Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Toyota / Save Mart 350

Key Moment – The caution flag flew for debris in turn 10 on lap 72 that was not shown on television. Carl Edwards had pitted two laps before that and was able to stay on the track when most everyone else came to pit road. Edwards and Marcos Ambrose led the field to the green on the restart, and the driver of the No. 99 Ford got the jump on the restart to take the top spot.

Carl Edwards may have gotten lucky to have the right pit strategy to come out on top on Sunday afternoon. Credit: CIA
Carl Edwards may have gotten lucky to have the right pit strategy to come out on top on Sunday afternoon. Credit: CIA

In a Nutshell – In another display of “It is better to be lucky than good,” Carl Edwards and his team played the pit strategy to a tee, and the caution flags fell at just the right time to open the door for him to claim his second win of the season. Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and AJ Allmendinger were all dominant cars early in the race but each ended up having some sort of issue that took them out of contention. Edwards held off the assault of Marcos Ambrose as the laps began to wind down and stretched his advantage enough to not have to deal with Jeff Gordon until the final corner, which wasn’t enough time for Gordon to mount a serious challenge.

Dramatic Moment – Clint Bowyer had a poor qualifying effort on Saturday and was forced to work his way to the front of the pack through hard racing and strategy. After he made it to the front, Bowyer had an issue with his left rear tire going down. He was contacted by Jamie McMurray, went for a spin when the tire completely failed, and collected Kevin Harvick. The incident ended both drivers’ bids for a victory and took two very strong contenders out of the mix.


What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

NASCAR continues to prove they have no clue how to apply a local caution in a road course race. Brian Vickers door slammed Ricky Stenhouse, Jr coming to the start/finish line and spun him out. Stenhouse restarted and drove away, but the caution flag flew. When a car is off course or spins on track but is able to continue, the caution flag should only come out in that area. It’s an issue that comes up every single time NASCAR runs on a road course, and yet they still screw it up.

The talk about Sonoma and Watkins Glen, since the Media Tour in January, has been that Marcos Ambrose or AJ Allmendinger would have their best chance to make it into the Chase. All week the discussion ramped up, the pre-race brought it to a fever pitch and in the race, bupkus. While Allmendinger led the most laps in the event at 35, he finished the race in 37th, two laps down after contact with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. bounced him off of the wall. Ambrose only led five laps and fell dramatically at the end to an eighth-place finish. While the road racers may have an advantage when it comes to experience, it can’t overcome the car in today’s super technical NASCAR world.

While it is a great story and there is probably some form of truth to it, the constant tale all weekend of Kyle Larson having never driven a stick seemed to need more clarification. Every version of it seemed to insinuate that it happened this year. While Larson has spent most of his racing career in vehicles that don’t have a transmission with multiple gears, he won a K&N Championship in 2012 and has driven Nationwide cars and Trucks since then, which all have manual transmissions. If the story is from 2012, the tellers need to specify that.

Speaking of Larson, he made the most of his second development series start in the last three weeks by winning the K&N West Series race at Sonoma. Larson took the trophy in the ARCA race at Pocono two weeks ago as well. He had never raced at Sonoma before this weekend but afforded himself quite well. He qualified third and was running in the top 5 when his power steering failed, and there is no course on the schedule where a failed power steering is a bigger handicap. Larson labored home to a 28th-place finish, on the lead lap, but had to be disappointed after the weekend started with such promise.

Road courses are the new short tracks. Fans have been bemoaning the lack of short tracks on the NASCAR schedules for some time. Since there won’t be any new short tracks any time soon (except for the possible addition of Iowa to the Cup schedule), the paint trading and beating and banging desire has to be filled from tracks already on the schedule. For now, it seems like that niche is being filled by the road races. The slow speed corners and tight confines of the ribbons of asphalt that make up Sonoma, Watkins Glen, Road America, Mid-Ohio and Canadian Tire Motorsports Park are becoming the new battlegrounds for drivers to mix it up and flex their muscles. While they aren’t Martinsville or Bristol, they’re better than any of the cookie-cutter tracks.

