NASCAR cars are so precision-made for their natural oval habitat, that to see them on a road course instead is mildly disconcerting; it's like the elephant in the room suddenly wearing ballerina's slippers, it's just not right watching the behemoth stock cars try to delicately tip-toe around the winding track at Infineon Raceway at Sears Point, near Sonoma in California.
Just as the cars aren't really suited to the environment, so the same can be said for many of the drivers - many of whom, one feels, have arrived at NASCAR because they are feeling the invasion of road course events into other series such as IndyCar. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one such driver who can't wait to be over and done with Sonoma, while even championship leader Carl Edwards came into this year's race here with deep misgivings about the impact that a bad showing on the road course might have for his title aspirations, cancelling his planned run at Road America in the Nationwide Series in an attempt to focus on this Cup race instead.
Traditionally the same names come up when trying to pick a winner: the regular NASCAR line-up boasts Marcos Ambrose - probably the best of all the current field on road courses - and Juan Montoya, a former Champ Car and F1 racer with huge amounts of road course experience. Add to that the "ringers" like the talented road specialist some car owners bring in just for this race and its bookend at Watkin's Glen and it's no wonder that the hard core oval drivers would just as well sit this one out.
Kurt Busch is not one of those drivers who anyone would pick as a winner on a road course - after all, he'd never done it before - but the Penske driver's run of three consecutive poles showed that he was in top form, and impressive showings in the three practice sessions (first, second and third respectively) showed that he was well up to the challenge. Unfortunately, on this of all courses - where track position is so vital - he made a couple of costly mistakes on his qualifying run and ended up starting from 11th, while the even-more unlikely Joey Logano emerged on top in pole position to lead the field to the green flag for the start of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 alongside Jamie McMurray, with Paul Menard and Denny Hamlin forming the second row just behind them.
McMurray went for a quick trip through the grass but maintained position on the very first lap which proved a little messy for many of the cars, all them finding the road surface slick in the opening laps. That helped some drivers, with Kurt Busch up five spots to sixth in the first four laps and then taking fifth place from AJ Allmendinger next lap around. Juan Montoya was also working his way up the field, while among the drivers going in the opposite direction was Brian Vickers who was down ten spots in six laps, having started tenth.
McMurray finally lost second place to Denny Hamlin on lap five, who went on to then take the lead from the #20 through turn 11 a couple of laps later; Logano was starting to struggle getting loose and carried on losing positions over the next few laps as he sank out of contention.
One of those to pass him was Kurt Busch, who slipped past Ryan Newman for third on lap 10 and was second the lap after that, 2.7s behind Hamlin. Two laps later and Kurt had wiped out that advantage and was right on the back of the #11's bumper as they went into turn 4 - and the #22 quickly slipped past and exited the turn with the lead, a stunning 13 laps' worth of driving.
By lap 20, Busch has pulled out a comfortable lead over Hamlin in second, with Newman, Ambrose, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne making up the top six. Several of them were unhappy with their cars - Ambrose complaining that his was too tight, Johnson not happy with the #48 - and lined up the adjustments they wanted at the first round of green flag pit stops as they looked set for a three-stop race. However, Kurt Busch stretched his first stint out far longer than anyone else, ending up with a lead of over 20 seconds over his team mate Brad Keselowski who was also looking to make this into a two-stop race if he possibly could, watching and waiting while everyone else made the call into pit road over the ensuing laps.
Finally on lap 33 Busch's hand was forced when he heard that Casey Mears was about to run out of gas; having the field pack up behind the safety car at this point before he could get into pit road for his own first stop would have been a disaster, so Kurt dived in just before the first caution of the day did indeed come out. It was a very good call, and Busch emerged from pit lane right behind Denny Hamlin - but effectively a stop up on the #11 - as other cars took the opportunity for a second stop.
The race went green again on lap 37 but almost immediately there was a multiple-car accident as drivers tried to make the most of the overtaking opportunities the bunched-up field presented. Brian Vickers got a sustained hard shove from behind by Tony Stewart into turn 11 which propelled him down the track on locked-up tyres for a skid of some 20 feet, collecting other cars along the way - including inflicting serious damage onto the side of the #88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. which holed his radiator and led to the engine blowing.
"I'm not a big fan of the place, but maybe one of these days," Earnhardt said, who lost three hard-won places in the Sprint Cup standings as a result of his early retirement from the race.
Stewart was unapologetic about the crash and didn't deny that it had been intentional. "I've been complaining about the way guys have been racing all year," Stewart said. "I like Brian. I'm not holding it against him at all. I don't care if it was Ryan Newman; I would have dumped him, too. If they want to block, that's what is going to happen to them every time for the rest of my career."
Vickers, however, refuted the accusation that he had been blocking and instead pointed to an accident that was unfolding ahead of him, in which Kyle Busch's attempt to overtake Juan Montoya had ended up with the #18 in the grass and spraying up the dirt.
