NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 Sonoma Race Recap

The Key Moment: Kasey Kahne held off Tony Stewart on no less than four restarts at the end of the race to claim his first victory in over a year.

In a Nutshell: Everything some fans love and other fans hate about road-course racing was featured in a single event.

Dramatic Moment: Those final 10 laps were about as exciting as it gets. Unfortunately the action was spread over so much topography it was tough to keep up with who was hitting who where.

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

The double-file restarts did in fact spice up the action at Sonoma without any of the wholesale carnage some drivers predicted. Oh, there was enough bumping and banging going on to make the typical mosh pit look like a Church Sunday social but no field decimating wrecks. But if I hear the term “Shootout Style” added after “double-file restart” one more time I’m going to take a cordless drill to my eardrums. Even Wally Dallenbach seemed to admit just how ridiculous the term has become.

With all the left-front camber some teams were running it’s a wonder their tires would last 10 laps.

I still don’t like stock cars running at road courses and I’m never going to like stock cars running at road-course races. Despite that twice annually some folks will try to change my contrary ways with the usual arguments some of which I addressed in Thursday’s column. Here are some of the other arguments I’ll undoubtedly be hearing this week.

  • Road-course races show a potential champion driver has a variety of skills – Of course that argument supposes that running ovals as diverse as Martinsville, Bristol, Michigan and Pocono doesn’t take a variety of skill sets to start with. OK, you want a multi-faceted champion? How about one weekend a year we stage a quarter-mile NHRA style drag race and allow the teams to run supercharged engines in elimination style races for points?
  • NASCAR actually started on the roads with moonshiners outrunning the cops. Sorry, no sale. While many of the drivers from NASCAR’s early era honed their driving skills in such late-night competition, stock car racing started on a variety of horse tracks at county fairgrounds and courses specially bulldozed in fields and around wrecking yards. If this argument is valid, then the NHRA ought to stage an event annually with the cars running down Front Street in South Philly, because drag racing has its roots in street racing.
  • Variety is the spice of life – True, but I’m still not going to have couscous for breakfast tomorrow.
  • It’s an interesting change of pace – It’s also a hideous expense for the teams developing specialized cars for the two road courses and sending their drivers to test at non-NASCAR sanctioned tracks to get ready for these two dog and pony shows. In this economy, especially with GM and Fiat-Chrysler cutting back on financial support to the teams, eliminating the two road course races would be a good first step to saving the teams a couple million dollars.
  • Road course racing rules! You’re a moron! – Guilty as charged. But based on the TV ratings for the road courses a lot of my fellow morons don’t like watching road-course races either. Back in the ’80s, NASCAR had to pair TV rights for the Glen and Riverside/Sonoma with some popular oval races just to get them on TV. And my fellow morons and I are the sort of morons that buy products from the sponsors that keep the moron sponsors buying those decal packages that keep your favorite drivers gainfully employed. Mull on that a moment you geniuses.

Folks who watched Saturday night’s Nationwide race at Milwaukee got a rare glimpse at something special. Milwaukee is a flat mile track and the teams competed in what’s now regarded as the “old car.” There were several desperate side-by-side battles for the lead and great physical side-by-side battles throughout the field on Saturday, more so than at any Cup event I’ve seen this season. Cars ran down the straights with their front valances several inches off the ground with suspensions functioning the way God and Junior Johnson intended them to work. Yet the first three quarters of the race were run with limited cautions. Milwaukee was a good clean, hard fought stock car race, old school style. If you missed it, more the pity for you because this sort of entertainment has become increasingly rare in the Brave New World of NASCAR.

You truly have to worry about the health of NASCAR’s Nationwide Series after seven drivers who made the field had retired to the garage before the 25-lap mark. Those teams specified reasons like “handling”, “brake”, “vibration” and such. None of them were honest enough to say “We got the check we came here to collect.” I fully expect someone to claim “Driver really needed a potty break” as a reason for retiring soon. An increasing number of fans writing me are enraged the TV networks are purposely and carefully avoiding telling the story of the race by not commenting on the start-and-park teams, showing full field rundowns and using camera angles carefully so as not to show vast swaths of empty seats in the grandstands.

I don’t think NASCAR officials have figured out how to officiate a road-course race after all these years. In real road-course racing a full-course yellow for debris means half the field is the debris and the course is completely blocked. Localized yellows are used for small bits of debris or simple single car incidents.

Maybe I’m being overly romantic, but there were some feel good stories in the weekend leading up to the Sonoma race. When TRG driver David Gilliland wrecked his car in practice, Earnhardt/Ganassi racing leased the struggling team a competitive mount that had been slated to be Martin Truex Jr.’s backup car. Joe Nemechek yielded the driver’s seat of the No. 87 car to road-course specialist Scott Speed after Speed failed to make the race in his own No. 82. Boris Said needed a pit crew and the Wood Brothers team loaned him theirs since they were slated to be idle this weekend in fair exchange for some of the favors that Boris has done for the team in the past. In this tight economy it seems some teams and owners have figured out that in these challenging times, we are going to hang together or we are going to be hung separately.

