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There was some shuffling at the top of the standings after Sunday's race at Sonoma. A week after a win propelled Dale Earnhardt Jr. into second place, he fell back to third.
Replacing him is Greg Biffle, who has held first or second place for the majority of the season. He trails Matt Kenseth for first place.
Here are the leaders:
Clint Bowyer survived a late restart and a charge from Tony Stewart to score the triumph in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma. It is Bowyer's first win of 2012, his first win with Michael Waltrip, the sixth of his career, the third for team owner Waltrip, and the first for either on a road course.
Stewart finished second ahead of Kurt Busch, Brian Vickers, and Jimmie Johnson. Jeff Gordon recovered from running out of gas to finish sixth, ahead of Greg Biffle, polesitter Marcos Ambrose, A.J. Allmendinger, and Joey Logano.
Martin Truex Jr., running in eighth position on the final lap, spun off track and wound up a disappointing 22nd. Dale Earnhardt Jr. crashed on the restart and wound up 23rd, a week after his victory at Michigan.
It was a banner day for Waltrip's team, with Bowyer winning, Vickers taking fourth, and Truex having a strong run all race before the last-lap misfortune. All told, Bowyer and Truex combined to lead 86 of the 112 laps, extended by two because of a green-white checkered. Bowyer led 71 of those in a very impressive performance, perhaps the finest of his Sprint Cup career.
The first caution of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 has flown at Sonoma with fewer than 30 laps remaining. Tomy Drissi, one of the road course ringers competing in today's race, crashed heavily in the esses to draw the first yellow of the race.
The caution flag erased Clint Bowyer's slim lead on Kurt Busch, who had closed down on the Michael Waltrip Racing driver. Busch, the defending Sonoma winner, was looking to rebound from a tumultuous season that nearly cost him his job in the Phoenix Racing Chevrolet.
Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top-five. Completing the top-10 - after several drivers hit pit road for fuel and tires to carry them to the finish - were Kasey Kahne, Casey Mears, A.J. Allmendinger, Paul Menard, and Jeff Burton.
The caution is a big break for Jeff Gordon, who ran out of fuel trying to get to pit road for his previous stop. He dropped from second in the running order to 15th, well back of the battle up front. It is just the latest in a season of misfortunes for the No. 24 team and their four-time championship winning driver.
The confusing part of the annual trip to Sonoma has officially begun, as a variety of pit strategies have drivers and teams on different agendas with 50 laps complete in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Clint Bowyer assumed the lead after teammate Martin Truex Jr. headed to pit lane for fresh tires and fuel. Truex had pitted well early compared to the rest of the leaders, using the four fresh tires to make up track position on his rivals - riding on old rubber - and take the top spot. The trade-off is that he will have to make a third pit stop, while most drivers are on a two-stop strategy.
Jimmie Johnson holds down the second position as they run, ahead of Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, and Jeff Gordon. The top-10 is completed by Juan Pablo Montoya, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, and polesitter Marcos Ambrose.
The race has run caution free thus far a record for laps without caution to begin an event at Sonoma.
Jeff Gordon has to win races if he is to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship this season. So far, so good in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma. Gordon passed polesitter Marcos Ambrose after 11 laps and shows the way early on the winding road course in California's wine country. The five-time winner at Sonoma is off to a good start.
Ambrose has slid back to fourth behind Gordon's teammate Jimmie Johnson, the 2010 Sonoma winner, and Clint Bowyer. Bowyer's teammate Martin Truex Jr. holds down the fifth position. The top-10 is completed by Kyle and Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Greg Biffle.
On the charge through the field is Tony Stewart, who started 24th and has now gained 11 positions to run 13th. Heading the opposite direction are Carl Edwards, who has fallen from 11th to 19th, and last week's winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. has fallen to 26th.
Travis Kvapil's left front tire locked up as soon as the race started, sending his Toyota to the garage where he has remained since. Joe Nemechek followed him to the garage, starting and parking after completing just one lap.
NASCAR travels to Sonoma, California this week for the running of the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The race is a 110-lap race around the road course at Sonoma.
