Race Capsule: Carl Edwards gets back on track in an unlikely way at Sonoma
Flag to Flag: Raise your hands...who had Carl Edwards winning at Sonoma Raceway Sunday? Those with your hands up: you're lying. In nine previous starts at the California road course, Edwards had only four top 10s and two top 5s. However, the pit stop pendulum swing swayed in favor of the No. 99 team. Edwards, who started 4th, took the lead from road racing ace Marcos Ambrose (finished 8th) on a restart with 26 laps to go and held it until the checkered flag. The victory, Edwards' 23rd of his 10-year Sprint Cup career, didn't come without a late charge by Jeff Gordon's (2nd) No. 24 Panasonic Chevy in the final laps. Gordon, who won Sonoma three years in a row from '98-'00 and last won a road course race at Watkins Glen in '01, started eating into Edwards' solid lead and had almost caught up to him in Turn 11 - the final turn on the white flag lap. But Edwards, who was struggling on older tires, made it through and scored the win. Jamie McMurray (4th) started on the pole for the 2nd-straight year in the No.1 Cessna Chevy and led twice for nine laps, including the first eight circuits.
Then A.J. Allmendinger's (37th) No. 47 Kingsford/Clorox took the point for the California driver's first laps led since leading a single lap at both Daytona and Martinsville. Allmendinger looked the car and driver to beat, leading a race-high twice for 35 laps. Pit strategy shuffled Allmendinger back a few spots and then contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr, the wall, and then Brian Vickers (14th), damaged his car enough to put it down two laps. Kevin Harvick (20th) also led the most laps he ever has in a Sonoma race (23), but got shuffled back by a slow pit sequence and then nailed the spun out Clint Bowyer (10th), ending both drivers' chances at a win. Ambrose also had the lead for a while, taking it on the lap 80 restart and holding it during the Bowyer caution. Car No. 9 didn't have its normal road course mojo this day, as they started 23rd and then faded to 8th in the waning laps after working to the lead. The race ran caution-free the first 31 laps, before Landon Cassill (43rd) left fluid on the track. There were only two more cautions before a nasty crash on lap 76. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3rd) hit the curbing and got into Matt Kenseth (42nd), wrecking him hard into the tire barrier in Turn 7. The hit was vicious, but Kenseth escaped okay. Earnhardt Jr. apologized for his mistake and then promptly drove to his best-career Sonoma finish.
Interestingly enough, last year at Watkins Glen, Kenseth lost control of his car and hit Kasey Kahne (6th at Sonoma Sunday) into Earnhardt Jr. Brad Keselowski (22nd) got damage and lost track position when he spun Kyle Busch (25th) early in the race. Busch also spun again later on and never recovered. Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin (26th), also had another hard luck day, getting spun late in the race and finishing 26th. All in all, it was a bad day for JGR. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (31st) got off course several times in only his third-career Cup road race. The last spin brought out a caution on lap 92 of 110 and was caused by a retaliatory hit by Vickers. Despite the late wrecks, 30 cars finished on the lead lap and only three failed to finish the race. There really wasn't a ton of mixing it up for the lead, as the real rough and tumble racing was mid-pack. Tire wear made pit stops much more mandatory than in past years and the cautions fell in just the right rhythm to benefit teams like Edwards' (who made only two stops the whole race) and hurt teams like Harvick's, who had to pit from the lead at one point. Last year's winner, Martin Truex Jr., ran inside the top 10 most of the race, but dropped to 15th at the end. The top 10 were Edwards, Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. (joined HMS teammate Gordon in having a new sponsor onboard: Kelley Blue Book), McMurray, Paul Menard, Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Ambrose, Greg Biffle, and Bowyer. Gordon still leads Johnson by 20 and Earnhardt Jr. by 25 in the standings, another tangible mark of this year's Hendrick Motorsports dominance. Kurt Busch (12th in the race) remains 26th in points, but well ahead of 31st in points, so still eligible for the Chase and is the only driver outside the top 16 with a win. The winless drivers that are Chase-eligible now after 16 races, are Kenseth (4th in points), Ryan Newman (8th), rookie Kyle Larson (10th), Paul Menard (12th), Clint Bowyer (14th), and Greg Biffle (15th). Kasey Kahne is 16th in points and 15 points behind Biffle. Tony Stewart is 17th in points, only two behind Kahne, and is tied in the standings with rookie Austin Dillon.
RaceTweet: Carl Edwards, the Aflac lame duck (we think), wins Sonoma ahead of insurgent Jeff Gordon and wrecking ball Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Carl Edwards - Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing have been in the news for all the wrong, disruptive reasons the last few weeks and no one in their stable was expected to be a big noise maker at Sonoma. Edwards had struggled in practice some and was low on the charts in qualifying, but jumped up to 4th at the end of round two qualifying...not bad. He then stayed in position most of the race and was right there to take the lead with 26 laps to go. The two-stop-strategy of crew chief Jimmy Fennig did leave Edwards on older tires, but he wrestled his car to a win ahead of a charging Jeff Gordon. Edwards is 6th in points, with two wins. Considering the questions about his future and the dark clouds over RFR, those numbers aren't bad. By the way, Greg Biffle finished 10th in the race, making two RFR drivers in the top 10 at Sonoma and none at Michigan last week. Go figure.
