As the laps wound down on Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350k at the Infineon Raceway, it appeared the battle for the lead between Marcos Ambrose and Jimmie Johnson was going to be the best we’ve seen in years. Combining to lead 90 of the 110 laps, the two were the strongest cars all afternoon and with a caution coming on Lap 104 of 110, a double-file restart was set to bunch the field up before the run to the checkers.
Unexpectedly, Ambrose’s car stopped as the pace car led the field up the hill out of the first corner. The lead car, Ambrose slowed and sat idle on the track for a moment before driving back to the front of the field to reassume the lead. NASCAR said Ambrose did not maintain reasonable speed under the caution and he was ordered back to eighth, where he blended back into traffic. With only four laps to get back to the front, Ambrose was forced to watch as Johnson drove to his first road course victory and fourth of the year.
"I thought he broke or something,” Johnson said. “I didn't know what was going on. Unfortunate for him, he was the fastest car at the end and I know he is kicking himself for whatever went wrong there. You have to maintain pace car speed and they said he had to go back behind the No. 9 (Kasey Kahne) and I said 'Ok, I'll take this' and off I went and had a great day."
“I think Marcos had a very fast car in the short runs,” Johnson added. “I had a try or two at him before that, couldn't get by him. So I'm not sure I would have gotten by him. It was definitely a gift kind of handed to us, as Chad said on the radio to me. From that point on, I just needed to get a good restart and get away from those guys.”
So what happened to Ambrose? Was it a fuel pickup issue? Did he run out of gas? Did he accidently hit the kill switch? Nope, Ambrose shut the engine off in an attempt to save fuel. Good on fuel until the end of the race, crew chief Frankie Kerr was worried about fuel mileage if the race was forced into a green-white-checkered scenario. Ambrose said he was told to shut the motor off and save fuel, but the only problem was the engine did not refire right away.
The NASCAR rulebook states, “All cars must reduce speed to a cautious pace and maintain their respective track position.” When he stopped on the track, Ambrose was obviously not doing either of those requirements and NASCAR made the call.
With a fast race car, Ambrose was able to make his way back up to sixth when the checkered flag fell. The self-imposed mistake was one of the biggest gaffes in recent years and cost the Australian-native a shot at his first Sprint Cup Series win.
“I'm disappointed,” Ambrose said. “It's NASCAR's house and I'll always play by the rules. I don't agree with it, I don't like it and that's only because I lost the race.”
For Johnson, Ambrose’s bad luck was more of a surprise than anything.
“Normally guys shut the car off downhill coasting to save fuel,” Johnson said. “I didn't think at first that he had shut the car off going up the hill. That's just the last place you would probably do it. So I thought maybe he ran out of fuel or had an electrical problem, you know, something major, because the car just came to a stop. I'm like, Wow.”
While Ambrose was left mad at himself, a number of drivers left Infineon Raceway mad at Jeff Gordon. The five-time Sonoma winner beat and banged his way through the field on Sunday, upsetting many of those that got in his way – namely Martin Truex Jr.
Typically one of the most reserved drivers in the garage, Truex lashed out at Gordon and his driving style after being dumped by the four-time champion. Running well all afternoon, Truex was going through Turn 11 when Gordon dove into the corner hard and caught the rear of the No. 56 Toyota. Truex spun around and no caution was thrown.
Mired in the back of the pack, Truex was caught up in the race’s biggest incident on Lap 68. As the race restarted from a previous caution, the field stacked up and cars started wrecking. Truex was hit from behind and ended the day in 42nd.
Upset with the situation, Truex vowed to pay Gordon back at New Hampshire.
“He was six, seven car lengths behind me coming into (turn) 11, and I did think I had anything to worry about,” Truex said. “The next thing I know I’m spun around. If he’s a car length or two back, yeah you take your defensive line, you prepare for it, him trying to dive bomb me, but he was seven car lengths back. There’s no way he should have been where he was. Now I know he’s going to say Juan (Pablo Montoya) was trying to pass me and I was trying to block him. I don’t care. Just because he’s trying to pass you, it’s alright for you to spin me out? No. Let him pass you then. I would have let Juan (Pablo Montoya) pass me. 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, that’s why he’s out there and that’s why I’m pissed off.”
Gordon apologized for the contact, but said he knew it would be hard to explain his position to the Michael Waltrip Racing driver.
"He should be (upset),” Gordon said. “And whatever is coming back to me, I understand. When you blatantly get into a guy like that, you can say you are sorry all you want and I certainly had no intentions on what happened with him. I have the No. 42 (Juan Pablo Montoya) behind me dive bombing me into the braking zone and where I made a mistake is trying to out-brake him. I will try and explain that to Martin. I felt terrible because Martin races and a lot of guys clean out there. He had a good run going and I ruined that for him."
However, Truex was not the only driver upset with Gordon following Sunday’s race. Elliott Sadler was also mad at how Gordon raced him, saying he lost a lot of respect for him and will race the No. 24 differently in the future. This frustration stemming from an incident similar to what happened with Truex. Sadler was looking under Clint Bowyer in Turn 11 when Gordon stuck his nose under the No. 19 and spun him around. The incident collected Bowyer and, again, no caution was thrown.
Following the race, Sadler poked his head in Gordon’s window on pit road letting him know he was done wrong.
“I don’t know why he raced me that way,’’ Sadler said. “I’ve never raced him bad a day in my life. He spun Martin Truex and then just dumped me. He said I was blocking. I was under (Clint Bowyer’s car). I don’t know what he was thinking. I’ve always raced him with respect but I lost a ton of it for him today.”
Gordon admitted he was sorry about that incident too, but said it was just a racing deal. In addition to Truex and Sadler, Gordon was involved in incidents that also collected David Ragan, Mattias Ekstrom, Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch.
“There is some things that I'm not proud of that I did today; certainly with Martin (Truex, Jr.),” Gordon said. “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.”
The year of the rivalry is in full swing and Jeff Gordon is quickly becoming a moving target for many in the garage.
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