The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Sonoma Race Recap by Mike Neff -- Monday June 25, 2012

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Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin is off this week. He’ll be back next Monday for Kentucky.

The Key Moment – Michael Waltrip Racing had a coming out party at Sonoma. The organization led 86 of the 112 laps with Clint Bowyer doing the majority of the work with 71 of those 86 laps. The race went two extra circuits thanks to a late-race spin but Bowyer held off charges from Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart over the last two spins around the road course to notch his sixth victory of his career and third in the history of MWR.

In a Nutshell – Between an incessant amount of commercials and a serious lack of attention to detail by TNT, a tremendously boring road course race was somewhat salvaged by a late-race flurry of heated racing at the front of the field. The first 82 laps of the race went caution-free and the timing of that first caution gave several teams, including Tony Stewart, an opportunity to throw on fresh skins for the final run to the checkered flag. When the green went in the air with 26 laps to go, Busch put an all out assault on the lead and Bowyer withstood the attack at each and every turn. As the laps were winding toward the end, Stewart carved his way toward the front and needed a caution flag to make a final charge possible. That yellow flew with three laps to go and lined Stewart up behind Bowyer for the final double-file restart. As the cars thundered through the first two turns, Bowyer was able to hold off Busch, who forced his way down in front of Stewart and made one final rush toward the lead. Unfortunately, he had a failure in the rear end of his car that rendered his car nearly undriveable. Stewart got around Busch on the final lap but ran out of time to put on a serious charge into the final hairpin, which allowed Bowyer to log his sixth victory of his career and first with MWR.

Dramatic Moment – Busch put his car in contention to win late in the race and had the potential to make a pass on Bowyer but made contact with the tires on the inside of turn 11 late. The contact damaged his right front suspension and rear end, basically ending his chance to win the race and knocking him back to third by the finish.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler on Monday

What some were billing as a kick, scratch and gouge battle to the finish turned into a parade with only five spins occurring during the race (three of which were not shown on television) and one accident which brought out the first caution of the race on lap 83. With the constant talk this year about the lack of cautions and overall aggressive driving, the twists and turns of Sonoma didn’t do anything to appease the “only watch for the crashes” crowd.

Commercials pay the bills for television but when the people watching the race telecast are taking out stopwatches and timing the amount of racing between commercials, there just might be a few too many. The average amount of race time for the first 82 laps of the race between commercials was in the neighborhood of three minutes. The commercial time was slightly less than that. While the 18-minute stretch of action at the end of the race might have increased the total coverage time of the broadcast, it was hard to swallow after being subjected to the barrage of early commercials.

In the past, a driver could overcome the car at road courses if the team missed it on the setup but the current crop of drivers is so much better at road racing now that it no longer is possible. Marcos Ambrose set a new track record in qualifying and led the first 11 laps of the race. From then on, he was constantly battling with an ill-handling car and had to pull a rabbit out of the hat to come home in eighth place. The thought that Ambrose would guarantee a spot in the Chase with two road course wins is out the door now and he’ll need to score that elusive oval victory to have a shot at a wildcard berth in the Chase.

Continuing to prove that road course ringers have passed their usefulness Boris Said was the highest finishing hired gun for the road race at Sonoma. Said crossed the line in 29th position two laps down.

Kurt Busch came within a bump and run from being the first unsponsored car to win a Cup Series race since Richard Nixon was president.

The Indycar Series finally took an unprecedented step this weekend and actually held heat races for qualifying for one of the elite national touring racing series. NASCAR constantly takes heat for their top 35 rule and the socialist system that ensures teams make it into races every week. Heat races would be the ideal solution to allow all of the teams to race and only the drivers who earned it the opportunity to race in the main event.

For another weekend the Nationwide Series only had 43 cars show up to attempt to run in their race. It is a shame that the number two series in the NASCAR pecking order is unable to attract enough cars to have even one be bumped out of the field. Technically there were 44 at Road America but one withdrew before qualifying. On the plus side, only five cars developed the dreaded overheating, vibrating, brake ignition before lap five.

The Hindenburg Awards for Foul Fortune

Denny Hamlin managed to have another malfunctioning race car at Sonoma. For the third year in a row the only positive thing for Hamlin out of his trip to Wine Country was the fact that his travel expenses are less thanks to his relocation to Arizona.

Kyle Busch managed to come home in 17th but his car was laying down on him at the end of the race for the fourth race in a row. While there isn’t much chance that he and his brother switched bodies before the race, his tirade on the radio near the end of the race was as close to his brother’s monkey and football reference at Richmond as it can get. For those fans who remember A.J. Foyt climbing out of the car at Indianapolis and calling it a tub of S$##, Busch referred to his several hundred thousand dollar stock car as a bucket of F$#%.

