SONOMA, Calif. – Thoughts, observations and a few questions following the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway, won by Juan Pablo Montoya:
• Although his road course racing reputation preceded him, and going into this weekend's race he felt pressure to deliver a strong performance, Montoya never expected the competition to be as tough as it was.
"I was very surprised by the level of the drivers here," said Montoya, who scored his first NASCAR win in a Busch Series race in Mexico City this past March. "Man, the top 20 were … you had to work for your money."
Montoya, who became the first driver to win at Infineon Raceway from a starting position lower than 13th, singled out Kevin Harvick as being the toughest of the tough.
• How tense were those last 10 laps? As Montoya took his victory lap around the 1.99-mile circuit, his spotter Tab Boyd asked over the radio, "Can I throw up now?"
Crew chief Donnie Wingo echoed those same sentiments in the postrace press conference.
• Where does this win rate for a driver like Montoya, whose resume includes victories in the Indy 500 and on the streets of Monte Carlo?
"This is as big as any victory," Montoya said. "It's as big as winning the Indy 500 or winning Long Beach (his first major win). I kind of think this is my favorite."
• Did you notice that the RCR trio (Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer) finished 2-3-4? After the race Harvick admitted that he backed off after being told that both Montoya and Jamie McMurray would run short on fuel.
"I just needed to stay in front of the 99 (Carl Edwards) is what they told me on the radio," Harvick said. "Obviously, he ran out of gas, too.
"You know, that's how we played it and (Montoya) didn't run out of gas."
• Ironically, both Burton and Harvick trace RCR's evolution on road courses back to when Robby Gordon joined the team in 2003.
"Before Robby came, we just built some cars and maybe went and shook them down," Harvick said. "Once Robby came, we put emphasis on every nut and bolt … to bodies, to fuel mileage, to everything that goes on the car."
• Speaking of Gordon, he dominated the competition for much of the first half of the race, leading a race-high 48 laps in the process. But his Ford Fusion was just a bit thirstier than the rest of the field and Gordon wasn't all that happy about it.
"I don't know," Gordon said. "With our (Roush-Yates engine) rental program that we get, obviously we don’t get the same mileage that (Greg) Biffle and (Ricky) Rudd do and we're gonna have to discuss that because we weren't gonna make it."
Could it be that those two drivers have a lighter right foot than you do, Robby?
Gordon ended up 16th, which wasn't his best finish this season (he was 10th at Dover), but it did vault him into 24th in points.
• A good deal of the excitement in the early laps of the race came at the hairpin of Turn 11. It was the prime spot for making a pass. There were numerous three-wide, breath-holding moments in which all three drivers escaped unscathed.
Later in the race, as tire rubber built up on the painted rumble strips on the inside of the turn, passing at that spot became a much more difficult proposition. Race winner Montoya, who used the turn for most of his passes, nearly ended up in the tire barriers twice in the final laps.
• Sunday's race was the first COT event won by a car other than a Chevrolet.
• NASCAR road racing has more than its share of detractors. Those NASCAR "purists" say that these cars weren't designed for racing on anything but ovals. But the drivers will tell you otherwise, and despite many of the road course races being decided by fuel and pit strategy – like Sunday's Sonoma race – several of the top drivers in the series would like to have a few more on the schedule.
• What does it tell you when both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, despite having just two practice sessions before starting the race 41st and 42nd, respectively, end up finishing seventh and 17th? Both drivers quickly moved up to race with the leaders for much of the day.
Johnson would have finished higher, but after the race he admitted losing valuable time on his final pit stop when he was in the wrong gear leaving pit road.
• I know I say this every time I come to Sonoma, but the SMI-owned circuit is a must-see stop for every NASCAR fan. The track is a top-notch facility and it's located in one of the prettiest parts of the country.
And if you're a wine aficionado like myself, a visit to the Napa Valley area is like a visit to the Willy Wonka factory for a candy lover.
• Grand Marshal for the race was former NFL great and Bay Area resident Jerry Rice. In the prerace driver's meeting, Rice and Hall of Fame team owner Troy Aikman posed for a photo with Hendrick teammates Gordon and Johnson.
For you trivia buffs out there, Aikman did throw a pass to Rice in competition. It was during a Pro Bowl.
• It is expected that when the penalties against the 24 and 48 teams – which failed inspection Friday due to unapproved fender modifications on their COTs – are announced this Tuesday, they will be the harshest yet – even though, to a man, every crew chief in the garage I spoke to about it said that the infraction wasn't that big of a deal. Several suggested that given NASCAR's reaction, maybe there was more to the story than we know.
• In a bizarre twist on the Hendrick brouhaha, a full-page advertisement in a current edition of a well-known racing publication drew loud laughs when it was passed around the media center over the weekend. The ad was for a die-cast Jeff Gordon DuPont Chevrolet COT and the ad read, "It was the only COT that passes the inspection process."
The wording obviously was aimed at the discriminating die-cast model buyer.
• Attention all Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans: Your hero is a closet Barry Manilow fan.
During the Q&A session that followed his Sony endorsement announcement on Thursday evening, Earnhardt admitted to having several Manilow songs on his iPod.
Among his favorites was "Weekend in New England."
"He's got a lot of great songs," Earnhardt said. "I think a lot of people listen to him that wouldn't admit it. He's awesome. You know. It isn't just me. It isn't just me, is it?"
He went on to explain that when he was younger, he and sister Kelley would drive from their home in North Carolina to visit their mother in Norfolk, Va., and big sister would have Manilow tunes on her car stereo player.
• One of the things you learn very quickly when you cover NASCAR is that you need to be aware of your surroundings all time when walking in the garage, especially when there is a practice session going on and drivers are whipping their cars in and out of the pit stalls and down the narrow confines of the Cup garage. You discover that Cup drivers use their brake pedal about as often off the track as they use it on the track, which is never. If you're in their way, they'll hit you.
During Saturday's morning practice session, an obviously novice photographer was about to become a hood ornament on Reed Sorenson's Dodge Avenger when at the very last second, Sorenson swerved to avoid hitting him.
• Just a gallon of gasoline. That's what stood between Jamie McMurray and a chance at scoring his second Cup win. The pole winner ended up 37th.
• After the race, many drivers commented on how few cautions there were in the final leg of the race, which dictated the outcome.
Most observers expected NASCAR rookie Montoya to do well on his first Cup road race, but few expected that he would win – though, to brag a bit, I did!
Montoya's victory is big for Chip Ganassi Racing, which has struggled for nearly five years to end a winless drought. Ganassi has proven that he is quite capable of building race- and championship-winning race teams in other series, but so far he has fallen far short of his goals in NASCAR.
This win could supply the much-needed boost in confidence needed to take his organization to the next level. Without it, Montoya surely will lose interest and leave. It would be a shame for NASCAR fans to be robbed of the opportunity to watch the talented driver entertain them over the next few years.