North Korean Missile Dud of the Race: Road course ringers - Road courses are like plate tracks in that the discipline certainly unearths different drivers to the front of the field. Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Robby Gordon, for instance, won few other places than on road courses in NASCAR (Gordon did win at New Hampshire in 2001). But road course ringers' advantage over Sprint Cup regulars is fading. Unless a full-time driver happens to be a road course ace, road course experts don't land in good rides anymore and aren't beating the oval guys. At Sonoma, even Ambrose wasn't really a top contender. Ringers Boris Said and Tomy Drissi qualified and ran at the back of the pack the entire day in underfunded rides. Michael McDowell runs well on road courses, but was never a front-runner in his small No. 95 Leavine Family Racing entry, finishing 24th. Maybe the talent gap has shrunk or maybe equipment means more than the driver on these racetracks now. A.J. Allmendinger was the only road course ace to run extremely well Sunday and he had problems late and finished 37th.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Casey Mears - Another California driver with an open-wheel background besides Allmendinger did well at Sonoma. Mears got serious front-end damage early in the race and seemed a goner. But he muscled the GEICO Chevy through traffic and placed a respectable 13th for Germain Racing. Mears has had good runs like this a few times this year and, like Allmendinger and JTG/Daugherty Racing, is benefiting very much from the technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing.
Wheel of Misfortune: A.J. Allmendinger - This was likely Allmendinger's biggest chance to win a Cup race. After getting suspended for a substance abuse violation in 2012, resurfacing in 2013 with several teams and then winning with Penske in the Nationwide Series, and then landing the full-time ride in the No. 47 for 2014, Allmendinger's been on a roller coaster. He led a race-high 35 laps before getting pushed into the wall by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and then nailed by Brian Vickers. The car and the driver were right, the circumstances wrong. He was 2014's best chance, so far, to have an underdog show up in the Chase. Not so.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Clint Bowyer - Bowyer has not been the face for surviving adversity, as he often loses his cool when things go wrong for the No. 15 team. But Bowyer fought back from a spin on lap 83, where Kevin Harvick nailed him in the left-rear tire. The crew repaired the damage and changed tires and then Bowyer set sail for the front, eventually placing 10th. Making up two dozen spots in two dozen laps is not easy to do on a road course, but the 2012 winner of this race did. It also salvaged what had been a good day for the team, as Bowyer had led five laps and run in the top 5 quite a while. It also kept Bowyer 14th in points and points really do matter to winless teams like his.
Ghost Driver: Paul Menard - Normally this is a bad award, but not so for Menard. He may have had the quietest top 5 that could be had, being invisible nearly the whole race. Menard isn't generally thought of as a road course ace, but he does have an open wheel background (he attempted his first Cup race at Sonoma in 2003, driving Andy Petree's No. 33). Menard has had a solid year for Richard Childress Racing, sitting 12th in points with 9 top 10s. He could very well make the Chase with no wins, if he keeps up this pace.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Kevin Harvick - Harvick's day wasn't just foiled by his contact with Bowyer, but also a pit stop that lost him two spots during a late caution. Harvick angrily chastised the No. 4 crew on the radio after, but a TNT graphic showed an interesting stat. Johnson had won the race off pit road and his crew was about .5 seconds faster than Harvick's. Where Johnson was particularly quick was on pit road itself, where he was about 1.5 seconds faster than Harvick, meaning Harvick was 75% responsible for losing ground and the crew 25%. There have been reports that the crew held the No. 4 Chevy for three seconds longer than it should have to fill up on fuel, which really did cost them some spots - but Harvick still lost ground to Johnson outside of the stop. Harvick was quick to point the finger of blame at himself after a slow final pit stop under green during the Coke 600 in May, but he otherwise has been not shy at all to bark at the crew. Last week at Michigan, Harvick lost the race because of an inferior tire strategy that lost him the race to Johnson. This week, however, Harvick likely placed the blame in the wrong place. He probably cost himself more time in that pit sequence than did his crew. Let's hope someone shows Harvick that stat while he is on camera.
Georgia On My Mind: Chase Elliott was impressive in his Nationwide Series road racing debut. He cost his team all of Friday practice by missing a shift and necessitating his No. 9 NAPA crew to change engines. That put the team at a big disadvantage, but they had teammates to lean on. Elliott qualified 12th and ran in the top 10 all day Saturday at Road America. He was running 2nd to leader and eventual winner Brendan Gaughan on the last lap. But Elliott couldn't hang on and got passed by Kevin O'Connell and Alex Tagliani, who slid into and almost wrecked Elliott racing for 3rd. Elliott finished 4th and afterwards talked things over with Tagliani. Nothing escalated. Elliott previously had almost won an ARCA road course race and did win his only Camping World Truck Series race at the Canadian Tire Motorsports Park road course. Even still, his run Saturday was impressive and leaves him 3rd in points, 11 behind leader and teammate Regan Smith and one behind 2nd place Elliott Sadler. Ryan Sieg ran respectably in his first-ever road course race, but crashed on the last lap and didn't make it to the finish. He placed 22nd. The Sprint Cup Series race at Sonoma offered little good news for the the not-so-road course savvy Georgia gang. David Ragan qualified 31st and finished 36th and Reed Sorenson started 40th and finished 32nd. Sorenson (33rd) now leads Ragan (34th) by one point in the standings.