The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Sonoma Race Recap by Bryan Davis Keith -- Monday June 27, 2011

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Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Sonoma Race Recap

Bryan Davis Keith · Monday June 27, 2011


The Key Moment – Kurt Busch started Sunday’s race in the 11th position. By lap 13, the elder Busch dove under Denny Hamlin in turn 7 and took the lead. Short of pit stops cycling through, the lead was not a position Busch relinquished for long.

Some of these boys should have just stayed home and donated their car to a car donation business.

In a Nutshell – The No. 22 team woke up and realized that Kurt Busch still hasn’t won a points-paying plate race in a decade of Cup competition; so, they figured they’d grab a win before heading to Daytona. And no one saw fit to really challenge them for it.

Kurt Busch easily walked off with the win in Sonoma in what has been a bold resurgence for Penske Racing.

Dramatic Moment – While the race up front was a stinker, boys have at it was front and center in wine country. Between Brian Vickers parking Tony Stewart’s Chevrolet atop a tire barrier, Brad Keselowski ending Juan Pablo Montoya’s reign of terror, and tension between Denny Hamlin and A.J. Allmendinger after contact in turn 11, there were more frayed tempers after this race than there were at Bristol this spring.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

Two different series. Two different road courses. Nearly 2,000 miles apart. Yet both Saturday’s Nationwide Series race and Sunday’s Cup show played host to a special doubleheader of “F-1 veterans gone wild.” Jacques Villenueve’s banzai move during a green-white-checker attempt at Road America cost two drivers top-10 finishes, spinning Brian Scott and ruining his fuel strategy while sending Max Papis’ Chevrolet hard into the turn 1 barrier. Not one to be outdone, Juan Pablo Montoya went on an absolute rampage during the final 30 laps of Sunday’s Cup race at Infineon; Montoya gave no quarter to any driver in the field, most notably forcing himself under Kasey Kahne in turn 1 and ruining his day but also forcing other drivers off the racing surface during his charge to the front. When even the TV commentators run out of excuses for a competitors’ actions on track, it’s a clear indication that they’re in the wrong, and there’s no doubt Montoya was acting every bit the jerk that threatened NASCAR with legal action because Ryan Newman got the better of him in a Darlington scuffle. So after a long list of transgressions, even the most ardent Keselowski critics were likely high-fiving each other after seeing the Blue Deuce take care of the No. 42 once and for all. Montoya can quip all he wants about stock car racers not knowing how to race on road courses, but he and his open-wheel friends would do well to take note about how stock car racers handle getting knocked around… they hit back. After all, they’ve got fenders too.

Speaking of Keselowski’s last stand, between his top 10 result and Kurt Busch’s long overdue first victory in 2011, Penske Racing is red hot heading into a summer stretch that sees the Chase field still remarkably fluid. Whatever the dynamics between two teammates rumored to have hard working pains, whatever the friction caused by Busch’s very public tirades against his team in the past few months, the Penske camp is firing on all eight cylinders right now. But can this recent burst of performance last through the next ten races? The inconsistency of the No. 2 team is the reason they’re still battling to get into a top-20 position in points and eligibility for a wild-card berth, and as for the No. 22? Well, we’re not even halfway into 2011, and it’s already been a story of three seasons for Kurt Busch’s bunch. A blistering start to the year with a successful Speedweeks and a near-win at Phoenix; the malaise of the spring; and now, a June that’s been the shot-in-the-arm the team needed. So in the here and now, Penske Racing is a force to be reckoned with… but which Penske camp shows up this summer will tell the tale of whether they’re true title contenders.

