Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen

The Key Moment: On the first green-white-checkered restart, Kyle Busch overdrove turn 1, was unable to keep his car in the preferred groove on exit and opened the door for Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose to slip by. That left the two of them to settle the win amongst themselves; through the bus stop, Ambrose pounced, making the pass and riding off into the sunset for his first career Cup win.

In a Nutshell: After months of anticipation following a Sonoma race that had everyone and their mother dubbing road racing “the new Bristol,” the Cup Series’ annual trip to the Glen ended up being a fast-paced stroll through the hills of New York. At least until…

The Dramatic Moment: While Ambrose and Keselowski were storming away from the field to settle the battle for the checkered flag, contact between Boris Said and David Ragan triggered possibly the most violent wreck of the 2011 season. Ragan slammed at full speed into the wall jutting out the exit of turn 1, cutting into oncoming traffic and sending David Reutimann into the fence… and into a flip. Fortunately, both drivers walked away from the wreck, albeit visibly dazed.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

This one has been a long time coming. After tragically fumbling away a sure victory at Sonoma a year ago, and notching three consecutive wins at the Glen in Nationwide competition from 2008 through 2010, finally Ambrose broke through and scored Cup win number one. It was the culmination of a multi-year campaign that brought the former sports car racer to the United States and to NASCAR, a win long overdue after Ambrose has for years been the premier road racer in any form of stock car racing.

The real question now though, is this; how much longer will Ambrose be staying in NASCAR, and the United States? Even in victory lane, Ambrose was quick to make reference to his kids being back in Australia for their first day of school. It’s those comments, thrown around more frequently this season which remind you how much he misses life Down Under – even for all the success and enjoyment he’s found in NASCAR racing. And, unlike Juan Pablo Montoya, the quest to score an oval win isn’t life-or-death.

Ambrose, unlike his former Formula 1 counterpart, hasn’t been nearly as quick to demarcate the importance of winning a Cup race and winning on an oval; he’s just wanted to win one, period. He’s now got that victory, a race that assures he’ll be in the record books for all-time. Sure, Ambrose will score a few more top fives or top 10s over the rest of 2011, but the win at the Glen isn’t about turn the No. 9 team into a weekly threat or a Chase contender. Should the No. 9 struggle through the fall, this win very well may drive Ambrose back home for good.

Ragan was certainly right to ask questions of the barriers in use at Watkins Glen International, remarking that he’d “been to some dirt tracks with better walls” than the blue Armco guardrails circling the road course. To be fair, he’s got a point. After all the talk about ovals needing SAFER barriers, after all the hoopla over Pocono Raceway’s vulnerabilities on the Long Pond straightaway, somehow the road courses got a free pass on this whole safety thing. Consider the last-lap wreck between NASCAR’s Davids a wake-up call.

Monday Morning Teardown: Time for the Glen to Get SAFER

Where… the… hell… were… the… rain tires?! For those fans with a 9 to 5 that needed tending to on Monday (Aug. 15), it’s really hard to figure out how a dry Monday race was a better fan experience than a rainy one on Sunday – especially a rescheduled one that started as early as 7 a.m. PT for some unlucky fans. Sunday is race day, after all.

After watching a Watkins Glen event that was largely a quiet affair until the final few laps, will all the talk of road racing needing to increase in frequency cool off? It’s amazing that because of one rough and tumble show at Sonoma, that was, albeit entertaining, still lacking some of the road racing and dramatic passing that the pre-fan-friendly configuration offered, it produced a record amount of ink and language spent on describing road racing as the new form of short-tracking.

While that might be more an indictment of Bristol and Richmond putting on underwhelming shows the past few seasons, it’s still a real stretch to say that more road races are needed. Lots of the “action” seen on road courses comes simply from the fact that stock cars aren’t really meant to be there in the first place. They’re heavy, clunky machines trying to tackle precision circuits, for crying out loud. Besides Cup, if it needs anything, has to be on dirt. Whether they’re turning right or left.

2003 through 2006, Said was a hot commodity on the Cup road racing tour. 2003 pole winner at Sonoma. A near-win at Watkins Glen in 2006. And to top it all off, virtually every guy in the Cup garage learned at least something from him on how to turn right and left. But the past few seasons, Said has gone from the respected consultant to a wrecking ball on the track.

Driving the No. 08 at Sonoma in 2009, there was scarcely a car in the field that didn’t have some trace of its black paint on it by race’s end. Last year, Said scored plenty of hits driving the Red Bull Toyota on and off the same circuit.

And now, driving the No. 51 this Monday, Said both in the early laps overdrove the bus stop and later in the event ran over Ragan. To be fair, in the Ragan episode it’s the final two laps and Said has no obligation to lift and let the No. 6 get back in line (contradictory to what Dale Jarrett implied during replays). However, the episode did absolutely no favors to Said’s image in the garage. Just ask Greg Biffle.

