Marcos Ambrose was looking pretty good. He led late in the Cup Series race in Sonoma, Calif., and looked like the only thing that could beat him was himself.
Jimmie Johnson was strong which is simply a case of ‘rounding up the usual suspects.’ And during every road course race a solid driver with a road racing background shows his talent. Visions of Cinderella’s shoe fitting an upset winner, or at least a first-time winner, start dancing through fan’s minds.
Johnson has never won on a road course until Sunday so his challenge for the win was really just checking off about the only Cup-related accomplishment that he hasn’t already achieved yet. However Ambrose’s serious stake at the victory was the story that every underdog-loving person was rooting for.
With 20 laps to go Ambrose’s run was healthy and held a steady lead over Johnson. At 10 to go a win was a possibility but still something we had seen before that didn’t bear the fruit of victory. And then that last caution flew.
Under yellow, Ambrose inexplicably trying to save fuel shut his car off and coasted through the section along side pit road. According to his Frankie Kerr led strategy he should have been able to make the event’s distance just fine. A possible explanation is being concerned with multiple green-white-checker finishes extending the race lap count.
Shutting off an engine for fuel conservation is a common practice. The driver restarts the machine when his momentum slows and catches up to the pace car again. When Ambrose flipped the ignition switch and triggered the starter, the engine did not refire.
The uphill section after turn one presumably caused the engine-starting problem by moving the fuel load in the cell. Ambrose came to a complete stop, eventually did restart his engine and begin moving as the seventh car in line. He moved back into his position as race leader. NASCAR put him back into his proper position per the rulebook as Ambrose did not maintain reasonable speed.
The blame fell on Ambrose to which he did accept responsibility in a brief post race interview. The heartbreak was evident in his face, voice, and words.
The mistake by the Australian rivals Mark Martin pulling to pit road in a 1994 Busch Series race in Bristol, TN. Martin was leading when a late caution came out. When the race could end under yellow, the field still needed to complete the required laps. Martin made a mental error and turned to pit road before the checkered waved and the final lap was scored. David Green went on to the victory, moving to the front when Martin just pulled out of his way into the infield. Green was left with a clear view of the pace car and a winner’s trophy.
These incidents remind me of an inconsistent ruling that occurred in 2007. Greg Biffle led in Kansas as the race drew to a conclusion under caution and looked to run out of fuel off turn four. Biffle appeared to try to hide that fact by steering his ailing car onto the frontstretch grass after he crossed the finish line. Clint Bowyer was credited for second even though he crossed the line first. I still believe that to this day that Bowyer won that race. NASCAR called that race under the ‘field was frozen’ rule.
When Ambrose couldn’t restart his engine, wasn’t the ‘field frozen’ under caution at Sonoma?
In Sonoma NASCAR made a call that was not a judgement one. It was just following their own rulebook. The call was the correct one.
And Marcos Ambrose is a likeable guy. I do not have a favorite driver but I found myself rooting for a feel good story of the first-time winner. But Ambrose did what all teams preach against. He beat himself.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR mechanic and the host of "Motorweek Live" Thursdays at 9pm ET. Listen at www.racersreunion.com )
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