Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered with each week with the answers to six race-day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H… the Big Six.
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
With a 21.5 average finish, no top 10s previously at Sonoma, and a history of struggles a mile long at the Cailfornia road course, Dale Earnhardt Jr. probably wasn’t on most people’s fantasy teams this week. And that’s a shame, because Earnhardt didn’t look like the same driver as he raced strong all day, save a late-race tangle with Matt Kenseth, for which Earnhardt took responsibility and apologized to Kenseth after he admittedly over drove a corner. A top 10 was a solid goal for Earnhardt, as crew chief Steve Letarte wanted to build his confidence on road courses, but he wasn’t satisfied with that, passing several strong cars late in the race to finish third. It’s the kind of day that defines a team as championship-caliber, when they can come to a track that’s been nothing but trouble and suddenly be a player.
What… beyond the teams’ control affected the action?
This time around, it was simply the twists and turns of the track itself that made the action interesting. Teams that dominate on ovals struggle on road courses, while teams who don’t do much on the ovals shine when right turns are added to the mix. This week was no exception as teams like JTG Daugherty Racing and Germain Racing flexed a little muscle, while some elite teams never got a handle on things. It’s the kind of racing where small teams can compete and big ones are humbled. There was plenty of action, NASCAR didn’t go crazy with the caution flag, and the winner came on late in the game to take the checkers. It’s the kind of racing the sport needs more of.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Jamie McMurray took the Sonoma pole for the second year in a row, and for much of the day, looked like he could sneak in to win the race. McMurray is a surprisingly strong road-course driver, and while his car wasn’t quite as good as a handful of others, it was good enough to give him his best points race finish of 2014, as he finished fourth.
Martin Truex Jr. won this race last year and made an impressive late race charge this year, gunning for a top five. Unfortunately for Truex, his run was derailed by contact late in the game, and he fell back to 15th. His finish wasn’t indicative of how strong he was as the laps wound down. This team may have lost a step since last year, but they have shown that when luck is on their side, they can still perform at a level that makes them a step ahead of other single-car efforts.
When… did it all go sideways?
Road-course racing by nature is bound to produce some stressful moments for drivers. With few opportunities to pass, action heats up in the spots where drivers can make a move, and in tight quarters, it’s not uncommon for other drivers to get caught up in the fray. It happened several times on Sunday, but perhaps the hardest one to swallow took place on lap 83, when Clint Bowyer had a tire go down while he was racing for position near the front of the field. Bowyer, who had a strong car and was looking to repeat as winner, collected Kevin Harvick, who had had the fastest car in the field for much of the day, making coming from behind look effortless as he raced to the front.
The damage to Harvick’s car was extensive, and though his team kept him on the lead lap while making repairs, he was not able to recover and finished 20th on a day where he probably should have won. Bowyer, who badly needed a top finish, was able to come back to 10th, but was left to wonder what might have been just the same.
Why… did Carl Edwards win the race?
Edwards drove a nearly flawless race in the closing laps to keep a charging Jeff Gordon at bay. The No. 99 team used excellent strategy to get to the front late, and Edwards was able to capitalize for his first road-course win. But as often is the case in racing, there was a little bit of luck that played a role when Bowyer had a tire go down in traffic, and as a result, the best car in the field got collected in a crash. Harvick had clearly been the class of the field all day long, and had he not suffered damage to the No. 4 machine, it’s likely that he’d have won the race handily, because he could pull away from the field more the older his tires got. But the best car does not always win, and Edwards emerged late in the race to take the baton and the checkers.
How… did the little guys do?
