NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Toyota Save Mart 350 at Sonoma

Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin is off this week. He’ll be back next Monday for Kentucky.

The Key Moment – Michael Waltrip Racing had a coming out party at Sonoma. The organization led 86 of the 112 laps, with Clint Bowyer doing the majority of the work with 71 of those 86 laps. The race went two extra circuits thanks to a late-race spin but Bowyer held off charges from Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart over the last two spins around the road course to notch his sixth victory of his career and third in the history of MWR.

In a Nutshell – Between an incessant amount of commercials and a serious lack of attention to detail by TNT, a tremendously boring road course race was somewhat salvaged by a late-race flurry of heated racing at the front of the field. The first 82 laps of the race went caution-free and the timing of that first caution gave several teams, including Stewart, an opportunity to throw on fresh skins for the final run to the checkered flag. When the green went in the air with 26 laps to go, Busch put an all out assault on the lead and Bowyer withstood the attack at each and every turn. As the laps were winding toward the end, Stewart carved his way toward the front and needed a caution flag to make a final charge possible. That yellow flew with three laps to go and lined Stewart up behind Bowyer for the final double-file restart. As the cars thundered through the first two turns, Bowyer was able to hold off Busch, who forced his way down in front of Stewart and made one final rush toward the lead. Unfortunately, he had a failure in the rear end of his car that rendered his car nearly undriveable. Stewart got around Busch on the final lap but ran out of time to put on a serious charge into the final hairpin, which allowed Bowyer to log his sixth victory of his career and first with MWR.

Dramatic Moment – Busch put his car in contention to win late in the race and had the potential to make a pass on Bowyer but made contact with the tires on the inside of turn 11 late. The contact damaged his right front suspension and rear end, basically ending his chance to win the race and knocking him back to third by the finish.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler on Monday

What some were billing as a kick, scratch and gouge battle to the finish turned into a parade with only five spins occurring during the race (three of which were not shown on television) and one accident which brought out the first caution of the race on lap 83. With the constant talk this year about the lack of cautions and overall aggressive driving, the twists and turns of Sonoma didn’t do anything to appease the “only watch for the crashes” crowd.

Commercials pay the bills for television but when the people watching the race telecast are taking out stopwatches and timing the amount of racing between commercials, there just might be a few too many. The average amount of race time for the first 82 laps of the race between commercials was in the neighborhood of three minutes. The commercial time was slightly less than that. While the 18-minute stretch of action at the end of the race might have increased the total coverage time of the broadcast, it was hard to swallow after being subjected to the barrage of early commercials.

In the past, a driver could overcome the car at road courses if the team missed it on the setup but the current crop of drivers is so much better at road racing now that it no longer is possible. Marcos Ambrose set a new track record in qualifying and led the first 11 laps of the race. From then on, he was constantly battling with an ill-handling car and had to pull a rabbit out of the hat to come home in eighth place. The thought that Ambrose would guarantee a spot in the Chase with two road course wins is out the door now and he’ll need to score that elusive oval victory to have a shot at a wildcard berth in the Chase.

Continuing to prove that road course ringers have passed their usefulness, Boris Said was the highest finishing hired gun for the road race at Sonoma. Said crossed the line in 29th position, two laps down.

Kurt Busch came within a bump and run from being the first unsponsored car to win a Cup Series race since Richard Nixon was president.

The IndyCar Series finally took an unprecedented step this weekend and actually held heat races for qualifying for one of the elite national touring racing series. NASCAR constantly takes heat for their Top 35 rule and the socialist system that ensures teams make it into races every week. Heat races would be the ideal solution to allow all of the teams to race and only the drivers who earned it the opportunity to race in the main event.

For another weekend the Nationwide Series only had 43 cars show up to attempt to run in their race. It is a shame that the number two series in the NASCAR pecking order is unable to attract enough cars to have even one be bumped out of the field. Technically there were 44 at Road America, but one withdrew before qualifying. On the plus side, only five cars developed the dreaded overheating, vibrating, brake ignition before lap 5.

The Hindenburg Awards for Foul Fortune

Denny Hamlin managed to have another malfunctioning race car at Sonoma. For the third year in a row the only positive thing for Hamlin out of his trip to Wine Country was the fact that his travel expenses are less thanks to his relocation to Arizona.

Kyle Busch managed to come home in 17th but his car was laying down on him at the end of the race for the fourth race in a row. While there isn’t much chance that he and his brother switched bodies before the race, his tirade on the radio near the end of the race was as close to his brother’s monkey and football reference at Richmond as it can get. For those fans who remember AJ Foyt climbing out of the car at Indianapolis and calling it a tub of S$##, Busch referred to his several hundred thousand dollar stock car as a bucket of F$#%.

Regan Smith wasn’t having the best day at Sonoma when he was dumped during the first lap of the G-W-C finish. Smith was already a lap down and ended up not only getting dumped and tearing up his race car, but didn’t get to make it back to the finish line for either of the last two laps.

