NASCAR at Sonoma 2014: Winners and Losers from the Toyota/Save Mart 350
Through all the twists and turns of the season's first road course at Sonoma, Carl Edwards back-flipped to his second win of the season. He benefited from a quality late pit, a late caution and a steady hand as he piloted his Aflac 99 to a checkered flag.
It was a day full of cautions and tire strategy. Those with fresh tires blew by drivers whose tires had receding hairlines. For the 10th straight year, a different driver won at Sonoma, and for the eighth straight year, a driver won his first road race in NorCal.
There's already the one clear-cut winner, but there are other winners, not to mention losers, worth exploring in the aftermath of the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Winner: 2-Tire Pit Stop
On Sunday, Edwards won his second race of 2014—the 23rd of his career and his first-ever win over a road coarse. He became the eighth driver in as many years to notch his first career road win at Sonoma.
What granted him that win was a strategic late call to the pits by crew chief Jimmy Fennig with a little over 30 laps to go. It put two fresh tires on the No. 99 Ford. On top of that, a caution allowed the field to bunch up and gave Edwards a clear shot at striking the front.
It was a harrowing win for Edwards, who had Jeff Gordon—the 2014 points leader—in his rearview getting bigger and bigger in the final five laps.
"It was real tough," Edwards said after the race during the TNT broadcast. "That last lap was ugly, and to have Jeff in my mirror was great. This team works very hard. It's special to be a part of something like this."
Edwards won the race starting from the fourth position.
Loser: Wrong Place, Wrong Time
Kevin Harvick had a strong, fast car at Sonoma. He even led 23 laps and was looking to make a push at the leaders. Then, he found himself on the delivering end of an unavoidable collision: wrong place, wrong time.
Clint Bowyer gave leader Jimmie Johnson a tiny nudge and subsequently came away with a flat left rear tire. Jamie McMurray pushed Bowyer into the turn and spun him around. Caught between a car and a curb, Harvick had nowhere to go except into Bowyer's 5-Hour Energy 15.
Harvick was already frustrated by the performance of his pit crew. Johnson had gotten the best of him on the track, igniting Harvick to say over the radio during the TNT broadcast, "We got annihilated. It is getting really, really, really old."
Harvick's woes in the pits have cost him and his team valuable spots on the race track, but at Sonoma, it was just misfortune and bad timing that did him in. He finished 20th overall.
Winner: Bowyer's Rebound
Bowyer had one of the more eventful weekends at Sonoma. He qualified poorly and started the race 25th.
"Well, that wasn't what we expected," Bowyer told Reid Spencer of NASCAR.com. "We were fast all day (Friday)—just didn't have enough grip and missed Turn 4. We'll just have to pass a few more cars (on Sunday)."
Boy, did he.
He made a strong charge at the lead—held at the time by Johnson—when Bowyer got a flat tire. McMurray drove him hard and spun him, putting him on a tee for Harvick's No. 4.
Bowyer went to the pits, charged from the back and stole himself a top-10.
"We had another fast car and got in great position," Bowyer said after the race during the TNT broadcast. "We got up there to the lead and got the flat tire. If we keep bringing cars like this every week we'll be OK."
Loser: Roadmaster Tamed
AJ Allmendinger (37th) was edged for the pole by McMurray, but that didn't seem to matter. Allmendinger led much of the early part of the race until he got tied up in a wreck late, thus derailing his chances at his first win of 2014.
Allmendinger has extensive road experience, which made him one of the favorites at Sonoma.
He told Jay Pennell of Fox Sports:
I don't want to walk into this weekend saying, 'If we don't win this race, then it is a disappointment.' We just need to have a solid weekend, and if we can run inside the top 10, good. And, if we can be inside the top five and have a shot to win it, then it's a great weekend.
It looked as if that would be the case. Allmendinger, Bowyer, Harvick and Matt Kenseth were just a handful of drivers who left Sonoma with busted-up race cars. Allmendinger told Pennell prior to the race:
I would be lying if I said I didn't come in here with the mindset that we have a shot to win this thing. But at the same point, the Sprint Cup Series every weekend, it is so tough now. It is a lot different than 10-15 years ago when I thought you looked at the series and said maybe there are five, or eight or ten guys at most that can win on a road course race. Now it is so deep and everybody has gotten so good at road-course racing in general.