I found this interesting. Everybody has been wondering what’s wrong with Richard Childress Racing this season. Court documents released this week indicate that GM owed RCR $2.5 million that was to be paid on June 15th. Childress was coy as to whether he got the check or not but he did say he remained loyal to Chevrolet and GM. He did say our sport is in uncharted waters financially right now. He went on to note it was likely he was going to have to tighten up his organization’s finances in light of the financial crunch but vowed none of the cost-cutting was going to affect his teams’ performance. As I see it, if RCR is spending $2.5 million on stuff that doesn’t improve the teams’ performances we might be getting a glimpse as to why those teams are running off song this season.

It was a pretty good week for the old guys with 50-year-old Mark Martin winning the Michigan Cup race and 51-year-old Ron Hornaday claiming Saturday’s truck series race in Milwaukee.

Let’s put this whole Danica Patrick rumor to rest. Every time this young lady’s contract is up for renegotiation she dangles the stock car threat to try to leverage her best deal in the IRL. Besides I’m not sure NASCAR fans are ready for a driver even more effeminate and whiny than Kyle Busch.

Rumors surfaced this weekend indicating Stewart/Haas team principal Stewart might be interested in adding a third team to the organization next season. I’ll admit I badly “misunderestimated” Stewart’s chances of enjoying much success this year either as an owner or a driver so I won’t second guess him this time. But it does seem that the timing is odd with all the upset in the garage area over how much money GM is going to be investing in the sport going forward. As best I recall SHR is still looking for additional sponsorship for Ryan Newman’s team so absent a firm financial commitment from a rock-solid sponsor this would seem an unusual time to be thinking about expanding. If nothing else trying to firm up business deals and land a sponsor in a time period where it appears both Stewart and Newman will be competing for a title could be a distraction. In business there’s the Peter Principal that states even talented individuals will rise up the ranks to a level where they find themselves incompetent rather than being allowed to remain in a position where they did well.

One other possible reason for the rumored expansion plans at SHR concerns Brad Kesolowski. Kesolowski is a development driver for Rick Hendrick racing through JR Motorsports. Apparently Kesolowski is quite convinced he’s ready to move up to the Cup ranks though others have their doubts. With the four-team maximum rule set in stone for next year there’s no room for Kesolowski at Hendrick because Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Martin aren’t going anywhere. With the Stewart/Haas team being a satellite operation to Hendrick Motorsports, a third team for Kesolowski would keep him in the fold.

When he acquired the New Hampshire track Bruton Smith promised big changes. There was even talk that he was going to tear the track down and start over with a 3/4-mile replica of Bristol. None of that has come to pass but there was “big” news this week from New Hampshire. The track introduced their new mascot Milo the Moose. (Seriously… not even I can make up something this bizarre.) Well I guess it isn’t any more bizarre than the giant spark plug mascot, but I’m not investing my 401k in stuffed plush Milo the Moose replicas. This aberration made me feel like I was having an acid flashback watching Bullwinkle. The scary part is some marketing type got paid to develop the Milo the Moose concept while the rest of us have to do an honest day’s work for a paycheck. Given the typically tepid action at the track maybe promoters could have a pre-race steel cage death match between Milo the Moose and Digger the Gopher. If the gopher goes down Smith would be a hero to us all.

What was Said’s left-front fender made of, Kryptonite?

If I were a heavy-hitter with the race’s title sponsor (in this case Toyota) and I could only get a cold pass to the garage area I’d be peeved. (Check out the command to start the engines if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.)

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Kurt Busch had a strong run for most of the event only to get put into the tire barriers off the front bumper of the No. 48 car. Busch’s post-race comments showed a lot of class and maturity. Quick, someone send a tape of that interview to his younger brother.

Kevin Harvick desperately needs a good run and he was in fact running seventh when an equalized tire sent him to the rear of the field.

Joey Logano was having an extremely solid run in his first Cup road-course start until a bent fender cut down a tire and ended his chances at a strong finish.

Martin’s Michigan win is a distant object in the rearview mirror after a cut-down tire and a last lap wreck left him 35th.

Robby Gordon’s strong run and team strategy were negated by a caution flag that flew the lap before he was to pit, ending any chance he had at winning.

Kyle Busch won both Cup road-course races last year but Denny Hamlin sent Busch spinning out of contention and into the pits. It ought to be an interesting team meeting at JGR Monday. Sam Hornish Jr. was also collected in that mess.

