Thrown for a curve Infineon race brings surprises in a season that’s been full of them
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Even in the midst of a wacky Sprint Cup season, Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway stood out. That race might best be described as a combination of things one wouldn’t expect to see in an ordinary Sprint Cup Series race, even in the era when the boys have been told by series officials to “have at it.”
A driver closing in on his first career Cup win, with a dominant car and seemingly plenty of fuel in the tank, stalls the car in an uphill portion of the track, apparently trying to alternately cut his engine on and off to save gasoline. That driver, Marcos Ambrose, the almost always upbeat Australian, seemed deflated and crushed afterward.
Many in the media, including the TV commentators, said his blunder was the biggest in NASCAR since Mark Martin pulled off the track on the white flag lap while leading under caution at Bristol Motor Speedway in a Nationwide Series race in 1994.
Then there was the dismal day for Joe Gibbs Racing, which for the past several weeks has been all but unbeatable in the Sprint Cup Series.
A variety of misfortunes saw the three-driver team fail to crack the top 30 in the finishing order. Joey Logano was best of the three with a 33rd-place run. Denny Hamlin, who had won five of the previous 10 Cup races, struggled to a 34th-place finish, and Kyle Busch was 39th.
In fairness, team owner Joe Gibbs has been saying for weeks that his team’s phenomenal run could end any day.
“This can all turn on a dime,” Gibbs said after Hamlin won at Pocono Raceway. “We know how pro sports are. I’m never confident, or I don’t think anybody on our team feels like we’ve arrived for sure.”
Jeff Gordon was uncharacteristically aggressive on the track, a fact pointed out more than once by the TNT broadcasters covering the race – and by Elliott Sadler and others afterward.
“We got taken out by [Jeff] Gordon,” Sadler said in his post-race interview. “He took out Martin Truex for no reason. The 33 [Clint Bowyer] and me were side-by-side and he got two-for-one there, so he was just kind of knocking everything out of his way.”
To his credit, Gordon didn’t entirely disagree. “Guys were making it three wide, and I’m as guilty of it as anybody,” he said. “After they started doing it to me, I had to do it to others. There are some things that I’m not proud of that I did today; certainly with Martin [Truex Jr.]. I mean, I completely messed that up and I will try to patch that up. Other things that happened out there were just really hard racing incidents.”
And then Jimmie Johnson won on a road course, a feat that was somewhat overshadowed by the other events of the day. It’s something the four-time Cup champion had never done before in his entire career, even though his formative years in the sport were spent racing motorcycle and off-road vehicles that should have prepared him for success on tracks where drivers turn both left and right and drive up and down hills.
But those who follow Johnson and his team shouldn’t have been too surprised. They’ve been testing regularly in an effort to allow him and the No. 48 team to cross another item off their “bucket list.” Earlier this year, Johnson ended a career-long drought at Bristol Motor Speedway.
But he said there still are a few entries on that shrinking list.
“It’s not complete,” he said. “I think we have four more tracks to work on to try and win at all of them. I’m just happy to get back to Victory Lane, especially at a track that has been so tough on me over the years.”