Allmendinger will have to wait until The Glen to get another crack at the roads.
Winner: Junior's Ride on the Curb
There was little stopping Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Sonoma. He jumped a curb that kicked him to the left. That move tapped Kenseth hard enough to end Kenseth's day, but Earnhardt kept on charging up the leaderboard.
He blew by teammate Johnson, then past McMurray into third place. He crept up on his other teammate, Gordon, but ultimately settled for third overall.
"We put tires on and tried to screw it up there a few times," he said after the race during the TNT broadcast. "We were able to get a good finish. We had a pretty good day."
Earnhardt remains in third place in the Sprint Cup standings, just 25 points behind Gordon and five behind Johnson.
Loser: Kenseth's 1st Sonoma DNF
Kenseth and Sonoma pair about as well as wine and Red Bull. Kenseth, up until Sunday, had never experienced a DNF at Sonoma. There's a first time for everything.
Earnhardt's right side kicked up over a curb. When he came down, he collided with Kenseth's right rear quarter panel and sent him into the barrier, tearing up his car and ending his day.
"[Earnhardt] got under me going into seven. He just plowed into my rear. It really doesn't matter at this point and unfortunately ended our day," Kenseth said during the TNT broadcast.
Kenseth has been slipping down the Sprint Cup standings of late. He was fourth heading into Sonoma behind Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt, though, and remained in fourth afterward.
He still has yet to win a race 2014 for Joe Gibbs Racing, but he is the highest-ranking driver of those who have yet to win a race and an automatic bid into the Chase.
Winner: Jeff Gordon
Gordon just keeps getting it done. He put in a late charge to get within a whiff of Edwards on the final lap before finishing second.
Gordon's No. 24 didn't start well, just 15th, but he picked his way through the pack and put a little scare into Edwards, a driver who grew up watching Gordon win a bunch of Sonomas.
"With five laps to go, I made up some ground," Gordon said after the race during the TNT broadcast. "That last lap I gave it my best effort. We weren't good in [Turn] 11."
Eleven is where many drivers made their moves—and caused a number of cautions—throughout the afternoon. Gordon made a final push in 11 on the final lap, but Edwards wouldn't loosen and drew away to win.
Loser: Landon Cassill
Landon Cassill attempted the rare road-course double at Sonoma. On Saturday, he was in Wisconsin, where he scored a top-10. He then jumped on a commercial flight (possibly enough to make him a winner) to Sonoma to ride in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.
"All in all, a great couple of days at Road America,” Cassill said in a press release. “It was a very unusual race, what with the rain and wet track and all, but we hung in there and got a great finish. My cap’s off to the guys on the team."
At Sonoma, Cassill lasted just 29 laps before his engine blew.
He tried the Wine and Cheese road double, and while that's an act worthy of accolades, his car smoking out on Lap 30 and ending the day in the garage was no way to finish what was, at once, a promising weekend.
Winner: Hendrick Motorsports
Hendrick Motorsports was going after its sixth straight victory and its 16th career road-course win. What it got was all its drivers in the top seven. And to think it was Johnson who finished worst of them all, if seventh overall can be considered "worst."
Gordon earned second, Earnhardt took third and Kasey Kahne finished sixth. Johnson trailed his teammates in seventh.
Kahne needed to have this kind of effort at Sonoma. He was quickly becoming the dog of this foursome. And, in some ways, he still is. But this was a breakthrough of sorts for him.
Kahne's spot on the team could be in jeopardy, according to a report by The Associated Press (via Fox News), but his performance at Sonoma could be an indicator that he's ready to stay within his teammates' orbit instead of acting as a distant moon.
Loser: The Defending Champion
Martin Truex Jr. snapped a losing streak of over 200 races last year at Sonoma. He hasn't won since, but Sonoma presented him with a sense of renewal, that maybe he could reclaim the form that won him a race in 2013.
Midway through the race, he reached as high as 18th, but after experiencing issues with his tires, he quickly dropped to 43rd. Heading into Sonoma, Truex's car was running well, with two top-10s in Dover and Pocono. Sonoma was his chance to get things back on track. He threatened the top 10 before, finishing 15th overall.
"We just need to start a new streak in Sonoma," Truex told the AP (via The Boston Herald). "We've had way too much bad luck so far, but we will keep plugging away and hope what goes around comes around."
Maybe in Kentucky.