Who’s in the headline – Racing can involve a myriad of strategies on a normal weekend. On a road course, the options become even more diverse. After three different fuel strategies had all played out, a late-race caution resulted in a majority of the field coming onto pit road with 10 laps to go. Kyle Busch was the second car off pit lane with four fresh tires. Then he drove it like he stole it at the drop of the green and muscled his way to the lead with less than five laps to go. He held off Clint Bowyer and then his brother Kurt Busch to score the victory that now has him possibly positioned to make the Chase.
What happened – AJ Allmendinger started on the pole and hoped to capture lightning in a bottle for the second year in a row for his single-car team. Kurt Busch grabbed the lead at the drop of the green and led the first 22 laps. Kyle Busch took the lead from Bowyer one lap after the restart following the first caution of the race. The elder Busch regained the lead on lap 40, then lost it to Jimmie Johnson, who looked to be poised for most of the second half of the race. Kurt Busch and Johnson swapped the lead two more times before Casey Mears lost his right-rear tire and most of the rear housing with 10 laps to go. When the pits opened, Johnson elected to stay out, and all but four other lead lap cars dove into the pits. On the restart, Johnson had a cushion with the four cars behind him, but the newer tires were too much to overcome, and Kyle Busch powered past him with five laps to go. Bowyer looked like he was a faster car as the laps wound down, but shortly after he got close to the younger Busch, older brother Kurt caught up and pushed his way into second. Fortunately for Kyle Busch, it was with just over a lap to go and the older Busch could not get to the rear bumper to make it interesting going into the final turn.
Why you should care – The discussion has been going on since Charlotte. Kyle Busch returned to the Cup Series and was told, if he could meet the necessary criteria, he would be eligible for the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup. The biggest challenge, at least initially was to win a race. Unfortunately for Busch, two poor finishes, including last-place at Michigan, has made the obstacle of making the top 30 in points appear to be the bigger struggle. The victory gives all four of Joe Gibbs Racing’s team a win in 2015, and if Busch can make it to the Chase, will give all four teams a shot at the title. Hendrick Motorsports has two teams and two satellite teams poised for the Chase along with Team Penske having both of their teams in line for the playoffs. With 11 winners now in the books, half of the remaining 10 races before Chicagoland have to be won by drivers who already have wins, or someone with a victory will be on the outside looking in come Chase time.
What your friends are talking about
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had Windows 10 on the hood of his car this weekend. The simple fact that HMS secured a sponsorship deal from one of the biggest software companies on the planet is not that newsworthy. The two underlying facts that make it far more interesting are the location of the race and the timing in general. Microsoft is based in Redmond, Washington, so Sonoma is the closest race course to their headquarters. However, the technology giant that IS close to Sonoma is Apple, which is just an hour-and-a-half down the road in Cupertino. Don’t think for a second that the choice of Sonoma for a Microsoft sponsorship wasn’t intentional.
Secondly, the title sponsorship of NASCAR’s premier series is open for 2017 and beyond. There hasn’t been much discussion about who is going to slot into the space that Sprint is vacating after the checkered flag drops at Homestead next year. Microsoft certainly has the financial strength to pay the price for the sponsorship. This race very well could be a trial balloon by Bill Gates and his minions to see if the nearly $1 billion that NASCAR is talking about would be worth it in the pantheon of operating system marketing.
Speaking of sponsorship, I wonder if Xfinity is looking for a refund after last weekend’s race in Chicago was postponed and televised on FOX Sports 2, as a reported 377,000 people watched the race. That is a fantastic number of fans in attendance at a race. Unfortunately that wasn’t the attendance, that was the total TV audience. A rain delay and a lightly subscribed television channel didn’t help the situation but that is still the smallest TV audience in decades for an NXS race.
Another classic failure of NASCAR to use the red flag. They did implement it when Martin Truex Jr. knocked over the concrete barrier, but when Carl Edwards wrecked himself and David Ragan into the concrete barrier hard enough that it had to be pushed back in place by a forklift, they left the cars circulating the racetrack. They like to pontificate about trying to bring the fans a complete event, but there are many times they waste way too many laps performing incident cleanup that would be best served by throwing the red flag to tidy up the racing surface.
One of the throwback aspects of Sunday’s race was the use of tires that meant something but also could be nursed if they needed to be. It was a bit disturbing to see some chunks of rubber coming out of them, but in the end it was refreshing to see tires come into play as part of the strategy. The hope is that the folks at Goodyear are taking notice that it isn’t a bad thing to have tires give up and even have problems during a race.
Jeff Gordon spoke at a fan event this weekend in Sonoma and was asked about how his children felt about his retirement. He said his daughter Ella is worried she won’t be famous once her dad is not famous. He also said that Ella wants to be the next Danica Patrick. As admirable as that hope is, she’d be better served to try and be the next Gordon.
Who is mad – Starting on the pole, Allmendinger was looking to recapture the miracle from Watkins Glen last season and make the Chase again this year. He was in contention early and was just letting the race play out before the excitement of the final 30 laps. Unfortunately for Allmendinger, his car didn’t last that long. A fuel-pressure issue was the culprit that ended his day and eliminated one of his two legitimate chances to make the Chase.
