The Frontstretch: Frontstretch Breakdown : Dodge / Save Mart 350 by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday June 25, 2006

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Frontstretch Breakdown : Dodge / Save Mart 350

Thomas Bowles · Sunday June 25, 2006

 

To the Point: For the 100th road course race in the history of Nextel Cup, it seemed appropriate that the race should be won by the most accomplished road racer ever to set foot in the series…and it was. Jeff Gordon held off Ryan Newman and a surprise upset bid by former teammate Terry Labonte to cruise to victory at Infineon Raceway. The win was the 9th for Gordon on a road course in just 27 career starts, as well as his first Nextel Cup victory this season. With Gordon also taking this weekend to announce his engagement to model Ingrid Vandebosch, it's safe to say this was the best weekend of the year so far for NASCAR's winningest active driver. Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch rounded out the Top 5 finishers.

Who Should Have Won: Gordon. While the road course veteran was starting an uncharacteristic 11th on Sunday, there was no doubt Gordon's career record made him the overwhelming prerace favorite, and he once again lived up to the billing Sunday. Taking his time through Infineon's twelve turn maze to slowly weave his way through to the front, Gordon didn't assume the lead until lap 49, but proceeded to lead 44 of the final 71 circuits. After passing a fuel-starved Labonte on lap 88 to take the lead for the final time, Gordon was never seriously challenged up front.

Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) With a phantom caution and a red flag thrown late in the race, does NASCAR need to clarify its rules on how races will be finished?

Absolutely. With Gordon turning the race into a runaway, Joe Nemechek's harmless spin on lap 97, in which he didn't hit anything and quickly drove away, brought out a one lap caution flag that bunched up the field. With several other harmless spins throughout the day causing nothing but a "local yellow" in that area of the track, common for a road course, this appeared a blatant attempt to artificially create an exciting finish.

Not only that, but a red flag thrown for a multi-car crash on lap 105 between J.J. Yeley, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, and others again defeated the purpose of the green-white-checkered rule. Instead of allowing the cars to continue to circle the track, NASCAR chose to red flag the event for an extended period, giving teams only one extra lap of green flag racing instead of relying on the green-white-checkered rule they established for the very reason of not having to red flag the end of races. With Sonoma drenched in sweltering heat, the drivers needed water bottles during the red flag and several complained after the event that the stoppage was uncomfortable at best, unbearable at worst.

Bottom line, NASCAR's credibility is going to be continually questioned if they don't come up with a consistent strategy to handle the end of races, as well as start resisting the urge to reach for that yellow flag more often in the final 20 laps of a race "just because." It's simple as that.

2) Is it worth it for teams to hire road course ringers to enhance their hopes of getting inside the Top 35 in owner points?

If you based your decision solely on this weekend's results, the answer would be an overwhelming "no." Of the eight "road course specialists" from other series who were hired this weekend with one race deals, four of them failed to qualify for the event and only one finished the race in the Top 10 (Boris Said with the new No Fear Racing Team No. 60 Ford wound up 9th). Ron Fellows, P.J. Jones, and Scott Pruett finished 37th, 36th, and 30th, wasting a fantastic opportunity for their teams to move into the Top 35 in owner points as the 35th place team (the No. 14 of MB2 Motorsports) was eliminated in a first lap crash and finished 42nd. You have to wonder if some of these teams will now change strategy and keep their regular driver in the seat for Watkins Glen in August.

3) How much did retired Rusty Wallace help the Penske team with their setups on Sunday?

Apparently, quite a bit. Kurt Busch especially made mention of Rusty's input during his postrace comments, and it seems the former road course expert steered the Penske organization in the right direction, with both team cars finishing in the Top 5 for the first time this season. Add to that accomplishment the fact that neither Busch nor Newman had won a road course race entering Sunday, with Newman failing to lead a lap in four Infineon starts, and the weekend becomes even more impressive. The bigger issue, of course, is whether this turnaround is too little, too late as far as the Chase is concerned.

4) Did Boris Said get too aggressive on the track with drivers and teams that run the series every week?

While Said's 9th place finish was respectable, he was involved in two separate incidents on Sunday with Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon. Said's contact with Gordon knocked the tow out on the 7 car, while the second incident with Stewart infuriated the two time Nextel Cup champion and nearly resulted in both cars being wiped out in a crash. In both cases, the wrecks weren't necessarily Said's fault, and just because the road course veteran is running a limited schedule doesn't mean he should be holding back from racing drivers that are running for the championship. However, Said is attempting to be a full-time rookie in this series in 2007, and these incidents might have lost him a little respect on the track for future events.

5) What will the open wheel merger of IRL and Champ Car mean for NASCAR?

It's a little too early to tell, but the fact that NASCAR is working hard to secure IRL drivers Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick, as well as persistent rumors they were undermining efforts behind the scenes for a Champ Car race to be held in Phoenix suggests the powers that be in Daytona Beach might be slightly concerned. For the better part of a decade, NASCAR's run wild without much competition, and while the merger of these two series will take a few more years to take effect, once it does past history proves one strong open wheel series could be a formidable challenger to NASCAR at the top of the racing totem pole. Surely, if the Car of Tomorrow project is a failure in improving the quality of racing, NASCAR could stand vulnerable if the new open wheel series plays its cards right.

Solid Runs
Terry Labonte – To say that Labonte's 3rd place finish in the DLP/Texas Instruments Chevrolet of Hall of Fame Racing was unexpected would be the understatement of the year. Using pit strategy to go from outside the Top 30 to leading the race, Labonte ran the last 50 laps of the event without stopping, giving HOF's single car team their best ever result. The finish also marked the retiring Labonte's first Top 5 run in 70 races, since his last win at Darlington in August 2003.