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Mears started 12th and was racing inside the top 10 when Kasey Kahne got loose in front of him and Bowyer ran into the No. 13 from behind, causing extensive damage to the nose. Mears dropped to the back of the pack for repairs, but through a combination of strategy and skill (Mears is a strong road racer), the No. 13 came back to run in the top 10 late in the race before Mears reported that he’d knocked the toe out of the car, which dropped him to a 13th-place finish. It was a finish the team sorely needs, but it surely rankles that they had at least a top-10 car before getting caught in someone else’s troubles.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 Taco Bell Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): Gilliland is a pretty solid road racer, and was moving forward in the middle laps, racing well into the top 20 at one point. Unfortunately, a spin and collision was extensive, and as the cars stacked up and passed him, Gilliland lost several positions and had to settle for 21st – still a fairly respectable finish for a team that needed one badly. Ragan also played the pinball during the race, but his day was much more difficult than his teammate’s from the start. He’s never lad a lap on a road course, and that didn’t change Sunday as Ragan ran in the low 30s for most of the race and finished a lap down in 36th.
Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No 95 K-Love Ford): McDowell is an accomplished road racer who’s had some good runs in the past in the Nationwide Series in Joe Gibbs equipment—three of his four career NNS top fives came on road courses. It should be no surprise, then, that he recorded his best finish of the season this weekend, coming home in 24th, a very decent effort for his part-time team.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt & Ryan Truex (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. Rinnai Toyota & No. 83 Burger King Toyota): Whitt is proving to be an asset to his new team, as he was for Swan Racing. This week, he was again the top finisher in 27th. That’s not a great finish, even in this group, but it wasn’t terrible for a team fighting to find its footing. Bowman had a quiet day, running in the low 30s for much of the race and finishing 29th. This team needs to be finishing better, but in order to do that, they need to be finishing, and Bowman did do that on Sunday as well as Whitt, picking up his second lead-lap finish of the year. Truex may have had the most TV time among his teammates this week, but unfortunately it was because the No. 83 stalled on the track mid-race, bringing out a caution. Truex would get going again, but repairs cost him several laps, and he’d end up 41st.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 36 Theme Park Connection Chevy): It was a long, tough day for the TBR duo. Annett looked at times like he might squeeze into the top 20, but he had to settle for 30th at the end of the day. Sorenson struggled as well, and having to stop on track for Gilliland’s spin while several cars passed him didn’t help. He finished a lap down in 32nd.
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Like many of his fellow rookies on Sunday, Allgaier had a difficult time adjusting to Sonoma, and he fought in the low 30s for most of the day as a result. He finished a lap down in 33rd.
Xxxtreme Motorsports; JJ Yeley (No. 30 Phoenix Warehouse Toyota): Yeley pulled double duty this weekend, along with Landon Cassill, and he performed very well on Saturday, finishing fifth at Road America. Sunday was a tougher day, and if there is a positive to be found in his 34th-place finish, it’s that it’s Yeley’s best Cup finish of the year.
GoFAS Racing; Boris Said (No. 32 7-11/Amerigas Ford): With Said in the seat, this team was hoping for a solid day, perhaps a repeat of last year’s top 20 run in Sonoma, but underfunded equipment couldn’t keep up and an aging driver may have lost a step or two, and the team limped home in 35th.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Kingsford/Clorox Chevy): Without a doubt this team had the biggest heartbreak of the day. After qualifying second and leading 35 laps, more than any other driver, Allmendinger was racing for a top-five finish when he was tangled up in a chain reaction incident that left the No. 47 with a damaged front end and the team with dashed hopes after it looked like they might even see victory lane. Allmendinger finished two laps down in 37th.
Jay Robinson Racing; Tomy Drissi (No. 66 MightyHercules.com Toyota): This team continues to struggle to find its feet at the Cup level and, despite a road-course specialist behind the wheel, never found the speed they needed, winding up 38th.
Circle Sport; Alex Kennedy & Cassill (No. 33 Media CAST Chevy & No. 40 Carsforsale.com Chevy): Mechanical issues plagued this team on Sunday. Cassill suffered an engine failure after just 29 laps, bringing out a caution for the oil it laid down on the track. Cassill, who scored a top 10 in the Nationwide series race at Road America Saturday, finished 43rd. Kennedy also had mechanical gremlins, and was forced to the garage with a broken gear just six laps from the finish, winding up 39th.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Dogecoin/Reddit Chevy): Despite having sponsorship on the hood, the No. 98 team struggled all day Sunday, running at the back of the field. Wise finally wound up 40th for his trouble.