The weekend of the Infineon race in Sonoma started out with high hopes. AJ had a strong run there last year in the #44 Best Buy Dodge. After an off-track excursion and getting a lap down, he raced his way clear back to the 7th position. So everyone was left wondering if he could have contended with teammate Kasey Kahne for the win if it wasn’t for the early misfortune.
This year the opening practice on Friday was a struggle though, as AJ tried to get his Ford Fusion dialed in for qualifying. When it came time to put down the money lap, AJ was one of the first ones out on the track, but still managed to get a top 15 starting spot. Then the team worked hard on Saturday to get the #43 Insignia car well balanced for the racing action on Sunday.
In what can only be termed a wild race from the wave of the green flag, AJ became part of the first caution on lap 10. Of course I’m an AJ fan and I’m sure I saw things a little differently than a Clint Bowyer fan, but to me that first incident was just a racing deal. AJ and Clint were side by side coming through one of the fastest parts of the track and neither one wanted to give.
For the second week in a row, the TV coverage only showed half of what transpired on the race track. If you look at the replays it appears that AJ just clips Bowyer in the quarter panel for no reason or perhaps for payback. However if you look at the entire incident, Bowyer slid wide through one of the corners and pushed AJ up onto the curbing. When AJ hit that the car bounced around and he was fighting to save it when he caught the back of Bowyer’s car.
I didn’t see it as an act of aggressive driving or retaliation of any kind. It was simply AJ trying to gather his car back underneath him after a wild ride over the curbing, and Bowyer happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Obviously everyone is going to see it how they want to see it though, and interpret it how they will. I’m not going to argue over it, because I wasn’t in AJ’s seat to see or feel what he did and neither was anyone else.
With damage to both the right front and the driver’s side door of the car, AJ pitted after the lap 10 incident for repairs. The crew did a good job of getting him going again without losing a lap and he returned to the track in 40th position. He was now on a different fuel strategy than the leaders and raced as high as 7th while the rest of the field pitted before having to pit himself.
Battling a car that had no rear grip coming off the corners, AJ struggled to move forward through traffic but ran inside the top 20 for the majority of the race. As the race started to close out with cautions galore, crew chief Mike Shiplett decided to bring AJ down pit road for tires under the yellow. I believe that would have been a good call for a solid top 10 or top 5 finish. However this time it was AJ who shot himself in the foot by earning a speeding penalty and having to start at the tail end of the field.
Now drivers can swear up and down that their rpm's were below what NASCAR mandates, but I have a degree in Mathematics and I just can’t argue with a computer that reads telemetry from the cars. I think the corners on this particular pit road were probably what played havoc with the drivers and caused a lot of the tickets handed out, though.
Since NASCAR measures the time it takes a car to travel over two scoring loops rather than the actual miles per hour, it is possible for the driver not to speed (ie stay under the designated mph) and still be too fast. If they should happen to cut a corner as they come around pit road, they will cross the two scoring loops faster than they should even if their mph stays the same. Perhaps it’s a faulty system, because it bit a lot of drivers on Sunday.
In any case, AJ again had the task of having to come from the back – this time restarting in 28th position. He carefully made his way through the slower traffic, avoiding some of the late race craziness that happened around him. Eventually riding inside the top 15, AJ just didn’t have the tires under him to make a final push into the top 10. The #43 Insignia Ford finished in the 13th position, looking pretty beat up but still a lot better than some of the other cars.
It wasn’t the kind of day that AJ hoped for at his home track of Infineon I’m sure, but it was his fifth consecutive top 15 finish. The team has made a lot of progress compared to last year and just needs to find some consistency in handling to start clicking off some top 10’s and eventually top 5’s. Momentum is building and the Insignia green machine is coming!