One thing to note in light of a certain No. 88’s mechanical troubles Sunday: the last time Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was in Chase contention was back in 2008, and it was about this point in the season that the wheels came off. One week after scoring his last Cup win at Michigan, Junior finished outside the top 10 at Sonoma that year, the start of a streak that saw the No. 88 car score only two top-10 finishes in 11 races leading up to the Chase. This weekend, heavy contact in the dustup caused by the first Brian Vickers / Tony Stewart tussle of the afternoon on lap 38 resulted in front end damage being done to Junior’s machine; by lap 52, a hole in the radiator that resulted from the contact sent the No. 88 to the garage, the motor cooked for good. The 41st-place finish was Earnhardt’s worst since Homestead in 2008, dropping him from third to seventh in points. Two consecutive results outside the top 20 now have Earnhardt on a downward slide for the first time in 2011… so he needs to be careful. If Daytona’s kind, no harm no foul – but find trouble in the upcoming plate race, and suddenly Earnhardt is vulnerable. With the first signs of adversity, time to see how much of a difference Letarte has really made, right?

Joey Logano won the pole for Sunday’s Cup race, won the West Series race on Saturday, and scored a sixth-place finish Sunday that was only his third top-10 of 2011 and his career best on a road course. Three consecutive top-20 finishes may not look like much, but over the last month’s worth of races Logano has moved from 27th to 22nd in points and is now, assuming the No. 20 team can snag a win somewhere, primed to make a case for a wild-card Chase berth. Results such as Sunday’s were expected to be common place for a driver dubbed “Sliced Bread,” but have been anything but during a disappointing stint in the Cup Series. The question becomes though, after such a solid weekend, whether or not Logano and crew chief Greg Zipadelli are starting to feel the pressure and turn a corner. Home Depot is a big-time sponsor and Joe Gibbs Racing has race-winning cars. Logano’s had plenty of time to show improvement, and after an ugly start to 2011 now-or-never is a very realistic proposition for the team to find itself in. Logano deserves a pat on the back for such a strong showing on a road course, but it’s just that, a road course, a specialty race. Sunday’s finish means nothing unless the No. 20 crew can translate this type of performance onto oval circuits.

For the first time since 2005, Carl Edwards did not contest a Nationwide Series event, opting to stay in Sonoma for Saturday Cup practice instead of flying all the way to Road America to contest a race that offered no lessons relevant to Sunday’s Cup race or points. And lo and behold, look what happened. Edwards improved a total of 12 positions on the time charts over the course of Saturday’s two sessions, had a markedly improved race car when the green flag dropped on Sunday afternoon, and when all was said and done, scored a third-place result that was a career best at Sonoma and equaled his best on a road course. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but as soon as Edwards and Keselowski drop the whole double-duty mess, they both post career best finishes at Sonoma. It’s a more meaningful situation for Edwards, given his current stature as the driver most likely to topple Johnson in 2011. Suddenly, it seems as if winning a Cup title might finally be the priority.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. See above.

Denny Hamlin led 12 laps on the day and was the class of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable, but was forced behind the pit wall on lap 62 with a broken track bar that required replacement. He finished 37th.

Boris Said was put behind the wheel of the No. 51 Phoenix Racing entry on Sunday, but did little to improve the performance of the team. Said finished a distant 28th this Sunday after late-race contact, his worst finish at Sonoma since 2008.

Ryan Newman was battling hard with Paul Menard in the closing laps for a spot in the top 15, but contact between the two knocked the No. 39 off the track. Newman limped home to 25th, dropping him to 10th in points, only three markers ahead of Denny Hamlin for the final spot in the top 10.

Kasey Kahne was also running in the top 10 late, but became the poster child victim of Juan Pablo Montoya. He finished 20th.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Jeff Gordon was uncharacteristically out of sorts early in the running of this Sonoma race, a non-factor for much of Sunday afternoon that the driver attributed to his team missing the setup. By race’s end, however, Gordon and crew’s adjustments rectified the miss, scoring a runner-up finish that allowed the No. 24 team to capitalize on the struggles of both Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin. Of note, the finish was Gordon’s first top-2 result on a road course since winning Sonoma back in 2006.

