Friday, July 1, 2016

CUP: The road to Stewart vs. Hamlin at Sonoma

I don’t usually write about who wins a race - particularly when it’s one of the sport’s top drivers - but after chewing over Tony Stewart’s victory over Denny Hamlin in Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350, I’m compelled to make an exception.  Looking back from my work in Sonoma, I can’t help but notice how both drivers figured prominently throughout the weekend, and how significant the finish was in the context of the track’s history.

The Thursday before the race, Hamlin came to Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco for the annual media luncheon put on by the Sonoma Raceway.  Joining him on the panel were K&N Pro Series West point leader Todd Gilliland, David’s 16-year-old son, and Larry McReynolds, who would film FOX’s pre-race segment with Hamlin right after.  Hamlin was there to reveal which of his sponsor’s three possible “FedEx Cares” paint schemes would run that Sunday.  FedEx chose to get fancy, having those in attendance witness the reveal in “virtual reality” by means of a 360-degree YouTube video.  Everyone had difficulty assembling FedEx’s cardboard screen viewers - everyone, that is, except Gilliland - and Hamlin’s narration in the video was complemented with the driver himself giving technical support from the podium.

During the question-and-answer period, Hamlin was asked about preparing for his first road course race of the season:

“It’s difficult for sure, I mean, for some of us, this is a lot different than any technique that we grew up racing.  You know, most of the guys who grew up racing dirt or asphalt, they grew up racing ovals.  Not a whole lot of us did road course racing, so I think it’s a lot of fun, especially being part of the - having that win already, it gives us a chance to go out there and have some fun and kind of race for broke for a race win.  And, for me, learn what it takes to get better at these road courses.  That would be important.”

Hamlin was no stranger to victory lane on the road courses.  His first XFINITY Series win came on Mexico City’s demanding Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez course in 2006.  But, even with a Daytona 500 win and his Joe Gibbs Racing team stronger than ever, he certainly wasn’t a favorite for the win on Sunday.  After his previous career-best of 5th in 2009, he came into the 2010 running off two consecutive victories at Pocono and Michigan, primed to make it three.  But the #11 hit everything but the pace car that day, his Toyota so damaged that the hood flew up entering Turn 1.  He’d finished no better than 18th at the track since.

The next day, Tony Stewart walked into victory lane at the Sonoma Raceway.  His #14 was just 18th-fastest in first practice, and now he had to sit in the hot sun in front of a large group of media and fans, his voice drowned out by K&N Pro Series West practice.  But he didn’t seem to mind.  After all, he and fellow two-time winner Ernie Irvan were being inducted into the track’s Wall of Fame.  Each were awarded a large bottle of local wine.  As fans cheered from along the rail of the main grandstands and around victory lane, Stewart was asked about his chances for victory on Sunday:

“I’ll answer that in a second, but I do want to say I’m very appreciative of everybody at Sonoma.  This, from the first day I came out here, this was always been one of my favorite racetracks, always when the schedule comes out I circle it as one that I look forward to, so thank you.  This is a great honor, I can’t say thank you enough for this.  When I got up this morning, I got ready to leave the hotel, it’s already starting to hit that this is my last weekend down here as a driver, and it’s not feeling as good as I feel.  As far as the car, we got one more practice to go and if I can’t get it better than it is, I’m gonna drink that entire bottle of wine tonight. . .We’ll figure it out.  We’ll get it better than it is.  We were tenth fastest in the first practice, I’m pretty proud of that, so I think we’ll keep at it, see if we can get it better this second session.”

After it was over, most everyone there swarmed around Stewart.  It wasn’t hard at all talking to Irvan, trying to learn “the words I can’t say” the moment he was black-flagged for jumping the start in 1992.  Irvan’s “worst to first” run is all the more remarkable because of its rarity.  It’s much more typical for a Cinderella story at the Sonoma Raceway to end with a broken glass slipper.  With three laps to go in 1991, Tommy Kendall was in position to become NASCAR’s first road ringer to win since Mark Donohue, but cut a left-front tire.  With two to go in 2002, Jerry Nadeau, himself a ringer of sorts, had the race won for Petty Enterprises when the rear gear broke in Turn 11.  Stewart’s two previous Sonoma wins also came at the expense of underdogs denied.  In 2001, he slipped past Robby Gordon, who moments earlier had managed to muscle Jim Smith’s slow #7 NationsRent Ford past Jeff Gordon for the lead.  Four years later, Ricky Rudd was leading for the Wood Brothers, but his tires were too worn to prevent Stewart’s pass with 12 to go, even as Stewart fought to hold his fractured transmission in gear.

These thoughts weren’t far from my mind during Sunday’s final laps.  There were simply too many laps for something to happen, and too many fast cars behind Stewart to take advantage.  When Hamlin made his move in Turn 7 on the final lap, it wasn’t surprising that it had happened, but rather how long it had taken.  Other than the 1991 race - and only because Ricky Rudd was penalized five seconds for spinning Davey Allison from the lead with two laps to go - there had never been a last-lap pass for the win in the history of the event.  There was also a strange poetry to the moment Hamlin got by - the “Budweiser Bottleneck,” as Turn 7 was known when it debuted in 2001, was inaugurated by Stewart’s winning pass on Robby when he ran for Gibbs.

But Hamlin had struggled in Turn 11.  He swung wide in the corner with two laps to go.  There was also word of oil on the track, perhaps from the #30 of Josh Wise, which retired with engine failure in the final ten laps.  Whatever it was, it’s clear Hamlin didn’t move over deliberately, especially with five of his favorite charities on the car.  Instead, the Sonoma Raceway handed down another late misfortune, just as it has in the past and will in the future.

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