We all know that sponsors drive the ship when it comes to racing in the national touring series of NASCAR. Teams, tracks and networks continue to amaze with their ability to maximize sponsor exposure. It has been done for some time but it was a reminder at Michigan last week when the Ollie’s Outlet bumper stickers were visible on the SAFER barrier foam in front of the remote cameras in the corners. This week the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team wins the award for putting an Outback sticker on the steering shaft and the dash support so that they were visible during the “foot cam” shots. How long will it be before the teams send a member over the wall during pit stops to change sponsor decals in front of the in-car cameras?

Kudos to NASCAR for using rain tires at Road America for the Nationwide race. Brickbats to NASCAR for not throwing the green when there was a small amount of rain on the track and letting the teams decide how they would attach their tire strategy. Forget about the fact that the track has to be bone dry or soaked to run the race because they don’t have an intermediate rain tire. It is great that they have a tire so that stock cars can run in the rain, but it should be up to the crew chief as to when they put the rain tires on and up to the driver to make the tires last when the track goes from wet to dry. The run by Alex Tagliani at the end of the Nationwide race was further proof that the tire call should be in the hands of the teams, not the sanctioning body.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Landon Cassill did it the old fashioned way this weekend. Driving for underfunded race teams, Cassill raced at Road America on Saturday, then drove over two hours to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to fly commercial to California for the Cup race. Unfortunately for Cassill, after he made the flight and got to California in time to race with the Cup guys, his race only lasted 26 laps before his power plant expired in spectacular fashion on the front straight at Sonoma. It is always a bummer when an engine detonates, but it is especially bad for the smaller budget teams.

Matt Kenseth was headed towards a solid finish at Sonoma on Sunday as the restart on lap 75 began to unfold. He and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were racing side-by-side through the esses when Earnhardt jumped a curb hard and landed pointed toward Kenseth’s right rear quarter panel. The contact sent Kenseth hard into the tire barrier and destroyed the front of his car. As a result, Kenseth was saddled with the first DNF at Sonoma of his career.

Kevin Harvick once again was Hindenburged with one of the best cars on the race track. Harvick led early and was poised to contend for the race win when the caution flag flew with 38 laps to go. On the pit stop Harvick’s crew struggled and sent him back out deeper in the pack than he wanted to be. As the race began to unfold again, Clint Bowyer had a left rear tire fail. With the field behind him coming through turn 11, Bowyer was knocked loose by Jamie Mcmurray and his tire rolled off of the rim, spinning him in the middle of the pack. Harvick ended up center punching Bowyer’s door and killing his left front along with his hopes for a win. In a homage to Hee Haw, if Harvick didn’t have bad luck he’d have no luck at all.

The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Martin Truex, Jr. made some ground again this week at Sonoma. Credit: Yvonne Leonard
Martin Truex, Jr. made some ground again this week at Sonoma. Credit: Yvonne Leonard

Martin Truex, Jr. started the race by flat spotting his front tires and having to pit, and when he rejoined the race in 43rd, it looked like his day was going to be a long one. When the race restarted with 16 laps to go, Truex muscled his way into the top 5. While the handle went away and he ultimately dropped to 15th, the day ended up far better than it started for Truex.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had the contact with Kenseth and also squeezed AJ Allmendinger into the outside wall, ultimately ending his day. Earnhardt threw the conventional strategy book out the window, pitting five times when everyone came into the weekend anticipating a two or three stop race. While he didn’t manage to win the race, he scored his first ever top-3 finish at Sonoma. Not only was it his first top 3, it was his first top 10 at the twisty Northern California track.

While the brouhaha that severely damaged Harvick’s car dealt a serious blow to Bowyer’s hopes as well, it did not greatly damage his car. The No. 15 team didn’t have enough time to make it all of the way back to the front, but Bowyer did rebound for a ninth-place finish, which kept him in contention to make the Chase on points.

