The Cup Series’ trip to wine country in Sonoma, Calif. sure seemed to be worth the extra gas bill. The inevitable fuel-strategy gambles and unpredictable mishaps that Infineon Raceway commonly produces shuffled up the running order many times during Sunday’s race. The racing action through the pack was tight and fender-banging, especially in the closing laps, helping to cure the spacious, snooze-worthy action of the past couple of weeks in Michigan and Pocono. Despite the race boiling down to fuel strategy, the best driver and car combination won the event. Kasey Kahne survived several restarts and held off an almost equal car and superior driver in Tony Stewart. Not every team was as lucky, as some Chase hopefuls took hits in the points and others that have struggled all year continued that trend. Here are this week’s HOT, WARM and COLD drivers.
HOT: Kahne – For obvious reasons, Kahne is on the HOT list this week. After starting off the season warm and then hitting a cool streak, the No. 9 team is running better as the weeks progress and the new Dodge engine seems to be helping matters. Sunday, Kahne, who had never even scored a top 20 at the track, drove the Budweiser Dodge like a pro, fending off Stewart’s charges on four different restarts. Kahne’s first win since Pocono in June 2008 also helped him to within just three points of the top 12 in the standings.
HOT: Jeff Gordon – You wouldn’t know that Gordon has scored the second most points amongst all Cup drivers this season based on how much exposure he and the No. 24 team have been getting. That is because Gordon has been coasting through most races quietly, racking up top 10s and holding his ground in the points. The No. 24 was never a factor at the front of the field in Infineon and even seemed to be doomed when Gordon pitted accidentally late in the event. But crew chief Steve Letarte rallied the crew and driver and Gordon nursed the DuPont Chevy to a ninth-place finish. Rallying back from bad finishes has been a recurring theme for the No. 24 team this season and was an achievement of several in Sonoma.
HOT: Jimmie Johnson – Placing Johnson inside the HOT class instead of Stewart was a hard choice. The deciding factor is that Stewart has run up front lately with ease; Johnson has had to overcome adversity to achieve similar results. (Of course, the fact that Stewart has been in this category almost every week for the last month and a half also has something to do with it). Sunday, Stewart worked his way up to the front and used his God given talent to stay there, while Johnson had to overcome a speeding penalty during green-flag pit stops to get back to the top. Johnson admittedly is not a good road racer and showed that to be true in his accidental spinning of Kurt Busch late in the race. Nevertheless, Johnson and the Chad Knaus led crew hit their marks, leaving California with a fourth-place finish in their caps and a hold on third in the points.
WARM: AJ Allmendinger – Just a few laps into the event, Allmendinger appeared to be quickly out of contention. A spin, a flat tire, and a pit road penalty all came together to leave the No. 44 off of the lead lap. The first two-thirds of the event had few cautions, so Allmendinger’s chances to catch up with the field and salvage a good finish looked bleak. This changed, though, as pit strategy began to play out and cautions began to fly left and right. Allmendinger never gave up and eventually guided the Best Buy Dodge to a seventh place result. This was the No. 44’s first top 10 and second top 20 since Martinsville. With the Richard Petty Motorsports teams struggling for funds, placing three cars in the top 10 Sunday was a good shot in the arm for the whole company.
WARM: Elliott Sadler – Finishing just behind his teammate, Sadler rolls out of wine country with a 10th-place effort, and overcame similar circumstances as Allmendinger to do it. Sadler’s year has been much more disappointing than Allmendinger’s, as Sunday’s finish was his first top 10 since his fifth-place run in the Daytona 500. Sadler, though, has strung together consecutive good finishes (he was 12th in Michigan last week) and is trying to salvage what has been a lackluster season for the veteran.
