Sunday, June 20, 2010

Johnson tames Infineon with help from Ambrose

Sonoma, California – Well, so much for Jimmie Johnson can’t win on a road course.

The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champ crossed the road course victory off his to-do list here at sun-splashed Infineon Raceway, but the triumph came at the expense of one of the most likable drivers on the circuit – Tasmania’s own Marcos Ambrose.

Ambrose, who last year lost a NASCAR Nationwide Series road race in Canada when he misplayed the last corner of a race he had dominated, took heartbreak to a new level here today.

With his first Sprint Cup win all but in the bag, Ambrose inexplicably cut his engine during a caution period and could not refire it as half a dozen cars passed him. Under the rules, a car must maintain pace during a caution period, and Ambrose restarted behind all who had passed him.

Ironically, the fuel-saving measure Ambrose employed apparently was unnecessary. And Johnson likely would not have caught Ambrose had the Tasmanian Devil remained in front – Johnson was saving worn tires, and his crew was telling him to be content with second place.

Ambrose, crushed, summoned the bravery to talk with a TNT Network reporter after the race, and while he said his crew instructed him to save fuel, he said he knew the rules, and it was his fault. Classy.

Which makes it all the more painful to see Ambrose lose a crusher on Father’s Day.

As for Johnson, looking to become a freshly-minted father any day now, it was a return to normal, and then some.

NASCAR’s recent adoption of a rear spoiler on its Cup cars seemed to have Johnson and his Lowe’s racing team puzzled. And some uncharacteristic late-race mistakes in recent weeks sent Johnson down in the points standings, at least for him. Even as he was struggling, he still maintained top-12 status needed to make the season-ending Chase.

Today, Johnson looked to be at the head of the class from the start, sticking on the twisting turns and firing out of the corners with serious zip. Only Ambrose showed the ability to stay with him, including an impressive run to hold off Johnson as the Tasmanian was accelerating out of the pits late in the race.

So sad that a mental error spoiled Ambrose’s day. But as they say, that’s racin’.

For me, Johnson’s day reminded me of another race on this very spot 15 years ago, when Dale Earnhardt won his first road course race. He too had been criticized for not having a road course win up to that point.

Now, Johnson joins the club.

Johnson and Earnhardt. Pretty good company.

And a pretty sensational day here in California’s Wine Country.

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