Inevitably, something quirky comes from the Sprint Cup Series' annual trip to Northern California.
Is it something in the air — the heady smell of ripening grapes, perhaps — or is the combination of NASCAR stock cars with the technical road course at Infineon Raceway enough to produce the unexpected on a consistent basis?
There it was: Richard Petty back in victory lane as a car owner after a ten-year absence, thanks to driver Kasey Kahne, who had never finished better than 23rd in five previous starts at Infineon. To say the least, that was an unlikely combination.
To make it even more surreal, the alcohol-averse Petty sipped cabernet in victory lane and recalled a barrel-tasting adventure earlier in the week that would have fit right into the movie 'Sideways'.
From a broader perspective, Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 was the 16th race of the Cup season, the last event before the so-called Race to the Chase. With ten races left before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set at Richmond, several drivers solidified their positions at Sonoma, while others showed danger signs.
No sweat for Stewart. Though he didn't win the race, Tony Stewart's runner-up finish at Sonoma gave Smoke his eighth top five in the past eleven races and trimmed his average finish for 2009 to 8.4. In that stretch, Stewart has a win, four seconds, two thirds and a fourth and shows no signs of slipping. Given that Stewart has a 450-point lead over 13th-place Kahne, you can write 'Smoke' in indelible ink in one of the Chase positions. At this point, it's a matter of how many races he'll win and what seeding he gets.
No security for 'Shrub'. Finishing 22nd, 2008 race winner Kyle Busch didn't lose positions in the standings, but his ninth place grew more precarious. Busch's lead over Kahne is 48 points, and a couple more poor finishes could drop the top seed for the 2008 Chase out of the all-important top twelve. With three wins, Busch is tied with Mark Martin for the series lead, but Busch needs to right his ship to avoid squandering that advantage.
Incidentally, Martin didn't do himself any favours with a 35th-place finish at Infineon. He's eleventh in points, twelve ahead of Kahne.
No Chasers for Childress. A star-crossed 34th-place run at Infineon dropped Jeff Burton from twelfth to 15th in the standings, the net effect being that Richard Childress Racing doesn't have a driver in a Chase-eligible position. Burton, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer all made the Chase the past two years, but worries stemming from cutbacks in support from General Motors could have a profound effect on the organization. Total loss of factory support for the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series undoubtedly affects Harvick, who owns teams in both series.
No joy for Junior. A late-race wreck dropped Dale Earnhardt Jr. from a top-15 run to 26th at Sonoma and cost him two positions in the standings. Now 20th and 277 points behind 12th-place Juan Pablo Montoya, Earnhardt has as much chance of making the Chase as Stewart has of missing it. After a promising start at Dover, where he finished twelfth, Junior's team hasn't gotten the jump-start it had hoped for with the change of crew chiefs from Tony Eury Jr. to Lance McGrew.
No revelry for Roush. It would have been out of line to expect a Roush Fenway Racing driver to win at Infineon. After all, no Roush driver has won a road-course race since Martin went to victory lane at Sonoma in 1997. What no one expected, however, was for all Roush drivers — particularly Carl Edwards — to remain winless since Matt Kenseth claimed the first two races of the season, at Daytona and Fontana.
Nevertheless, there's good news for Roush: Edwards, Kenseth and Greg Biffle are in the top twelve, and Edwards finally ended his 2009 frustration in the Nationwide Series with a victory Saturday night at Milwaukee.
Perhaps that's a good omen.
by Reid Spencer/Sporting News