Today's race can be seen on TNT with race coverage getting underway at 3 p.m. ET. The green flag is scheduled to drop at around 3:19 p.m. The race will also be streamed live via NASCAR.com's Race Buddy site which provides viewers with a variety of in car camera's and a different perspective from which to follow the race.
If you can't sit down at the TV or the computer to watch the race, Performance Racing Network has a list of affiliate stations that will carry today's race on the radio.
The weather report for today's race calls for a pleasant afternoon with temperatures in the 70s.
A familiar face won the pole for Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Sonoma. Marcos Ambrose, who won last week's pole with a record lap, won the pole position for this week's NASCAR event at Sonoma.
Ambrose said Friday's lap at Sonoma was "more intense" than his record-breaking lap last week.
"I don't know if I got it all, but I got a lot of it," Ambrose said.
Amazingly, Ambrose had never won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole through his first 133 career races, but has now won two in a row.
Last week, Ambrose finished ninth despite winning the pole. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who started 17th, won the Quicken Loans 500.
One of the exciting aspects of races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen are the road course specialists, also known as "road course ringers," that are brought in by teams to try to get a good finish and maybe even steal a victory. There are five such drivers competing this weekend at Sonoma, a number limited by the Nationwide Series' event on the legendary Road America circuit in Elkhart Lake, WI (including my personal favorite, Ron Fellows).
The most popular of the ringers is Boris Said, thanks to his fro of hair and his gregarious nature. Said is driving the No. 32 Ford for Frank Stoddard this weekend with sponsorship from Rick Hendrick's car dealerships. Said won the pole for the Sonoma race in 2003 and added a top qualifying effort at Daytona in July 2006. Said has vowed to cut his famous mane if he is able to win a Sprint Cup race, which would create an interesting decision for his wig-wearing fan-club, the "Said-Heads."
Trans-Am champion Tomy Drissi is racing the No. 10 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet this weekend. Drissi, a veteran of SCCA road racing, will be making his Sprint Cup debut this weekend after being deemed ineligible to race last year by NASCAR.
His replacement for that race was Bondurant School of High Performance Driving instructor Chris Cook. Cook has run two Cup races in his career, including last year's race in the No. 37 Ford. Both of those starts have come at Sonoma, while he has also run a handful of Nationwide Series road races. Cook will be driving Randy Humphrey's No. 19 Toyota this weekend, usually a start-and-park entry.
Veteran Brian Simo is driving Inception Motorsports' No. 30 Toyota, normally piloted by David Stremme. Simo, like Drissi a former champion in Trans-Am, finished tenth in a Richard Childress Racing-owned car at Sonoma in 2005. Remember the old "No Fear" clothing you used to see everywhere? That was the brainchild of Simo and his twin brother, Mark.
The fifth road racer is David Mayhew, who is competing full-time in the K&N West Series this season. Mayhew ran a few Camping World Truck Series races and one Nationwide Series race for Kevin Harvick's old team. Last year he qualified Phil Parsons' car for Michael McDowell, though McDowell drove the car in the race. This weekend, with McDowell running at Road America for Joe Gibbs Racing, Mayhew gets the shot to race the Parsons-owned No. 98 Ford this weekend.
Mayhew, Simo, and Cook all have to qualify for the race on time, while Said and Drissi are locked into the event because their teams are locked in via a top-35 standing in the owner points. Those who get to start the race will be looking to become the first ringer to win a Cup Series race since the legendary Mark Donohue took the 1973 season-opener in Riverside, CA.
These days, it's not uncommon to see an 18-year-old racing in the NASCAR Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series. That is the minimum age limit for the those divisions, along with the elite Sprint Cup Series, and teams and sponsors often want to throw the kid into the fire just as soon as possible. Usually, that driver has already spent plenty of time driving stock cars on lower-tier circuits, usually dominating in cars much-better funded than those they're competing against. They progress to the top of the racing ladder by age 20, can't get the job done, and usually fade into obscurity as just another racing bust. Is that fair? Not exactly, but it is the way things work in contemporary stock car racing.
Like those youngsters, Chesapeake, Virginia's Ricky Rudd made his first NASCAR start at the age of 18. That debut didn't come after an adolescence behind the wheel of full-bodied race cars, however, nor did it come in a lower-tier division. Rudd, after beginning his career on two wheels, hadn't raced a stock car until driving in the premier Winston Cup Series - as it was then known - at Rockingham in 1975.
