Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Sonoma Raceway
Let’s have a quick flashback to NASCAR 2011. The hottest free agent on the Sprint Cup Series market? Carl Edwards, whose decision lie between sticking with Roush Fenway Racing and replacing a struggling Joey Logano at Joe Gibbs Racing. The choice was difficult, as Edwards was on the comeback trail with RFR after a 2008 season that witnessed a gaudy nine victories and found him on the cusp of unseating Jimmie Johnson.
Back then, through 16 races, Edwards had nine top 5s, 12 top 10s and led the point standings, which was a better mark of consistency compared to a 2014 format where winning is, indeed, everything. On the flip side, JGR was struggling, yet its potential was unquestioned. Denny Hamlin was enduring a runner-up hangover while Kyle Busch was flashing signs of inconsistency paired with a temper that would result in a one-race suspension during the Chase. Toyota offered Edwards the keys to that rebuilding project, promising him the face of its franchise and plenty of money with which to race to the top.
Ultimately, his decision was to stick with Ford. Edwards was convinced JGR was a lateral move while the No. 99 team stood in position to win a championship. They came close, losing a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart and appeared poised to remain a strong contender for several seasons to come. Except … they haven’t. Over the past three years Edwards has accumulated a total of 16 top-5 finishes with RFR — three less than his 2011 total — while running 15th and 13th in the standings, respectively. JGR, by comparison, has risen into title contention with near misses the past two years with Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.
But as Edwards absorbs a shocking victory at Sonoma — his first career Cup win on a road course — the 2014 decision very much mirrors 2011. Ford is still offering quite a bit of money to stick around; RFR, for the next few years, still needs him as the face of its franchise in order to stay relevant. And with two victories, Edwards has already matched his yearly high since that season of 2008 — with 20 races still left. Currently sixth in points, RFR and Edwards have been an obvious step behind on intermediates, once their bread and butter, but in a world where winning is everything, they’ve found a way to stay in the championship hunt. It’s not inconceivable that if Edwards stays this team could go deep into the Chase — into at least the final eight, and then who knows what could happen.
JGR, on the other hand, is struggling once again; did you know their organization has just as many wins as RFR, which has been a media punching bag thus far in 2014?
Edwards, according to several reports, has already made the decision to jump to JGR. (I don’t know the answer, but know JGR is actively hiring for what it’s calling a 2015 expansion. Put the pieces together from there.) Everyone during the post-race celebrations at Sonoma remained tight-lipped. But for a choice many claim has already been made, it’s not as much of a slam dunk thought process as we’re being led to believe.
“Through the Gears” we go, post-Sonoma …
FIRST GEAR: Sonoma: the new Martinsville?
Two decades ago, no one seemed to like road courses on the NASCAR schedule. Half the Cup drivers struggled to race on them, jumping off course every lap like amateurs. Old school road ringers, from Tommy Kendall to Scott Pruett to Ron Fellows, contended for wins while helping give these left-turn drivers a little education in turning right.
But now? In an era of aerodynamics, engineering and money dominating the Cup circuit in too many places, the road courses have become a welcome respite on tour. The lower-tier teams, knowing driver skill is essential to success, feel the right strategy can put them up front and in position to contend for wins. Ringers, while far fewer in number, still pop in and add a little spice to the competition. Among the 43-car grid, there’s far more Cup drivers experienced on these types of courses, taking the time to work at places like VIR and Road Atlanta in order to improve their skill set and not make a fool of themselves twice a season. It has seemingly become a badge of pride to run well on the roadies.
Therefore, what you get almost every time out at these places are some of the most intriguing races of the season. The specter of who might win Sunday passed from driver to driver: Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger and even Paul Menard were all names who spent time at or near the front. Yes, the grand finale was a duel between Edwards and road king Jeff Gordon, but the amount of hard racing, contact and shuffling of position to get there kept fans entertained throughout.
Surprisingly, the Nielsen ratings often do not reflect the growing excitement of road course racing — they’re still among the least-watched events — but that’s changing, ever so slowly. There’s no doubt Sunday’s action left a positive NASCAR vibe going forward for the first time in over a month.
SECOND GEAR: How much do minor mistakes matter?
At this point, the four best drivers on paper are becoming painstakingly clear: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. All four were in contention Sunday, each with a shot to win, but there was a clearly different philosophy per team.
Gordon, clearly, is hungry. He had the second-fastest car it seemed and ran down Edwards, who used a two-tire stop to get up front during the closing segment of the race. If Gordon had another lap, maybe two, he would have added to his all-time leading victory total at Sonoma. Leading the points, the No. 24 team is showing the most versatility at all tracks since it gave Johnson a run for his money back in 2007. Oh, did I mention that was the last time the title came down to a heavyweight fight between those two?
