Late Marcos Ambrose Mistake Helps Jimmie Johnson Win at Infineon
Johnson, who started second behind pole-sitter Kasey Kahne and led for 55 laps of the 110-lap race, moved in front for good with five laps remaining for his 51st career victory and fourth of the season, thanks to a boneheaded mistake by Ambrose.
During the race's seventh caution, Ambrose inexplicably shut off his engine hoping to conserve fuel – a rules violation if the car slows to a crawl or a stop.
Drivers are told to maintain caution speed (translation: pace car speed) during yellow flag periods, and Ambrose's car was unable to start initially after he shut down the engine.
His No. 47 Clorox/Kleenex Toyota slipped back in the pack and the penalty dropped Ambrose to seventh after the restart.
"I should have had the motor cranked up and it wouldn't have ever been an issue," Ambrose said after the race. "Terrible way to finish."
Unfortunately for Ambrose, he chose to shut down the engine between Turns 1 and 2 -- an uphill portion of the course.
"It's the last type of mistake that I would expect to see," said Johnson, who moved from sixth to second overall in the Sprint Cup points standings with the victory, 140 points behind leader Kevin Harvick, who finished third in his No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet. Kahne came in fourth.
How did Johnson see the Ambrose error from his vantage point?
"We came around Turn 1 and normally guys shut the car off downhill, coasting, to save fuel. I didn't think at first that he has shut the car off up the hill – it's just the last place you'd probably do it," Johnson said. "So I thought maybe he'd run out of fuel or had an electrical problem, something major. Because the car just came to a stop.
"From there, I'm thinking, 'How does the procedure work?' If you come to a stop, you're clearly not maintaining a reasonable speed, and it will be interesting to see where they put him."
Ambrose, too, was chasing his first road course victory, and first Sprint Cup win overall. He had wowed the Infineon Raceway crowd in 2009 by rallying from last to third in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' annual stop in Wine Country.
Robby Gordon and his No. 7 Monster Energy Toyota finished second in Sunday's crash-filled race.
Race 16 of the 36-race Sprint Car schedule featured a track-record 12 lead changes along with the customary crack-ups, bumps and spinouts that make the hilly, 10-turn, 1.99-mile road course at Sonoma such a challenge.
Ambrose's blunder was so eye-popping because he essentially took his own car out of contention. By coming to a stop in the caution period, he dropped six spots in the pack. And Johnson conceded he likely would not have caught Ambrose -- who led 35 laps and clearly had a fast car -- if not for the late gaffe.
"In one respect, I felt like if (NASCAR officials) had put him back up in front of me, I kind of would have seen that as OK, although I would've been raising hell on the radio and cussing like crazy and trying to fight it," Johnson said with a laugh. "It sounded like his car broke; (Ambrose) had it shut off.
"All that being said, I feel bad for him and his team owner (JTG Daugherty Racing). His team owners gave me my chance in Nationwide in 1998. So I'm very familiar with his team. Marcos had a very fast car in the short runs and I had a try or two at him before that and couldn't get by him. So I'm not sure I could have gotten by him.
"It was definitely kind of a gift handed to us. From that point, I just had to get a good restart and get away from those other guys."
A red flag at Lap 66 stopped the action for more than 21 minutes and cars came to a halt in the straightaway after Turn 1 when debris from Martin Truex Jr's No. 56 car and the battered chassis of Denny Hamlin littered the course.
A pileup ensued, involving 2007 Infineon winner Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch and road course specialist Mattias Ekstrom. While everyone assessed their damage, a furious Truex lashed out at four-time Sonoma champion Jeff Gordon for lack of respect on the restart and what he viewed as poor diving after a Lap 63 encounter following a double-file restart.
As he attempted an inside pass, Gordon's No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet cut off Truex on the hairpin No. 11 turn, damaging Truex's NAPA Auto Parts Toyota and causing it to spin out. Truex – who started 10th -- saved the car but the body damage forced him to the back of the field and eventually out of the race.
"We got put in by Jeff Gordon," Truex said. "Getting spun out there on that restart is what got us in the back there. We should have never been in that position. We were running upfront all day long with a great car ... I guess Jeff figured he couldn't catch us on the race track (so) he was going to spin us out on the restart."
Gordon apologized for the tight pass and said the contact wasn't intentional, but Truex told him the two would take care of business next Sunday when the Sprint Cup series continues at Loudon.
"Of course (Gordon) said he didn't mean it, but he did it," Truex said of the bump, which he attributed to disrespectful driving. "How many times have I spun Jeff Gordon out? How many times have I spun anybody out? I lifted for those guys on those restarts, they get all stupid and crazy and wild.
"If it was either get passed or spin out Jeff Gordon, I would have lifted and get passed. That's the difference between me and him. That's why I'm here (in his trailer) and he's out there, and that's why I'm pissed off."
Sunny skies on Sunday combined with unusually cool temperatures (mid 60s) on the starting grid at the always unpredictable Sonoma road course, which turned tire selection and air pressure changes into critical decisions. Drivers made numerous unscheduled pit stops to adjust their setups.
Bad luck hit several top drivers. Hamlin, who started in the 12th position, was coming off consecutive victories at Pocono and Michigan International Speedway. But he struggled throughout the face and fell to 20th by Lap 20. He was quickly out of the running after sustaining body damage to his No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota in Lap 23.
Hamlin came out of a rough pit in Lap 43 with his hood hinges sheared off in the wind – he finished the lap with the car hood completely flipped over and covering his windshield, but Hamlin safely returned to pit row for repairs. He was then penalized for exiting too quickly.