He adapted well, finishing 11th - albeit nearly 60 laps down to winner and NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough - after starting 26th in a field that featured such racing luminaries as Richard Petty, David Pearson, Benny Parsons, Darrell Waltrip, Buddy Baker, Bobby Isaac, and Donnie Allison. Parsons, Waltrip, Baker, Isaac, and Allison all finished behind the kid in a battle of attrition that saw only 18 of the 31 starters complete the final lap.
That was the beginning of a career of 906 starts, second all-time to only The King. It was also the beginning of a career that saw Rudd start a record 788-consecutive events, beginning with the 1981 season-opener in Riverside and concluding with the 2005 finale at Homestead.
That "Iron Man" streak, one that won't be broken anytime soon (Jeff Gordon is closest but over 120 races away from the mark) is perhaps Rudd's most famous achievement for newer NASCAR fans, but he also had plenty of other great accomplishments.
When he scored his first Cup win at Riverside in 1983 - making him, not Dale Earnhardt, the first to win a race for Richard Childress Racing - he started a string of 16-straight seasons in which he won at least one race, a modern-era record he shares with longtime nemesis and Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace (more on that later). That is another record that isn't in immediate jeopardy, as Tony Stewart needs a win the next two years to even tie Rudd's mark.
His 23 wins, which rank 23rd on the all-time list, include triumphs at a variety of circuits. A master of the road courses, Rudd won two races each at Riverside, Watkins Glen, and Sonoma, site of this weekend's Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Perhaps he should have three wins at Sonoma, depending on who you ask. He was black-flagged as he crossed the finish line in 1991 after spinning Davey Allison on the penultimate lap, while Allison was shown the checkered flag and declared the winner. Seeing as Allison was my favorite driver at the time, if you're asking me, Rudd is a fine two-time Sonoma champ. His two wins there were milestones, as he won the very first Cup race held there in 1989 and then scored his final win at the track in 2002.
He also was a force at Dover, where he won a career-high four races but is perhaps better known for a pair of incidents with Wallace (again, more on that later).
Though Rudd won more than one race in a season only five times and never had more than two triumphs in a given campaign, his ability to string together so many years with trips to victory lane is especially impressive when considering that he did it for five different car owners: Childress, Hall of Famer Bud Moore, NHRA drag racing legend Kenny Bernstein, Rick Hendrick (claiming four of Hendrick's 203 wins to date), and Rudd himself.
He is arguably the best of the owner-drivers from the 1990s, though Alan Kulwicki won a championship before his life was cut short in 1993. Rudd started his team in 1994 and ran it for six years, claiming six wins in that span (one more than Kulwicki's total from 1988-92 and two more than Geoff Bodine won from 1994-1996 after purchasing Kulwicki's team from his estate).
He finished fifth in the standings in '94, then ninth and sixth the next two years. Though he fell to 17th in 1997, thanks to seven DNFs, he won twice. The second win came in the fourth-annual Brickyard 400, easily the richest race in the '97 schedule, and is a moment that epitomizes the little guy making good over the juggernauts on the big stage.
The last win for Rudd's team - and the cap on his streak - came at Martinsville the following year and is probably his career's defining moment. It was blistering hot in Virginia that day, but things got even hotter for Rudd early when his cooling system froze up early in the race. Making matters worse, in their attempt to cool their driver off on a pit stop, the team unwittingly doused him with water from a garden hose that had been lying in the hot sun and reached scalding temperatures.
In a display of his trademark toughness - he ran the 1984 Daytona 500 with his eyelids taped open after a violent crash in the Busch Clash (now Bud Shootout) a week earlier - Rudd stuck it out and battled with Sterling Marlin and John Andretti for much of the race. When Marlin and Andretti fell by the wayside, Rudd was left to hold off eventual champ Jeff Gordon (in the midst of a 13-win season). He did - though those of us at home nearly missed it because ESPN cut to Busch Stadium to cover Mark McGwire's 70th home run and only made it back to the race for the final couple laps - and took one of the gutsiest wins of all time. So drained after the race that he needed to be lifted from the car, Rudd did his winner's interview laying on the ground while he was administered oxygen.
