Five things we learned at Sonoma
Kurt Busch was nearly flawless at Infineon and recorded his first win of the season
Denny Hamlin, victorious last week at Michigan, stumbled to a 37th-place finish
The lack of road-course experience was getting on some of the drivers' nerves
The grand plan has rarely worked to the letter for Kurt Busch this season. Mayhem in his rearview mirror has been larger than it appears since he fell from the points lead early in the season and began lashing out at team management -- anyone within hailing distance -- on his team radio. But his rant at Richmond appears to have spurred changes at Penske Racing that have the 2004 series champion again rounding into title contention.
Busch was nearly flawless on Sunday in winning at Infineon Raceway, leading 76 of 110 laps on just two pit stops, keeping a race replete with ill will and bad behavior deep in his week and creating an afternoon of utter bliss that has been a commodity for the often contentious driver.
"I didn't get to see what's been going on," said Busch, who won for the first time this season and vaulted three spots to fourth in driver points. "I've been part of that chaos in the back over the years. I've been hit by guys going fourth or fifth, gives you a flat tire, you come home 32nd."
Five things we learned at Sonoma:
1. Denny Hamlin isn't fixed yet. If a Twitter timeline is the diary of a man's soul in these modern times, then Hamlin was feeling melancholy on Sunday: "Every time we get a little momentum, we have a day like today. Seventh week in a row I've had a winning car and then Boom. We get Dinger'd."
When he won last week at Michigan, Hamlin had appeared to finally gain some traction in what has been a disappointing follow-up to his 2010 runner-up season. The No. 11 Toyota qualified fourth and led 12 of the first 36 laps at Sonoma, but a Lap 49 brush with A.J. Allmendinger damaged his sway bar and eventually relegated Hamlin to a 37th-place finish. Hamlin fell two spots to 11th in points, still possessor of a wild-card berth for the Chase with 10 races remaining in the regular season, but nowhere near expectations.
2. It's getting angry. Kasey Kahne is unamused with Juan Pablo Montoya. Neither is Brad Keselowski, but at least he worked out of his frustration rather quickly. Brian Vickers and Tony Stewart's tiff ended with Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet cocked rear-up against a tire barrier.
Joey Logano grew tired of Robby Logano and punted him, and Robby Gordon vowed physical violence on the 21-year-old. Kahne, furious with Montoya after being sent off course while battling for fourth late in the race, finished 20th. After losing fifth place to Montoya with seven laps left, Keselowski spun Montoya into a 22nd-place result.
"It is just hard to run with people who have never run well on road courses nor have no experience at it. It cost us a ton of points today," said Montoya, whose two Sprint Cup wins have come at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. "But no, you have to talk to smart people."
3. Carl Edwards chose wisely. The former Nationwide series champion and serial moonlighter eschewed a planned start at Road America on Saturday to remain in Sonoma and hone the No. 99 Ford that might eventually drive him to a first Sprint Cup title. Good move.
Focused on his primary objective of improving on road courses, the Cup points leader recorded his first top-5 finish in seven starts at Sonoma with an encouraging third, being passed late in the race by Gordon, a five-time Sonoma-winner. "It was very tough to watch the race from Road America, but I think staying was the right decision. It paid off today. It worked out. It was a good call," said Edwards, who was replaced in the No. 60 Ford at Road America by Billy Johnson, who finished 33rd because of an engine issue. "We could have finished poorly here and ended up on the fence over there like Tony did or something. Anything can happen. It turned out to be the right call and it paid off, so it was a good move."
4. Tony Stewart is the law, but The Sheriff had jurisdiction. Stewart has often in his 13-year Sprint Cup career taken the role of garage leader, right up to the point of accepting the title and responsibility. Then he balks. It was Stewart who in 2006, on the five-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death, proclaimed that aggressive "slam-drafting" in pre-Daytona 500 practice, if left unchecked, could lead to the death of another NASCAR star. He quickly backed off the assertion when pressed, as he eventually would to a claim that NASCAR was becoming akin to professional wrestling in 2007.
But while Stewart shuns responsibility as a liaison between labor and management, he remains the self-appointed purveyor of justice among drivers. Stewart admittedly wrecked Brian Vickers as punishment for what he felt was obvious blocking and an example of "guys pushing the envelope on not working with each other." Vickers, whose nickname is "The Sheriff," issued a cease-and-desist order by planting Stewart into the tires in the same Turn 11 as their initial incident. Neither was remorseful.
"I probably had it coming because I dumped him earlier," Stewart said. "But I dumped him because he was blocking, so if anybody wants to block all year, that's what I'm going to keep doing. They can handle it however they want. ... I don't care if it was [teammate/employee] Ryan Newman. I would have dumped him too."
5. The Chase for the Championship needs a road course race. Talladega Superspeedway is generally considered the wild card, variable or point-scrambling race of the Sprint Cup playoffs, and with good reason. One bobble at the 2.66-mile restrictor plate circus maximus has the potential to greatly impact the championship midway through. And it doesn't matter whose bobble when packs of cars snuggled together in packs begin careening down those steep banks. A second variable should be added in a road course.
The quality of racing at Sonoma and Watkins Glen has increased in past years and drivers have come to realize the two road course stops in the 36-race schedule are vitally important to their broader ambitions. Certainly, making 10 percent of the Chase non-oval when it comprises seven percent of the regular season is slightly askew. But plate races comprise just 11 percent (one more race) of the regular season. If NASCAR drivers are to validate themselves as the most talented, versatile in the world, their playoffs need to challenge each skill.