Five things we learned at Sonoma
A late mental error cost Marcos Ambrose his first-ever Sprint Cup Series victory
Jeff Gordon finished fifth, but also knocked out five drivers Sunday at Sonoma
Jimmie Johnson snapped out of a mini-slump with his fourth victory of the year
It's been a month filled with controversial calls in sports, from baseball's "imperfect game" to a U.S. World Cup foul that never was. Did NASCAR just join the list, costing a possible first-time winner a shot at salvaging a lost season? An in-depth look at the NASCAR rulebook leads off our agenda, one of five things we learned after NASCAR's first of two road course races in 2010:
1. Marcos Ambrose made one of the biggest blunders in NASCAR history. As the laps wound down at Infineon Raceway, Marcos Ambrose was on the verge of a breakthrough. Coasting to a two-second lead over Jimmie Johnson, he was poised to score his first career win and right the ship of a sophomore slump plagued by six DNFs and just one top-10 finish.
Instead, he left the track a broken man. When the caution came out for Brad Keselowski's spin with eight laps left, a nervous crew chief Frank Kerr was to blame, ordering a move that turned the day historic for all the wrong reasons.
Worried about having fuel to withstand a green-white-checkered finish, Kerr asked his driver to violate one of racing's most sacred rules: don't stop. The theory was cutting off the motor would save them gas, but Ambrose did it on an uphill stretch where the car lost momentum in an instant. Frantic attempts to restart the engine didn't happen before the No. 47 came to a dead stop, violating the following yellow flag rule: reducing speed to a "cautious" pace while maintaining your respective track position.
That forced NASCAR to make a heartbreaking call, dropping Ambrose from first to eighth in line after seven cars were forced to pass his stalled Toyota on the track. Several critics have cried foul, especially after Greg Biffle was given the win at Kansas in 2007 crossing the finish line third after slowing to a crawl when out of gas. But there's a difference between fifteen miles an hour and zero, making Ambrose nothing but guilty to judges gutsy enough to follow through with the rulebook. If anything, the sanctioning body stayed consistent after a similar call on Robby Gordon gave a Montreal win to -- you guessed it -- Ambrose a few years back in a Nationwide race.
At least give NASCAR's Tasmanian Devil this much: he was angelic after the checkered flag, an illustration of class after a picture-perfect day ended with a giant splotch.
"I'm just going to go home, see my wife and kids, and give 'em a hug," he said, disagreeing with his crew chief's call but refusing to throw him under the bus. "My bad. It is what it is. I should have had the motor cranked up, and it would have never been an issue.
"Terrible way to finish."
But a terrific blunder, perhaps the worst mistake since Mark Martin pulled onto pit road a lap before the checkered flag during a Nationwide race at Bristol in 1994. At least the team could pull a silver lining, a sixth-place finish easily their best in a season that's turned into a bit of a nightmare.
It just should have been so much more.
2. What the heck is going on with Jeff Gordon? A new NASCAR philosophy promoting on-track aggression has unleashed a fury of feuds in 2010. But Jeff Gordon took "have at it, boys" to the next level at Infineon, going toe-to-toe with drivers time and time again in one of the uglier days of his career. A fifth-place finish also matched the number of races he ruined with 1-on-1 wrecks, punting more drivers than he has over the course of entire seasons. Between Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Elliott Sadler, David Ragan, and Martin Truex, Jr., it's a surprise the four-time champ made it out of the garage in one piece.
Of all the frayed tempers, the normally quiet Truex was clearly the most outspoken following his tangle with Gordon. That took away a top-5 finish, leaving him in the back of the pack where a jam-up on the ensuing restart left his car spread out in pieces by the start/finish line. Ending the day in 42nd, that all but finished his now-faint chances to make a run at the Chase, making a Gordon apology over the radio completely meaningless.
"I guess Jeff figured if he couldn't catch us on the racetrack, he was going to spin us out on the restart," he said, threatening revenge before posting a reminder of how he races people clean. "How many times have I spun Jeff Gordon out? How many times have I spun anybody out?"
