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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Toyota Save Mart 350 at Sonoma

The Key MomentKurt Busch started Sunday’s race in the 11th position. By lap 13, the elder Busch dove under Denny Hamlin in turn 7 and took the lead. Short of pit stops cycling through, the lead was not a position Busch relinquished for long.

Some of these boys should have just stayed home and donated their car to a car donation business.

In a Nutshell – The No. 22 team woke up and realized that Kurt Busch still hasn’t won a points-paying plate race in a decade of Cup competition; so, they figured they’d grab a win before heading to Daytona. And no one saw fit to really challenge them for it.

Dramatic Moment – While the race up front was a stinker, boys have at it was front and center in wine country. Between Brian Vickers parking Tony Stewart‘s Chevrolet atop a tire barrier, Brad Keselowski ending Juan Pablo Montoya‘s reign of terror, and tension between Hamlin and AJ Allmendinger after contact in turn 11, there were more frayed tempers after this race than there were at Bristol this spring.

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

Two different series. Two different road courses. Nearly 2,000 miles apart. Yet both Saturday’s Nationwide Series race and Sunday’s Cup show played host to a special doubleheader of “Formula 1 veterans gone wild.Jacques Villenueve‘s banzai move during a green-white-checker attempt at Road America cost two drivers top-10 finishes, spinning Brian Scott and ruining his fuel strategy while sending Max Papis‘ Chevrolet hard into the turn 1 barrier. Not one to be outdone, Montoya went on an absolute rampage during the final 30 laps of Sunday’s Cup race at Infineon; Montoya gave no quarter to any driver in the field, most notably forcing himself under Kasey Kahne in turn 1 and ruining his day, but also forcing other drivers off the racing surface during his charge to the front. When even the TV commentators run out of excuses for a competitors’ actions on track, it’s a clear indication that they’re in the wrong, and there’s no doubt Montoya was acting every bit the jerk that threatened NASCAR with legal action because Ryan Newman got the better of him in a Darlington scuffle. So after a long list of transgressions, even the most ardent Keselowski critics were likely high-fiving each other after seeing the Blue Deuce take care of the No. 42 once and for all. Montoya can quip all he wants about stock car racers not knowing how to race on road courses, but he and his open-wheel friends would do well to take note about how stock car racers handle getting knocked around… they hit back. After all, they’ve got fenders too.

Speaking of Keselowski’s last stand, between his top-10 result and Kurt Busch’s long overdue first victory in 2011, Penske Racing is red hot heading into a summer stretch that sees the Chase field still remarkably fluid. Whatever the dynamics between two teammates rumored to have hard working pains, whatever the friction caused by Busch’s very public tirades against his team in the past few months, the Penske camp is firing on all eight cylinders right now. But can this recent burst of performance last through the next ten races? The inconsistency of the No. 2 team is the reason they’re still battling to get into a top-20 position in points and eligibility for a wild-card berth, and as for the No. 22? Well, we’re not even halfway into 2011, and it’s already been a story of three seasons for Kurt Busch’s bunch. A blistering start to the year with a successful Speedweeks and a near-win at Phoenix; the malaise of the spring; and now, a June that’s been the shot-in-the-arm the team needed. So in the here and now, Penske Racing is a force to be reckoned with… but which Penske camp shows up this summer will tell the tale of whether they’re true title contenders.

One thing to note in light of a certain No. 88’s mechanical troubles Sunday: the last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in Chase contention was back in 2008, and it was about this point in the season that the wheels came off. One week after scoring his last Cup win at Michigan, Junior finished outside the top 10 at Sonoma that year, the start of a streak that saw the No. 88 car score only two top-10 finishes in 11 races leading up to the Chase. This weekend, heavy contact in the dustup caused by the first Vickers/Stewart tussle of the afternoon on lap 38 resulted in front end damage being done to Junior’s machine; by lap 52, a hole in the radiator that resulted from the contact sent the No. 88 to the garage, the motor cooked for good. The 41st-place finish was Earnhardt’s worst since Homestead in 2008, dropping him from third to seventh in points. Two consecutive results outside the top 20 now have Earnhardt on a downward slide for the first time in 2011… so he needs to be careful. If Daytona’s kind, no harm no foul – but find trouble in the upcoming plate race, and suddenly Earnhardt is vulnerable. With the first signs of adversity, time to see how much of a difference Letarte has really made, right?

Joey Logano won the pole for Sunday’s Cup race, won the West Series race on Saturday, and scored a sixth-place finish Sunday that was only his third top-10 of 2011 and his career best on a road course. Three consecutive top-20 finishes may not look like much, but over the last month’s worth of races Logano has moved from 27th to 22nd in points and is now, assuming the No. 20 team can snag a win somewhere, primed to make a case for a wild-card Chase berth. Results such as Sunday’s were expected to be common place for a driver dubbed “Sliced Bread,” but have been anything but during a disappointing stint in the Cup Series. The question becomes though, after such a solid weekend, whether or not Logano and crew chief Greg Zipadelli are starting to feel the pressure and turn a corner. Home Depot is a big-time sponsor and Joe Gibbs Racing has race-winning cars. Logano’s had plenty of time to show improvement, and after an ugly start to 2011 now-or-never is a very realistic proposition for the team to find itself in. Logano deserves a pat on the back for such a strong showing on a road course, but it’s just that, a road course, a specialty race. Sunday’s finish means nothing unless the No. 20 crew can translate this type of performance onto oval circuits.