Worth Noting

Carl Edwards’ win was his 23rd victory of his career and his second in 2014. It is Edwards first win on a road course in his Cup career.

Edwards’ win ties him with Ricky Rudd for 31st on the all-time win list. Edwards also became the 10th consecutive different winner at Sonoma.

Jeff Gordon’s runner-up finish was his 10th career top 2 run at Sonoma. It is also his second consecutive runner-up finish and his fourth top 2 of 2014.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s third-place run was his seventh top 3 of the season. It was also Earnhardt’s second career top 3 on a road course, having scored a third at Watkin’s Glen in 2003.

Austin Dillon came home in 17th to take home the Rookie of the Race award.

Paul Menard, who is the only Richard Childress Racing driver to score a top 5 this season, finished fifth to bring home his third top 5. Menard also secured his ninth top 10 of the season, something he’s done in each of the last three seasons.

On-track passes for the lead: 4

What’s the Points

Points don’t matter as much as wins. The 10 race winners are listed below along with the six drivers who would make the Chase on points at this juncture of the season.

Daytona and Pocono – Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Phoenix and Darlington – Kevin Harvick
Las Vegas – Brad Keselowski
Bristol and Sonoma – Carl Edwards
California – Kyle Busch
Martinsville – Kurt Busch
Texas and Richmond – Joey Logano
Talladega – Denny Hamlin
Kansas – Jeff Gordon
Charlotte, Dover and Michigan – Jimmie Johnson

Drivers making the Chase on points who do not have wins:
4) Matt Kenseth
8) Ryan Newman
10) Kyle Larson
12) Paul Menard
14) Clint Bowyer
15) Greg Biffle

Overall rating (On a scale of 1-6, where 1 is a stinker and six is the finest of brews and a instant classic.)

There was no paint swapping, dirt flying, finger waving finish. The pit strategy went out the window when the caution flew for mysterious debris at the point where every driver could make it to the finish. The drivers who had the chance to steal a Chase berth were out of contention well before the final push to the finish. There was no green-white-checker and no one questioned anyone’s family heritage on national television or disparaged anyone’s physical features. With that said it was a typical road race. Most every car ended up with crinkled sheet metal, there were surprise finishes and the all-time leading road course winner got within a car length of the first time road course winner in the final corner. We refuse to take the easy way out and give the race any number of glasses of wine because we don’t drink wine. It gets three frosty Sonoma Springs Brewing Company Roggenbiers.

What’s Next –

The traveling circus comes back across the country to the Bluegrass State of Kentucky for the Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto parts. The well aged surface of another mile-and-a-half track should afford an opportunity for a good race, even though they have decided to run the event at night. The race track is beginning to fall apart so we need to enjoy it while it lasts. This coming week you can see the race on Saturday, June 28th at 7:30 PM ET on TNT. It will also be broadcast on your local PRN affiliate if you’d like to watch the race with the sound turned down.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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A close finish with a Ford win, and crushed Toyotas, I loved the race. I did wonder about that lap 72 caution. Was it the real thing or another Manipulate the Outcome in Turn2? The ONLY thing about the race I did not like was spending the last 5 laps wondering if the “This is not exciting enough we need a G/C caution” was going to fly. The actual product is pretty good NASCAR needs to stop F’ing around and let it stand on its own. PS: Did anyone notice that Larry Mac said fuel and tires without mentioning the brand? I wonder if someone got to him.

Bill B

I don’t think NASCAR will ever throw a local caution. They’ve never missed an opportunity to throw a caution and if they need to they throw a fake one (lap 75). Why would they ever do the right thing and throw a local caution. I was shocked they didn’t find a way to get the GWC finish but, I suppose, the race was running late for the allocated tv time slot (6:30 PM EST).

Yes fans want more road courses, short tracks, figure 8s,,,,, basically anything but 1.5 milers. So what does NASCAR give us?