Regan Smith wasn’t having the best day at Sonoma when he was dumped during the first lap of the G-W-C finish. Smith was already a lap down and ended up not only getting dumped and tearing up his race car, but didn’t get to make it back to the finish line for either of the last two laps.

After winning at Michigan last week Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was poised to win 20 of the remaining 21 races on the schedule, but he knew that a top-10 finish at Sonoma would be bigger than another trophy on the shelf. Earnhardt did have the No. 88 poised for a possible 10th or better finish at Sonoma before Jeff Burton gave him the impetus for a roundy round on the next-to-last lap. Fortunately for Burton he won’t be in the series too much longer to have to deal with the hate mail from Junior Nation.

The Seven Come For Eleven Award for Fine Fortune

Tony Stewart was on a three stop strategy and was looking like he’d be well behind the two stop teams before the only real caution of the race flew. Fortunately for Stewart, he was able to get fresh skins and fuel and then put on an assault to the front of the field that resulted in a second-place finish.

AJ Allmendinger was not only on a three stop strategy but, after leaving the pits from the third stop, his crew chief came on the radio and told him that he was still two laps short on fuel. Luckily for Allmendinger the caution came out and he was ultimately able to parlay his talents into a ninth place finish.

Kurt Busch side swiped one of the groups of tires in turn 11 at Sonoma which, in prior years, were not affixed to the track. While the tires didn’t move and they caused some damage to Busch’s car, it wasn’t enough to prevent him from coming home with a podium finish.

Not that long ago, Michael Waltrip Racing equipment was a bit less than top of the line. Luckily for Clint Bowyer it has made a substantial step forward in 2012 and the result is he is going to most likely make the Chase while his former employer is going to be lucky to have one car make the playoffs.

Worth Noting

  • For the fourth time in seven races, Clint Bowyer finished in the top 5. For the first time in those four races, it was a finish other than fourth. His victory was the first for Michael Waltrip Racing since David Reutimann at Kentucky Raceway in 2010.
  • The top-10 finishers at Sonoma drove three Toyotas, two Fords, four Chevys and a Dodge.
  • Tony Stewart (second) has seven top 5 finishes this season and all of them have been third place or better, including his second runner-up finish in a row.
  • Two caution flags is the fewest in any race of the 24 that have been held at Sonoma Raceway.
  • For the first time since he won at Sonoma in 2006, Jeff Gordon led laps at the California road course. He has also finished on the lead lap there in 19 of his 20 starts, completing 2,013 of the 2,035 laps in those races. Gordon also led his 23,000th lap of competition in the Cup Series this weekend. (Think that’s a lot? It is still more than 28,000 laps behind the 51,381 that Richard Petty led.)
  • Jimmie Johnson is now tops in the series with nine top-5 finishes while he and Earnhardt are tied with 12 top-10 finishes for most in the series.
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has still completed every lap that has been run this season. However, Sonoma was his first finish outside of the top 17.
  • Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr. are the only two drivers in the top 10 in points without a win.
  • Jamie McMurray finished 19th but that was 15 spots and five laps ahead of his teammate, who really ought to be updating his resume, especially after the whole jet dryer thing at Daytona.
  • JJ Yeley went the distance at Sonoma, and although he was five laps off the pace he did come home in 33rd place.
  • Regan Smith came home 32nd, which continues his streak of not finishing higher than 14th all season.
  • Robby Gordon failed in his efforts to have a SaveMart-sponsored car win the SaveMart 350, only finishing 73 laps and coming home 39th after his steering failed.

What’s the Points?

Matt Kenseth is still in the lead, extending his advantage over second place to 11 points which is now occupied by Greg Biffle after Earnhardt, Jr.’s misfortune during the G-W-C finish. Earnhardt is now in third, 14 points back and well within striking distance. Jimmie Johnson held onto the fourth spot, 25 behind Kenseth.

Tony Stewart jumped up three spots with his runner-up finish and is now just a mere 63 points from taking over the points lead. Harvick holds serve in the sixth spot while Bowyer rides his victory to a two-spot jump to seventh in the points. Denny Hamlin’s bad luck dropped him three positions to eighth, while Martin Truex’s late race spin-o-rama cause him to slide two. Brad Keselowski continues to occupy the 10th spot in points.

Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman still occupy the Wild Card spots for the Chase.

