Ambrose, Gilliland, Andretti have rough practice
AP Auto Racing Writer
SONOMA, Calif. (AP) – It was an eventful final few minutes of practice Saturday at Infineon Raceway, where David Gilliland ran into John Andretti and Marcos Ambrose blew an engine.
Ambrose’s motor exploded in a plume of white smoke with just a few minutes left in practice, and because he’ll have to get a new engine, he’ll forfeit his third-place starting position for Sunday’s race.
“It’s really a real shame for us,” Ambrose said. “We were looking for a great day tomorrow and now we have to come through field. But we have good horsepower and we’ll bounce back from this.”
Ambrose will have to move to the back of the field before the start of the race.
“We came from dead last last year at Watkins Glen and finished third, so it can be done,” Ambrose said. “But we’ll have to make some gambles on fuel mileage now to get up there.”
Gilliland, who was slated to start 32nd, will have a much harder time matching last year’s career-best finish of second. He wrecked his primary car when he ran into the back of Andretti as the two were leaving pit road during practice.
“It was totally my fault,” Gilliland said. “I didn’t have any of my blowers or anything on, just reached down to turn on the switches and John Andretti stopped for cars merging, and I just ran right into the back of him. Completely my fault and really disappointed.”
But Gilliland’s biggest issue is that underfunded TRG Motorsports only had one road racing car, so his backup is not suited for Sonoma.
“We’ve worked really hard, put a lot of effort into this race,” he said. “Now we have to dig down and try and get our backup car as best we can.”
RED BULL MANUFACTURER: Brian Vickers’ second straight pole-winning run further cemented the progress being made by Red Bull Racing since its rocky entrance into NASCAR three seasons ago.
Now a consistent race team closing in on an eventual first victory, Red Bull could find itself in the midst of a manufacturer battle. The team is in the final year of its contract with Toyota and an extension isn’t automatic. General manager Jay Frye has long ties to Hendrick Motorsports, and he could move Red Bull to General Motors with help from Hendrick.
“We’re going through lots of different scenarios right now, and everyone is aware that our deal is up with them at the end of the year,” Frye said. “It’s possible that they don’t want us to come back next year. Or, it’s possible that they want us to come back but they can’t for some reason do that.”
Frye was referring to the current economic climate for auto makers. GM and Chrysler are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and Ford is struggling. Toyota hasn’t been immune to the recession and has had companywide cuts to most of its programs.
Still, Toyota is the most stable of the four NASCAR manufacturers. Red Bull’s progress could make Austria-based ownership believe it should receive a sweeter deal from Toyota during contract negotiations, though, and because of Red Bull’s financial stability, making a move to bankrupt Chevrolet isn’t such a huge gamble.
One other side note: Toyota owns a Formula One team that is a direct competitor with Red Bull’s F1 entry.
Frye wouldn’t speculate on what might happen.
“We’re just going through all the possible scenarios. They’ve been great, a great partner, and we’ll see here shortly what’s going to happen,” he said.
Frye said there was no timetable to make a manufacturer decision, and noted that Chip Ganassi switched from Dodge to Chevrolet in December, two months before the season opened.
TEAM MEETING: Kyle Busch was NASCAR’s hottest driver at this time last year, winning on the road course at Sonoma for his fifth Sprint Cup Series win of the season.
This year has been very streaky, and although Busch is tied with Mark Martin for a series-high three wins, his success seems to come in bunches. He hasn’t won since May at Richmond, and he’s had just one top-10 finish in the five races since.
But a team meeting last week – sans teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano – has Busch convinced that Joe Gibbs Racing can get back on a roll. Owner Joe Gibbs, president J.D. Gibbs and Busch sat down with the crew chiefs and engineers from the three-team organization.
“We just all sat down and talked about what my feelings were in the car and where I felt like we were struggling at and why I felt we were struggling,” Busch said. “We need to get our cars better, that’s the biggest thing. Our cars aren’t as good as they were last year. Hopefully the meeting we had will solve some of that and we can continue to get better and learn from some of the mistakes we’ve made this year.”
Busch, who lost the pole for Sunday’s race to fellow Toyota driver Brian Vickers, was leading the points at this time last season. He’s ninth now, but has 30 bonus points on reserve for seeding at the start of the Chase for the championship.
But he’s up just 53 points over the 13th-place driver, and a bad stretch of races could knock him out of Chase contention. There’s just 11 races left to determine the 12-driver Chase field.
Busch cited Mark Martin and current points leader Tony Stewart as an example of how fickle the points standings are this season.
“You look at Mark, he was 34th at the beginning of the season about ready to fall out of the top 35 and here is eighth in front of us now,” Busch said. “He’s had the success that he’s needed in order to bring himself back up through there. Tony has been the same way; he runs top-10 every week. That’s the way we were last year.
“The same things would fall our way, and we had luck going our way really well. And this year has just been a struggle to get finishes knocked out every week and go on a string of top-10s.”
KENSETH’S NERVES: Matt Kenseth has been on the Chase bubble before, rallying during the summer stretch of the season to lock himself into the title hunt.
But after slipping to 11th in the standings, Kenseth isn’t feeling as secure about his championship chances. Kenseth has made the Chase in all four seasons since it was introduced in 2004, the year after he won the title.
“We were farther behind at this time last year, but certainly we’ve had a lot more opportunities this year to be a lot higher in the points and be in a lot more comfortable position than what we are,” he said. “We’re not comfortable by any means. We really need to start getting the results and start getting our finishes.”
Kenseth won the first two races of the season, but he’s had just four top-10 finishes in the 13 since.
But he’ll start 10th in Sunday’s race at Sonoma, where he’s finished inside the top-10 just once in nine previous starts. He wants a good finish and hopes a decade of experience on the road course can help him complete a solid run.
“It’s a challenge. When I first started it was more about not making a mistake and staying on course,” he said. “You could bend up a car pretty easy or lose a lot of track position. Today, these cars are a lot closer to the same speed and they’re a lot more reliable. It doesn’t seem like as many people make a mistake or break something or anything like that, so you’ve got to have your pit strategy right and have a good handling car.
“You can’t make mistakes and you’ve got to run fast all day, too.”