Clint Bowyer’s fourth-place finish equaled his career-best result on a road course; more notably, Bowyer was one of the very few drivers capable of catching Kurt Busch for even a short period of time this Sunday, taking the lead for one circuit on lap 51.

Martin Truex, Jr. looked to be due for another episode of Sonoma 2010 on lap 42 when Denny Hamlin sent his No. 56 Toyota spinning in turn 11. Unlike a year ago, though, when Truex’s day was ruined after contact with Jeff Gordon, Truex stormed back to the front this year, racing hard back through the field and posting a top-10 finish as a result.

Marcos Ambrose wasn’t a threat to win this weekend, but the No. 9 team will surely take a top-5 finish on this driver’s specialty track.

David Gilliland earned some well-deserved kudos from the TV booth for a 12th-place finish that he earned on this Sunday. Despite having tires nearly 20 laps older than most of the cars he was racing, Gilliland gave drivers such as Montoya and Kyle Busch everything they could handle when the race was on the line. As dominating as Kurt Busch was, Gilliland very well may have had the performance of the afternoon.

Worth Noting:

  • The attendance at Infineon Raceway was upgraded from 90,000 to 93,000, according to NASCAR statistics. Not sure about that, but the grandstands did look healthy this Sunday.
  • Whitney Motorsports had both their Nos. 46 and 81 cars go the distance with Andy Pilgrim and Brian Simo driving, the first time they’ve had two cars go the full distance in team history.
  • Regan Smith finished 16th, the first time in his Cup career he’s ever posted a top-20 finish on a road course and the first time such a result has been scored by the Furniture Row Racing team.
  • Robby Gordon’s 18th-place finish was just enough to lock his No. 7 team back into the top 35 in owner points for Daytona.
  • Michael McDowell ran the distance on Sunday and traded paint with a number of drivers; Kyle Petty’s remarks that he appeared to be taking out his disappointment of fumbling away a career-first Nationwide Series result yesterday in Wisconsin were anything but far-fetched.

What’s the Points?

Carl Edwards extended his points lead over Kevin Harvick to 25 markers this Sunday, with Jimmie Johnson moving up two spots to third on the heels of his seventh-place finish. Kurt Busch’s win moved him back to fourth in points, followed by brother Kyle and Matt Kenseth.

The big loser of the day was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who dropped from third to seventh with his busted radiator. Clint Bowyer sits in eighth, Jeff Gordon ninth before Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, who also lost two positions in the standings apiece. They’re 10th and 11th.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic) – We’ll give this one four and half cans of American brew on ice. The race up front was a stinker, but there was some good side-by-side action in the pack, and plenty of fireworks to go around. Someone oughta remind the Cup guys that the 4th of July is next weekend.

Next Up – Daytona, and the asinine two-car shuffle. Even if it is Firecracker 400 race weekend, knowing the type of racing that’s going to be seen on Saturday night puts a damper on what used to be one of the more exciting weekends of the summer.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Beyond the Cockpit: Alexis DeJoria On The 300 mph Women of the NHRA
A Swan’s Broken Wings Equal NASCAR’s Next Concern?
Thinkin’ Out Loud – The Off Week Season Review
Pace Laps: Swan Racing’s Future, Fast Females and Dropping Out
Sprint Cup Series Facilities Can Build Upon Fan Experience by Looking to Their Roots


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Sharon J
06/27/2011 06:51 AM

“Reign of Terror” is the best description I have seen of the actions of Montoya. Certainly could not call his rampage racing. This guy has gotta get control of himself.

06/27/2011 06:53 AM

Wow, Bryan, no mention of Tony Stewart being placed on top of a tire wall for spinning Brian Vickers? I’m guessing that’s just an oversight, but what the hell?

I am now a Brian Vickers fan. Good for him for not putting up with Stewart’s whining about people not letting him win.

