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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2008 Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma

Hey guys! Doug Turnbull here. Matt warned you that he wouldn’t be in the driver’s seat for his Infineon column – I don’t know if that makes me a road-course ringer or not, but I do know that I am gonna stick to his format for wrapping up the race. This race seemed to play itself out as many predicted and in the end, the best driver and the best car won.

The Key Moment: Robby Gordon’s spin into Kurt Busch that not only left contenders, like Carl Edwards, trapped on the track, while Kyle Busch, David Gilliland and others pitted, but also caused Gordon to run out of fuel and never regain position.

In a Nutshell: Kyle Busch benefited from the first caution, when David Ragan sent Joe Nemechek into one of the tire barriers. Busch and others had already pitted, meaning the early dominant car of Jimmie Johnson lost a ton of track position on pit road. Edwards got burned in the same way as Johnson on a later caution, and never fully recovered. Busch never looked back, hitting his marks while the other fast horses of Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon faded from contention. Would you like some M&M’s with that wine?

Dramatic Moment: Stewart’s late-race charge to the front to catch his leading teammate was foiled by Kevin Harvick’s Montoya-like decision to dive-bomb both Stewart and Jamie McMurray, eliminating all three of them plus Ron Fellows, ending any chance of capturing the day’s trophy.

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

Kyle Busch not only manipulates fuel mileage to win a road race, but absolutely dominates. Any doubters of the No. 18 team, based on their performance during the two weeks prior to Sonoma, have their foot in their mouths now. During those two races, the Busch and the boys had a good car, but fell on the wrong side of racing luck. Eliminate a spotter mistake and being bitten by fuel strategy, and those doubters don’t exist. Many people also said that Kyle Busch is a driver that should not be considered a road racer. People’s memories are so short. Kyle did happen to win the Nationwide Series race at Mexico City earlier this season. These doubts only prove that this is a ‘what have you done for me lately’ sport now, more than ever.

Silly Season’s crazy sinews make another turn Sunday, as DEI says they are ready to begin running Aric Almirola full-time. This is not a bad decision, considering the driver has not run horribly, but do they really want Mark Martin walking out of their stable? As DEI says this, Rick Hendrick is non-committal about Casey Mears’s future in the No. 5 car beyond this season; sparking speculation that Martin may move to that team and pull together one final attempt at a full season. This brings up several questions that need to be answered, if indeed Martin bolts for Hendrick.

What is the future of Mears’s Cup career if he couldn’t make it at arguably the best organization in NASCAR? What will the sponsor lineup look like at DEI? Can Martin revitalize the No. 5? Or who will take the wheel if Mears is canned and Martin doesn’t make the jump?

Another topic discussed this week will be Joey Logano. Yes, he did have another great run in the Nationwide Series race at Milwaukee, finishing second; but he also managed to rough up race dominator Brad Keselowski on the track and points leader Clint Bowyer on pit road. These are the first noticeable mistakes the kid has made on the track; for his sake, they better not bite him back. Surprisingly, he is not running the entire rest of the season in the No. 20 Toyota, as Stewart is scheduled to be behind the wheel the next two weeks. What is up with that? If Gibbs expects him to be ready enough to possibly run a few Cup races later this season, he needs to be in the car every week, learning how to not run into Keselowski. If NASCAR has not yet approved Logano to run the superspeedways, they need to, because he will never learn how to draft on the sidelines, no matter how good NASCAR ’09 is.

BOWLES: HARVICK VICTIMIZES MCMURRAY, STEWART, CHASE CHANCES

Harvick’s overzealous move on Gilliland and McMurray, that ended up eliminating Harvick, McMurray and Stewart from contention, seemed to not only be a throwback move of Harvick’s from 2001, but also seemed to ironically resemble the move that Martin Truex Jr. made at Watkins Glen that wrecked Harvick, Montoya and RCR teammate Jeff Burton. The ensuing yelling and helmet shoving match between Montoya and Harvick became the NASCAR fight of ’07, as weak as it was – funny how the tables turn.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

This has to go to either Montoya, whose back bumper made contact with the front bumper of Ambrose, causing Montoya to spin and lose valuable track position or Stewart getting wrecked out of not only a top-five finish, but also the top 12 in the points by Harvick.

A runner-up, though, has to go to all the road-course ringers, most of whom ran well at times on Sunday. Ambrose broke a shock and got spun out by Elliott Sadler, ending his day. Boris Said had mechanical trouble on his self-owned car, relegating him to a 41st-place finish. Fellows got wrecked out of a top-10 run by Harvick. Scott Pruett’s mediocre run was mellowed as Stewart bulldozed him to a 38th-place finish. Max Papis never was in contention and was put even further back by getting tangled up in the Kurt Busch-Robby Gordon wreck. Brian Simo suffered a mechanical failure early in the event.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Gilliland is a good candidate, pitting before two cautions and benefiting from later cautions, helping the No. 38 team to score the best Yates Racing finish since Dale Jarrett’s Talladega win in 2005 and Gilliland’s best finish of his career.

Matt Kenseth’s name was not mentioned the entire race, until he out of no where appeared in the top 10 with just a few laps remaining. This allowed the No. 17 team to climb into the top 12 in the points, something that seemed a silly thought a few races ago.

Worth Noting

Jeff Gordon struggled with an ill-handling race car for much of the Infineon race, but managed a third-place run, after barely running in the top 15 for much of the event. This allowed him to pull away from some of the stragglers in the back of the Chase standings.

David Ragan is no longer 13th in the points, but easily could have fallen further back in the standings, considering his lack of road-racing experience. Instead, he garnered a solid top-25 finish and avoided wrecking out, like David Reutimann.

The TNT boys did an awesome job covering Sadler being able to drive on a tire that was going down, during the final two laps. He was sitting in fourth under the red flag when he felt the tire going down. But he kept the car from wrecking and stayed out of the way of others, finishing 19th… and then wrecking in turn 1 of the cool-down lap. Two thumbs up!

After practically being pushed out of his No. 26 Crown Royal driver’s seat by the media (including me), McMurray has two consecutive solid runs. He proved his road racing prowess at Infineon, before being taken out by Harvick, and nearly won Michigan, finishing in the top 10. His future at Roush Fenway may still be in doubt, but he is at least doing his best to quell any rumors and prove that he deserves a winning ride.

In his Cup debut, Ambrose ran solidly in the top five, before breaking a shock and getting spun out, ending his day. This run is a shot in the arm to a struggling Wood Brothers team, one of the most legendary in the sport, who need good runs to build their confidence and get their sponsors on TV. It also is good to see another foreign-born driver running well in a sport that is not yet known for its wealth of diversity.

A big “what the heck?” goes to full-time road course aces on the Cup circuit. Where were Sam Hornish Jr. and Patrick Carpentier during the race? They never showed their teeth, running in the back of the pack. Surprisingly, Dario Franchitti easily failed to qualify for the event, raising more frustration for a struggling Ganassi operation. This also goes to show that you need more than just a driver to run well at any track the Cup circus goes to.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six wine bottles): This race gets four. Why not? There were enough cautions to keep the field bunched up and there were enough story lines, (like Ambrose’s strong run), to make things interesting.

Next Up: New Hampshire. This is one racetrack that I hope loses a date. Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin both died here and the racing is boring. Bowyer did win his first race there and needs another shot in the arm after a good run at Sonoma. Reed Sorenson returns to the No. 41 car at a track that he runs well at. This could be a good place for him to get his season back on track and save his future. Matt McLaughlin returns to the seat next week, while I will return to my normal duties as writer of the TV column. Check it out every Tuesday!