Johnson, for his part is, running on cruise control, clearly ready to engage in that battle while maintaining the simplest of NASCAR philosophies: racing within your means. After his final stop, the No. 48 was a top-10 car and Johnson didn’t overplay his hand, running a comfortable seventh to maintain momentum after a strong month. It’s the way in which Gordon and Johnson run — minimizing mistakes while maintaining speed — that has been rewarded with 10 championships between the duo throughout their Hall of Fame careers.
Earnhardt, by comparison, showed aggression in a third-place effort, his career best at Sonoma. It’s clear he and crew chief Steve Letarte are clicking. The driver joked that if Letarte called every year like it was his last, maybe they would have done far better in their time together. But Earnhardt, despite all his improvements this year, has still made a few crucial mistakes. At Sonoma alone, he hit AJ Allmendinger and ruined the day for an underdog that appeared in position for a miracle victory. He also jumped the curb and slammed friend Matt Kenseth hard into the tire barrier. While taking responsibility for his actions, it’s those types of mistakes, as I’ve said often in this space, that will get you in trouble during the Chase. In the new format it only takes one bad moment and you’ll be sitting on the sidelines instead of inside the Final Four.
Ditto for Harvick, who once again had the fastest car but fell victim to a “wrong place, wrong time” incident when Jamie McMurray turned Clint Bowyer. What put Harvick back in the pack? You guessed it — bad luck combined with a bad pit stop. Harvick’s claim that the poor stops are getting “really, really, really old” was heard by those around them, but his criticism is also ringing hollow. You can now tell on the radio that crew chief Rodney Childers, a mild-mannered guy used to working with veterans like Mark Martin and the understated David Reutimann, is getting tentative on handling a tempestuous alternative. How can he calm Harvick down, on a crew where public verbal slaps will make them less likely to turn things around? Patience needs to be a virtue here, but I’m struggling to see it.
Those two are your aggressive title picks. Johnson and Gordon? Blue-chip stocks.
THIRD GEAR: The one that got away.
You can’t say the David’s of the world got denied at Sonoma. Instead, McMurray, Ambrose and Allmendinger systematically denied themselves. For McMurray, he spun the tires on the final restart, never could get in front of Edwards and paid the price. The All-Star winner probably needs a “real” win to make the Chase and this day could be the one he looks back on with regret when the checkers fall at Richmond in September.
Meanwhile, Ambrose will probably have a better shot at Watkins Glen to put a Chase bid in the bank. But a horrid restart, the one where Edwards got ahead on lap 85, doomed his chances on Sunday. Ambrose initially said Edwards jumped — similar to a Richmond controversy not long ago where NASCAR penalized the No. 99. Unfortunately for him, the rules are different now with the leader in control of their destiny, and it seemed like the No. 9 just never got going.
In perhaps the best car of the three, Allmendinger got shuffled back through pit strategy before contact with Earnhardt ended the chances of his No. 47. Outside of the top 20 in points after a 37th, it’s becoming likely this season will be a big step forward for the single-car operation — just not the miracle postseason berth they were hoping for.
FOURTH GEAR: Tough times for Toyota.
At times, Clint Bowyer looked like a car that could win before a flat tire at the wrong time took him out of contention (combined with McMurray’s push into traffic in Turn 11). Brian Vickers, enduring contact from Ricky Stenhouse Jr., endured a similar fate. But that paled in comparison to top Toyota team Joe Gibbs Racing, which saw all three drivers suffer through spins and/or contact en route to finishes of 25th, 26th and 42nd. Kenseth’s hit into the tire barrier was one of the roughest seen at Sonoma in recent years.
That leaves Camrys with a total of one top-5 finish and three top 10s in the last three races. In the last two, it’s been only Bowyer cracking the list, scoring a 10th in both cases. A Ford may have found victory Sunday, snapping the Hendrick/Chevy win streak, but the fact remains both manufacturers are a major step behind and running out of time to get things fixed.
The decreasing number of road course ringers in the Cup Series failed to get a boost on Sunday. Boris Said, after going off course early, was never a factor and finished a lap back in 35th. The fact he was the best of the bunch is all you need to know. … Sunday’s race featured a lap 72 caution for debris. No wreck, just debris. On a road course, which has the added bonus of “local yellows” on a particular turn where there’s plenty of time to pick up any pieces of metal, how do you throw a full course caution for that? I notice none of the other major racing series that run on road courses do such a thing. … Austin Dillon, 17th on Sunday, broke Kyle Larson’s streak of top Sprint Cup rookie performances. Larson, whose power steering broke, was a disappointing 28th after upping expectations by winning the K&N Pro Series race the day before.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.