06/27/2011 06:55 AM

Whoops, look like you did mention it…my fault. Sorry Bryan. Still, I did think it was worth more than one sentence…

Bill B
06/27/2011 07:37 AM

That race yesterday was entertaining to watch but the road course races have become free-for-alls. Not sure what or if anything should be done about that but… I’m just sayin’.

I have to give Kesolowski two thumbs up for nailing Montoya. Juan was driving like he was the only one that mattered. Like he was destined to win. Well he got what he deserved.

I’m no Vickers fan but he paid back Stewart what he was due. He was not blocking. He had a car in front and two cars to the side. There was no where else he could go.

Carl D.
06/27/2011 07:54 AM

Bobby Labonte has run so bad this season that he doesn’t even warrent a Hindenburg mention for being put into the wall by McDowell for no real reason.

Keselowski and Vickers are my two favorite drivers this week. I wonder if Brad will being hearing from Montoya’s lawyer this week.

Personally, I like the road races better than the races at some of the newer cookie-cutter tracks. I’d trade two Chicagolands for another Sonoma in a heartbeat.

Tony Stewart went to great lengths to explain what he would not put up with on the track. It took Brian Vickers only a couple of seconds to show us the what HE won’t put up with.

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick were off probation and running in close quarters at Sonoma, yet they played nice. Do we have Childress to thank for that?

06/27/2011 09:08 AM

I am not that fond of Infineon as a track, but I enjoyed the race. I’d give it 5 cans.

I actually despise Bwad K., but following the “Blind Squirrel Law” I give him a thumbs up, and I give a thumbs up to Carl D. for wondering about JPM’s attorney. Bringing the lawyers in just plain leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

But my best moment(s) of the race were those (on track and off) involving Smoke and Vickers. They were just plain good old fashioned fun, and, folks, when I come down to it that is why I watch racing. Fun.

Bill S.
06/27/2011 09:46 AM

Carl D., I saw a report that Kyle went up to Kevin after the race and thanked/congratulated him for racing him hard but clean. Either this is Kyle’s own version of the mind games going on between the two, or it is the “new Kyle” If the latter, I want the old Kyle back – immediately. Trying to be civil with Kevin is a waste of time because Kevin is simply pure evil. Jeffrey Dahmer and Charlie Manson have nothing on Kevin Harvick.

And Childress? What does he have to do with this? He is on the hook for THREE YEARS for civil assault and battery against Kyle. That is the statute of limitations in NC for that offense in civil court. In effect, Richard is on probation with Kyle, not the other way around. Kyle has chosen not to file criminal charges, but he has three years to decide if he wants to own RCR and fire Harvwrecks personally.

And when are crew chiefs going to learn that track position is ALWAYS more important than tires late in the race? At least a dozen drivers finished behind the likes of Bowyer and Logano because they made unnecessary late pit stops. The danger this time was not the inablity to pass, but getting in the way of JPM’s reign of terror.

As bad as JPM was, though, I did enjoy him saying that certain people (Brad K) don’t now how to drive on a road course. Very true, Juan, but still, did you have to take it out on everybody else?

And thanks much to Matt M. for skipping this week’s event. Please continue this public service. You probably got Bill Elliott’s career win total wrong because Bill won some race that you didn’t figure was worth your precious time and effort to watch. Solution: Don’t watch any of them.

06/27/2011 10:58 AM

What is it with these former F-1 guys on a NASCAR road course? They’re like an over sheltered child. Give them some freedom (aka fenders) and they go nuts. I loved watching JPM get dumped. I was wondering if Jacques Villenuve ended up winning that race Saturday if there would be a brawl in victory lane. NASCAR please put a road course in the Chase if we must keep the awful thing.

Carl D.
06/27/2011 11:12 AM

Just wondering if Cale Yarborough considered pressing charges against the Allison Brothers for the whuppin’ they put on him at the ’79 Daytona 500.

