NASCAR: Round 16 – Infineon, Sonoma – June 20

Jimmie Johnson got back to winning ways after a bit of a slump for him. The surprise was that his return to victory road should happen at a road course – it’s the first time he’s ever triumphed outside of the ovals. It took a controversial decision by the NASCAR officials to dispatch his chief rival from being a threat, however.

Johnson carried out a smart and pretty aggressive move on polesitter Kasey Kahne to take the lead on the first lap, leading from there until green flag pit stops on lap 33. He would soon reclaim the lead again after the rest of the pit stops cycled through, and once he overtook Red Bull’s Mattias Ekstrom, who was running a different pitstop sequence in the early part of the afternoon. After that he would lead through to his next pit stop, on lap 59. But trouble was looming in the form of road course specialist Marcos Ambrose who was now in the lead.

By the time they reached lap 92, there had been five cautions: the first had been on lap 11 for an incident involving Kevin Harvick, A.J. Allmendinger and others; it left Kyle Busch with heavy damage in turn 7 and Jamie McMurray with a crushed hood.

The second caution wasn’t until lap 58 when Dave Blaney spun. That put Boris Said in the lead after he opted to stay out, but Marcos Ambrose got the better restart and passed both Said and Tony Stewart to lead for the first time. The third caution came quickly on lap 64 after Brad Keselowski got loose near turn 10 and failed to save the car; he sustained damage to the splitter and had to head for pit road for running repairs.

The next attempt at a restart ended badly, Said botching his getaway leading to a compression in the midfield that completely caught out the backmarkers coming out of the last turn onto the front stretch. It triggered a multiple-car pileup that involved Martin Truex Jr., Juan Montoya, Kurt Busch and Mattias Ekstrom among others, and brought out a red flag so that the track could be cleaned up.

Before being forced to retire, Truex was already in a sour mood after contact earlier with Jeff Gordon, who had gone in too deep under braking for the final turn and clipped the right rear corner of Truex. “I guess Jeff figured he couldn’t catch us on the race track he was going to spin us out on the restart,” he said. “He was six, seven car-lengths behind me coming into 11, and I did think I had anything to worry about. The next thing I know I’m spun around. If he’s a car length or two back, yeah you take your defensive line, you prepare for it, him trying to dive-bomb me, but he was seven car lengths back. There’s no way he should have been where he was.”

“He should be [upset], you know, and whatever is coming back to me, I understand,” Gordon said. “When you blatantly get into a guy like that, you can say you are sorry all you want and I certainly had no intentions on what happened with him. I have the #42 [Juan Montoya] behind me dive bombing me into the braking zone and where I made a mistake is trying to outbrake him. I will try and explain that to Martin. I fell terrible because Martin races me and a lot of guys clean out there. He had a good run going and I ruined that for him.”

Once the track went green again, Ambrose led the restart and stayed in the lead until he pitted on lap 80, handing over the lead to Clint Bowyer and with Jimmie Johnson down in 17th after stopping the lap before. Ambrose came out of the pit lane exit just feet in front of the 48 and managed to hold the spot despite having cold tyres, frustrating Johnson’s best efforts.

After Bowyer pitted, Elliott Sadler picked up the lead for a lap before Boris Said returned to the front, and then two laps later it was the fifth caution of the afternoon for Joey Logano who had managed to slide off the track, dump the clutch and then end up connecting with Juan Montoya.

Said botched the restart and allowed Marcos Ambrose to take control ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Robby Gordon and Brad Keselowski who were all competing hard at the front of the field. Keslowski ended up spinning out Mattias Ekstrom bringing out the sixth caution on lap 92.

Ambrose continued to hold a strong lead over second-placed Johnson in the next stint of green flag racing, that lasted until the seventh caution on lap 103, when Brad Keslowski’s car started to drop fluids on the track after contact with David Gilliland,forcing NASCAR to throw a caution to clear up the potentially dangerous spillage.

And then with just six laps to go, Ambrose made a key mistake: fearing that any extended sequence of restarts might make him marginal on fuel, he turned the engine off behind the safety car through the downhill section. All fine – but the engine wouldn’t immediately fire up again afterwards, and the car ground to a halt. NASCAR took a dim view of this, pointing to rules about drivers needing to maintain constant speed and distance behind the safety car – and ordered Ambrose back to seventh.

“I tried to refire it on that left-hand uphill and it just didn’t refire,” said Ambrose. “My bad. Really disappointed. I don’t like the call but I should have had the motor cranked up and it would have never been an issue.”

That killed any last minute challenge to the chequered flag, as Johnson was now clear to bring the race home. He needed no second chance and delivered in style, pulling out 2.5s over Robby Gordon in second.

A slightly fortunate win, then, for Johnson – but a very welcome one. And he was there when the opportunity presented itself, and that’s all that matters in motorsport. Jimmie was back on top.

Further back, Jan Magnussen made a good début in the Sprint Cup and claimed an impressive 12th place. The former F1 driver and four-time 24 Hours of Le Mans class winner, who had started the race from 32nd place on the grid, said “Well, it was fantastic; unlike anything I’ve ever experienced! The first two hours compared to the last hour was a big difference. People got more aggressive. The last 20 minutes, it just got nuts! Nothing prepares you for that other than doing it. So it was a fantastic experience all the way through.”

Sadly, Magnussen will not be able to enter the second road course event of the Sprint Cup calendar this year, as it clashes with an American Le Mans race at Mid Ohio.

