Marcos Ambrose learned a valuable lesson at Infineon Raceway on Sunday.
Not only does the fastest car not always win the race, but if a driver has the fastest car, is in the lead, but doesn’t maintain a reasonable speed on the racetrack, other competitors are also free to pass him.
That’s precisely what happened to Ambrose on lap 104, when he shut down the engine to conserve fuel and had trouble getting the car refired.
Once Ambrose had the No. 47 Toyota rolling, he blended in behind Kasey Kahne and was posted seventh for the restart on Lap 106 with Jimmie Johnson in the lead.
“I was leading the race and had trouble getting the motor cranked back up a little bit there, and NASCAR made the call,” Ambrose said as he walked back to the No. 47 hauler. “I was trying to save fuel and the motor shut off. It didn’t recrank the way it should. I didn’t stop rolling, but it is what it is.”
Johnson, who went on to win his first road course race, had no idea what had happened to Ambrose as his car stalled off to the side out of Turn 1. He speculated that Ambrose ran out of fuel or experienced an electrical problem, “because the car just came to a stop.”
“At that point, I’m thinking, ‘How does the procedure work?’ I know when you come to a stop, you’re clearly not maintaining a reasonable speed, and it would be interesting to see where they put him.
“In one respect, I felt like, if they put him back up in front of me, I’d kind of see that as OK, although I’d be raising hell on the radio and cussing like crazy and trying to fight it, because it looked like his car broke and it shut off. The way the rule reads, you have to maintain a reasonable speed, and coming to a stop on the racetrack is no speed.”
Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, checked with the team’s appointed pit official and radioed back to the driver, “That’s your gift for the day.”
And it was. With five laps to go, Johnson easily held off Robby Gordon on the restart, growing his advantage to over three seconds at the finish. Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top five, with Ambrose finishing sixth.
NASCAR Sprint Cup director John Darby said the sanctioning body placed Ambrose “back where they put him in the line.”
“I don’t know what happened,” Darby said. “I don’t know if his car quit. I don’t know if he shut it off. What I do know is he was leading, he pulled over, stopped and then pulled in behind the (No.) 9 (Kahne). At that point, that’s where he is.
“All I can think of is something happened to the race car, because a lot of guys will try to save fuel, but you never do that going up a hill (in Turn 2). For some reason the car shut off, he stopped, was passed by (six) cars, then got back in line.”
Darby added that Greg Biffle’s Kansas win in 2007 was a different circumstance, because when the No. 16 slowed to conserve fuel, he still “maintained pace and the other cars (Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson) picked up 20 miles per hour.”
Ambrose led the Toyota/Save Mart 350 twice for a total of 35 laps and had a two-second lead over Johnson before the final caution on Lap 104. Despite his sixth place, his best finish this season, Ambrose doesn’t agree with NASCAR’s decision.
“But that’s in my opinion, because I lost the race,” Ambrose said. “There’s not a lot of words to say. I’m just sorry for my guys. It’s pretty tough. I’m disappointed, but it’s NASCAR’s house. They call the shots, and we’ll play by their rules. I don’t like it. I don’t agree with it. But that’s the way it is.”
After Ambrose’s crew chief, Frank Kerr, discussed the situation with Darby, he was still smarting from the loss. Kerr acknowledged Ambrose was on fuel conservation mode all day. If the race had required three green-white-checkered flag finishes, the driver would have saved enough fuel for a minimum of 12 miles of racing plus however many laps were run under caution. Under those circumstances, Kerr said his fuel window would have been “close.”
Kerr said if Ambrose doesn’t understand the rule about maintaining a cautious pace, he “damn sure” knows it now.
“We had the best car,” Kerr said. “They better look out at Watkins Glen.”
Ready for revenge?
Jeff Gordon realizes he has payback coming.
Martin Truex, Jr. was just one of the drivers who were furious with the four-time champ. Gordon nailed the No. 56 Toyota on the Lap 61 restart.
Truex had run in the top 10 and led a lap before the incident, but the damage forced him to pit. He received a violation for being outside of his box and was sent to the tail end of the lead lap cars. With Truex mired in traffic, he became a victim two cautions later when the field restarted on the Lap 67 melee with Sam Hornish, Max Papis, Regan Smith and Denny Hamlin.
Truex realizes he was “just the victim of circumstance” when his car was demolished after 66 laps, but he blames Gordon as the catalyst for putting him in that position.
“Getting spun out there on that restart is what got us in the back there,” Truex said. “We should have never been in that position. We’ve been running up front all day long with a great car. Everybody on the NAPA Toyota did an awesome job.