"I wasn't blocking him. That may have been his perception from where he was sitting, but the #18 went off the race track in front of me," Vickers said. "He was going off in the dirt and then coming back in front of me on the race track, and I was trying to avoid him. The cars in front of me were slow. I was inside of the guy in front of me ... I think when [Stewart] sees the replay and he realises why I went low - if he looks at it out of my front windshield - he'll realise it had nothing to do with him. It had to do with the #18 almost wrecking me, and a couple of other guys running slow up top."
Both cars were able to continue, although with some degree of bodywork damage - Vickers's #83 looking particularly shopworn.
The brief green flag running had been long enough to allow Kurt Busch to pass Denny Hamlin for the lead, so it was the #22 who led the field round for the next restart on lap 42, followed by Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and David Gilliland - who was quickly passed for position by Allmendinger, who then went three-wide through turn 11 for second place with Hamlin and Truex. It couldn't end well, and it didn't: Truex was sent spinning and Hamlin, while Allmendinger slipped through fo the position and Hamlin himself found his #11 damaged by Allmendinger's play. There was no immediate caution for the contact, but one followed on lap 46 for debris in that same area.
Kurt Busch led the field back to racing on lap 51, only to lose the lead when Clint Bowyer made a nice dive in front out of turn 2. Behind them, Tony Stewart got past Jimmie Johnson for third with Brad Keselowski behind them in fifth.
Despite Robby Gordon making contact with the barrier after contact with Joey Logano - who just seemed to lose patience with the #7 - there was no new immediate yellow flag, and next time around Kurt Busch was able to pass Bowyer to reclaim the lead at turn 11; over the ensuing laps, Tony Stewart was able to pass Bowyer to take up the chase and he was starting to close in when the fourth caution of the afternoon came out for Bobby Labonte hitting the wall with a little assist from Michael McDowell and leaving fluid on the front stretch of the track that took a lengthy five lap caution to properly clear up before racing could resume.
That allowed a number of cars to come into the pits, including Denny Hamlin whose car was still struggling with damage from that earlier contact with Truex and Allmendinger. Jamie McMurray had already been into the pits just before the caution came out because of a flat tyre, and while he reported that the car was "really good right now", it had blown the team's two-stop strategy that the leader Kurt Busch was still on line to achieve especially after this length mid-race caution.
The green came out on lap 65 with Busch leading Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson - but Kurt's brother Kyle was swiftly up into fourth place, Further back there was contact between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano that left Kenseth pointing in the wrong direction and having to wait for everyone to stream past him before he could resume in last place on the lead lap, which meant there was no return to caution.
By lap 72, the window for the final pit stop to get to the chequered flag opened, and sure enough Kurt Busch was into pit lane ceding the lead to Tony Stewart. Kurt was still confident, but reporting that the car was generally a little loose but at the same time too tight in turn 1. He returned to the field in 12th place and was soon moving up the positions, but differing pit stop strategies meant that he would not see the lead again for another 16 laps, as the position was assumed in turn by Stewart, Juan Montoya, David Gilliland, Kevin Harvick and Regan Smith until their own final pit stops cycled through.
After his earlier conflagration with Tony Stewart, Brian Vickers had impressively worked his way back up into the top five during this stage; then on lap 87 he seemed to falter and drop back, which put him right on track behind Stewart again. It wasn't a coincidence.
"He made his bed at that moment [on lap 39], and he had to sleep in it," Vickers said bluntly, not concealing the payback nature: "He wrecked me, and I dealt with it."
He ploughed into the back of Stewart's #14 into turn 11 - fittingly, the same place as the earlier incident - and sent Stewart backwards so that it ran into and onto the tyre barrier, coming to rest with the crumpled back of the #14 propped up at a thirty degree angle. It took a lengthy time for the safety workers to get the #14 down from its precarious perch, and the car beyond repair while Vickers was able to continue albeit with a lot of wrecked bodywork stripped off.
Stewart less less angry than resigned about the payback - and resolute. "I dumped him earlier for blocking and he got me back later on," Stewart said. "If they block, they are going to get dumped. It is real simple. I mean, I don't blame him. I don't blame him for dumping us back.
"I don't race guys that way. I never have. If guys want to block. then they are going to wrecked every time. Until NASCAR makes a rule against it, I am going to dump them every time for it. He did what he had to do and I don't blame him. There is nothing wrong with it."
Vickers also felt that there was nothing personal about it and it was just on-track business that wouldn't have any lasting after-taste: "We were joking and laughing last week and had a great race," he said, recalling that their last serious spat had been right here at Sonoma in that same turn 11. "I'm not angry. I'd rather have been racing for the win and worrying about something like that."
Several cars now pitted, but Kurt Busch wasn't about to give up on his two-stop goal even with the allure of a fresh set of tyres for the final 18 laps or the safety blanket of a little extra fuel, and so he stayed out and assumed the lead again at last for the restart on lap 92. Behind him for the green flag was Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski - a particularly good showing for Edwards who had started off on Friday in shocking form until he'd decided to eliminate his Nationwide distraction. At the green flag, Edwards was quickly up into second and Keselowski into third place.