The same Biffle that, for an absolutely terrible run on Monday, proved to be the backbone of Roush Fenway Racing. Multiple laps down after running out of fuel during a mid-race run, Biffle was responsible for pushing teammate and Chase contender Matt Kenseth back to the pits, under green, when he suffered the same dry fuel tank later in the event. Then, after limping to the finish through the debris field of the Ragan/Reutimann melee, it was Biffle who confronted Said in the pits about what he saw as an egregious wrong towards another of his teammates.

Editor’s Note: Nick Harrison, the crew chief for Phoenix Racing indicated the Said – Biffle feud included heated tempers from how they personally raced each other. The bad blood didn’t just start during the event; it’s built up over a period of several races, finally coming to a head during the final laps on Monday.

For all the hoopla that surrounded Carl Edwards and his re-signing with the organization, maybe the No. 16 re-signing should have gotten a little bit more attention. After all, it wasn’t Edwards making the wheels turn on Monday.

ESPN. Shut the hell up about the damn Sprint Summer Showdown already. Ambrose won his first career Cup race after years of trying, for the camp that bears Richard Petty’s name, overcoming a mind-blowing loss a year ago, and the talk is about a sponsor plug to be contested in Atlanta in a month?! If that’s what we’re going to be getting for victory lane coverage the next month, do us all a favor and cut to SportsCenter early.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Both Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch learned the hard way that the softer Goodyear compound used at Watkins Glen doesn’t hold up to excessive brake heat any better than the previous rubber, suffering tire failures that triggered hard crashes into the outside barriers. Kurt Busch ran off track exiting the bus stop onto the third straightaway, while Hamlin found himself unable to slow down coming down the frontstretch after losing one of his Goodyears. Hamlin’s 36th-place result was his second consecutive finish outside the top 35 at Watkins Glen after scoring top 10s in his first four career starts at the track. Kurt Busch finished 38th.

On a side note, Hamlin’s wreck looked an awful lot like Jimmie Johnson‘s NNS destruction at the same track back in 2001. Maybe if Hamlin’s serious about being a Cup champion, he should have climbed up on the roof of his car and celebrated.

Tony Stewart‘s stellar road-racing skills fell victim to making one mistake on the final circuits, running through the grass in the bus stop and dropping from seventh to 27th in the final running order.

Paul Menard lost a tire running down the second straightaway coming out of the esses and pounded the wall, losing out on a top-15 result to run 32nd. That’s his worst result since Richmond in the spring.

It wasn’t too long ago that Robby Gordon was a contender to win at every road course, even in his self-owned No. 7 car. Sadly, a visit to the Glen was just another reminder of how far RGM has fallen. Not only did PJ Jones endure an ugly DNQ in the team’s No. 77 car Friday, not even completing a lap, Robby was a non-factor in Monday’s race.

When all was said and done, the No. 7 finished a distant 24th, losing crucial ground to Andy Lally and the No. 71 machine in the process. It’s hard to imagine his Cup squad beating their underdog rivals and cracking the Top 35 again in 2011… if ever.

The Seven Come Fore Eleven Award for Fine Fortune

Joey Logano scored his third top-five finish in the last six races, rebounding from an ugly crash in the GT race earlier in the weekend to score a career-best road course result. Sitting 17th in points, Logano will need more such results and a win to keep his Chase hopes… and possibly his job… alive.

Keselowski is turning in a Hamlin-esque performance with an injured ankle; he’s got a 1.5-average finish since the crash at Road Atlanta, including a runner-up performance at the Glen that saw the No. 2 running down Ambrose before the final yellow flew. Three or four wins before Chase-time isn’t out of the question the way they’re running.

It took 22 races, but Jeff Burton scored his first top-10 finish of the 2011 season and his first dating back to Martinsville last October.

AJ Allmendinger capped off a day that saw both Richard Petty Motorsports cars finish in the top 10 with a seventh-place run, his first top 10 since the summer Daytona race.

What’s the Points?

A strong performance by Kyle Busch allowed him to surge back into the points lead even without the win, tied with Edwards but giving him the nose ahead with his three wins on the season. Johnson fell to third after taking the last spot in the top 10, while top-15 finishes for both Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth moved them into fourth and fifth in points. Kurt Busch, after that ugly wreck, dropped to a distant sixth.

Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman held onto seventh and eighth in the standings, respectively, while all but locking in their postseason positions in the Chase. The story on the backside of the top 10 was that of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who persevered to a top-15 finish and capitalized on Stewart’s late-race troubles to jump up a spot. Now ninth, he’s built an 11-point lead on Stewart and a 36-point cushion on Clint Bowyer in 11th as he tries to make his first Chase since 2008.

Overall Rating: On a scale of one to six cans, we’ll give this one three and a half domestics. It was a feel-good story to see Ambrose finally get his first win and the last run to the checkers was exciting. Then again, it was on a Monday.

Up Next: Four-hundred miles up in the Irish Hills of Michigan, complete with the spread-out field, aero push and fuel mileage it inevitably brings.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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