WARM: Jamie McMurray – McMurray has a lot to drive for right now. The seemingly forgotten driver in the five team Roush stable, McMurray received a vote of confidence from team general manager Geoff Smith this weekend, as he said that Roush Fenway still wants to keep McMurray, and that his remaining with the team is dependent on sponsorship. Of course, McMurray’s No. 26 team (with or without the soon-to-be free agent) is almost certainly the one that Roush will send to Yates Racing as part of its forced downsizing. Nonetheless, McMurray is driving for a job and there looks to be very few openings amongst other teams. McMurray’s finish at Infineon (14th) was unspectacular, but it was his fourth consecutive top-15 result. He is the only driver in the top 24 in points over the last five races who has not scored a top 10 in that stretch. Consistency, though, sure beats crashing.
COLD: Martin Truex Jr. – Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s decision to lease the No. 1 team’s backup car to TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 team did not buy them any karma Sunday in Infineon. Truex was never a factor in the event, eventually placing the No. 1 in 25th, and he even got accidentally spun out by David Gilliland in the No. 71. Truex has had an extremely inconsistent year and has not notched a top 10 since Darlington. He sits far from Chase contention and his chances of re-signing with the team he began his Nationwide and Sprint Cup career with are slim to none as well.
COLD: Boris Said – We should probably leave poor Boris alone. His first NASCAR points race of the 2009 season did not go according to his plans. Said was driving the No. 08 for E&M Motorsports, a small team that Said’s own operation has partnered with this year. After qualifying in the top 10, Said kept the car near the front until he got caught speeding on pit road. Once frustratingly trapped back in the pack, Said over-drove his black Ford and caused several spinouts. Combine this effort with the fact that his own Cup program, with new majority ownership from minority partner Rick Clark, has not made an attempt since its announced inception at Daytona, Boris Said is ICE COLD right now.
COLD: Dave Blaney – Saying Blaney is a COLD driver is like saying that a good player is bad, just because he plays on a bad team. Blaney has a job right now because PRISM Motorsports needs some kind of driver to qualify its car decently for races, drive it for a few laps, and then park it for back of the pack money. Blaney himself has finished only one race, Charlotte, and that one was rain-shortened! The No. 66 team did finish well at Daytona with Terry Labonte, but has made a mockery of racing ever since. Unfortunately, the economy has left this as the only job that Blaney is going to get in the Cup Series this year.
Here are some HOT and NOT observations of the week in racing:
HOT: Cooperation – If you didn’t notice it this weekend, there were several feel-good stories that came out of Infineon. Despite teams barely struggling to get by, several managed to offer helping hands to each other.
After seeing the No. 71 crash in practice, EGR leased Truex’s backup car to TRG Motorsports and driver Gilliland for Sunday’s race. The Wood Brothers crew made the trip to Infineon with the No. 08 team and Said to pit the road-course ringer. His chances of winning were lost on pit road by him, though, because he got caught speeding. Joe Nemechek also gave up the seat of his ride to rookie Scott Speed after he failed to qualify. Speed finished 37th, but did pit off-sequence to lead a lap late in the event.
These stories are great to hear and sure make the well-known bickering and lack of sharing that goes on between ESPN and FOX look silly. Hopefully they can learn a lesson from all of this.
NOT: Roush team chemistry – Yet another instance of a Roush teammate accidentally wrecking another took place Sunday, as David Ragan’s surprising top-10 run was ruined when Carl Edwards got into him and spun both him and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Said also got spun in the melee. All three drivers fell back to the mid-30s in the running order and never saw the top 20 after that. Of course, this has notoriously happened several times in the last couple of years….
Greg Biffle and Edwards got together on the track a few weeks ago in Darlington; Ragan got into Matt Kenseth and sent him flipping in the Talladega Nationwide Series race in April; Ragan also got into Kenseth in the 2008 Daytona 500, wrecking both cars; Edwards over-bump drafted Biffle at Talladega in October 2008 and caused a big crash that eliminated both drivers; Ragan got loose under Kenseth and spun both out during the final race before the Chase at Richmond last year, ruining Ragan’s chances of qualifying for the Chase and nearly jeopardizing Kenseth’s. Most infamously, of course, was Kenseth and Edwards getting together several times during the fall Martinsville race in 2007 which prompted Edwards to track down Kenseth and give him a piece of his mind.