Further back, Juan Montoya had been one of those cars to pit for fresh rubber for the final stint and was now doing battle for sixth with Jeff Gordon. Winning that one, Montoya then went after Kasey Kahne - and proceeded to send the Red Bull onto the grass as the Colombian turned up the aggression factor to 11, and paid for it by losing a couple of positions. Not discouraged, Montoya's next target was David Gilliland, and hard as Gilliland tried to hold him off - including some light contact - there was no stopping Montoya's single-minded charge and he was through back to sixth place again.
With ten laps to go, the order at the top was Kurt Busch followed by Edwards and Keselowski, then Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex, Montoya, Kyle Busch, Harvick, Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose, who a few laps earlier had spun Dave Blaney around through turn 7 as he tried to assert his own road racing credentials.
All those cars that had stopped right at the start of the fuel window - Busch and Edwards in particular - were good for 110 laps but not for any more should a green-white-chequered situation arise, so everyone was on tenterhooks to see whether there would be any late cautions extending the race distance.
If there was going to be a caution then the most likely caused looked to be Montoya, who was doing raging against anyone in his way. On lap 102 it was a fierce battle with Truex who refused to give way, and on lap 104 Montoya was up against Brad Keselowski: Montoya tried to force him onto the grass in order to take the position, but Keselowski turned the tables and dumped Montoya on the approach into turn 4, dropping the #42 all the way down to 12th - but he then fell back to 22nd place by the end of the race because of the state of his tyres: "I just killed the tyres when I spun," he explained afterwards.
"We got through the corner, and I just got on his bumper a little bit and moved him a little," Montoya said of the incident with Keselowski. "Got a good run, and I guess he didn't like it ... he just plain and simple wrecked us." The incident also caught up Kyle Busch who spun as well and would finish just outside the top ten in 11th right behind Keselowski.
For his part, Keselowski was unrepentant: "I don't take any pride in all that stuff, but at some point, you've got to run your own deal," he said. "It was pretty obvious that it was eat or be eaten, and I wasn't going to be eaten."
That seemed to take the fight out of the race at the front, and despite running on the same set of tyres for the final 38 laps Kurt Busch continued with a commanding lead all the way to the chequered flag; behind him, a nice calm surge from Jeff Gordon put the #24 into second place after he won a final lap battle with Carl Edwards, with Clint Bowyer taking fourth ahead of another good road performance from the specialist Marcos Ambrose.
It had proved an amazingly dominant win for Kurt Busch, despite being his first victory on a road course and his first Cup win in 2011, the 23rd in his series career. Busch credited it to the strategy that he and crew chief Steve Addington had devised and followed immaculately despite the distractions going on around them.
"We stuck to it. We had a game plan," Addington said. "Kurt said he was going to try to get a couple of positions there at the start, gain a couple positions. I was thinking, okay, if we start 11th, we'll get to seventh or eighth. Drove by, took the lead. That made it easier on me and my guys to make a decision!"
"We developed the strategy from practice," Busch said. "It gave us the calculations we needed, and it showed that we could make it on two stops [even though] a lot of guys said that they couldn't make it on two stops.
"It was an unbelievable set-up," he continued."Once we got into the groove with this car, it seemed to get better after lap five or six. Our cars have never done that before."
Second-placed Jeff Gordon was all praise for the elder Busch, who in recent seasons has been somewhat eclipsed by his younger brother Kyle - unfairly, Gordon clearly feels. "A guy, really, who is as talented as he is, every guy that competes in this series who has won on ovals wants to win on a road course to kind of prove something to themselves and the rest of the competitors," Gordon said after the race. "When you do that the first time, I know how much it means. I know it meant a lot to him."
With an impressive third place, Carl Edwards increased his lead in the Sprint Cup points standings
, validating his decision to pull out of the Nationwide race at Road America to concentrate on Infineon.
"It was tough to watch the race [at Road America]. But I think staying was the right decision," Edwards said Sunday. "It paid off. It was a good call. We could have finished poorly here, ended up on the fence over there like Tony did or something. Anything can happen. It turned out to be the right call and it paid off, so it was a great move."
Whether there will be a new outbreak of driver feuds and hostilities as a result of some of the wrecks seen during the Toyota/Save Mart 350 remains to be seen: Stewart and Vickers certainly seemed to be trying to calm down the situation between them without backtracking on their respective positions, but Montoya certainly seemed to have stirred fights with Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne while Joey Logano was just as unhappy with Robby Gordon for their own mid-race encounter.
But that's road course racing for you, and especially when you try and do road course racing with oval-racing cars and oval-racing drivers. As Jeff Gordon summed it up best: "Man, it was nuts out there."
Yes, it was. But also a hugely entertaining change from the norm.Full times and positions