Road racing is more well known for being dominated by Indy cars, Formula 1 and Trans Am endurance racing. However, twice a year, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series elects to have the drivers make both left and right turns. This weekend was the first of two road course races, as the series went to Sonoma, California, well known as “wine country”, for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway.
Pole-sitter Brian Vickers led the field to the green flag for the second straight week, and managed to get a jump on the field right away as all 43 cars made it through the 12-turn course relatively clean. Vickers pulled out to a 1.5 second lead in eight laps as the field began to battle for position all around the course.
The first real incident came on lap 10 as A.J. Allmendinger spun out in turn 8, ending up in the sand due to a flat tire. There was some damage to his car, but he was able to continue. However, the caution did not come out. Unlike ovals, NASCAR provides area cautions to warn drivers of some obstruction. No passing is allowed until the drivers have cleared the area.
Seven laps after this incident, Kyle Busch, who won this event last season, got the lead. Busch could enjoy his lead as the first full-course caution came out four laps later. Several cars got tied up in turn 11, with David Ragan getting the worst end of the outcome as he went into the tire barrier.
No cars up front came in for service, which surprised a lot of people. When the green flag came back out on lap 24, it became apparent that staying out was not the right call as the leaders began sliding around. The first pit stops that were part of the green flag cycle came on lap 27 as Kevin Harvick and Casey Mears came in for service.
One lap later, Busch came in for service, giving the lead to Tony Stewart. The pit cycle would last through lap 35, with Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin all taking the chance to lead a lap. After all services were complete, it was Hamlin who held the top spot followed by Kurt Busch.
Hamlin would go on to lead through the race’s second caution flag on lap 54, and would not give up his position until he made his scheduled pit stop on lap 66, handing the lead over to Stewart, his second time out front.
Stewart would lead until lap 75 as he would come in for his scheduled service, however the caution flag would come out one lap later when Bobby Labonte got spun out coming up the hill after turn one following contact from Jimmie Johnson. At the time of the caution, Robby Gordon was scored the leader, but he along with other cars near the front, came in for service.
After pit stops, it was Scott Speed who held the top position as the field restarted on lap 79, but it didn’t take long for the lead to change hands as Kahne used his outside position on the double-file restart to get the position. Stewart and several cars followed Kahne as Speed got shuffled back.
This was the point where the race became very interesting as Kahne, who had not won a race since Pocono last year, now had to hold off a very skilled road race driver in Stewart.
On lap 83, Boris Said and Sam Hornish Jr. got together heading into turn 11, which also collected David Gilliland. With the option to start on the inside or outside line, Kahne decided to have the outside line heading into the first turn, which would not immediately seem like an advantage. However, with Stewart starting on his left side instead of his right, this gave Kahne the better line heading into the second turn, which is a tight right-hand corner coming up the hill.
Stewart was unable to get the lead from Kahne and began battling Juan Pablo Montoya for second place, but that battle had to wait as the fifth caution of the afternoon came out on lap 90. Johnson and Kurt Busch made contact heading into the s-corners, sending Busch into the tire wall.
Kahne again went with the outside line on the restart, and for the second straight time was able to hold his lead over Stewart. He still could not get the opportunity to pull away from the Office Depot Chevrolet as the caution came out again on lap 96 for debris. Kahne once again had to hold off his challengers on another double-file restart.
On the lap 99 restart, Kahne caught a break as Stewart spun his tires getting up to speed. Montoya tried to challenge for the position, but Stewart held on to second place. Behind the leaders, Kyle Busch spun out in the middle of the race track and lost several spots as his car could not restart.
With ten laps left, Kahne only held a lead of just over one-half second over Stewart and Marcus Ambrose, but both drivers were determined to get around the Budweiser Dodge. They would get their chance a mere five laps from the finish as the race’s final caution flag came out as Speed’s car spun out following contact with Said.
It would be the last chance that Stewart and Ambrose had to get around Kahne as the race was restarted with two laps left, as NASCAR went into their green-white-checkered format to end the race. Kahne again went to the outside lane and held on as Stewart and Ambrose went to challenge.
In this case, the efforts would prove futile as it was Kasey Kahne taking the win in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
This was Kahne’s first win of the season and his first in over a year. However, it was also the first victory for Richard Petty Motorsports, which formed when Petty Enterprises and Gillette-Evernham Motorsports merged in the off-season. The victory was also the first one for Richard Petty since John Andretti drove his famed 43-car to victory in 1999 at Martinsville, the last win for Petty Enterprises.
Seeing the King back in victory lane was a welcome sight, and it is well deserved to probably the most recognized figure in the garage.
Next weekend, the series heads to the other coast as it is now off to New Hampshire and their one-mile track known as the “Magic Mile.” This track is flat, sweeping, and difficult to pass. So, a good handling race car will be very important to win here.
My favorite going into this event is Kurt Busch. He has constantly run well at this track. In 2004, it was a win at New Hampshire that set off a run that made him the first winner of the Chase to the Championship. Keep your eyes on the Miller Lite Dodge, he will surely figure out a way to get to the front.
My dark horse for this one is going to be Jeff Burton. This may seem a bit odd, but Burton has had a lot of success at this track. He has four wins there. Burton won the spring race at New Hampshire from 1997 to 1999.
Burton got his fourth win at New Hampshire in September 2000 when NASCAR forced teams to use restrictor plates on the cars following the accidents that claimed the lives of drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin at the track months earlier. Burton started the race on the outside pole, and in every sense dominated the race by leading all the laps en route to victory.
Don’t expect that kind of race now, but do expect a lot of strategy and some good competition. Coverage of the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 starts at 1:30 on TNT.
RESULTS: 1-Kahne 2-Stewart 3-Ambrose 4-Johnson 5-Hamlin 6-Montoya 7-Allmendinger 8-Bowyer 9-Gordon 10-Sadler
NOTABLE FINISHES: 13-Edwards 15-Kurt Busch 18-Kenseth 22-Kyle Busch 26-Earnhardt Jr. 28-Biffle 29-Harvick 35-Martin
CAUTIONS: Seven for 22 laps. Lap 21-23, 54-56, 76-78, 83-86, 90-92, 96-98, 108-110.
LEADERS: Eight lead changes among seven drivers. Vickers 1-16, Kyle Busch 17-27, Stewart 28-30, Kahne 31-33, Hamlin 34-66, Stewart 67-74, R. Gordon 75-76, Speed 77-79, Kahne 80-113.
POINT STANDINGS: 1-Stewart, 2364 points 2-Gordon, -84 3-Johnson, -157 4-Kurt Busch, -289 5-Edwards, -313 6-Newman, -318 7-Hamlin, -355 8-Biffle, -372 9-Kyle Busch, -402 10-Kenseth, -407 11-Martin, -438 12-Montoya, -447