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Keeping Pace

Mon., Dec. 21, 2009, 6 p.m.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Top Performances Of 2009

A fifth-place finish earned Jimmie Johnson the Sprint Cup. (Associated Press)
A fifth-place finish earned Jimmie Johnson the Sprint Cup. (Associated Press)

Jimmie Johnson made NASCAR history by becoming the first driver to win four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships.

Courtesy: NASCAR Media Relations

There certainly were some outstanding performances – both from a driving and racing standpoint – that took place during the recently completed 2009 NASCAR season. The following is a look back at some of those standout performers and memorable races, as selected from discussions with the national series directors, competition department and NASCAR PR managers.

Top Drivers (in alphabetical order)

  • Jimmie Johnson – Made NASCAR history by becoming the first driver to win four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships … His team has truly reached the “dynasty” level … Won a series-high seven races, including four during “clutch time” in the Chase … Had a series-best Driver Rating of 112.2 … Posted 16 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes … Led a series-high 2,238 laps … Won three of the first five Chase races to put himself in position to claim an unprecedented fourth straight title.
  • Mark Martin – At the age of 50, turned in perhaps his finest overall season … Finished second in the point standings … Was the points leader for four weeks and led the standings heading into the Chase … Won five times on the year; second most in the series … Claimed a career-best seven poles, also tops in the series on the season … Posted 14 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes … His average starting position of 9.8 led the series while his Driver Rating (100.3) was second best in the series … Was sentimental favorite to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
  • Tony Stewart – In his first year as a driver-owner, turned in just an incredible season … Both of his teams – the No. 14 car he drove and the No. 39 car driven by Ryan Newman – made the Chase … Won four times on the season and also won the 25th running of the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race .. Led the point standings for 13 weeks and became the first driver-owner to lead the points since 1992 (Alan Kulwicki) and became the first driver-owner since 1998 (Ricky Rudd) to win a race … Finished sixth in the final point standings … Posted 15 top-five and 23 top10-finishes.

Raybestos Rookie of the Year

  • Joey Logano – Became the youngest driver (19) to ever win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race when he won the first New Hampshire race in June … Finished a solid 20th in the final point standings … Posted three top-five and seven top-10 finishes … Driving the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, he had some big shoes to fill, as two-time series champion Tony Stewart had piloted that car for 10 years – but the rookie did an admirable job.

Top Team Owner

  • Rick Hendrick – The leader of Hendrick Motorsports also stamped his name in the NASCAR history books in 2009, winning an unprecedented fourth consecutive NASCAR NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, a record 12th national series championship and a record-tying ninth NASCAR Sprint Cup crown … His organization also made history by having the top-three finishers in the point standings – Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon …Recipient of the prestigious Bill France Award of Excellence at this year’s 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony … His teams’ recent dominance in the sport can be likened to the great dynasties of the New York Yankees, Green Bay Packers and Boston Celtics.

Top Breakthrough Performers (in alphabetical order)

  • Marcos Ambrose – In just his second season at the NASCAR Sprint Cup level and first full season of competition, the affable Australian finished 18th in the point standings driving the No. 40 Little Debbie/Kingsford/Clorox Toyota for JTG/Daugherty Racing … Posted four top-five and seven top-10 finishes … Finished second at Watkins Glen, third at Infineon, third at Bristol (2), and fourth at Talladega (1).
  • Juan Pablo Montoya – Competing in just his third full season of NASCAR racing, this former Indianapolis 500 winner emerged as one of the top stories of the 2009 season … Made the Chase and finished eighth in the final point standings … Was a model of consistency the first four races of the Chase, finishing third at New Hampshire, fourth at Dover, fourth at Kansas, and third at Auto Club Speedway … Was on target to win the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, leading 116 laps, before speeding penalty on pit road doomed his chances … As a demonstration of how far he’s progressed racing stock cars, he finished second at Pocono (2) and third at Martinsville (2) … Posted seven top-five and 18 top-10 finishes with two poles.
  • David Reutimann – In just his third full season of Sprint Cup competition, he stepped up and finished a solid 16th in the final point standings … Was in contention to make the Chase up until the cut-off race at Richmond … Stayed in the top 12 for nine weeks … Won the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600, marking his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory … Posted five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes and had two poles – Texas (1) and Dover (1).
  • Brian Vickers – Broke through to make the Chase field … Finished 12th in the final point standings … Reached Victory Lane at Michigan (2), marking the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win for Red Bull Racing … Went on a tear at midseason to get into the Chase, finishing 12th or better in the final nine races leading up to the Chase … Posted four top-five and 13 top-10 finishes, to go along with six poles – the second most in the series.

