FONTANA, Calif. – After two frustrating weeks of bad luck, Michael Waltrip drove the No. 55 NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota to a 17th-place finish after starting 34th in Sunday’s 250-lap event at Auto Club Speedway. Waltrip battled back from being a lap down twice to persevere to a solid finish.
“The team did a good job on pit road and I’m really proud of them,” said Waltrip. “They used a good strategy and got us a couple laps back. Then at the end of the race, there was a huge crash involving multiple cars and I got through it. We’ve certainly had our share of wrecks this year that were not our fault. I made a good move to get through it.”
Leading the field to the green flag was Denny Hamlin. Waltrip’s team put an entirely new setup under its Toyota earlier in the morning so the two-time Daytona 500 champion used the opening laps to get a feel for the new combination. Unfortunately, it was extremely loose and he had to wait for the team’s first service under green to tighten up the NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota. The chance to make adjustments, add fuel and change four tires happened under green-flag conditions on lap 38. The service took only 13 seconds. Waltrip returned to the track in 36th position.
The changes made to the NAPA Toyota helped handling, but it still needed more help through the middle and off the corners. Waltrip maintained his 36th-place position, but went a lap down. NASCAR threw a caution on lap 59 when Jamie McMurray brushed the wall. Instead of pitting, the NAPA team opted for the wave around and returned to the lead lap. The strategy paid off as another caution flag was thrown 20 laps later. This time the NAPA team pitted for four tires, fuel and a track bar adjustment. Waltrip restarted 26th as Martin Truex Jr. led the field to green.
The handling on the NAPA Toyota still challenged Waltrip. It was extremely loose and it cost him time on the track and one lap. The team gambled again by staying out when a caution was thrown for debris on lap 184. Like before, NASCAR waved the yellow flag shortly after the restart. Crew chief Gene Nead called his driver to pit road for service that included the addition of spring rubbers along with four tires and fuel. Waltrip left his pit box scored in 25th position and encouraged his team to keep up the good work as a respectable finish was well deserved.
The spring rubber adjustments made the NAPA Toyota come alive as he moved from 25th to 19th in less than 25 laps.
“Our car was good,” added Waltrip. “It bounced around and floated the nose, but other than that, it was still competitive. I could drive it.”
With five laps remaining, a multi-car crash was triggered near the front of the field. The cars of Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger, Reed Sorenson, Brian Vickers, Jeff Burton and Elliott Sadler were involved. Waltrip dodged the bullet and NASCAR threw the red flag as it took nearly 20 minutes to clear the track of debris. When the race was back on, the NAPA team opted to pit for four fresh tires and an air pressure adjustment as Waltrip still needed his car to be tightened up in order to make another run at the front.
When the race went back to green on lap 247, the NAPA Toyota was scored in 18th and Waltrip was able to pick up one more position before the checkered flag waved. Jimmie Johnson took the victory and the lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship points standings.
Rounding out the top-10 finishers were Jeff Gordon, Montoya, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, David Ragan, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. As for Waltrip’s teammates, David Reutimann finished 18th and Ambrose rebounded from the big crash to collect 23rd place.
Next Saturday, the Chase moves to the site where Michael Waltrip Racing won its first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race earlier this season -- Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Broadcast coverage gets underway at 7 p.m. eastern on ABC. It can also be heard on PRN and Sirius XM Satellite Radio.