NASCAR: Round 16 – Toyota/SaveMart 350, Sonoma – 21 June

And so NASCAR arrives at a road course – Infineon Roadway in Sonoma, to be exactly. All of a sudden, the drivers would encounter right hand turns and have to work out how to deal with them: it was going to be a through the looking glass experience for many of them.

Brian Vickers led the field to the first of the side-by-side rolling restarts under NASCAR’s new rules that apply here just as they do to ovals. Vickers sprang away as the green flag came out, but the rest of the field looked like clumsy, lurching giants crawling around the unfamiliar tight turns. It looked less like NASCAR, more like a 20-year-old touring car race. But of course the unfamiliarity and the potential for mistakes and accidents is all a crucial part of the appeal about sending NASCAR out on the road.

No problems for Vickers, while further back Carl Edwards was making notable progress, up nine places by lap 3 toward the back of the pack and Juan Montoya – an obvious road course specialist with his F1 experience – up eight places from 17th by lap 5 and into the top ten.

Sam Hornish made an early pit stop on lap 7, suffering vibrations after locking his brakes and flat spotting his tyres while making a move on AJ Allmendinger for 17th. Allmendinger himself suffered a flat on lap 10 that sent him off onto the dust and gravel at turn 8, limped back to the pits for a tyre change and then incurred a pit lane speeding penalty for his problems. But the first ‘routine’ pit stop was from road specialism Marcos Ambrose who came in on lap 13 to get himself off sequence with the intention of using the clear space he came out into at the back of the back to make up some time and jump a few places when the leaders came in.

The first lead change took place on lap 17 when Kyle Busch muscled Brian Vickers into a mistake and reaped the rewards. And the first yellow was on lap 21 when David Ragan got into one of the tyre stacks defining the final U-shaped corner, causing Jeff Burton to spin behind him. The same corner was going to see spins from Boris Said (a street ‘ringer’, imported for this event) with the help of a little tap from Denny Hamlin, and later on lap 29 Patrick Carpentier and Clint Bowyer also spun out but recovered without triggering a yellow.

While several cars pitted under the first yellow, the leaders opted to stay out – preferring instead to stick to the all-important fuel plan that would allow them to reach full distance on just two stops. hence, Busch gave up the chance to put under yellow only to pit under green four laps later on lap 28, and the rest of the field gradually cycled through the pits as well. Tony Stewart inherited the lead for 3 laps before pitting on lap 31, allowing Kasey Kahne to take over for three laps before he too pitted and Denny Hamlin took up the baton. Kurt Busch briefly made a move stick on Hamlin on lap 38, only to then overcook it on the next turn, lock his brakes and allow Hamlin to take the lead right back.

Marcos Ambrose came in again on his off-sequence strategy on lap 41 having worked his way up to 3rd, and was soon setting the fastest laps again after dropping down to 26th as a result. There were some eye-catching but harmless incidents including Elliot Sadler sliding off the track coming out of turn 10 on lap 43, sustaining some rear damage that caused him to get penalised; David Reutimann getting spun around by Jimmie Johnson just before the esses on lap 44; and AJ Allmendinger in the wars again spun around by the leader Denny Hamlin in the U-turn as he went a lap down for the second time having just got his lap back.

He got the lead back with the free pass a few minutes later with the second caution of the afternoon on lap 53, this time for debris on the track at a critical corner. Hamlin stayed out ahead of Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and Boris Said – 19 cars in all decided not to pit – but among those opting to come in at the mid race point were Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson – and Jeff Gordon, who got a pit lane speeding penalty for being too fast on entry and got sent to the back of the lead lap for his troubles.

It was a rough restart, with Brandon Ash knocked into a spin on lap 58 when he tried to turn across Greg Biffle who had the inside line of the double file restart, and Matt Kenseth clouting Mark Martin at the next turn completely wrecking the rear left wheel of the number 5 in the process.

Brian Vickers pulled off a neat overtaking move down the inside of Juan Montoya – not know for allowing anyone to pass him under any circumstances for 8th place, and the Colombian hastily ensured Dale Earnhardt Jr couldn’t follow him through as well. But Vickers hit disaster just seconds later when the group came up on an accident involving Kyle Busch, who had locked his brakes and ploughed into the back of the 77 of Sam Hornish Jr. Vickers braked and went off road avoiding hitting either car, only to then hit Busch as he attempted to rejoin the race. It was a fair disaster for all concerned and had certainly wrecked the potentially race winning strategy of both Vickers and Busch: Vickers was left 38th and last on the lead lap, while Busch was a lap down in 40th.

Hamlin gave up the lead for pit road on lap 67, his second and final refuelling stop of the afternoon, only to get beaten out of the pits by Kurt Busch who had come in at the same time. Others cycling through pit stops included Boris Said (who got a penalty for speeding on exit), Juan Montoya (complaining of a loose car), Jeff Gordon (whose crew dropped a left-rear lug nut, delaying the exit) and Dale Earnhardt Jr (who also had a lug nut issue, albeit more minor.)