Michael in SoCal
06/27/2011 11:22 AM

I’m with Carl D… Give me another road course in place of any of the second dates at the cookie cutter tracks. Michigan, Charlotte, Kansas, Texas… I’m talking about you guys. And I’d throw Pocono’s second race in there as well.

Bill B
06/27/2011 12:34 PM

I assume you are talking about Montoya. He drives like an idiot at these road courses but it is easy to understand why. He gets two chances to win a race each year because he can’t win at an oval. Therefore he has to do whatever it takes when they hit the road courses. Usually that includes bulling his way through the field. He needs to be more patient instead of thinking he’s so much better than everyone else that they should just yield.

Bill S.
06/27/2011 12:34 PM

Carl D., a civil suit is different than pressing charges. Lower burden of proof. And money damages are the prize at the end of the day. Why not take some of Childress’ ill-gotten gaines from his assoication with Dale Sr.? It won’t happen, but it is a nice thought that Kyle could take Fat Richard to the cleaners and teach him some humility. And yes, it is Richard who needs the lesson, not Kyle.

Carl D.
06/27/2011 01:11 PM

But… A lawsuit is limited to damages. It didn’t look like Kyle suffered any damage to his face, nor does it look like his career has suffered. As for damages to his reputation, if a stinkbug landed on a pile of manure, would it smell any worse?

06/27/2011 01:39 PM

Thought that both Kez and BV had the right of it. JPM whining afterward that “no one gives me any room” was classic. Seriously dude, people would give you room if you didn’t drive like a one man wrecking ball. This whole thing about bringing a lawyer with him to the Nascar hauler – he’s probably got one on speed dial and needs it.

Liked Stewart’s “I dumped him because he was blocking” excuse. Somehow it didn’t look like that to me on the replay — the track was pretty much blocked by the 18 being off track and pinballing back into it. Stewart decided not the slow down and just ran over BV, so he had it coming.

That said, I really don’t like this new way of driving road courses – didn’t like the Nationwide race or Cup in particular. The good road racers used to be able to finesse it around the course, but since they are all driving the brick on wheels, it’s all become brute force & ignorance instead.

Bill S.
06/27/2011 01:43 PM

That’s why the statute of limitations is three years. So if there is any fallout, like Kyle losing a sponsor or getting fired by JGR, he can take it to RCR and make a case that the damages were caused by Dick-head personally and his organization collectively (including evil Kevin). That’s the beauty of damages – they don’t have to be physical; they just have to be measureable in dollars. And the deeper the pockets the better. Most civil cases never make it all the way to trial, but lots of money is spent in legal fees before a settlement is reached. Bugging the hell out of Richard would be worth the price of admission.

You think Jeremy Mayfield is gonna win his case? The nuisance value alone makes it worthwhile. And if I recall correctly, Tim Richmond’s family DID get a settlement from NASCRAP, which does not justify how they treated Tim, just gives some “payback” as you boys like to call it.

I call it revenge – a dish best served cold.

And I hate these arrogant RCR creeps so much, I would work on it for the sheer joy of it.

06/27/2011 01:51 PM

How come nobody mentioned Logano and Robby Gordon? Was Logano’s father in the car or inspiring him on the radio?

06/27/2011 02:18 PM

Logano’s dad probably threatened to beat up Zippy if he didn’t give Joey better cars LOL. After all, I’m sure daddy thinks Sliced Bread is perfect and everybody else is to blame.

06/27/2011 02:21 PM

Logano was clearly wrong. NASCAR drivers need to learn the difference between two very different concepts: blocking and a defensive line. Robby was taking the normal passing lane into that corner, but he never blocked Logano. He always took that lane. In order to be a block, he would have to wait until Logano pulled out and then move into the lane, which he didn’t do. Choosing a lane and staying in it is not a block, even if you’ve taken a line that is not normal for corner entrance. Anyone who has ever watched or driven in an actual road race would know this.

