Jimmie Johnson’s dominating start this season is only one of the many reasons he was a favorite this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.
A Hendrick Motorsports car has won each of the last six races at Phoenix. This statistic alone made it easy to also pick Jeff Gordon as one of the favorites to visit Victory Lane.
Johnson’s mid pack starting position didn’t seem to hinder the four time champion once the green flag flew. Within 20 laps Johnson had worked his way through the pack from 16th to inside the top five.
Gordon’s 10th place starting position made it easier for him to run up front most of the night and remain in the hunt for the win.
When the dust settled after a wild green-white-checkered finish, Ryan Newman edged out Gordon for the win while Johnson aggressively forced his Lowe’s Chevrolet into the third position.
Gordon and Johnson both have NASCAR officials to thank for those results.
Juan Pablo Montoya had a strong race car and an even stronger desire to win.
Montoya took the lead in the early going of the Subway Fresh Fit 600k and seemed to be on his way to victory lane.
This all changed on lap 134.
During a round of green flag pit stops, Montoya, leading at the time, came in for service at the end of lap 132, returning to the race track during lap 133.
Montoya, service completed, exits pit road just as Johnson is entering for service.
Johnson’s service is completed and as he starts down pit road, lap 134 is on the board and Kurt Busch slams into the turn four wall causing heavy damage to the right side of his Miller Lite Dodge.
If NASCAR had thrown the caution flag immediately, like they did on lap 197 when Brad Keselowski brushed the wall, or on lap 372 when Scott Riggs hits the wall after losing a right front tire, or as is usually the case, when a car hits the wall and sustains heavy damage, Johnson would have been caught on pit road and most likely a lap down.
NASCAR did not wave the caution flag. In fact, Busch drove his damaged car one complete circuit around the track, onto pit road, crossing the start finish line twice, and was almost collected by several other race cars, before the caution flag flew.
It took 10 caution flag laps to clean up the debris from Busch’s crash.
The crash happened on lap 134 and the caution flag waved on lap 136. This allowed Johnson to exit pit road, get his car back up to speed and return to the No. 2 spot in the running order.
This is not the first time Johnson has been shown favorable treatment and not the first time Montoya has watched NASCAR hand over the fruits of his hard work to Johnson.
Last year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Montoya was “caught” speeding on pit road on the last pit stop of the race. This infraction dropped the race lead, and eventual win, right into Jimmie Johnson’s lap.
Jeff Gordon was also on pit road during lap 134. Of course, like Johnson, he exited pit road and returned to the race unscathed before the caution.
During the round of pit stops, television coverage focused on the front runners getting service. Gordon and Johnson were among the last cars to visit pit road, and their stops were broadcast.
During the television coverage of Gordon’s stop, it’s clear his car has stopped at the pit box in a very peculiar angle.
Once right side service is complete, it becomes more obvious that Gordon’s car is not only sitting funny, the right rear tire and right rear of the car are sitting outside the yellow lines of his pit box.
This is a minimum 15 second hold penalty, or, if the car leaves, either a pit road pass through or stop and go penalty is assessed.
It’s getting harder and harder to deny some of the decisions being made during race are made to directly affect certain drivers at the time, and eventually impact their race results.
Johnson and Gordon were awarded huge mulligans during those pit stops. Mulligan’s they both cashed in for top five finishes at the end of the race.
Photo Credit: David L. Yeazell