That left Tony Stewart in temporary charge at the front, ahead of Kasey Kahne, Robby Gordon, Marcos Ambrose and Kevin Harvick. Kahne was next in on lap 71, and Stewart himself on lap 75. Ambrose came in on the following lap, and when he returned to the track he emerged alongside Bobby Labonte – too close. The two made contact and Labonte was spun around and off onto the gravel. As he hunted around to find the track again, be got lost in the cloud of dust and emerged pointing the wrong way into the oncoming traffic, triggering a hasty yellow – the third caution of the day.

Unfortunately the caution meant that those drivers who had yet to pit – including Robby Gordon who had inherited the lead – now came in and emerged well down (Gordon restarted in 25th). Scott Speed found himself on point, ahead of Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin; Kahne immediately got the better of Speed at the restart, and Speed subsequently got barged to one side by impact with Joey Logano before finally opting for pit lane and his overdue pit stop.

Things were getting feisty out there as the race headed into its last 30 laps. Ryan Newman got spun around after suspected contact with Hornish, and Paul Menard also spun going into the final U-shaped corner. Finally it was a multi-car accident sparked by Boris Said getting into the U-corner too hot and collecting both Sam Hornish and David Gilliland on lap 83 that brought out the fourth caution of the day. Said and Gilliland drove away from the scene of the crime but Hornish had suffered serious frontal damage on the 77.

At the restart on lap 87 Kasey Kahne led Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Juan Montoya, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin all threatening behind in the top six. Kahne got a good jump, while Montoya pulled off a gutsy move on Stewart to claim second only to lose it again to a smart piece of driving by Smoke on the next lap. Further back, however, there was trouble: a heart-stopping moment when Macros Ambrose nearly got driven into the tyres protecting the pit lane blend wall by Denny Hamlin, and then Jimmie Johnson got loose bouncing over kerbs and tapped Kurt Busch into a spin that sent him into the tyres in the esses on lap 90, bringing out the fifth yellow. This time, no one was pitting.

Not such a great restart for Kahne this time around, but he held the lead from Stewart while behind them Montoya and Johnson battled hard for third place, only narrowly avoiding disaster, only to see Marcos Ambrose get the better of both of them. Further behind and the fun was really getting going, with Greg Biffle and Brandon Ashe both spun around and hitting the wall causing major bodywork damage further back. After a breathless few minutes, NASCAR threw the sixth yellow on lap 96 for debris and everyone could breath again – while dreading yet another mayhem-inducing double file restart.

The wild ride resumed on lap 99, and fun broke out all over the place as a combination of dust and dirt kicked onto the track and tyres worn slick at the end of their lives. Kyle Busch threatened to bring out a quick caution by spinning around and stalling mid-track, but managed to get going again; multiple cars had impacts and spins on lap 101, among them Dale Earnhardt Jr and David Ragan; David Stremme spin near the entrance to pit road on the next lap., and Casey Nears spun with a little help from Patrick Carpentier on lap 106. But finally it was Scott Speed’s spin on lap 108 after contact with Boris Said that summed the seventh and final yellow of the afternoon.

From here on it was sudden death, under green-and-chequered conditions – two laps to go or the instant the next caution came out, whichever came first. But it meant that poor old Kasey Kahne had to endure and pull off his fourth straight restart in the lead at Sonoma, and just because it was two laps to go didn’t mean they were spared the double file line-up.

Kahne delivered: he kept the lead ahead of Stewart while Ambrose had to battle with Johnson to maintain third. None of them seemed to have anything in reserve, and that’s how they crossed the finish line, having avoided a final caution for a crash involving Mark Martin and two other cars at the end of the penultimate lap. The race continued to the end without a yellow and the fans certainly got their money’s worth.

NASCAR really should do road races more often, you know.