Carl Edwards – Edwards finished 38th at Infineon and 19th at Watkins Glen in his first two Cup starts on a road course, but this year pledged to do better. With a 6th on Sunday, he's off to a solid start in that department. Crediting his improvement to some tutoring by Boris Said, Edwards used the run to climb ever closer in his quest to reach the Top 10 in Nextel Cup points.

Elliott Sadler – Another driver using pit strategy to his advantage, Sadler had a Gas and Go pit stop under green to gain track position after running at the back of the pack all day. The 38 car was able to hold its own after that, coming home 8th for Robert Yates Racing's first Top 10 since Texas over two and a half months ago.

Jimmie Johnson – For the point leader, Infineon has been an uphill battle, with an average finish of 23.2 at the track heading into Sunday. To make matters worse, Johnson spun out by himself during the race while running in the Top 10. Once again, though, racing luck shined down on the 48 team, as the damage was minimal and Johnson was able to easily recover, driving a solid race en route to a 10th place finish to extend his point lead.

Tough Days

Tony Stewart – Rarely does someone make this category a second straight week, but Stewart's luck has been so rotten recently it was impossible to keep him off the list. Surviving an on track tussle with Boris Said that bent up his car and his temper, as well as a pit road speeding penalty that cost him a dozen spots, Stewart battled his way up to 3rd with a handful of laps to go. The 20 car looked to be the only one capable of challenging road course nemesis Jeff Gordon - and then, the valve train began to self-destruct. Falling off the pace, Stewart fell back to 28th to record his fourth finish outside the Top 10 in the last five races.

Robby Gordon – A former winner at Infineon, Gordon was looking forward to using this event to turn around a streak of six straight races finishing outside the Top 10. Instead, contact with Boris Said while running near the front knocked the tow out on his car, eventually causing a left front tire to blow and sending Gordon into the outside pit wall while bringing the car in for service. A dejected Gordon finished 40th.

Ron Fellows – Perhaps no road course "ringer" left more disappointed than Fellows. With his car owner, Cal Wells, spending over $400,000 to create a special road course car with a chassis designed specifically to Fellows' liking, the No. 32 team was sure this would be the race that would catapult them into the Top 35 in owner points. Instead, the money went to waste. Fellows made contact with another car early and battled a loose condition throughout the race, dropping like a rock through the field before blowing a tire and then losing the drive train on the Tide Chevrolet. Fellows finished 10 laps behind in 37th.

Ken Schrader – Schrader had such a bad day on Sunday, he didn't even get to complete a lap. Losing control of his car entering Turn eight, Schrader spun out in front of the field and was promptly T-Boned by Sterling Marlin and Tom Hubert, tearing all three cars to pieces. Ending up 42nd in the final running order, the race marked the 4th finish of 40th or worse for Schrader in what's been a frustrating season to date.

Points Shuffle:
With Matt Kenseth struggling to 17th on Sunday, Jimmie Johnson continued to cement his hold on the Nextel Cup standings, now leading by 101 over Kenseth and 308 over new third place man Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Kasey Kahne dropped a spot from third to fourth in points after a flat tire relegated him to a 31st place finish; Mark Martin, meanwhile, finished 13th to remain solidly in the Top 5.

Another Top 10 run by Jeff Burton and the 31 team moved him up a spot to sixth in points, while Stewart's engine woes dropped him to seventh, just 76 points from falling out of the Top 10 completely. Jeff Gordon's win made him the biggest mover of the week, jumping him three spots from eleventh to eighth, with Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick rounding out the Top 10. Denny Hamlin finished 12th Sunday, but still fell from ninth to eleventh in the standings, now finding himself nine points behind Harvick for the final spot in the Chase.

Quotable:
"It's definitely the most emotional (win at Infineon) for me. I've got to admit, I got a little choked up riding around in the car with the checkered flag. I don't know if it was getting to Victory Lane for the first time this year, whether it was the excitement with announcing the engagement, or the pressure of not winning so far this year, or just the road course. I don't know what it was, but it was there, it was real, and it felt great and I was excited. I think I did one of the best burnouts I've ever done, so I'm proud of that." Jeff Gordon

"It is really fun watching the race…so frustrating, though, to know that you can't possibly win." Troy Aikman on a press conference discussing the 96 team Sunday morning…before the car, driven by Terry Labonte, led 17 laps and gave the team its best ever finish of 3rd

"I've never told anybody this except for a few friends, but when I was a kid growing up, Roger Staubach was always my hero. I finally got to meet him (driving the 96 car) and he is everything I imagined, and that's really neat because a lot of times people that you look up to aren't really what you think they are." Terry Labonte

"I was facing the wrong direction coming back across the track. I looked up and saw all kinds of cars and said, ‘There ain't no way they all are gonna miss us,' and they didn't." Ken Schrader on his first lap wreck

"At the beginning of the race (Tony Stewart) was faster than me and I let him by. Then, all of a sudden he was slower and I went by him, and then he runs into me and runs me off the track. I'm like ‘OK, that's one thing.' And then I go back by him and he crashes into me. I still wasn't mad at him, but when he was flipping me off I was really mad, so I'll be talking to him Monday morning." Boris Said

"It was really hot. When they had red flags (at Sonoma) they bring you water (though), which is awesome. I remember at Loudon a few years ago in the Busch race I thought I was gonna die, so that's nice to bring water…but those cars are hot." Jamie McMurray

Next Up:
As the country heads towards its yearly weekend of July 4th celebrations, NASCAR's fireworks will be going off down in Daytona Beach, as the series returns to the 2.5-mile track for the running of the Pepsi 400 this Saturday night. The restrictor plate action starts up shortly after 7:30 EST on FOX, the final race the network will carry this season.

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