Race result

Pos  Driver              Car        Laps
 1.  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet  110
 2.  Robby Gordon        Toyota     110
 3.  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet  110
 4.  Kasey Kahne         Ford       110
 5.  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet  110
 6.  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota     110
 7.  Greg Biffle         Ford       110
 8.  Boris Said          Ford       110
 9.  Tony Stewart        Chevrolet  110
10.  Juan Pablo Montoya  Chevrolet  110
11.  Dale Earnhardt Jr   Chevrolet  110
12.  Jan Magnussen       Chevrolet  110
13.  AJ Allmendinger     Ford       110
14.  Mark Martin         Chevrolet  110
15.  Jamie McMurray      Chevrolet  110
16.  Ryan Newman         Chevrolet  110
17.  Elliott Sadler      Ford       110
18.  Scott Speed         Toyota     110
19.  David Gilliland     Ford       110
20.  David Reutimann     Toyota     110
21.  Mattias Ekstrom     Toyota     110
22.  Paul Menard         Ford       110
23.  Bobby Labonte       Chevrolet  110
24.  Travis Kvapil       Ford       110
25.  David Ragan         Ford       110
26.  JJ Yeley            Dodge      110
27.  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet  110
28.  Kevin Conway        Ford       110
29.  Carl Edwards        Ford       110
30.  Matt Kenseth        Ford       110
31.  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet  110
32.  Kurt Busch          Dodge      110
33.  Joey Logano         Toyota     108
34.  Denny Hamlin        Toyota     103
35.  Brad Keselowski     Dodge      102
36.  Sam Hornish Jr      Dodge      93
37.  Dave Blaney         Toyota     86
38.  Regan Smith         Chevrolet  86
39.  Kyle Busch          Toyota     76
40.  Joe Nemechek        Toyota     71
41.  PJ Jones            Toyota     68
42.  Martin Truex Jr     Toyota     66
43.  Max Papis           Toyota     65

Sprint Cup standings

	 	 	 	 	 	 	 	 	
Pos +/-  DRIVER                 PTS   BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Kevin Harvick          2334  Leader  16  0  1  6   11 
2   +4   Jimmie Johnson         2194  -140    16  0  4  7   10 
3   -1   Kyle Busch             2193  -141    16  2  2  5   9  
4   -1   Denny Hamlin           2183  -151    16  0  5  7   7  
5   +2   Jeff Gordon            2142  -192    16  0  0  7   8  
6   -2   Kurt Busch             2118  -216    16  2  2  6   9  
7   -2   Matt Kenseth           2092  -242    16  0  0  4   8  
8   --   Jeff Burton            2027  -307    16  0  0  3   7  
9   --   Greg Biffle            2011  -323    16  0  0  2   10 
10  +1   Tony Stewart           1983  -351    16  1  0  3   7  
11  +1   Mark Martin            1947  -387    16  1  0  5   6  
12  -2   Carl Edwards           1932  -402    16  0  0  1   6  
13  +1   Dale Earnhardt Jr.     1875  -459    16  1  0  1   4  
14  -1   Clint Bowyer           1858  -476    16  0  0  1   8  
15  --   Ryan Newman            1850  -484    16  1  1  2   5  
16  +2   Jamie McMurray         1790  -544    16  2  1  4   5  
17  --   Joey Logano            1783  -551    16  1  0  2   6  
18  +3   Kasey Kahne            1781  -553    16  1  0  4   5  
19  -3   Martin Truex Jr.       1775  -559    16  1  0  1   4  
20  --   Juan Montoya           1771  -563    16  0  0  4   8  
21  -2   David Reutimann        1752  -582    16  0  0  3   3  
22  --   A.J. Allmendinger      1711  -623    16  1  0  0   2  
23  --   Paul Menard            1659  -675    16  0  0  1   2  
24  --   Brad Keselowski        1558  -776    16  0  0  0   0  
25  --   David Ragan            1557  -777    16  0  0  0   1  
26  --   Scott Speed            1549  -785    16  0  0  0   1  
27  +3   Marcos Ambrose         1469  -865    16  0  0  0   2  
28  --   Elliott Sadler         1437  -897    16  0  0  0   0  
29  -2   Sam Hornish Jr.        1405  -929    16  0  0  0   0  
30  -1   Regan Smith            1368  -966    16  0  0  0   0  
31  +1   Bobby Labonte          1203  -1131   16  0  0  0   0  
32  +2   Robby Gordon           1202  -1132   15  0  0  1   1  
33  --   Travis Kvapil          1172  -1162   16  0  0  0   0  
34  -3   Brian Vickers          1158  -1176   11  0  0  0   3  
35  --   David Gilliland        1135  -1199   14  0  0  0   0  
36  --   Kevin Conway*          981   -1353   15  0  0  0   0  
37  --   David Stremme          643   -1691   8   0  0  0   0  
38  +1   Joe Nemechek           643   -1691   15  0  0  0   0  
39  +1   Max Papis              628   -1706   12  0  0  0   0  
40  -2   Mike Bliss             621   -1713   9   0  0  0   1  
41  --   Dave Blaney            551   -1783   13  0  0  0   0  
42  --   Casey Mears            480   -1854   6   0  0  0   0  
43  --   Bill Elliott           448   -1886   5   0  0  0   0  
44  --   Michael McDowell       431   -1903   11  0  0  0   0  
45  --   Boris Said             399   -1935   5   0  0  0   1  
46  --   J.J. Yeley             336   -1998   6   0  0  0   0  
47  --   Michael Waltrip        200   -2134   3   0  0  0   0  
48  --   Terry Cook*            164   -2170   3   0  0  0   0  
49  --   Robert Richardson Jr.  155   -2179   2   0  0  0   0  
50  --   Aric Almirola          154   -2180   4   0  0  0   0  
* Denotes Rookie 
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