Race results

 	 	 	 	 	 	
FIN ST  CAR DRIVER              MAKE       PTS/BNS  LAPS
1   5   9   Kasey Kahne         Dodge      195/10   113 
2   4   14  Tony Stewart        Chevrolet  175/5    113 
3   3   47  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota     165/0    113 
4   11  48  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet  160/0    113 
5   24  11  Denny Hamlin        Toyota     160/5    113 
6   17  42  Juan Montoya        Chevrolet  150/0    113 
7   20  44  A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge      146/0    113 
8   26  33  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet  142/0    113 
9   13  24  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet  138/0    113 
10  8   19  Elliott Sadler      Dodge      134/0    113 
11  38  55  Patrick Carpentier  Toyota     130/0    113 
12  33  113 Max Papis *         Toyota     127/0    113 
13  34  99  Carl Edwards        Ford       124/0    113 
14  23  26  Jamie McMurray      Ford       121/0    113 
15  27  2   Kurt Busch          Dodge      123/5    113 
16  1   83  Brian Vickers       Toyota     120/5    113 
17  7   39  Ryan Newman         Chevrolet  112/0    113 
18  10  17  Matt Kenseth        Ford       109/0    113 
19  12  20  Joey Logano *       Toyota     106/0    113 
20  25  96  Bobby Labonte       Ford       103/0    113 
21  30  98  Paul Menard         Ford       100/0    113 
22  2   18  Kyle Busch          Toyota     102/5    113 
23  21  07  Casey Mears         Chevrolet  94/0     113 
24  9   08  Boris Said          Ford       91/0     113 
25  6   1   Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet  88/0     113 
26  35  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet  85/0     113 
27  29  09  Ron Fellows         Chevrolet  82/0     113 
28  15  16  Greg Biffle         Ford       79/0     113 
29  16  29  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet  76/0     113 
30  41  34  John Andretti       Chevrolet  73/0     113 
31  42  00  David Reutimann     Toyota     70/0     113 
32  32  171 David Gilliland     Chevrolet  67/0     113 
33  40  6   David Ragan         Ford       64/0     113 
34  36  31  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet  61/0     113 
35  14  5   Mark Martin         Chevrolet  58/0     113 
36  22  7   Robby Gordon        Toyota     60/5     113 
37  31  187 Scott Speed *       Toyota     57/5     113 
38  18  77  Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge      49/0     106 
39  39  12  David Stremme       Dodge      46/0     101 
40  28  43  Reed Sorenson       Dodge      43/0      98  
41  43  102 Brandon Ash         Dodge      40/0      94  
42  19  66  Dave Blaney         Toyota     37/0       3   
43  37  204 P.J. Jones          Toyota     34/0       2   

Sprint Cup standings

Serious damage was done to Mark Martin and Jeff Burton’s campaigns, both of whom lose three places after Sonoma. Denny Hamlin was the biggest winner, while Juan Montoya climbs two spots and into the Sprint Cup top twelve for the first time.

    +/- DRIVER             POINTS   BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Tony Stewart        2364    Leader  16  0   1   8   12
2   --  Jeff Gordon         2280    -84     16  0   1   8   11
3   --  Jimmie Johnson      2207    -157    16  0   2   7   10
4   --  Kurt Busch          2084    -280    16  0   1   4   8
5   +1  Carl Edwards        2051    -313    16  0   0   4   8
6   -1  Ryan Newman         2046    -318    16  1   0   5   8
7   +3  Denny Hamlin        2009    -355    16  0   0   4   6
8   -1  Greg Biffle         1992    -372    16  0   0   5   8
9   --  Kyle Busch          1962    -402    16  1   3   4   5
10  +1  Matt Kenseth        1957    -407    16  1   2   4   6
11  -3  Mark Martin         1926    -438    16  3   3   4   8
12  +2  Juan Montoya        1917    -447    16  1   0   0   7
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13  +2  Kasey Kahne         1914    -450    16  0   1   2   5
14  -1  David Reutimann     1877    -487    16  2   1   3   4
15  -3  Jeff Burton         1871    -493    16  0   0   2   6
16  --  Clint Bowyer        1852    -512    16  0   0   3   6
17  --  Brian Vickers       1794    -570    16  4   0   2   6
18  +2  Marcos Ambrose      1704    -660    16  0   0   2   4
19  --  Jamie McMurray      1669    -695    16  0   0   0   3
20  -2  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  1640    -724    16  0   0   1   3
21  --  Casey Mears         1617    -747    16  0   0   0   2
22  --  Martin Truex Jr.    1590    -774    16  1   0   0   3
23  +4  Elliott Sadler      1570    -794    16  0   0   1   2
24  +1  Joey Logano*        1551    -813    16  0   0   0   3
25  -2  Kevin Harvick       1537    -827    16  0   0   2   2
26  -2  Sam Hornish Jr.     1496    -868    16  0   0   0   3
27  -1  Reed Sorenson       1487    -877    16  0   0   0   1
28  +1  Bobby Labonte       1474    -890    16  0   0   1   1
29  +2  A.J. Allmendinger   1467    -897    16  0   0   1   3
30  -2  David Ragan         1447    -917    16  0   0   0   1
31  +1  David Stremme       1362    -1002   16  0   0   0   0
32  -2  Michael Waltrip     1338    -1026   15  0   0   0   1
33  --  Paul Menard         1337    -1027   16  0   0   0   0
34  --  Robby Gordon        1273    -1091   16  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        1093    -1271   15  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti        999    -1365   14  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland      941    -1423   15  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith          734    -1630   8   0   0   0   0
39  --  Joe Nemechek         592    -1772   12  0   0   0   0
40  --  Dave Blaney          551    -1813   13  0   0   0   0
41  +4  Max Papis*           502    -1862   7   0   0   0   0
42  -1  Brad Keselowski      479    -1885   4   0   1   1   2
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