While Jeff Gordon failed to visit Victory Lane, he’s now 18th in points. If he is able to notch two wins, he should be a lock for the Chase at this point, but two wins is far from an easy task.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic) — This one was on the verge of being a rancid, skunky can of six-year-old Schmidt before the final 25 laps of the race. Kurt Busch’s run at Bowyer and Tony Stewart’s final lap charge added a small amount of life, but just a little. Give this one a whole two cans of cold Anheuser-Busch product thanks to that late-race excitement. The lack of people making banzai runs into the hairpin or muscling their way ahead of others in the esses prevents it from getting anything more.

Next Up — This week the series heads to the Bluegrass State to Kentucky Speedway. The folks at Kentucky and SMI have invested a truckload of money and time to try and alleviate the parking maladies that befell the event last season. Provided another mile-and-a-half cookie cutter race with tires that don’t wear out doesn’t scare you away, it should be a fun way to spend a Saturday night.

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Carl D.
06/25/2012 08:13 AM
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I seem to remember that Alan Kulwicki won a race in an unsponsored car right before Hooters signed on. Maybe it was a runner-up finish. My memory ain’t what it used to be. As a long-forgotten stand-up comic once said, “A mind is a terrible thing.”

Credit where credit is due… I’ve said Kurt Busch is a punk for quite a while now, but if not for him, this may have been the most boring road race in a long time. And after the race, even though he was frustrated he didn’t bite the head off of any baby kittens or reporters.

Was Carl Edwards even in the race yesterday? Does Bob Osborne still have a job?

Country
06/25/2012 08:17 AM
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This is why I record the races. I commented to my wife (after using the amazing fast forward button) how often the commercials seemed to be popping up. I guess TNT has to get in as many as possible before their “Wide Open” coverage at Daytona in a couple of weeks. I must disagree on the racing though. I’ll give this one 4 cans due to the technicality of the course. On road courses, I don’t mind so much when it gets strung because you still have the drama of “will someone make a mistake”. These guys can drive ovals in their sleep. You won’t see a guy spin out while leading by 5 seconds in the final 5 laps on an oval. I believe Mr. 5 time did just that at Watkins Glen a few years back. Also, isn’t it refreshing to see a a spin not bring out a caution…

Richie
06/25/2012 08:36 AM
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Carl, I remember that comedian, he had “Dain Bramage”! That was a classic bit. Bob Nelson was his name and he went on to have several bit acting parts on screen and TV.

ArkyBass
06/25/2012 09:08 AM
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The commercials are killing my interest. I joined in with 50 laps to go and it seemed like 15 minutes before I saw any racing. Maybe a sponsor could just pay to have a camera on their car for 2 minutes or something. With all the signage and cars, drivers and the track covered with sponsorship the whole thing is like one big commercial…then they have commercial

bud sudz
06/25/2012 10:32 AM
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I was actually hoping for a caution free race as long as it didn’t go fuel mileage. At least it would be a true race, with the fastest car, best strategy, getting the win.
Would never want to see that on an oval (although I did attend a caution free race at N. Wilkesboro in the early 90’s), it would be okay on a road course.
In regards to Gordon’s laps led vs. The King’s. Petty ran a higher percentage of short track races (more laps), with smaller fields (sometimes 18-22 cars at Martinsville among others), against weaker overall competition.
While Gordon has benefitted from more races on the schedule in the Modern Era, his laps led are just as impressive as Petty’s in my book.

DoninAjax
06/25/2012 10:41 AM
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Edwards was running twelfth when the last caution came out. After the drivers went brain-dead during the gwc he wound up in the twenties. Just like his whole season so far.

I watched the telecast of the 1986 second race at Atlanta (when it was a real race track – an oval) on ESPN Classic and saw everything that is wrong with the current telecast. Most of the current complaints were not evident. No concentrating on the chosen few, showing racing all around the track, describing the action on the track and not following some script, etc. And they had real race cars that looked like the showroom models. What a concept! Thank you, Brian, for the progress.

Carl D.
06/25/2012 11:58 AM
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Richie… Thanks for reminding me of Bob Nelson’s name. I youtubed his football routine and it’s still as hilarious as it was the first time I saw it.

Kevin in SoCal
06/25/2012 01:12 PM
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Mike said: “His victory was the first for Michael Waltrip Racing since David Reutimann at Kentucky Raceway in 2010.”

Ok, I’m sorry to call you guys out on this, but what the hell? Kentucky wasnt even a Cup race in 2010, and Reutimann won at Chicago that year.
Other than that, Mike did a great job filling in for Matt.

Spridel
06/25/2012 01:24 PM
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Thank you, Brian, for the progress.