06/27/2011 03:00 PM

Cheers to Brian Vickers for putting Tony Stewart’s ass-end on top of a pile of tires. That was as beautiful as when he took out JJ and Jr. in a deft winning manauver at Talledega. The kid sure knows how to take out the right people.

Carl D.
06/27/2011 03:47 PM

The way I see it, if you’re “blocking”, you’re moving from lane to lane on the track in order to keep the driver behing you from passing you. That’s fair, but it could end up getting you punted, which is also fair. And if you do get punted, it’s fair for you to pay that driver back on the track. As far as the Vickers-Stewart incident, neither did anything “illegal”, but both paid the price for pissing each other off.

That’s just racin’.

Bill S.
06/27/2011 04:53 PM

My understanding is that blocking is illegal in Indy car racing. I always wondered how they defined it, because obviously, you shouldn’t have to just let the car behind go by just because he is faster. A driver ought to be able to fight to hold his position. Does anybody know how blocking is defined and enforced in Indy? I know Helio has been penalized for blocking several times. Do you get black-flagged or warned first? If NASCAR considers blocking legal, then it should not be legal to punt somebody out of the way for it. Other sports have rules about legal and illegal hits – why shouldn’t NASCAR?

I suppose it is that macho image that NASCAR tries so hard to achieve – as if. As if anybody believes race car drivers are tougher than football players or NBA players or soccer players. Stupid redneck image that means nothing.

More of that stone-age Yarborough-Allison mentality. Last I checked, they weren’t racing anymore.

Carl D.
06/27/2011 05:53 PM

No, Yarborough and Allison are not driving anymore. We all get old. We don’t all make the Hall of Fame, though.

06/27/2011 06:05 PM

The race started at about 12:20 on the west coast. Why can’t the east coast races start at that time? It seems there is a definite increase in church attendance when the NFL season ends.

Didn’t Joey get Robby because Robby roughed him up earlier?

06/27/2011 06:09 PM

Bill – I don’t know the exact rule, but I think the gist of it is that you can’t made a sudden change to your driving line with the sole intent of blocking the path of the pursuer.

If the pursuer is put into the position of having to either slam on his brakes, or plow into you, that’s probably a block.

Happens in NASCAR and they don’t seem to mind it, especially late in the plate races pre-tandem era.

06/27/2011 06:50 PM

Tony said that he dumped Vickers because he was blocking him, so he dumped him. Jr. is the one who paid for Tony’s dumping Vickers, down to 7th in points. Tony got what he had coming later…but that did not help Jr. Tony was being a jerk, & according to his interview, Tony intends to continue being a jerk for the rest of his career.

06/27/2011 10:47 PM

Bill S if you would have really watched the race you wouldve seen that Bowyer and Logano took tires on the last caution

another good article Matt

06/28/2011 03:09 PM

Marybeth, do you have anything else to talk about besides Jr. When he has a bad race, you make excuses for him or its always someone elses fault. Your driver started back in the pack and that’s what happens when you don’t qualify well.

Montoya: If he had any patience he could have had a nice top 5 finish and moved up the standings with everyone else having problems. Instead he punted everyone, got a taste of his own medicine and ended up 20 something.

Logano: I disagree with your assessment of Logano. You obviously have some dislike for him. Isn’t there a 3 year rule for young drivers to develop? I have heard that many times. He has not reach a full 3 years yet so I think you are being a little harsh and think a top 5 on a road course is a pretty good feat. Whens the last time Jr had a top 5 on a road course? Also, didn’t the media create this name for him. I don’t remember anyone else calling him “sliced bread” other than the media. So how is that his fault?

Bill S.
06/28/2011 06:30 PM

Tim, if you could read, you would see that Matt did not write this article. He snubs tracks he does not like. Bryan Davis Keith III wrote this masterpiece.

And since you were wrong about the obvious, I will have to verify your statement about Bowyer and Logano. They restarted well ahead of drivers who had been in front of them before the last caution.