By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Of all the wins Jimmie Johnson was able to accrue during his illustrious NASCAR Cup Series career, one type of track eluded him for so long – road courses.
Despite his impressive resume, winning a road course race would take some help to finally make the long-awaited trip to victory lane.
Enter the 2010 running of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
Johnson would start on the outside of the front row and led 48 of the first 57 laps, but as the race played out, it would be road course ace and two-time V8 Supercars champion Marcos Ambrose who led the way and looked to finally check a Cup Series win off his list.
With Ambrose out to a lead of more than two seconds over Johnson, the affable Australian was in firm control of the race as Johnson seemed to be content to bring home his best finish yet at Sonoma.
That is until Brad Keselowski spun with eight laps to go, giving everyone another shot at taking down Ambrose. However, Ambrose would make a stunning gaffe under caution, all but handing the win to his competitors.
As the field began to catch up with the pace car heading into Turn 1, Ambrose shut his car off in an attempt to save fuel, but heading uphill, the car failed to refire and his No. 47 Toyota slowed to a crawl, allowing Johnson and six others to pass him in the process.
Though Ambrose fired his car back up and drove back to the lead, NASCAR ruled that he did not maintain reasonable speed under caution, dropping him to eighth in the restart order and moving Johnson to the lead.
From there, the rest is history. Johnson would lead the final seven laps en route to the victory over Robby Gordon. Meanwhile, Ambrose could only manage a sixth-place finish on the day. A disappointing end for him and the JTG-Daughterty Racing team.
“I tried to recrank it on that left hand bend uphill and it just didn’t refire,” Ambrose said. “My bad. Just feel really disappointed, you know? I may not like the call, but it is what it is. I should have had the motor cranked up and it would never have been an issue.
“I kept rolling, but it’s a judgement call. I know the rule. I didn’t stop. The car kept rolling. It’s just uphill like 40 degrees. I was just trying to get the motor cranked and it is what it is. Terrible way to finish.”
Asked how he would put the disappointment behind him, Ambrose responded in true fashion, saying:
“I’m just going to go home and see my wife and kids and give them a hug. We’ll get them next week.”
After celebrating the victory, Johnson gave his point of view on how the final laps played out through his windshield.
“Marcos, you know, came around through turn one. Normally guys shut the car off downhill coasting to save fuel,” Johnson explained. “I didn’t think at first that he had shut the car off going up the hill. That’s just the last place you would probably do it. So, I thought maybe he ran out of fuel or had an electrical problem, you know, something major, because the car just came to a stop. I’m like, Wow.
“So, at that point I’m thinking, how does the procedure work? I know if you come to a stop, you’re clearly not maintaining a reasonable speed. It will be interesting to see where they put him.
“One respect I felt like if they put him back up in front of me, I could kind of see that as okay, although I’d be raising hell on the radio and cussing like crazy, trying to fight it. It’s not like the car broke. He had it shut off.
“The way the rule reads, you have to maintain a reasonable speed. Coming to a stop on the racetrack is no speed. So, NASCAR followed their rule they have set in place. Once he got going again, I guess they slotted him into that spot.
“All that being said, I feel bad for him and his team owners. His team owners gave me my chance in Nationwide in ’98 maybe it was. So, I’m very familiar with the team.
“I think Marcos had a very fast car in the short runs. I had a try or two at him before that, couldn’t get by him. So, I’m not sure I would have gotten by him.
“It was definitely a gift kind of handed to us, as Chad said on the radio to me. From that point on, I just needed to get a good restart and get away from those guys.”
The win was the first and only win on a road course in the Cup Series for the eventual seven-time champion, who noted that the Sonoma victory was even more special given his racing background and the road course win drought he had been on throughout his NASCAR career.
Johnson expounded on his love of road course racing, even foreshadowing his open wheel future that would come a decade later.
“I’d say the bottom line to it is I love road course racing,” he said. “I always have. I grew up racing off-road trucks, they were on road courses with jumps. Made a name for myself in that style of racing.
“To come into the Cup Series and not have success early irritated me. Chad in general, if there’s a track on the schedule, doesn’t matter what design it is, if that’s our weak spot, he’s gonna make it better. So we kind of got in this routine of road course, road course, road course.
“That’s why today is so special to us, why it has meant so much. I just truly enjoy road course racing, doesn’t matter if it’s our stock cars, the Grand-Am Series I run in. I’d love to run in an IndyCar someday, F1. The test that Jeff did was insane. Hopefully somebody watching can set that up for me (laughter).”