There’s a strange feeling in the air at Sonoma that something bizarre could happen in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday.
Maybe it’s because last year’s “boys, have at it” attitude led to some wild antics — most memorably for hometown favorite and five-time Infineon Raceway victor Jeff Gordon, who had run-ins with Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. in 2010.
Busch, who has been fast all weekend and was third-fastest in Happy Hour, might have a little unfinished business between himself and his fellow NASCAR champ.
“It was an off-day for Jeff,” said Busch, who will start 11th on Sunday. “He apologized to a handful of guys afterwards, and for some reason (he) pinpointed me. I thought that was interesting because he drove straight through our right rear, gave us a flat, and we finished 32nd.
“You have your bad days. You have your moments of beating and banging. It’s one of those things where the lines keep getting drawn further and further towards the aggressive side here at Sonoma. You don’t see it so much at Watkins Glen, but here, everybody seems to get more and more aggressive at the end of the races.”
In addition to the NASCAR road course edition of “boys, have at it,” here are 10 additional storylines to watch:
1) WHERE DID HE COME FROM, PART 1? — After Brad Keselowski qualified 15th on Friday, I jokingly asked, “Who was driving the blue deuce?” He tweeted back, “an animal ;o).” Keselowski wasn’t kidding. Halfway through practice, he knocked Jamie McMurray off the top of the speed chart in Happy Hour with a lap of 91.725mph. After qualifying 36th last season and finishing 35th, where did Keselowski find his speed? Keselowski will tell you that “hard work will be rewarded,” but it doesn’t hurt to test with Jacques Villeneuve either. Keselowski tested with JV at both Virginia International Raceway and Road Atlanta and teleconferenced after. Although the No. 2 qualified 15th, it doesn’t appear that Keselowski showed his hand Friday. Chances are he’s saving the best for Sunday.
2) EARNHARDT GANASSI RACERS — Jamie McMurray has been solid all weekend. After finishing second here in 2004, McMurray will start second Sunday, and this could be his best shot for a win in the SaveMart 350. But he’ll have to hold off Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate Juan Pablo Montoya — who was fourth-fastest in Happy Hour. When the session ended, Montoya radioed to the crew, “Good job, guys . . . thanks to the 1 crew, I guess.”
3) COMEBACK KID — After last year’s disappointing finish, when Marcos Ambrose couldn’t get his car restarted after the caution, the driver of the No. 9 Ford is looking for redemption at Sonoma. But Ambrose was anything but happy in Happy Hour on Saturday, as he couldn’t get his car to turn. Ambrose told
crew chief Todd Parrott, “I’ve got no (expletive) idea what to do here, mate. It’s just not working.” Ambrose starts eighth. As desperately as Ambrose wants his first Sprint Cup win, Parrott would like his first road course victory. Hopefully, the pair will figure it out before Sunday.
4) WHERE ARE THE HENDRICK CARS? — The top qualifying Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was defending race winner Jimmie Johnson, who will start 12th on Sunday. But Doug Duchardt, vice president of development, acknowledged the teams were struggling during practice to find speed. Five-time Sonoma winner Jeff Gordon was 10th-fastest in Happy Hour, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. (13th), Johnson (22nd) and Mark Martin (33rd). Earnhardt is the only one of the four drivers who has not won at the track. Perhaps experience will make up for the machines Sunday.
5) HOMETOWN BOY — AJ Allmendinger rolls off seventh on Sunday. Not only was the Dinger the best Ford in time trials, he held that same distinction in Happy Hour. The 29-year-old Los Gatos, Calif., native grew up not far from the track and honed his skills on road courses. While his teammate Marcos Ambrose earns most of the buzz when the NASCAR tour comes to Sonoma and Watkins Glen, don’t count out AJ.
6) WHERE ARE THE RINGERS? — Boris Said is one of a handful of road course specialists who showed up for the weekend and should have by far the best equipment of the group with his Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. However, despite a solid Hendrick-inspired package, given how the rest of that stable ran, Said might have a tough time starting from 30th.
7) CHANGES — New aspects for Sunday include NASCAR raising the speeds under caution to maintain cooler conditions for the engines. The caution car will run at 45 mph around the circuit, while pit road speeds will be 35mph. Goodyear has a new tire compound this weekend. There haven’t been any complaints from competitors yet, but the drivers could use a little more forward bite.
8) WHERE DID HE COME FROM, PART 2 — Joey Logano secured the top qualifying spot Friday but was a no-show during both practice sessions Saturday — not even breaking through the top 20. Logano’s best finish at Infineon is 19th. Fortunately, the kid got a little more lap time when he picked up a win in the K&N Pro Series on Saturday.
9) GET IN GEAR — While there might still be some apprehension among competitors after the transmission problems at Pocono Raceway two weeks ago, there really haven’t been serious issues with transmissions at Sonoma for the past five years. The difference between the two tracks was shifting every 17 seconds at Pocono, compared with shifting 12 to 13 times a lap at Sonoma at a much lower rate of speed.
10) TOP SPEED — Earnhardt Childress Racing engines had five drivers among the top 10 on the speed chart in Happy Hour. While horsepower isn’t nearly as important to success on a road course as is making a car turn, ECR still deserves a shout-out for effort. Jamie McMurray led the charge of the ECR cars with a lap of 91.623mph — the second-fastest circuit on the sheet — followed by Juan Pablo Montoya (fourth), Clint Bowyer (fifth), Kevin Harvick (eighth) and Jeff Burton (ninth).