"[Gordon] took out Martin Truex for no reason," added Sadler, who himself was a victim of bumper cars. "The 33 [Clint Bowyer] and me were side-by-side and he got two-for-one there, so he was just kind of knocking everything out of his way."
To his credit, Gordon manned up after the race -- at least for one of the wrecks.
"There are some things that I'm not proud of that I did today; certainly with Martin," he said. "I mean, I completely messed that up and I will try to patch that up. Other things that happened out there were just really hard racing incidents."
Or were they? Everyone knows how frustrated Gordon is, going winless in a year where he should have won five times. Add in a curious incident with fuel -- where the No. 24 got the wrong Sunoco mixture in Friday practice -- and 2010 has taken on a Twilight Zone-type feel. At this point, nothing involving him surprises me.
3. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. saved his Chase chances ... while others' bubbles came close to bursting. In a race where Chase bubble drivers shot themselves in the foot, the day's biggest winner was also its most unlikely. In his 11th career start at Infineon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. scored an 11th-place finish to jump to 13th in points and pull within 57 of Carl Edwards for a playoff spot. To say it was a surprising run for the No. 88 is an understatement, tying his career best at a place NASCAR's Most Popular Driver once joked he'd like to blow up with a stick of dynamite.
"I don't really get that pumped up about it," he said afterwards, trying to downplay the good run. "I just get relief to be able to go home and not be pissed off. A couple holes opened up for us, and I just got lucky."
But in a Chase race where as many as 18-20 drivers have a realistic chance, that four-leaf clover proved crucial on a day no one else had it. Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Truex, Edwards, and Ryan Newman were among a long list of drivers experiencing mechanical or wreck-related problems, allowing Earnhardt to gain on a racetrack where he usually loses 50 to 100 points. Now, if the No. 88 could just survive Loudon -- a track where they had a top-5 car before getting taken out last fall -- a chance for a win looms at Daytona in July. That could be the springboard to what would be a shocking run towards a Chase bid.
4. Joe Gibbs' dominance ended with a thud on Sunday. The darlings of NASCAR in spring, the first day of summer starts with Joe Gibbs Racing landing on the ground with a thud. After winning seven of the last ten races, the organization had their worst day statistically since expanding to three cars in 2006, finishing 33rd, 34th, and 39th with Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch. None of them were ever a factor, with Hamlin enduring an embarrassing day where the hood came up on his car in the middle of the race. Simply making it to pit road without further incident was an accomplishment for NASCAR's current win leader, who tweeted afterwards, "We hit everything but the lottery."
Busch and Logano had their share of ugly moments, too, both involved in caution flags that left them limping to the finish on crutches. Heck, even former JGR driver Tony Stewart got in the act, scoring an ugly ninth-place finish that ended by slamming into Boris Said after the race. That caused Said's crew chief to incite a screaming match with temperamental Tony in the garage.
A two-time champion, we know Stewart will bounce back quickly; can JGR do the same? On paper, no road courses in the ten-race playoff should make this weekend no big deal. But for a group that rides the emotional highs and lows more than they should, putting together a trio of top-10 runs next Sunday is crucial.
5. Jimmie Johnson is back from the dead ... as if he ever was. Oh, by the way in the midst of this soap opera the No. 48 silenced critics, with Johnson scoring his first ever victory on a road course while ending a recent "slump." His 51st career win broke a tie with legends Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson, leaving him alone in 10th on the all-time list while reminding NASCAR nation that yes, he's still a championship favorite.
So put those "Johnson is slipping" theories to bed for good. After an awkward last month-and-a-half (three top-10 finishes, two DNFs), the No. 48 was no worse than the second-best car on speed Sunday, scoring his fourth win in sixteen races while jumping to a comfortable second in the standings. That cushion well inside the playoffs will allow this group to do what they love in the coming weeks: use the regular season as a test session to ensure they start the Chase off right. Hamlin may be a formidable challenger, but it would be foolish to doubt the reigning champ just yet.
Race Grade: B. After the first half -- largely dominated by Johnson and Ambrose - this race was making Michigan look like a nail-biter. But a couple of caution flags that bunched up the field paired with amped up aggression in the second half to bring us one of the better finishes this season.
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