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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ambrose’s blunder is one for the ages; Johnson pulls out golden horseshoe

It was finally his time to shine.

Marcos Ambrose, who has threatened in the past to win a road course race in the Cup series, was just 7 laps from certain victory as he cruised away from Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the field. Then, as was to be expected in a race that was a bit of a demolition derby, another caution came out when Brad Keselowski spilled fluid on the track.

No problem, Ambrose just had to win the next restart and drive away from Jimmie Johnson like he had a couple times already.

But alas, the bizarre finish began to unfold. For reasons only he and his team knows, Ambrose pulled a Bill Buckner-esque move and shut down his engine briefly in an attempt to save fuel, even though fuel wasn’t really an issue.

And disaster struck. He couldn’t get it started back up when he first tried, and ended up briefly stopping on track and losing six spots in the process. That’s the rule, so I don’t think NASCAR did anything wrong. That was all Ambrose, and he blew it big time. (It’s pretty bad, but still doesn’t beat the time Mark Martin when he pulled into the pits a lap early while leading a Busch race at Bristol.)

The beneficiary of this screwup was -- big surprise -- Jimmie Johnson, who amazingly had never won a road course race despite winning four straight titles. This is how the #48 team operates. They are always there ready to pounce, even on weeks they don’t dominate.

When Ambrose made his massive blunder, JJ set sail and blew the competition away easily with his best competitor mired back in traffic.

That “golden horseshoe” that Harvick alluded to Johnson having in a special place apparently never went away, despite all the people screaming about how the #48 team was in a “slump” since the spoiler was introduced.

The truth is Johnson never went away, and he is now all the way up to 2nd in the points. History has shown us that this team is never out of the hunt, and anyone who counts them out of the game is a fool.

Marcos Ambrose’s day will come; he is so good on these road courses, maybe the best out of all the drivers, and logic dictates that eventually he’ll end up in Victory Lane.

But today, as usual, Jimmie Johnson is the one getting all the accolades. It’s a reminder that while the competition has its moments throughout the year, Johnson and the #48 team are simply renting out their place in the spotlight. Talk all you want about everyone else, but the reality is this is Jimmie’s world and it’s his title to lose, regardless of who else might be on a hot streak.

It’s not what the competitors want to hear, but if they want to end that kind of talk, they are going to have to step up their game and take the title away from him. To do so, they’ll need both the skill and the luck that Johnson had today.

No more Mr. nice Gordon
Of all the drivers, there is one who appears to be taking this “have at it boys” thing to heart more than anyone else. Surprisingly, it’s veteran and four-time champ Jeff Gordon, who got into it with a bunch of drivers at Sonoma. Most notably, he spun out a strong-running Martin Truex Jr., who then got caught up in a wreck after being mired in traffic as a result.

Truex vowed payback for Gordon, who admitted he made some bad moves during the race, including the Truex incident. Gordon seemed willing to accept any payback that’s coming his way in the future, but said he was being pushed around so much on Sunday that he wasn’t going to take it anymore. He had to push back.

In the past, Gordon was not like this, but this year he has stepped up his aggression … with notable incidents involving Matt Kenseth and even his teammate Jimmie Johnson. I would say that in addition to NASCAR’s order to have at it, something else is at play behind Gordon’s change in attitude: Wanting to get his fifth title before Johnson, who he helped bring into the series.

Regardless of motivation, this Jeff Gordon is a whole lot more interesting than the Jeff Gordon of the past. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Stoddard confronts Stewart, and he wasn’t polite
Amid all the beating and banging Sunday, Boris Said must have ticked off Tony Stewart, because after the race Stewart drove into Said’s car and caused significant damage, according to Said’s crew chief Frankie Stoddard.

It gets better, though.

A furious Stoddard apparently went over to Stewart and screaming in the middle of the garage, for all to hear, that Stewart was a “fat f---”. (The first part is undeniable, The second part is a bit harsh, though.)

"When the checkered flag was over, (Stewart) went up the hill and ran into the side of (Said), knocked the whole side off the car," a visibly upset Stoddard said. "He's a disrespectful jerk. The guy's got no respect. Never has, never will. When the checkered flag is out, he needs to show respect. And he does not even know how to spell the word. OK? He never has. He runs over people after he's had a bad day."

Stewart’s crew chief Darian Grubb chalked it up to hard racing and said Tony had reason to retaliate, but given the small size of the #26 team it was a bit unnecessary of Stewart to get payback after the flag had dropped and the race was over. Stoddard said the fixes will cost the team, which is hardly flush with money, about $15,000.

The whole incident, and others that happened Sunday, prove that tempers are not reserved for short tracks.

The biggest winners
Among those with solid runs Sunday:
--Robby Gordon, who finished 2nd for his best finish in five years (though his joy is short-lived; his car, with P.J. Jones driving, will have to start-and-park at New Hampshire next week
--Kasey Kahne, who came in 4th one year after winning at Sonoma;
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr., who salvaged an 11th place finish by avoiding trouble and moved within 57 points of the Chase; and road-course ringer
-- Jan Magnussen, who finished 12th in the #09 car (which usually is about 40th)
-- Rookie Kevin Conway, who finished 28th, tying his second-best career finish in his young career. He was able to avoid trouble, which is an important skill for young drivers to develop as it often leads to finishes that are better than your car is capable of doing on its own.

The biggest losers
Easily Kyle Busch, who wrecked early, ended up 39th and slid in the points. Also, teammate Denny Hamlin had issues with his hood and got caught in some wrecks, finishing 34th. With Joey Logano 33rd, this was easily the worst day for Joe Gibbs Racing in a long, long time.

All three drivers who did the Road America and Sonoma double fared poorly on Sunday. Paul Menard was 22nd, Carl Edwards was 29th and Brad Keselowski was 35th.

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Anonymous Richard in N.C. said...

I don't think it is fair to assign all the blame for the Sonoma blunder to Ambrose. His crew chief deserves some of the blame - he should have been coaching, reminding Ambrose what was coming and where to refire the engine.

Don't know whether they still do, but at one time Boris and Stoddard owned a piece of the team personally.

June 21, 2010 at 3:01 PM 

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