We can safely assume that these incidents were accidental, but it is ironic that they keep happening between teammates. After the Kenseth-Edwards drama in 2007, the lack of chemistry for Roush Fenway was revealed – Kenseth said that the drivers rarely hang out away from the track and that he and Edwards barely spoke. Following up with Kenseth in October 2008, he told me in an interview that things had gotten much better. But still… is everything OK at Roush Fenway? Do the senior drivers in the operation get along well with Ragan? Have Kenseth and Edwards (and maybe now Edwards and Biffle) patched up their differences? (It is important to note that Biffle completely sided with Kenseth after their skirmish two years ago).
We will never find the real answer to these questions… until something boils over again. Let us hope for the sake of that team that it does not happen during the Chase.
HOT: Robby Gordon’s paint scheme at Infineon – Robby Gordon knew that he was going to contend at Infineon and decided that he was going to try and get maximum exposure for his two biggest sponsors. On Sunday, half of Gordon’s car and his entire hood were adorned with Jim Beam’s red, black and white colors, while the driver’s side of the car and the rear were black, lime green and white for Menards. His start and park teammate, PJ Jones, had a reverse scheme on the No. 04 Toyota. These schemes were bad looking and were good ways to get extra attention for sponsors that have stuck with Robby Gordon Motorsports through the thick and thin.
NOT: The effect of sponsorship on potential 2010 teams – With talk of Stewart-Haas Racing possibly expanding to three teams, JR Motorsports possibly moving to Cup, and Joe Gibbs Racing adding a fourth team, the big question in all of this is where sponsorship is going to come from.
JRM had to cut its second team back to part-time and show promising young driver Landon Cassill the door because sponsorship money could not be found. Now, with talk that he may move his operation to Cup, it is likely that the Navy, his primary sponsor on the No. 88 Nationwide Series Chevy, will not cover enough of the bill to make it happen (much like the Army and National Guard Cup Series sponsorships). That could leave that team looking for more funding.
SHR already has sponsorship gaps on Ryan Newman’s No. 39 U.S. Army Chevy, so adding a third team to the revamped operation may have to come only after the voids on Newman’s team get filled. Brad Keselowski is a likely fit for this team if it happens, but his allegiance to JRM may trump that if Dale Jr. makes the ownership plunge.
Joe Gibbs Racing has adequate funding for its three teams and a new sponsor in Farm Bureau Insurance that is stepping up and sponsoring some Cup races this year. Finding a driver capable of attracting a sponsor affluent enough to fund a full Cup schedule may be tough. Gibbs does not have a development driver in the works ready enough to do it and the only other free agents available that could attract a big money sponsor have other commitments seemingly imminent (Keselowski to either SHR or JRM and Truex to Michael Waltrip Racing).
New teams are not the only ones struggling to find sponsorship. Both Shell and Jack Daniel’s are in the last years of their commitments with Richard Childress Racing – an organization whose teams are having major performance struggles this year. Kellogg’s has not yet re-signed with the No. 5 and Hendrick Motorsports, though that team has had great success with Mark Martin this year, and Roush Fenway Racing is looking to lock up more sponsorship for its teams next season. These sponsorship gaps do not include ones that exist at the small teams that started this season or the ones at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports. Combine all of this with the diminishing funding of manufacturers and 2010 could be a bleak year to start a new operation.
New Hampshire is the next stop for the Cup Series. Kurt Busch won the rain-shortened event a year ago and needs a good run Sunday to gain some momentum for the summer months. Turn here next week to see which teams gain and lose momentum at the revamped New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Listen to Doug on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 racing show with host Captain Herb Emory on Saturdays from 2-4 p.m. on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com