By Toby Christie (Originally appeared on RubbingsRacing.com)
The golden horseshoe is back, and everyone is in trouble yet again. Jimmie Johnson had the dominant car Sunday at Infineon Raceway by leading 54 of the 110 laps, but late in the event Marcos Ambrose had the four-time champion covered.
During a late caution however Ambrose came to a stop while trying to save gas. As a result Johnson and five others got by Ambrose. Ambrose got the car fired back up, and sped back to his position up front, but he wouldn’t stay there.
As per NASCAR rule a driver must maintain pace car speed to hold on to their position under the yellow flag. Ambrose clearly didn’t and as a result Johnson was given the gift of the lead, while Ambrose was forced back to sixth place.
Johnson would easily cruise from there for his first ever career win on a road course. This also marks Johnson’s fourth win of the season, and his 51st career Sprint Cup Series victory. With this win Johnson moves up to second in the point standings, and is back from a mid season slide. Johnson leaves this race proud of his team, and glad their emphasis on road courses has paid off.
“We led a lot of laps today, which was really nice to do. Had to make some good passes at times. Feel like it was a complete day, complete weekend.” Johnson said. “Very proud to see all the hard work that Chad has put into our road course program, Hendrick Motorsports, what they have done, all those test days we left frustrated, mad. We just had one three or four weeks ago.”
Crew Chief Chad Knaus commended his driver for upping his game on road courses.
“We knew we were behind. We had to get our product better. We felt like our drivers needed to get better. We put a lot of effort into it.” Knaus said. “Jimmie personally has put a lot of effort into upping his road course racing capabilities and he’s done a great job.”
Johnson would continue by saying being up front at the end was key.
“When you get to the closing laps and you’re deep in the field, it’s just nasty. You hope you can be on the inside and you don’t care if you get close to your braking marks. You just go in and make 16 tires better than four. I heard eight are better than four. You just go in there and blast people. I think there was some of that going on.” Johnson explained of the chaotic racing going on behind him.
Johnson may have won the race, but the story of the race was how heart breaking it was to see Marcos Ambrose lose it. Ambrose had the race in his grasp, when during the late caution he received the word on the radio to save gas.
Of course Ambrose had plenty of fuel for the finish, which is what makes this all the more confusing, and heart breaking. Ambrose would still get his best finish of the season with a sixth, but the fact he could of won has to be hard to bare.
Robby Gordon was able to wheel his car hard over the last bit of the race to hold off Kevin Harvick for second place. This helps keep the No. 7 car safely in the top-35 in owner’s points. Gordon was on older tires than all of the cars around him. After the race he was thankful that everyone raced him clean despite the fact he was a ‘sitting duck’.
“Like I said, Kevin and the guys had 10 laps better tires than I did. I was kind of a sitting duck.” Gordon said. “I’m fortunate enough that him and Jimmie were racing for points and we were able to slide in between them there.”
Kevin Harvick who finished third maintains his points lead heading into New Hampshire. According to Harvick being the point leader allows him to take more chances week-in and week-out.
“We’re fortunate to be where we’re at in the points right now. We’re able to race hard every lap and really not have to worry about what’s going on with the points.” Harvick said after a hard fought third-place finish.
Kasey Kahne, who started on the pole, finished fourth and explained that he just had to get in rhythm after a shaky start.
“We were a little bit off at the start, but I just needed to settle in and we made the car a little bit better there.” Kahne said. “I felt pretty good the last 70 laps, so it was a good race. I’m able we were able to finish strong with our Budweiser Ford, and, hopefully, it was a good show. I know it was exciting from my seat and probably a lot of the other drivers’ seats.”
Jeff Gordon came home a controversial fifth.
Gordon’s fifth was controversial because he made numerous enemies throughout the day including Martin Truex Jr.
Truex had been running in the top-five for the most part of the day, until contact from Jeff Gordon sent Truex spinning to the rear of the field. On the next restart Truex would be caught up in a huge wreck deep in the pack. Truex fumed after the incident.
“We’ll just get him back at Loudon.” Truex said.
Following the race Gordon understood Truex’s anger, and stated that he deserved any kind of retaliation that was coming his way.
Other than Gordon making his fair share of enemies, it was an all around great day for Hendrick Motorsports. Dale Earnhardt Jr. tied his career best finish at Infineon with an 11th-place finish.
This unexpected great run at one of his worst tracks actually moves Earnhardt to 13th in the points and he is now within 51 points of the chase. He came into this race over 80 points out of 12th in the standings.
Mark Martin was the worst of the Hendrick cars, yet he still finished 14th and moved up to 11th in the points.
As great as the Hendrick cars were on the day, the Joe Gibbs Racing teams were equally horrible. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin crashed in the first incident of the day. This sent sent Busch to the garage for over 30 laps, and he would finish 39th.
Denny Hamlin buckled his hood in the incident, but would remain on the racetrack. Later though his hood would give way, and actually pop up, which blinded him for over a lap. After his crew cut his hood off of the car Hamlin would finish 35th.
Joey Logano made it a perfectly horrid day for the team as he had run-ins with Juan Montoya late in the race that sent him spinning. Logano had an all around rough day that finally ended with him two laps down. Logano was relegated to a 33rd-place finish.
When we come to road courses there is a lot of talk about the “Road Ringers”. Boris Said was the highest finishing “Road Ringer” on the day with an eighth place run. Said actually had the lead late in the race, and despite being ran into the dirt several times on the day Said was able to bring the car back in one piece near the front.
“It was exciting all day. The California National Guard car on the long run was as good as anybody, if not better. When we were leading there at the end, if it would have gone green like in previous years, we would have won the race because on old tires there was no one better than us.” Said explained. “But as chaotic as those restarts were, the 12 (Keselowski) got into me. I don’t know what happened, but he sent me for a ride and I was out of control. I can’t believe I didn’t wreck it.”
Jan Magnussen, another ringer, in his first ever NASCAR start finished an impressive 12th.
With ten races remaining until the chase Carl Edwards sits 12th in the points, but a late race spin has made his cushion shrink substantially. Edwards finished 29th Sunday.
I must give a shout out to Jamie McMurray. He started deep in the field Sunday, and got caught in an incident early in the race. This sent McMurray to 43rd-place and put him one lap down. Jamie Mac fought his way back all day long, and salvaged the day with a 15th-place finish.
Also on a sidenote Mattias Ekstrom, who was driving the 83 car in this race led more laps on the day (seven) then Casey Mears had led in his five starts in the Red Bull car combined (zero). Not only that, but Ekstrom ran well all day, but was spun out late in the event.
However even after the late race spin Ekstrom still rebounded to score 105 points in this race with a 21st place finish… Why is this a big deal? This point total, and finishes are better than Mears’ best race in the 83 car, which was a 97 point, 22nd-place effort at Dover. I must also mention that this was Ekstrom’s first ever race in NASCAR.