Don – I am far from any kind of BF apologist; but, that ball was rolling long before he got a chance to kick it. I think his dad laid the foundation in the early 90’s, then when money started to play a larger factor in how the “show” was being run (think things like top 35 rules, broadcast rights, the chase, etc.), the powers in Daytona Beach couldn’t help ‘growing the product’ since it also grew wallet sizes too. I wonder if Bill Jr would have handled that differently if it all had started happening 5 years earlier… What I will blame BF for is the implication that the fans should stop saying s&!t when they smell it in the ‘product’. I get the sense that tarps don’t pay as much for seats as fans do…

I always enjoy pulling out tapes of races from the 80’s to watch. Winston Cup racing (yeah, I said it) usually represented the best of the best drivers that had earned their stripes in lower series to be considered for a ride. I won’t paint with too broad a brush here – I know there are younger drivers out there with some pedigree – but, back then it wasn’t about your marketability and q-factor as much as driving ability.

Plus I love seeing some of the older tracks, in previous incarnations – before the advent of luxury suites and beer gardens. I miss the shed roof at Darlington… :(

GinaV24
06/25/2012 02:11 PM
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I love road course races but the TV coverage made this unwatchable. I was once again forced to resort to trackpass, twitter and the radio feed to get any decent information about what was happening on the course.

Isn’t TV supposed to be about pictures? I understand that commercials pay the bills but when there is no coverage when the commercials aren’t on either, why should I even bother to turn this junk on?

Apparently someone on Gordon’s team can’t calculate fuel milage – sheesh, the car that was fastest in all 3 practices runs out of gas on a segment? How poor is that?

Patrick
06/25/2012 02:53 PM
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Not only where the commercials bad, they then had to go to the 18th place car in car camera so they could advertise more.

rg2
06/25/2012 03:07 PM
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Best Race Recap I’ve read in a long time. Are you sure that other guy is coming back next week?

DieselDan
06/25/2012 03:55 PM
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Last year’s Southern 500 was won by a unsponsored car, as the car owner has his own businesses on it, not any entity outside of the ownership.

Moose
06/25/2012 04:05 PM
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Carl, I don’t remember if Kulwicki had a win before Hooters signed up either. The last unsponsored car I remember winning at the Cup level was in 1985, when Greg Sacks won the Firecracker 400 in an unsponsored DiGard R&D car.

midasmicah
06/25/2012 04:48 PM
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I was actually looking forward to TNT televising a few races. Not. The racing is bad enough, but the inept race broadcasting and the sheer amount of commercials make it look far worse then it is. There were so many commercials that by the end of the race I felt beat down and disdn’t watch the end of the race. And this is coming from a 30+ years fan. SOS!

MeltoC
06/25/2012 05:16 PM
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I get so tired of the same commercials being shown every time they go to commercial. We are bombarded with TNT constantly patting themselves on the back. Is there any way that they could change the commercials, because what they are showing again and again is turning all of us into blithering idiots on raceday. Fast forward is a wonderful thing and I do not suppose the advertisers are happy about that. Oh Well, I do love my NASCAR Racing!

Lorenzen Fan
06/25/2012 08:22 PM
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Taping is the only way! I really enjoyed the turns at Sonoma, Infineon Raceway and hope for another bent race track event in the future… and one in the Chase too! My wife blew my mind this weekend while I was watching the race as she pranced around the house in a spoof of the NASCAR logo tee shirt with the word BORING on the front! She picked it up at http://www.nascarwidows.com and it was quite funny. Can you imagine that, calling a road race track boring… oh well…

john
06/26/2012 01:00 PM
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Frankly I was happy to see a mostly caution-free road course race. We haven’t had one in a long time. The problem wasn’t the lack of cautions, it was the lack of proper coverage from TNT. There was lots of great racing throughout the field and we saw NONE of it.

john
06/26/2012 01:10 PM
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And if these guys need a reminder how to do it, they only have to look at SPEED. Unfortunately commercials are still pretty frequent, but the guys who cover GRAND-AM do an amazing job of letting you see everything happening throughout the top 10-15 or so.

Steve
06/26/2012 01:59 PM
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How come Nascar didn’t throw the yellow when there was crap all over the track after Jr’s spin on the green flag lap of the green/white/checker. Nascar pulls the “safety” card when a cotton ball is on the track most weeks, but in this situation they don’t, and then wonder why they have a credibility issue with their fans.

Bob Nelson’s skit about the football player was great! Whatever happened to that guy.

Its definitely apparant that TNT, in order to do their wide open coverage at Daytona, has to make up for it with their other races by selling more commercial time.

Brooks
06/27/2012 11:32 AM
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@Steve Heck there was no reason for a full course caution when Paul Menard spun out. He was just sitting there because he was waiting for traffic to clear and it would have been a couple minutes before the leader got to that area of the track. But i guess GWC’s and the following destruction of equipment just looks really good for TV doesn’t it.