HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Michael Waltrip closed out his final full season of driving the No. 55 NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota with a 30th-place result in Sunday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The two-time Daytona 500 champion finished 32nd in the owner points standing. It guarantees his new driver, Martin Truex Jr., a starting spot in the first five races of the 2010 season.
“Unfortunately we struggled all weekend with our NAPA Toyota,” said Waltrip who qualified for Sunday’s race in 39th position. “It’s a little sad. We just kept working on it. My crew chief Gene Nead made some good calls and we were able to stay on the lead lap until the last lap or so. I am happy that we hung with it like we did, but sad at the result.”
The opening laps of the race saw the NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota run extremely loose. The first opportunity to pit came under green flag conditions on lap 50. Waltrip entered the pits in 34th position for a service that included four fresh tires, wedge and the addition of fuel. He returned to the track to find the car still on the loose side. The challenge caused Waltrip to lose a lap to the leader, Kevin Harvick on circuit 61.
Waltrip’s teammate Marcos Ambrose, who passed Jimmie Johnson to take the lead for four circuits, brought out of the first caution after a tire went flat. The NAPA pit crew used the unfortunate opportunity to work on the car. They made wedge, air pressure, and packer adjustments. The No. 55 returned to the race in 38th position.
Crew chief Gene Nead kept Waltrip out on the track after the second yellow flag was thrown on lap 101. The strategy put the NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota back on the lead lap. The strategy paid off as the race was slowed eight laps later. During the caution, Waltrip was on pit road for the addition of spring rubbers on lap 110. The race went back to green on lap 112 with Waltrip in 36th and Kevin Harvick in the top spot.
At the halfway mark, fans were treated to a heated battle between Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart. It resulted in two on-track altercations. The first saw Montoya having to go behind the wall for repairs after Stewart caved in his fender. It cut down Montoya’s tire and sent him in the wall to bring out a caution on lap 116. Then as Waltrip was pitting with the frontrunners, several cars got bunched up when entering pit road. Elliott Sadler did not see what was happening and crashed hard into the back of the No. 43. Waltrip sustained minor damage to the nose of his car. The NAPA team fixed the nose and made a toe change on laps 118 and 120. Waltrip returned to the track in 32nd place.
The next 20 laps saw the NAPA Toyota respond to the changes. This time is was extremely tight. Another chance for Nead to get a better balance for Waltrip happened on lap 155 after Montoya spun out Stewart. The driver of the No. 42 was cited for rough driving and penalized two laps. The rest of the field was on pit road for service. The NAPA crew removed spring rubbers and changed the track bar and wedge. Waltrip restarted in 31st and Denny Hamlin was the new leader.
Two more services for Waltrip were completed on laps 196 and 216. The NAPA Toyota was extremely loose on the final run, but Waltrip liked the feel of it in comparison to the tight condition. The No. 55 driver was able to pick up one more position before Hamlin took the checkered flag to claim his fourth victory of the season. During Hamlin’s victory lane interview, he congratulated Waltrip for his 25 seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and appreciated the positive influence he has had on his career.
Meanwhile, the night’s biggest winner was Jimmie Johnson who finished fifth. He made history by winning his fourth straight championship. It also put his car owner, Rick Hendrick in the records books. Hendrick is the first owner to have three drivers finish in the top-three positions in the points standings.
The top-10 finishers of the race were Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and AJ Allmendinger. As for Waltrip’s teammates, David Reutimann and Ambrose, they finished 15th and 35th.
Crew chief Pat Tryson who will lead the No. 56 NAPA AUTO PARTS team next season guided his team to a fourth-place finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship standings. Truex’s top-10 finish at Homestead resulted in his 23rd-place finish in the standings.
The NAPA AUTO PARTS team will now focus on getting ramped up for the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. All the action begins at Daytona Speedweeks for the 52nd running of the Daytona 500 on February 14. Both Waltrip and Truex will be behind the wheels of NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyotas. The Great American Race will air on FOX, MRN and Sirius XM Satellite Radio.
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