Because of Rudd's toughness and his friendly demeanor, he was one of NASCAR's most popular drivers during his career. Folks rallied around him when he was involved in a pit road accident at the Atlanta Motor Speedway that fatally injured Bill Elliott's tire changer Mike Ritch, and his career resurgence with Robert Yates Racing in 2001 - when he won twice and contended for the title for much of the year - was one of the feel-good stories of a dark year.
He was not universally loved, however, thanks to incidents with two of NASCAR's biggest names.
In 1989 at North Wilkesboro, he was battling Dale Earnhardt for the victory when they collided and spun on the last lap. Geoff Bodine scooted by to win while Rudd and Earnhardt fell to ninth and tenth. Livid, The Intimidator called Rudd an SOB (only he went all nine yards) on ESPN's national telecast after the race. Ultimately, the incident would play a large role in Earnhardt losing the title to Wallace.
Ironically, it would be Wallace who drew the ire of both Rudd and Earnhardt in the fall of 1993 at Dover. A lap down after having to pit for a flat tire under green, Wallace's dominant Pontiac was stuck on the inside lane on a restart. Hut Stricklin missed a shift ahead of him and Wallace bumped him from behind, turning him into - who else? - Rudd and Earnhardt. Rudd was blistering mad, nominating Wallace for "the Rubberhead of the Race" and calling him a "dumb SOB" (and actually using the acronym this time).
The Rudd/Wallace feud was rekindled in the late summer of 2001. Rudd bumped Wallace out of the way off the last corner to grab fourth position at Bristol in August. Wallace drove full-speed into the first turn after the checkered flag and spun Rudd out. Four weeks later, again at Dover (in the first race after 9/11), Rudd was dominant before being spun by Wallace as he was putting him a lap down. The pair had a heated confrontation in the garage afterwards, and their renewed rivalry actually inspired a popular ad for Visa the following year.
When all is said and done, Rudd will most likely find himself alongside Earnhardt and Wallace in NASCAR's Hall of Fame. Though he never won a championship, his 23 victories, the winning streak, the consecutive races mark, and all of his other accomplishments over nearly 323,000 miles of racing present a strong case for enshrinement.
Back-to-back strong runs for Dale Earnhardt Jr., including his win in Sunday's Quicken Loans 400, have helped him surge to within just four points of standings leader Matt Kenseth. Earnhardt has not held the top spot since September 2004, when he took the lead after the opening race of that season's inaugural Chase for the Championship. Kenseth who finished third behind Earnhardt and Tony Stewart, holds the standings for another week.
Greg Biffle maintained his third-place position with his fifth-place run Sunday, but Jimmie Johnson jumped past Denny Hamlin for fourth in the standings thanks to the latter's fiery exit at Michigan. Biffle is 17 points behind his Roush-Fenway Racing teammate Kenseth, while Johnson and Hamlin sit 33 and 51 points back.
Another top-10 finish for Kevin Harvick and a 12th-place showing for Martin Truex Jr. played well for each of their Chase hopes. Though neither has won a race yet in 2012 and sit more than 60 points behind Kenseth, they also both sit more than 40 points ahead of the Chase cutoff position.
Stewart remained eighth with his runner-up showing, while Clint Bowyer's seventh-place finish allowed him to solidify his ninth-place spot in the standings. Tenth-place Brad Keselowski remained in the top-10 with a 13th-place finish, two points ahead of Carl Edwards who took 11th.
Visit SBNation.com's NASCAR hub for the full NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings.
NASCAR's goal when it implemented the two wild card spots for the Chase for the Championship was to create an ever-changing situation that would carry all the way through the last race of the regular season at Richmond.
Thus far, mission accomplished.
Heading to this weekend's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma, there have been eleven different winners in 15 races. One can almost safely assume that the four repeat winners - Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, and Brad Keselowski - will be able to fall back on a wild card spot even if they fall outside the top-10 in points.
Four more drivers - Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, and Kasey Kahne - currently sit outside the top-10 but have visited victory lane. If the regular season were to end now, Busch - despite three-straight engine failures - and Newman - despite not recording a single top-10 since his victory at Martinsville - would take the wild cards.
