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CUP: Pondering The Blunder From Down Under

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

Was it a gaffe or an horrendous blunder?

No matter how one chooses to describe it, losing the lead under the final caution at the Infineon Raceway is likely to follow Marcos Ambrose as surely as the error in Game Six of the World Series of 1986 follows former Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.

PDF> UNOFFICIAL DRIVER POINTS: TOYOTA/SAVE MART 350 - INFINEON RACEWAYLINK> UNOFFICIAL RESULTS: TOYOTA/SAVE MART 350 - INFINEON RACEWAY

In racing terms, this was the worst mistake under the pace car in the Sprint Cup since Buddy Baker hit the pace car and crashed while leading at the Texas World Speedway. It happens to the best of them, sometimes. More recently, Mark Martin had a Nationwide Series race won at the Bristol Motor Speedway behind the pace car – until he took his car to the garage one lap early.

You’ve got to feel for Aussie Ambrose. Guys like Baker, one of six drivers to win NASCAR events at the Texas track, and Martin were both in position to win subsequent races shortly after understandable, if unusual, bonehead errors. They could quickly leave a bad memory behind, footnotes to many years in the trenches.

But for Ambrose and the team owned by Tad and Jodi Geshickter and Brad Daugherty there may not ever be a chance as good as the one that got away in Sonoma. An inaugural Sprint Cup win, the first victory by an Australian driver and a chance to celebrate in California wine country are rare events in the NASCAR realm. All brought down by an engine that wouldn’t refire after Ambrose began coasting behind the pace car with six laps to go.

So what went wrong? In the post-race, post-haste, Ambrose acknowledged he’d been told to save fuel. Nothing unusual there. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Michigan) and Greg Biffle (Kansas) have both coasted behind the pace car in order to win races in the not-too-distant past. Earnhardt Jr. coasted past the pace car on occasion and Biffle was a little slow behind the pace car. But none came to a complete stop as did Ambrose on the precipitous hill in Turn 1.

Was this a case of too many cooks in the kitchen? Was Ambrose asked to do something that was unnecessary – however smart the strategy might have been. Did he decide for himself to save fuel by shutting off the engine instead of just balloon-footing it? Having short-pitted with 30 laps to go, shouldn’t Ambrose have taken on board enough fuel to run to the finish plus three green-white-checkers? Given the subsequent number of caution laps, fuel definitely should not have been an issue. Yet, the driver was asked to save fuel under the caution.

Was Crew Chief Frankie Kerr’s three pit stop strategy as much about fuel consumption issues as it was about fresh Goodyear tires? Time will tell, but it’s seems like as much of a problem with the car as with the driver.

As for NASCAR, how can the sanctioning body do anything other than put Ambrose’s Toyota back in line at the place where the car re-fired and began moving up the hill once again?

In any event, Ambrose was masterful in getting the No. 47 Clorox/Kleenex entry to the front in the late stages of the race. Crew Chief Kerr’s strategy of three stops actually forced the hand of eventual winner Jimmie Johnson and Crew Chief Chad Knaus, who did likewise. Then the No. 47 crew made the most of the crucial last pit stop to get their man back onto the track in front of Johnson – after a chassis adjustment that made Ambrose virtually untouchable once he returned to the lead.

And then… .

Since JTG/Daugherty Racing shares space, cars, technology and information with Michael Waltrip Racing and it buys stout engines from Toyota Racing Development, the team is not necessarily a forlorn single car effort. But in the larger scheme of the Sprint Cup, this group is not going to be a contender on a weekly basis – especially if the 15 previous races of this season on ovals are any indication.

As for the Buckner analogy, Ambrose’s situation at Infineon shares a lot with the first baseman’s problems in Boston. The driver put the team in position to win the race, just as Buckner’s hitting was crucial to the success of the Red Sox throughout the 1986 season. And clearly, there were other factors at work at the No. 47 team just as Boston’s relief pitching opened the flood gates in the World Series long before Buckner’s error on a meandering grounder.

There have been bigger, as in colossal, gaffes in NASCAR history, many of them coming during the stretch run for championships or during the more recent Chase for the Championship. But none will likely be more painful than those of a man looking at his first Sprint Cup win while cheek-by-jowl to the same Pacific Ocean that surrounds his home in Tasmania only to have it come to a grinding halt because the engine won’t re-fire while trundling along behind the pace car.

Arrrgggghhhh!—Quotes of the week: “I was told to do it.”

– Marcos Ambrose on why he began saving fuel behind the pace car by coasting while leading at Sonoma in the Clorox/Kleenex Toyota shortly before the engine failed to re-fire and he stalled in Turn 1.

“I had the motor turned off trying to save a bit of fuel and just had trouble getting it fired again. That’s it.”

– Ambrose on why his Camry stalled.

“I’m disappointed, but NASCAR calls the shots.”

– Ambrose on his thoughts when told by NASCAR to blend into line in seventh place after stalling.

“I don’t think so, but that’s my opinion only because I lost the race.”

– Ambrose, when asked if he thought the car by NASCAR was correct.

See ya! …At the races.

PDF> UNOFFICIAL DRIVER POINTS: TOYOTA/SAVE MART 350 - INFINEON RACEWAYLINK> UNOFFICIAL RESULTS: TOYOTA/SAVE MART 350 - INFINEON RACEWAY

Jonathan Ingram has been writing full-time about the world’s major motor racing series and events since 1983 for newspapers, magazines and web sites.

John can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com