After winning at Michigan last week Dale Earnhardt Jr. was poised to win 20 of the remaining 21 races on the schedule, but he knew that a top-10 finish at Sonoma would be bigger than another trophy on the shelf. Earnhardt did have the No. 88 poised for a possible 10th or better finish at Sonoma before Jeff Burton gave him the impetus for a roundy round on the next-to-last lap. Fortunately for Burton, he won’t be in the series too much longer to have to deal with the hate mail from Junior Nation.

The Seven Come For Eleven Award for Fine Fortune

Stewart was on a three-stop strategy and was looking like he’d be well behind the two-stop teams before the only real caution of the race flew. Fortunately for Stewart, he was able to get fresh skins and fuel and then put on an assault to the front of the field that resulted in a second-place finish.

AJ Allmendinger was not only on a three-stop strategy but, after leaving the pits from the third stop, his crew chief came on the radio and told him that he was still two laps short on fuel. Luckily for Allmendinger, the caution came out and he was ultimately able to parlay his talents into a ninth-place finish.

Kurt Busch side swiped one of the groups of tires in turn 11 at Sonoma which, in prior years, were not affixed to the track. While the tires didn’t move and they caused some damage to Busch’s car, it wasn’t enough to prevent him from coming home with a podium finish.

Not that long ago, Michael Waltrip Racing equipment was a bit less than top of the line. Luckily for Bowyer it has made a substantial step forward in 2012, and the result is he is going to most likely make the Chase, while his former employer is going to be lucky to have one car make the playoffs.

Worth Noting

  • For the fourth time in seven races, Bowyer finished in the top five. For the first time in those four races, it was a finish other than fourth. His victory was the first for Michael Waltrip Racing since David Reutimann at Kentucky Speedway in 2010.
  • The top-10 finishers at Sonoma drove three Toyotas, two Fords, four Chevys and a Dodge.
  • Stewart (second) has seven top-five finishes this season and all of them have been third place or better, including his second runner-up finish in a row.
  • Two caution flags is the fewest in any race of the 24 that have been held at Sonoma Raceway.
  • For the first time since he won at Sonoma in 2006, Jeff Gordon led laps at the California road course. He has also finished on the lead lap there in 19 of his 20 starts, completing 2,013 of the 2,035 laps in those races. Gordon also led his 23,000th lap of competition in the Cup Series this weekend. (Think that’s a lot? It is still more than 28,000 laps behind the 51,381 that Richard Petty led.)
  • Jimmie Johnson is now tops in the series with nine top-five finishes, while he and Earnhardt Jr. are tied with 12 top-10 finishes for most in the series.
  • Earnhardt Jr. has still completed every lap that has been run this season. However, Sonoma was his first finish outside of the top 17.
  • Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are the only two drivers in the top 10 in points without a win.
  • Jamie McMurray finished 19th but that was 15 spots and five laps ahead of his teammate, who really ought to be updating his resume, especially after the whole jet dryer thing at Daytona.
  • JJ Yeley went the distance at Sonoma, and although he was five laps off the pace he did come home in 33rd place.
  • Smith came home 32nd, which continues his streak of not finishing higher than 14th all season.
  • Robby Gordon failed in his efforts to have a SaveMart-sponsored car win the SaveMart 350, only finishing 73 laps and coming home 39th after his steering failed.

What’s the Points?

Matt Kenseth is still in the lead, extending his advantage over second place to 11 points, which is now occupied by Greg Biffle after Earnhardt Jr.’s misfortune during the G-W-C finish. Earnhardt is now in third, 14 points back and well within striking distance. Johnson held onto the fourth spot, 25 behind Kenseth.

Stewart jumped up three spots with his runner-up finish and is now just a mere 63 points from taking over the points lead. Harvick holds serve in the sixth spot while Bowyer rides his victory to a two-spot jump to seventh in the points. Hamlin’s bad luck dropped him three positions to eighth, while Truex’s late race spin-o-rama cause him to slide two. Brad Keselowski continues to occupy the 10th spot in points.

Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman still occupy the Wild Card spots for the Chase.

While Gordon failed to visit Victory Lane, he’s now 18th in points. If he is able to notch two wins, he should be a lock for the Chase at this point, but two wins is far from an easy task.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) — This one was on the verge of being a rancid, skunky can of six-year-old Schmidt before the final 25 laps of the race. Kurt Busch’s run at Bowyer and Stewart’s final lap charge added a small amount of life, but just a little. Give this one a whole two cans of cold Anheuser-Busch product thanks to that late-race excitement. The lack of people making banzai runs into the hairpin or muscling their way ahead of others in the esses prevents it from getting anything more.

Next Up — This week the series heads to the Bluegrass State to Kentucky Speedway. The folks at Kentucky and SMI have invested a truckload of money and time to try and alleviate the parking maladies that befell the event last season. Provided another mile-and-a-half cookie cutter race with tires that don’t wear out doesn’t scare you away, it should be a fun way to spend a Saturday night.

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