Comeback Driver of the Year

  • Kurt Busch – The 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion bounced back from a lackluster 2008 season, when he finished 18th in the point standings, to finish fourth in the championship points race … Won twice on the season – at Atlanta (1) and at Texas (2) … Was consistently ranked in the top five in points all season long … Had 10 top-five and 21 top-10 performances …  Finished the season strong by winning at Texas, finishing sixth at Phoenix and fourth at Homestead-Miami.

Top Races of the Year (in chronological order)

Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway (March 29) – An aggressive pass of Denny Hamlin on Lap 485 gave Jimmie Johnson the lead and he pulled away to beat Hamlin by .774 seconds and claim his 41st career NASCAR Sprint Cup victory and his fifth in the past six races at Martinsville. It also gave Hendrick Motorsports its 18th win at the .526-mile short track, exactly 25 years after its first series victory at this same track. Hamlin, who led a race-high 296 laps, had grabbed the lead from Johnson with a bold move to the inside on a Lap 456 restart. Entering Turn 3 on Lap 485, Johnson nosed beneath Hamlin, who in turn, squeezed Johnson to the inside, which forced him to bounce off the curb. Johnson then slid up the track, there was contact between the two lead cars and Johnson passed for the lead.

Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway (April 26) – In a typical wild and wooly Talladega finish, Brad Keselowski was a surprise winner, laying claim to his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory. With Carl Edwards’ car flying hard into the catch fence behind him, Keselowski crossed the finish line just .175 seconds ahead of his mentor, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Driving the No. 09 Chevrolet for car owner James Finch, Keselowski moved to the inside when Edwards went high to block him in the final 400 yards of the 188-lap race. Edwards slid back down the track in another attempt to block, but Keselowski was already inside his left-rear quarter panel and his move to victory was on.

Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway (May 16) – It was the 25th running of the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race and the evening’s action on the race track delivered an exciting 100 laps of fierce competition for the fans. Tony Stewart passed Matt Kenseth through Turn 2 on Lap 99 to capture his first all-star race win and his first trip to Victory Lane as a driver-owner. Stewart only led the final two laps, but that was all he needed. The race was divided up into four segments: 50 laps, 20 laps, 20 laps, and a go-for-broke 10-lap shootout at the end. The fans loved the format and so did the drivers.

Autism Speaks 400 at Dover International Speedway (May 31) – Restarting eighth on Lap 374 of 400, Jimmie Johnson atoned for a slow pit stop and charged through the field to run down Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart and win his fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover. Johnson, who led a race-high 298 laps, cleared Stewart for the lead through Turns 3 and 4 on Lap 398 and pulled away to finish .861 seconds ahead of Stewart. Having taken two tires to Johnson’s four during the final pit stops for both teams, Stewart repeatedly ran high through the corners to try to block Johnson’s line. But, Johnson finally found room to the outside through Turns 1 and 2 and completed the winning pass through the final two corners.

Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway (June 21) – Kasey Kahne held off road-course ace Tony Stewart through a succession of four late-race double-file restarts to post his first win at a road course and get Richard Petty Motorsports back into Victory Lane – the organization’s first win since 1999. After Kahne took the lead from Scott Speed on Lap 80, he stayed out in front the rest of the way. Stewart’s attempts to pressure Kahne into a mistake failed to materialize. Marcos Ambrose made things interesting, by charging up through the field after starting from the rear because of an engine change to eventually finish third.

Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway (July 4) – With Kyle Busch slamming the frontstretch wall after an unsuccessful attempt to block, Tony Stewart posted his second victory of the season and his third win at the mid-summer Daytona race. With a push from teammate Denny Hamlin, Busch had taken the lead approaching the white flag and held it through Turn 4 of the final lap. But Stewart drove his No. 14 Chevrolet to the left rear of Busch’s No. 18 Toyota off the corner, forcing Busch to the bottom of the track to maintain control of his car. Stewart then moved high and as Busch slid back up to block, contact with Stewart’s car turned Busch’s car into the wall and ingnited a dramatic multi-car wreck near the finish line.

Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Sept. 20) – In the first race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Mark Martin held off a ferocious charge by Juan Pablo Montoya on a restart with three laps left to win for the first time at New Hampshire. Martin’s team relied on shrewd pit strategy to help pull off the win. Under caution on Lap 194 of 300, crew chief Alan Gustafson opted to leave Martin on the track with a small group of cars that did not pit. On Lap 204, Martin passed Kurt Busch for the lead and held the top spot until he pitted on Lap 243, earlier than any other car. Martin regained the lead on Lap 272 and held it for the remainder of the race, despite a flurry of late cautions that resulted in three harrowing double-file restarts in the final 20 laps.

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Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.