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MOTOR RACING

It's a crash course in Fontana as Jimmie Johnson outlasts Gordon, Montoya

His victory in the Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway vaults him into the Chase for the Cup lead, 12 points ahead of teammate Mark Martin.

October 12, 2009|Jim Peltz

The first 190 laps of the Pepsi 500 produced what critics contend is the type of lackluster NASCAR Sprint Cup racing that too often defines Auto Club Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya had several pitched battles for the lead, but for the most part the 43-car field was strung out around the two-mile Fontana track, passing was sparse and accidents were nonexistent.

Then came the remaining 60 laps -- and, with the race now part of NASCAR's Chase for the Cup championship playoff, things got a lot less folksy.

Drivers began smashing into one another, and after an eight-car pileup set up a shootout with only three laps left, Johnson held off Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and Montoya to win Sunday and vault into the Chase lead.

Johnson, in becoming the only four-time Cup series winner at the Fontana speedway, now has a 12-point lead over another teammate, Mark Martin, with six Chase races left as Johnson tries to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive title.

"What an awesome car," Johnson said of his No. 48 Chevrolet. "Obviously a lot of racing left" in the Chase, he added, "but we're in good shape."

Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, are known for excelling during the Chase, and "they have something magical going in the final 10 races" of each season, said Gordon, a four-time champion who's now fifth in this year's Chase, 105 points behind Johnson.

"They just have the best car," Gordon said. "Unless they make a mistake, they are going to win it [again]."

Martin, who had arrived in Fontana with an 18-point lead over Johnson, finished fourth Sunday in front of an estimated 70,000 behind third-place Montoya.

Montoya kept pace with the Hendrick cars all day but ultimately fell just short in his Chevy, prepared by the team of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

Johnson led 126 laps and Montoya -- the 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner and former Formula One driver who switched to NASCAR in 2007 -- led 78. It was Montoya's best showing on an oval track since he led 116 laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July.

"To be able to do that is huge," Montoya said of contending with the Hendrick cars. "We're doing the best we can."

Montoya also said his car was faster in the first half of the race before the sun broke through overcast skies.

"When it was cool, I had the fastest car," the Colombian said. "As it got hotter, I got looser and couldn't get it fixed. When it warmed up, he [Johnson] just had a better car than me."

Johnson agreed. "The track came to us some when the sun came out," he said. "The car just kept getting better and better."

This was the first race at Auto Club Speedway since NASCAR adopted so-called double-file restarts, in which the leaders line up side by side in the front. Before the change, cars one or more laps down had lined up on the inside of the leaders.

Now the front-runners are free to race one another on restarts, and they did so with such gusto in the late stages Sunday that the accidents surprised no one.

The first happened on a restart at Lap 190. As Denny Hamlin led the field on the outside of the front row, he jerked left down onto Montoya, who was inside Hamlin, sending Hamlin's Toyota spinning.

"I thought I was clear and I misjudged it," acknowledged Hamlin, a Joe Gibbs Racing driver who finished 37th and is now ninth in the 12-driver Chase. "I got to apologize to the team."

On another restart with 12 laps left, two other Chase drivers, Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne, spun out on the infield grass after Kahne was hit by another Chase contender, Kurt Busch.

"I apologize to them," said Busch, who's sixth in the playoff. "I got off Turn 4 and the car just jumped sideways on me."

Then there was the eight-car crash with only six laps remaining, which included all four drivers on the team of Richard Petty Motorsports: Kahne, Elliott Sadler, A.J. Allmendinger and Reed Sorenson.

There was so much debris that NASCAR called a red-flag period of nearly 22 minutes, in which the remaining cars were stopped while the mess was cleaned up.

The big wreck started when Sadler bumped Dale Earnhardt Jr. from behind, turning Earnhardt sideways.

It was another disappointing finish for NASCAR's most popular driver, who had started 37th but climbed to 10th place in his Hendrick Chevrolet before the crash. He finished 25th.

"We had a top-10 car today and it's unfortunate," he said. "We are doing whatever we can to stay positive."

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Pepsi 500

The top five finishers from Sunday's race in Fontana:

1. Jimmie Johnson

2. Jeff Gordon

3. Juan Pablo Montoya

4. Mark Martin

5. Tony Stewart

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PEPSI 500

At Auto Club Speedway, Fontana (start position in parentheses):

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