I’ll give it 4 cold buds. I didn’t think it was as good of a road course race as it could have been, but it was a change of pace and had a decent amount of action so it was fun to watch.


Right, Great change of Pace, from, Yawn, Michigan and The old Triangle. Fun to watchem slide thru the Esses &
hit the curbs, diid Yall see the right fronts wheelie whooah ….more fun than indy for f1…
Lets run em in Austin and lime rock, or Hint Hint, Silverstone…


didn’t watch much of it. for a while, when i flipped on the race, thought it was going to be another hms day. i’m still shocked at jr’s finish.

by the way, princess had another top 20 finish.

Tim S.

Allmendinger looked to be a threat, like lots of people said he would be. But other than that, the “surprise winner” element was way, way oversold. Average race, which makes it better than all but the best of the Dull D events.


Mike, I’m glad you brought up the story about Kyle Larson’s shifting experience. The announcers were saying Kyle just learned how to drive a stick shift a few weeks ago, when he bought a new Chevy Camaro, that he never drove a stick shift before that. Well, just what has he been driving with in his race car all year? All year he’s been driving a standard tranny in his car, they don’t use auto transmissions. I wish the announcers would think a little before they stick their foot in their mouths.
Also, during practice they were showing how Greg Biffle’s team were icing the tires down. Their explanation didn’t really make sense. Why would they ice the tires to help with traction, when I always thought the drivers swerved back and forth on the track to heat up the tires for better traction.

Fed Up

John Q, I thought the same thing about the lack of the branded items comments. It was so blatantly obvious after all the years previous.


Nice wasn’t it. Is it me or has Larry McSunoco toned down his act now that we get a respite from the Waltrip Flying Circus. A month ago he made my blood boil but lately he hasn’t bothered me at all.


When Hendrick calls this morning, Brian has some splainin’ to do. How can there not be a “debris” caution with two Hendrick cars behind the leader? Maybe in his condition Brian thought the 48 was leading. On top of that, a Roush car won. The check may be late.

Don in Ct

Amen to the comment about local yellows; unfortunately Bill is right. Nascar is incapable of admitting there are better ways to do things and of course they need to justify “debris”.


I’m surprised we haven’t heard from nascar about finding “something” illegal on the 99 car. Well, the day’s not over yet so maybe……


Given Carl is one of the chosen ones, you can rest your mind on that one.


Another solid Sonoma Race. I think the talk of 16+ winners making the Chase is a lot less likely since a usual suspect took the first road course race. Man Kevin Harvick can’t catch a break. He hits all the cautions wrong and gets smashed up in the pack. The silver lining is that he is in the Chase and bonus points only count in the first round. I guess the reason they don’t use the local yellow is the size of stock cars. Open wheel cars are pretty easy to shove out of harms way. You can’t really do that with stock cars. In this case Stenhouse was stalled on right on the frontstretch where it is really narrow. I think NASCAR gave him a good amount of time to get going, and didn’t start until the yellow came out. Road America is where the really need the local yellow because the track is so darn big.

Bill B

“…and didn’t start until the yellow came out”
And when that happens it should be a 3 lap penalty for purposely bringing out the caution.

Kevin in SoCal

Anyone else notice TNT’s reporters call next week at Kentucky the “first official night race of the season” ?

I guess Richmond and Darlington don’t count?

Capt Spaulding

And on top of that, Danica had a solid 18th with one wave around and racing attrition. I can only hope Mike N has an inside into getting that exclusive pit interview to reveal her hot set up for the Kentucky night race. It sure kept my interest in the Sonoma race.

JD in NC

I was watching on Racebuddy, and saw what looked like a splitter come bouncing out of a pack of traffic. I think this is what prompted the debris caution.


Solid race, one of the best of the year, as the road courses all are. Please drop Kentucky, Michigan, one Pocono race, Chicago and Kansas, and replace with road courses. Preferably one in the Chase, too.

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