FONTANA, Calif. – Michael Waltrip earned a 15th-place finish in Sunday’s Auto Club 500 at the Auto Club Speedway. The result was impressive since the NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota had to start at the back of the field due to an engine change after qualifying. Waltrip’s finish moves the team up one position in the driver and owner points standings to seventh place.
“We had a really solid NAPA car all night,” said Waltrip who was forced to start 42nd after experiencing engine failure during his qualifying lap on Friday. “We made a couple of adjustments in the beginning that really made the NAPA Toyota go. Then we made a couple of adjustments at the end that really made it loose and we couldn’t get going again. These cars are so sensitive. For the most part, we ran up in the top 15 for most of the night. I am proud of my team especially since we drove up from last place. By lap 10, I realized I had passed more cars than I did in 2007 or 2008 here at California. I’m really pretty proud of this team. We’ve been able to overcome a lot and it’s great to see progress like this.”
The opening laps of the Auto Club 500 saw Waltrip make a hard charge toward the front of the field. By lap 50, the NAPA driver was in 23rd position after a series of early pit stops on laps 7, 21 and 43. Crew chief Bootie Barker ordered up air pressure changes to help the NAPA Camry as it was loose on entry and tight through the center. The pit crew performed the stops in a blistering fast 13-second pace.
Waltrip’s lap times started to pick up as he was one of the fastest cars on the track. By lap 68, he was in 19th place. The car’s balance was getting better as it had plenty of grip but was loose on entry. Under green-flag conditions, Barker had the crew make air pressure and track bar changes. The service took just 13.5 seconds.
Two more green-flap pit stops followed on laps 87 and 124. During this time, Waltrip felt his car going over to the tight side. Despite the new challenge, his lap times were fast so the driver opted to figure out how to drive it versus losing the speed. Unfortunately, the long green-flag runs saw Waltrip go a lap down to the leader, Greg Biffle on lap 136. Fortunately for the team, rain brought out the caution on lap 141. The NAPA team was the beneficiary of the Lucky Dog award. During the yellow, Waltrip asked for his car to be loosened up so Barker called for wedge and air pressure changes. When the race restarted on lap 151, Waltrip was 17th and Matt Kenseth was the leader.
A tense moment for the team came on lap 188. Waltrip called in to say his engine was running extremely hot. The news came just as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin suffered engine failures. The NAPA team tried to see if trash has clogged up the front grill of their Toyota, but they could not see anything. A break soon came on lap 208 when Kevin Harvick lost an engine causing his car to slam hard into the Turn 1 wall. The yellow provided the NAPA team the chance to come back down pit road. During the service, the team made wedge and more air pressure changes. It was also during that time that the team was also able to breathe a sigh of relief. Trash was on the front grill causing the engine to run hot. Their focus could now shift from a possible engine problem back to getting a strong finish.
The final green flag waved on lap 215. Waltrip held on despite battling a very loose handling Toyota Camry to finish 15th place. Kenseth was able to hold off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon for his second-straight victory in 2009. Rounding out the top-10 finishers were Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers.
Michael Waltrip Racing once again turned in good performances. Besides Waltrip’s top-15 finish, David Reutimann scored 14th place and Marcos Ambrose finished 21st.
Next up for Waltrip and his NAPA Racing team is the Shelby 427 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, Nevada. Broadcast Coverage gets underway Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX. It can also be heard on PRN Radio and Sirius XM Satellite Radio.
Auto Club 500 Unofficial Race Results:
Auto Club 500 Unofficial Driver Points Standings (7th place/+1):
Auto Club 500 Lap By Lap: