NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Tasmanian Gift Horses, Another Gordon’s Monster Effort & Corked Wine for JGR

After a snooze-fest of a race in Michigan for everyone but the Denny Hamlin fans, it was great to see something completely different this weekend, as the Sprint Cup circuit swept through wine country and the 11-turn, 1.99 mile-long road course of Infineon Raceway. Whether you’re a fan of this form of racing or not – and I realize there are plenty that aren’t – only a complete curmudgeon would deny that Sunday’s 110-lapper was, for the most part, riveting to watch. Some of this, of course, is the preponderance of drivers not normally associated with top-fives and top-10s running at the head of the pack, which is precisely where I’m going to start this week’s edition of Five Points to Ponder.

A “Monster” Day for a Gordon… Not Jeff

What a tremendous day for the old lone wolf himself, Robby Gordon. Notching just his seventh top-five effort in the last six-plus seasons – three of which came at one track, Watkins Glen – he’s gone from zero to hero just two weeks after his team failed to qualify at Pocono. It’s just a shame Gordon didn’t have the tires to truly challenge Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps of the race, as that really would have been fantastic to watch.

Robby noted as much in the post-race press conference, yet still emphasized throughout how much even a runner-up finish can boost his single-car, struggling operation. “We came here to win the race,” he said. “But second place is pretty darn close to winning it. My team needs a little bit of morale here and there. This will boost morale back at the workshop. I will say that we will come to Watkins Glen guns blazing….”

That sure should be fun to watch, considering as it’s the track where Gordon recorded the last of his three Sprint Cup victories to date – all the way back in 2003 when he drove the Cingular Wireless No. 31 car for Richard Childress. Unquestionably, it’s been a tough season for the single-car owner/driver, but the phenomenal finish at Sonoma should see him safely ensconced in the Top 35 for the rest of 2010 – the No. 7 car now has a healthy, 101-point gap on 36th.

More Gift Horse than Tasmanian Devil

There’s really not a nice way to put this, but the closing laps at Sonoma were an absolute, unmitigated disaster for Marcos Ambrose. Double J may have been dominant for the first three quarters of the race but with eight laps to go, and the caution flag waving, Ambrose was clearly the car to beat before he beat himself – stalling on the track, trying inexplicably to save fuel behind the pace car. It was the picture perfect definition of a schoolboy error.

Looking back, it’s par for the course in a season where Ambrose has had relatively solid performances dissolve into a string of terrible finishes. This was the year, don’t forget, that the man from a land down under was meant to kick on and grab a Chase spot – or at least, that’s what the sage pundits were saying. Now sitting some 463 points out of 12th place, that looks about as likely as England winning the World Cup (and I say that as a proud Englishman).

So with the playoffs out of reach, the team turned towards the two road course races where Ambrose ran third and second last year – and you can tell how much he was looking forward to them. Appearing on the always entertaining Trackside Live on Friday night, Ambrose was in jovial, confident, and relaxed form. He talked a lot about gnawing on the wheel – Tasmanian Devil style – and I’d posit Ambrose did a lot of gnashing teeth Sunday evening on the long plane ride home. All joking aside, his gaffe just shows how difficult it is to win a Sprint Cup race; unless, of course, you’re the four-time champion.

And speaking of double J…

Business as Usual for the No. 48

It beggars belief how little faith people have in the man who’s had, arguably, four of the most dominant, soul-crushing years in NASCAR history. To see people trip over themselves to write him off tickled me all kinds of pink. I’d defer here to Brad Daugherty on Showtime’s excellent Inside NASCAR who has banged the Johnson drum repeatedly – despite his relatively poor showing of late – which, people, let’s not forget includes a fifth-place run at Pocono and a finishing spot of sixth last weekend at the snoozer of a race in Michigan. In top form on Sunday, Johnson led half of the race (55 laps) en route to one of those “maximum points” days Chad Knaus likes to gloat about on the team radio. Perhaps it’s best left to Mark Twain, the author of the American literary classic Huckleberry Finn, who once famously wrote, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” And that’s exactly the case with Jimmie, who knocked off another item from his ever-shrinking NASCAR bucket list with a first win on a road course, his fourth victory of the season and also, it should be pointed out, his first since the return of the rear spoiler.

One other quick point to note on the four-time champ: Did you notice Hamlin’s mangled No. 11 car ride past just as Jimmie finished his burnout? A harbinger of what’s to come this year, perhaps, and certainly a little reminder, if one was ever needed, that the championship still goes through the No. 48, Mr. Hamlin.

Corked Wine for Joe Gibbs Racing

After seven wins in 10 races (five for Denny; two for Kyle Busch) and a couple months of Johnson Chase-esque dominance, the Joe Gibbs pretenders were brought back down to earth with a humongous bump. Busch finished 39th, swept up in a mess not of his creation some 34 laps down, while Hamlin, who ended up 34th, a mere eight laps off the pace, humorously tweeted post-race that he “hit everything but the lottery.”

Just for the record, Joey Logano finished one spot above Hamlin, and there are few days in Joe Gibbs’s illustrious career as owner when all three of his teams ran so poorly (none, in fact; it was the worst ever day on paper since their 2005 expansion). The good news is that one race doesn’t define a season, unless you’re an overwrought Johnson fan these past few weeks, and as they roll into New Hampshire next weekend, expect a much better showing from the JGR boys.

The Importance of Loudon

While we’re on the subject of Loudon, the site of the first Chase race, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the contenders running well this coming Sunday afternoon. A 1-mile (well, 1.058-mile for those of a mathematical persuasion) flat track, New Hampshire Motor Speedway is a crucial marker on the road to the 2010 Chase. And for those still hurting after a crash-filled Sunday, it’s a chance to heal a bit quicker than normal.

The simple fact is road-course racing is a nice distraction, an anomaly if you will, and just two of 26 races on the way to the all-important final ten. While you certainly can’t mail them in, two poor days at the Glen and Sonoma will not define a season, nor have any real bearing on running for a championship. But a good run at Loudon can provide a healthy dose of that often elusive elixir: confidence. For the prospective Chasers, hitting the right setup this Sunday is a must, giving them crucial surety come September and Chase race number one. Or, to put it more simply: we’ll learn more this coming Sunday about who’s for real and who isn’t than we ever will from an entertaining day out in Sonoma.

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