Truex Jr. was looking to set a new top-10 record to start a season heading into Sonoma. That dream was shattered early on when Ragan turned the second-place points driver into the tire barrier starting into the esses. The Mayetta, N.J. driver admitted he got into the side of Ragan, but said it was an accident. Truex’s team built a brand new car for the road course this weekend, and it was badly torn up when it came to a rapid halt against the tire barrier, knocking over the concrete barrier behind the tires. With a win in his pocket already this year, it doesn’t make much difference for Truex’s title hopes but it does set up potential shenanigans going forward between Truex and Ragan.
Brad Keselowski has finished second at Watkins Glen three of the last four years. Sonoma has been a completely different story for the 2012 champion. Keselowski has one top 10 finish in six career starts in wine country. Sunday he and his crew chief Paul Wolfe were out to lunch for most of the race and barely sniffed the top 10 all day. Fortunately for Keselowski there are no road courses in the Chase so once the final 10 races get here today will be a distant memory.
Who is happy – Since the spin affair at Richmond in 2013, Bowyer has been swimming upstream against karma. After making the Chase in 2012 and 2013, Bowyer only scored five top fives in 2014. The beginning of 2015 has not been any better for Bowyer. MWR has been struggling to be competitive this year and just made a crew chief swap to try and mix things up. Bowyer’s run at Sonoma may be a blip on the radar or it may be the beginning of the momentum swing for the No. 15 team.
Sam Hornish Jr. hasn’t had a top 10 on a non-plate track since 2012. Granted that is only 35 races ago for Hornish since he is just back to full-time this season but it is still a huge positive for the No. 9 team. Hornish was not in the top 10 before the run to the finish after the final restart, but took advantage of his fresh tires and aggressive driving to make it to 10th when the checkered flag flew.
Tony Stewart has been in the mad category throughout the season due to the struggles he has had adapting to the new rules package. Sunday he was in the top 10 multiple times throughout the event and he made a strategy play at the end of the race that had him in contention for the win. He ended up slipping back to the 12th position when the checkered flag flew, but it was a positive run for the three-time series champion. With the series heading to Daytona, Stewart has to feel good about his potential for continued improvement, since he has four wins in the July race at the World Center of Speed.
When the checkered flag flew
Kyle Busch’s victory at Sonoma is his 30th of his career in his 370th career start. The win is Busch’s second career win at Sonoma. Busch is tied with Kevin Harvick for 23rd on the all-time wins list. They are tied for fifth on the active driver list. This was Busch’s fourth career road-course triumph, which ties him with Mark Martin and David Pearson for 10th on the all-time road-course win list.
Kurt Busch came home second on Sunday for his third top-two run of the season. This is Busch’s second career top-two at Sonoma. This is the first time in their careers that Kyle and Kurt Busch have finished first and second in a race.
Bowyer crossed the line in third for the first top five of his season and the first top five for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2015. This is Bowyer’s second career podium finish at Sonoma.
Alex Kennedy finished 25th to claim the Rookie of the Race award.
Harvick, Logano, Keselowski, Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Earnhardt Jr., Edwards, Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch all have wins in 2015. Kyle Busch is not in the top 30 in points, so he will have to race his way into that point position before he’ll be eligible for the Chase. He is currently 37th, 136 points behind 30th-place Cole Whitt. Harvick, Johnson and Kurt Busch are locked into the Chase assuming they attempt the rest of the races or receive an exemption should they miss any events thanks to multiple wins.
The drivers who are currently eligible for the Chase after 15 races without wins and their standing in points:
8) Kasey Kahne
11) Jeff Gordon
12) Paul Menard
14) Ryan Newman
15) Aric Almirola
Takin’ it to the Bank
With 16 races in the books, Cup winners this year have pocketed $6,016,925, while the last-place finisher has taken home $1,361,687.
In the Xfinity Series, it has been $1,098,711 for the winners and $207,938 for last place after 14 races.
After nine Truck races, the winner has $495,832 and the last loser has banked $92,195.
What is in the cooler – To say there were comers and goers on Sunday at Sonoma is an understatement. There were five leaders during the race who exchanged the lead nine times. With the different strategies at play drivers were moving from the back to the front with regularity. The passing took place throughout the event and was not concentrated in the five laps after restarts. As a result, this was an above average race that was on the verge of being a classic if there had been one more lap for Kurt Busch to get to the bumper of his brother Kyle. We’ll give this one five cold glasses of Amphora Winery Merlot because it was in wine country afterall.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – The Firecracker 400, in its reincarnated version of the Coke Zero 400 will take place Sunday night at 7:45 p.m. ET. For whatever reason, the series actually had the chance to run the race on the 4th for the first time since 2009, but chose to run it on Sunday night instead. The race will be broadcast on NBC. It can also be heard live on MRN affiliate stations and Sirius/XM NASCAR Channel 90.