David Ragan had better be on his guard against the Earnhardt Army after he wrecked the No. 88 car while Junior was in the midst of a half-decent run. (And for all those TV folks talking about what a hapless road-course racer Junior is, he did in fact beat Ron Fellows to win a Busch series race at Watkins Glen. Now you don’t have to look it up because I did.)

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

It was the first win for Richard Petty Motorsports. Though the King is only titularly involved with the organization he was in fact on hand to join the celebration.

Marcos Ambrose lost his third-place starting spot and had to start at the rear of the field after losing an engine in practice. He compounded the error by running into Johnson late in practice. Somehow Ambrose was still able to drive back to a third-place finish.

Johnson was penalized for speeding on pit road (NASCAR’s radar cops were particularly ticket happy Sunday), took an off-course excursion of his own and barely missed several wrecks to finish fourth.

AJ Allmendinger got spun twice but soldiered on to a resolute seventh-place finish.

Hamlin hit everything but the pace car and still wound up finishing fifth despite a beat up Toyota that could be dubbed “Final Express.”

Two road course ringers, Patrick Carpentier (11th) and Max Papis (12th) acquitted themselves pretty well at Sonoma. Some Cup series regulars will recall Carpentier’s run less than fondly. The others will figure that it was still Michael Waltrip in the car.

Worth Noting

  • The top-10 finishers at Sonoma drove three Dodges (all RPM entries), five Chevys and two Toyotas. The top-finishing Ford was Carl Edwards in 13th.
  • Papis in 12th was the top-finishing rookie at Sonoma.
  • Kahne won his first Cup race since Pocono last June.
  • Stewart (second) has now strung together four straight top-10 finishes and has top-10 results in six of the last seven Cup races.
  • Ambrose (third) has two top-10 finishes in his last three Cup starts. I think Ambrose is one of those drivers who even fans of other drivers wouldn’t mind seeing win if their favorite can’t.
  • Hamlin (fifth) scored his fourth top-five Cup result of 2009.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya now has three straight top-10 finishes. His sixth-place result at Sonoma was his best of the season.
  • Allmendinger’s seventh-place finish was his best since the Daytona 500.
  • Clint Bowyer’s eighth-place finish was his best since Martinsville.
  • Elliott Sadler (10th) drove to his first top-10 finish since the Daytona 500. He really has been a master of disguise most race weekends since Daytona. I don’t even recall seeing him out there.
  • Carpentier’s 11th-place finish was the best of his 28 Cup starts. His previous best Cup finish was a 14th-place result at the 2008 Daytona 500.
  • Papis’s 12th-place finish was the best of his nine-race deep fledgling Cup career. His previous best finish was an 18th-place result at Talladega. But does that ease the sting of having the Italian soccer team lose to Egypt? Egypt? Soccer? Apparently TNT was a little desperate for story lines this weekend as they tried to escape the “There’s No Drama” moniker after Michigan.
  • Martin’s 35th-place finish was his worst since Talladega. He remains upbeat. This isn’t the Martin we all know. I think Rick Hendrick is drugging him.
  • For those of you keeping score at home it’s now been seven races since Earnhardt Jr. has visited the top 10. Sing along Junior Nation, “He’s everything you want, he is everything you need, he’s everything that inside you, you wish you could be, he says all the right things at all the right times, but he does nothing out there and you don’t know why….”

What’s the Points?

Stewart retained his points lead. Gordon, who remains second in the standings, is now 84 points behind Stewart. Johnson remains third in the standings and Kurt Busch remains fourth.

Jeff Burton had the worst day in the points standings, falling three spots and out of the Chase cutoff to 15th. That means that there are currently no RCR cars qualified for the Chase. Damn, that’s going to leave a bruise.

Martin fell three spots to 11th in the standings despite his three wins this season.

Hamlin moved up three spots in the standings and now finds himself seventh.

Montoya moves into Chase contention up two spots to 12th. If every Cup race was held on a road course Montoya would be the presumptive champion. Of course if every Cup race was run on a road course there’d be so little fan interest the Cup title would probably pay “two dollars and fiddy cents.”

Edwards took over fifth place in the standings, displacing Newman to sixth.

Matt Kenseth moved up a spot to 10th in the standings while his teammate Greg Biffle fell a spot to seventh.

Kahne moved up two spots to 13th in the standings and is now just three points outside of 12th.

The “Chances of Junior Making the Chase” death watch rolls into its 15th week. Earnhardt fell two more spots into the standings to 20th. It would take a comeback that would rival Lazurus’ for Earnhardt to overcome those odds.

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 three plastic cups of screw top strawberry wine. The race was better than I expected, but then I wasn’t expecting much.

Next Up: The circuit is heading to New Hampshire but I’m heading to my small town’s car show and hosting the post-event party next Sunday. Life’s too short to waste watching races at New Hampshire. If you find yourself in Guthriesville next weekend stop on in and set a spell.

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