“We had a shot at running top three or four, and maybe we had a shot at winning if the thing played right. I guess Jeff figured if he couldn’t catch us on the racetrack he was going to spin us out on the restart.”
Gordon restarted sixth following the 21-minute red-flag delay and held on to finish fifth on Sunday, which enabled him to gain two positions and move to fifth in the points standings. Truex, who finished 42nd, was not so lucky. Truex entered the weekend 16th in the standings but dropped to 19th.
Greg Biffle, David Ragan and Elliott Sadler might have to wait a while for a call of apology from Gordon. Where Kurt Busch is concerned, Gordon said he “had everything coming to him that I gave him, because he gave it to me on the restart before that, so I don’t feel sorry about that.” But Gordon expressed remorse for Truex, even if he placed part of the blame on Juan Pablo Montoya for the incident.
“On the restarts, you just got used up,” Gordon said. “Guys making it three wide, and I’m as guilty of it as anybody. After they started doing it to me, I had to do it to others. There are some things that I’m not proud of that I did today – certainly with Martin. I completely messed that up, and I will try to patch that up. Other things that happened out there were just really hard racing incidents.
“And whatever is coming back to me, I understand. When you blatantly get into a guy like that, you can say you are sorry all you want, and I certainly had no intentions of what happened with him. I have the No. 42 (Montoya) behind me dive bombing me into the braking zone, and where I made a mistake is trying to out-brake him. I will try and explain that to Martin. I feel terrible, because Martin races a lot of guys clean out there. He had a good run going, and I ruined that for him."
Truex anticipated Gordon would use Montoya as his excuse, but he’s not buying that explanation, particularly because Truex had the advantage by six or seven cars over Gordon. He simply wasn’t expecting it.
“The next thing I know, I’m spun around,” Truex said. “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. Now, I know he’s going to say Juan was trying to pass me and I was trying to block him. I don’t care. Just because he’s trying to pass you, it’s all right for you to spin me out? No. Let him pass you then.
“I would have let Juan pass me. If it was either get passed or spin out Jeff Gordon, I would have lifted and get passed. That’s the difference between me and him. That’s why I’m here, that’s why he’s out there and that’s why I’m pissed off.”
As tempers flared in the garage, two drivers – Montoya and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – seemed ecstatic with their finishes.
Montoya lined up 23rd for the final restart and salvaged a 10th-place finish after banging with the field. How did Montoya describe the action?
“It was fun,” he said with a grin. “It’s as simple as that. We had a blast. The car wasn’t as good as it could be, but passing 13 cars in 15 laps isn’t bad.”
Montoya, whose average finish at Sonoma is now 5.75, said he raced Gordon fairly and didn’t understand why he could possibly be upset.
“I raced him clean,” Montoya said. “He raced me clean. We’re good. People are so used to running side by side, but it’s a little bit different here. You get there and people don’t move and you’re there. I passed him, he passed me, it was good. I had no problem with him.”
With Earnhardt lined up ninth for the final five laps, he appeared destined to improve his career best 11th-place finish, but didn’t feel his car was “great” for the finish.
Still, with the problems most competitors faced on Sunday, he was satisfied with 11th.
“We ran a totally different setup than we had run in the past,” Earnhardt said. “Trying to learn and get better. Just think we may have taken a step backwards on the setup. But we saved the car, really saved the brakes and the sheet metal on the car until the end and then threw in the fire and came out on the good end.”
• Johnson’s 51st career win places him 10th on the all-time win list. His victory enabled him to vault four positions in the point standings to second.
• Denny Hamlin’s 34th-place finish is his worse this season. Before Sonoma, he’d finished all but four laps in 2010. On Sunday, he finished 103 of 110.
• With Kyle Busch and Hamlin both experiencing mechanical issues on Sunday, Kevin Harvick extended his points lead over second-place Johnson by 140 points. His advantage was 22 entering Sonoma.
• Only five of the current 12 drivers in the Chase Zone have wins this season: Harvick (one), Johnson (four), Kyle Busch (two), Hamlin (five) and Kurt Busch (two).
Boris Said on restarts, his altercation with Tony Stewart and finishing eighth at Sonoma on Sunday:
“(Brad Keselowski) sent me for a ride, and I was out of control. I can’t believe I didn’t wreck it. And then a couple of restarts later, it was just chaos and Kevin Harvick got into me or something. It was just wild. It was just racing. It was double-file restarts. The only thing I was disappointed in is at the end of the race Tony Stewart just ran in and took the side of my car out after the checker. He’s one of my heroes, so that kind of upset me a little bit, but all in all, a good day to come out of here with a top 10 after not racing full-time. I’m tickled. A top 10 for us is like a win.”