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.