ONE: Home Track Happiness
Two and a half years ago, my wife and I moved from New York to her home town of San Francisco, so for the third time in a row since we headed West, I spent this past Sunday at the Sprint Cup race at picturesque Sonoma Raceway. And what a day it was. The weather, as you’d expect from this part of the world at this time of the year, was incredible and the crowd loud and boisterous. I attended the race with four friends and thanks to the utter joy of a hot pass we were able to watch the race from multiple different vantage points throughout the race. After driver introductions, and shortly before the race, we sat just under the flag stand on the wall separating pit road from the track and bantered with the Cup drivers – including Martin Truex, Jr. who was confident of victory — as they drove past slowly on the back of the Toyota truck fleet. Then I turned round and there, right behind me, was Grand Marshall Luke Wilson. He was extremely friendly and very pumped to be at the track and about to drive the pace lap. Thankfully too, he let me take an obligatory selfie or three. And just for the record, I was there as a fan and not in a reporting role, before anyone takes me to task. My friends, all of whom were new to the NASCAR in person race experience, were blown away by how close you can get to the action and especially the sheer balletic brilliance of the pit stops. In short, I couldn’t have asked for a better day out at my home track. I’m already looking forward to next year.
TWO: Hamlin’s first loser finish
It’s fair to say that Sonoma Raceway has not been a happy hunting ground for Denny Hamlin in his eleven-year top echelon career. All told, Hamlin has an average finish of 20.8, three finishes of 34th or worse, and just two top-5’s one of which was of course Sunday’s race. Contrary to his usual form in Wine Country, Hamlin started the race sixth and had looked racy in the pre-race practice sessions. But as the race wore on, Hamlin looked to be the driver to beat, pacing the field for 33 laps (the most on the day for any driver). In the end, though, the eleven was outdueled in the eleventh and final corner of the last lap and the Chesterfield, Va. native was denied what would have been a huge morale boosting victory. “All’s fair in love and war,” noted a sanguine Hamlin on pit-road immediately post race. Then as is de rigeur now, he took to Twitter to continue the conversation: “Can’t express how disappointed I am we didn’t win on a road course. It’s been a goal that has looked nearly impossible the last 6 years.”
Can't express how disappointed I am we didn't win on a road course. It's been a goal that has looked nearly impossible the last 6 years.
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) June 26, 2016
Since the Daytona 500 victory, Hamlin’s season has had more downs than ups, but this was a sign things are moving in the right direction. Can he back up his new road course prowess at Watkins Glen? He might well be one to watch.
THREE: 17 into 16 doesn’t go
Last week our fearless leader and managing editor Tom Bowles wrote a column on this site about how we could still see 17 winners prior to the Chase beginning at Chicagoland in mid September, and it’s a column that is well worth revisiting this morning in light of Smoke’s stellar Sonoma victory. With ten races still to run before the playoffs begin, we have ten winners and plenty of opportunities for those thus far locked out of Victory Lane to snaffle that all important checkered flag. So if and when Stewart makes it into the top-30 – he’s just nine points back from Brian Scott – there is still no guarantee he will make the post season. This weekend for example, and more on that below, we head to Daytona International Speedway and as we all know anything can happen there. Watkins Glen is another “wild card” of a race so that could bring us to 12 different winners with eight races still to be decided. But even if we do get 17 (or more) winners, my guess is that NASCAR would change the rules to allow Smoke to participate in the playoffs. We’ve seen rules shifts before, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see it again should the situation arise.
FOUR: Daytona redux
Next up, we take our second trip of the season to the spiritual home track of NASCAR: Daytona International Speedway. This season’s curtain raiser, the Daytona 500, was a relatively drama-free race albeit with an absolutely thrilling finish so it will be fascinating to see what transpires this Saturday night under the lights. The 400-mile event will be Cup race number 138 at the rebuilt venue and was won last year from the pole position by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who led 96 of the 161 laps including the final 45 circuits. Junior, perhaps unsurprisingly, holds records in a number of statistical categories including the most wins (four, tied with Tony Stewart), the most top-5’s (13) and the most top-10’s (19). The package for this weekend will be the same as the three previous restrictor plate races and not everyone is happy that this is the case. “I was certainly hoping we would see something coming off the race that we saw at Talladega,” said Kyle Busch last Friday. “No rule changes is not a welcoming sight for me, but it is what it is. We’ll go and crash some more.” It’s a typically blunt assessment from the 2015 Cup champion and probably a fair indicator of what will transpire. As ever, though, with restrictor plate races it should be compelling to watch, especially as the laps wind down at the end of the race.
FIVE: Now that’s a fight
It would be remiss of me not to finish this week without a mention of the quite incredible fight between John Wes Townley and Spencer Gallagher. It really was quite something. Too often in NASCAR, it feels like emotions are held tightly in check so it was fun to see two drivers go at each other with no abandon. I can’t remember ever seeing a fight that went on for so long either. Normally they’re over before they’re begun. I’ll leave the last word to Sunday’s race winner, who took to Twitter to comment. Well said, Smoke. Well said.
Well @JWTownley is now officially my newest hero. It's about time someone had the balls to do what they thought was right 👍🏼👍🏼
— Tony Stewart (@TonyStewart) June 26, 2016