For the first time since 2005, Carl Edwards did not contest a Nationwide Series event, opting to stay in Sonoma for Saturday Cup practice instead of flying all the way to Road America to contest a race that offered no lessons relevant to Sunday’s Cup race or points. And lo and behold, look what happened. Edwards improved a total of 12 positions on the time charts over the course of Saturday’s two sessions, had a markedly improved race car when the green flag dropped on Sunday afternoon, and when all was said and done, scored a third-place result that was a career best at Sonoma and equaled his best on a road course. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but as soon as Edwards and Keselowski drop the whole double-duty mess, they both post career best finishes at Sonoma. It’s a more meaningful situation for Edwards, given his current stature as the driver most likely to topple Johnson in 2011. Suddenly, it seems as if winning a Cup title might finally be the priority.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Earnhardt Jr. See above.

Hamlin led 12 laps on the day and was the class of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable, but was forced behind the pit wall on lap 62 with a broken track bar that required replacement. He finished 37th.

Boris Said was put behind the wheel of the No. 51 Phoenix Racing entry on Sunday, but did little to improve the performance of the team. Said finished a distant 28th this Sunday after late-race contact, his worst finish at Sonoma since 2008.

Newman was battling hard with Paul Menard in the closing laps for a spot in the top 15, but contact between the two knocked the No. 39 off the track. Newman limped home to 25th, dropping him to 10th in points, only three markers ahead of Hamlin for the final spot in the top 10.

Kahne was also running in the top 10 late, but became the poster child victim of Montoya. He finished 20th.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Jeff Gordon was uncharacteristically out of sorts early in the running of this Sonoma race, a non-factor for much of Sunday afternoon that the driver attributed to his team missing the setup. By race’s end, however, Gordon and crew’s adjustments rectified the miss, scoring a runner-up finish that allowed the No. 24 team to capitalize on the struggles of both Newman and Hamlin. Of note, the finish was Gordon’s first top-two result on a road course since winning Sonoma back in 2006.

Clint Bowyer‘s fourth-place finish equaled his career-best result on a road course; more notably, Bowyer was one of the very few drivers capable of catching Kurt Busch for even a short period of time this Sunday, taking the lead for one circuit on lap 51.

Martin Truex Jr. looked to be due for another episode of Sonoma 2010 on lap 42 when Hamlin sent his No. 56 Toyota spinning in turn 11. Unlike a year ago, though, when Truex’s day was ruined after contact with Gordon, Truex stormed back to the front this year, racing hard back through the field and posting a top-10 finish as a result.

Marcos Ambrose wasn’t a threat to win this weekend, but the No. 9 team will surely take a top-five finish on this driver’s specialty track.

David Gilliland earned some well-deserved kudos from the TV booth for a 12th-place finish that he earned on this Sunday. Despite having tires nearly 20 laps older than most of the cars he was racing, Gilliland gave drivers such as Montoya and Kyle Busch everything they could handle when the race was on the line. As dominating as Kurt Busch was, Gilliland very well may have had the performance of the afternoon.

Worth Noting:

  • The attendance at Infineon Raceway was upgraded from 90,000 to 93,000, according to NASCAR statistics. Not sure about that, but the grandstands did look healthy this Sunday.
  • Whitney Motorsports had both their Nos. 46 and 81 cars go the distance with Andy Pilgrim and Brian Simo driving, the first time they’ve had two cars go the full distance in team history.
  • Regan Smith finished 16th, the first time in his Cup career he’s ever posted a top-20 finish on a road course and the first time such a result has been scored by the Furniture Row Racing team.
  • Robby Gordon‘s 18th-place finish was just enough to lock his No. 7 team back into the Top 35 in owner points for Daytona.
  • Michael McDowell ran the distance on Sunday and traded paint with a number of drivers; Kyle Petty’s remarks that he appeared to be taking out his disappointment of fumbling away a career-first Nationwide Series result yesterday in Wisconsin were anything but far-fetched.

What’s the Points?

Edwards extended his points lead over Kevin Harvick to 25 markers this Sunday, with Jimmie Johnson moving up two spots to third on the heels of his seventh-place finish. Kurt Busch’s win moved him back to fourth in points, followed by brother Kyle and Matt Kenseth.

The big loser of the day was Earnhardt Jr., who dropped from third to seventh with his busted radiator. Bowyer sits in eighth, Gordon ninth before Newman and Hamlin, who also lost two positions in the standings apiece. They’re 10th and 11th.

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 four and half cans of American brew on ice. The race up front was a stinker, but there was some good side-by-side action in the pack, and plenty of fireworks to go around. Someone oughta remind the Cup guys that the 4th of July is next weekend.

Next Up – Daytona, and the asinine two-car shuffle. Even if it is Firecracker 400 race weekend, knowing the type of racing that’s going to be seen on Saturday night puts a damper on what used to be one of the more exciting weekends of the summer.

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