Of course, the regular season doesn't end now, and the already-murky Chase picture could be complicated even more by the time this weekend's 110-lapper is complete.
As we stated in our race preview, Sonoma is a true "it ain't over till it's over" race track. A driver can be solidly in the top-five and get spun in the last corner and lose 20 positions or more. That same driver can just as easily overdrive one of the corners and wind up sliding through the sand on either side of the racing surface, which will likewise kill his position and cost him a number of points.
There will be a handful of different groups of racers to watch this weekend. One, of course, will be the contenders for victory, road racing aces like Stewart and Jeff Gordon - in as dire need of a victory as ever as he sits just 20th in the standings. Another, will be all of the drivers just in front of and just behind 10th-placed Keselowski.
Eighth-placed Stewart, with his two wins, is a somewhat comfortable 35 points to the good. Clint Bowyer in ninth is 25 points ahead of Carl Edwards, who sits 11th without a victory this season, usually a somewhat substantial number but one in peril with a road race looming. Busch's three engine failures have dropped him 26 points behind Keselowski, one he could conceivably overcome with another strong showing - he won here in 2008 - and a bad one for the Penske driver.
Of course, the points deficits grow a little more with each driver behind Busch, including Newman (31 out of the Chase), and the winless Paul Menard (37). No one else could mathematically overhaul Keselowski in the standings at the end of this weekend's race, and only Edwards could displace Bowyer. Though a restrictor plate race at Daytona looms in two weeks, opportunities to knock a large chunk of points will certainly dwindle after the checkered flag flies Sunday.
That is where the wild cards will come into play.
Kahne, a former Sonoma winner, had seemingly been well on his way to making the Chase without needing to rely on a wild card spot. That was before crashes at both Pocono and Michigan the last two weeks left him 67 points outside the top-10. Of course he could still make that up in 11 races should he resume the top-10 string that took him from well outside even the top-20 in points to within striking distance of the Chase just a couple of weeks ago. A second victory on the road course would mean a second win in 2012, however, and would make him a favorite for at least one of the wild card spots with just 10 races until the cutoff at Richmond.
Australian V8 Supercar champion and consistent road course - and lately, oval track - frontrunner Marcos Ambrose could certainly help his chances of making the Chase with a victory this weekend. Though the one win would still probably leave him behind several other drivers in the pecking order for a wild card, he would already have one win in his back pocket heading to Watkins Glen in August. He won there last year and has dominated the track in Nationwide Series competition, and if he could sweep the road races and continue his consistency when only turning left, it would make him a strong threat to make the Chase. An oval win seems in his near future, though, and he may not even need to rely on his immense road racing skills.
Juan Pablo Montoya, the Colombian ex-Formula 1 race winner, is 19th in the standings. His two career Sprint Cup wins have come on the two road courses, and he is always a threat to win when the circuit visits either of them. His Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing team has been far less consistent on ovals than the Richard Petty Motorsports Ford outfit of Ambrose and he sits barely inside the top-20 in points as it is, but a win Sunday would at least give Montoya a puncher's chance of racing for the title this fall. And once you're in the Chase, as Tony Stewart proved last year, anything can happen from that point on.
The big headliner will be Gordon, though. He finally got one monkey off his back last Sunday in Michigan, at least parlaying a top-10 run into a top-10 finish without having some stupid circumstance drop him down the running order. Top-10s will not be nearly enough to get Gordon into the Chase at this point, however. He is tied with Jeff Burton for 20th in the standings, 83 points in arrears to Keselowski. Gordon has to win, win again, and quite possibly win at least once more in the final 11 races before the Chase if he is to contend for his fifth championship. He is the all-time wins leader at Sonoma with five, but none of those wins have come in the "Car of Tomorrow" platform utilized since 2007. Still, he is Jeff Gordon, and until he is officially eliminated from the Chase picture, he is perhaps the favorite of any driver on the outside looking in to make the playoff, no matter how bleak his position may be.
NASCAR turns right for the first time in 2012, tackling the Sonoma road course in Northern California. A who's-who of legends - including Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace - have won at the track.
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