaiting in Victory Lane.
Hamlin had once more found his way first out of the pits and had opted to lead the double-file restart from the restart. While the Toyota got a good restart, it was not as good as Hamlin appeared to think it was. He moved down to block the charging lower lane, led by Montoya and span across the nose of the Target sponsored Chevrolet before sliding across the grass on the inside of the front straight and smacking the unprotected end of the pit lane wall, severely damaging the front of his car.
His reaction in TV interview as his crew fought to get the car back out late in the race is a testament to Hamlin's sportsmanship, and how far Juan Montoya's standing has improved in NASCAR. A year ago it may have been easy for Hamlin to blame the Columbian, and most NASCAR fans would have agreed. Instead, Hamlin accepted fault for the accident. “I just made a rookie mistake,” he said. “I though I was clear of the [No.]42 and he was getting, I think the 48 was pushing him. [I] came right across his nose.”
Hamlin's exit from the lead battle, though he briefly reappeared on the track minus the car's front bodywork. Johnson took the lead on the next restart, only briefly ceding it to Kurt Busch, the Tony Stewart, before, retaking it in time for another debris caution.
That saw the race come to a fragmented end, less that one racing lap was completed before Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle were rotating through the infield grass, Kurt Bsch having bounced off the turn 4 wall, down into Kahne, who in turn clipped Biffle. Damage was minor, Biffle only stopping to clean out the grass from his Roush Ford's radiator, while Kahne team pulled the sheet metal away from the front right wheel, both were able to remain on the lead lap.
For the time being.
When the green flag next fell it was a similar story, with much more carnage. Elliott Sadler bumped Earnhardt Jr., who turned hard left first into Rees Sorenson, who went right, hard into the outside wall, the rear wheels of his Dodge lifting from the track, then Marcos Ambrose. Jeff Burton and A.J. Allmendinger finished tangled on the turn one banking as Kasey Kahne, involved again after rear-endind Burton as everyone scrambled to try to find a way through the melee.
Now out of the race, Kahne was scathing of NASCAR for how it handled the race. “NASCAR threw a debris caution, for no debris,” he said. “It's disappointing because we had a bad race because of a caution to put a show on for the fans.”
The race was stopped, the surviving cars stacked up on the turn 4 banking, for 20 minutes as the wreckage was cleared up, and when race was restarted, with only a handful of laps remaining, no-one had the pace to match Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon tried and failed, and only just held off Montoya for second. Tony Stewart finished fifth ahead of Carl Edwards, with David Ragan the first non-chaser in seventh.