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Jeff Gordon looked like an out-of-control rookie at Sonoma, but it somehow resulted in a fifth-place run and a successful day.
Using what seemed like an approach of bump first, apologize later, Gordon admitted he was overly aggressive but said, "After they started doing it to me, I had to do it to others."
Gordon apologized about some incidents several times – particularly about the Martin Truex Jr. spin.
"There are some things that I'm not proud of that I did today; certainly with Martin," he said. "I mean, I completely messed that up and I will try to patch that up. Other things that happened out there were just really hard racing incidents."
Several other drivers felt they were victims of Gordon's aggression, including Kurt Busch, Elliott Sadler and Clint Bowyer.
"I made a lot of guys mad today," he said. "...You just had to race so hard there at the end. Guys were just running people off the racetrack. Running into the back of them. It was like being on a short, dirt track.
"I know we've made a lot of people mad. It tore our race car up and we never had a shot of winning after that but, a lot of guys didn't finish in the top five like we did either, so oh well."
Gordon may have been sincerely apologetic several times about the Truex incident, but not so much about contact he made with Kurt Busch.
"Kurt Busch had everything coming to him that I gave him because he gave it to me on the restart before that, so I don't feel sorry about that," he said. "I certainly do (feel bad) with Martin. With Elliott, I feel bad. I was racing him hard, he was blocking me but he was trying to race somebody else, too. That was probably my fault as well."
Gordon's fifth-place finish moved him up two spots to fifth in the standings.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew what the number meant as soon as he climbed from the car.
"Eleventh," he said with a smile. "That ties my best finish here. Still not a top 10, but the strategy worked out for us real good."
Through a combination of well-timed pit stops, Lance McGrew got the No. 88 team some good track position and Earnhardt Jr. did the rest.
Even the driver was confused as to how exactly it all worked out, but whatever it was, it was successful.
"I'm lost on what we did," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I have no idea. I think you just kind of do whatever the hell you want the first half of the race, then you sit there and go, 'Alright, I need to make it to the end.'"
McGrew felt the 88 car dropped off in lap times after about 20 laps, so he made sure to time the final pit stop to around 20 laps remaining in the race.
"I just kind of sat there and watched the first half of that race and was like, 'Well, a lot of these guys are taking themselves out of the race,'" Earnhardt Jr. said. "I wasn't really braking hard or running hard. I was playing around with the tires and seeing what saved them and what didn't.
"Just at the end of the race, I was like, 'Alright – if we're going to get something, let's get it.' And a couple holes opened up for us, and I just got lucky and got us up in the top 10 with 15 to go, then just tried to hold it."
It was quite a turnaround for Earnhardt Jr., who last week said he wished for dynamite to blow up the track and on Friday expressed little optimism for a good run.
So did the solid day leave him happy?
"I don't really get that pumped up about it, I just get relief to be able to go home and not be pissed off," he said. "But that's every week. I feel like I can run in the top 10 at the Glen on a good day, but I don't feel like that here yet. Even when the car is handling good in practice, I just don't have the confidence (at Sonoma)."
Perhaps Sunday's race will help. With the result, Earnhardt Jr. moved up to 13th in the standings and is 57 points out of a Chase spot with 10 races remaining before the cutoff.
"It worked out, it was good," he said. "Banged up the car a little bit, but not as bad as some people."
Boris Said's crew chief Frank Stoddard was livid with Tony Stewart following the Sonoma race, stopping to scream at Stewart in the middle of a crowded garage and calling him a "fat fuck."
Said finished eighth and Stewart finished ninth, but Stoddard said Stewart intentionally ran into Said's No. 26 car following the race and caused significant damage.
"When the checkered flag was over, (Stewart) went up the hill and ran into the side of (Said), knocked the whole side off the car," a visibly upset Stoddard said. "He's a disrespectful jerk. The guy's got no respect. Never has, never will."
Stoddard said he has just five full-time employees working on his car and that the Latitude 43 Motorsports team's goal is to come to the track and try to compete cleanly without getting in anyone's way.
Stewart, the crew chief said, did not show the No. 26 team the same courtesy.
"When the checkered flag is out, he needs to show respect," Stoddard said. "And he does not even know how to spell the word. OK? He never has. He runs over people after he's had a bad day.
"Listen, if we raced him and we bumped or something like that, that's racing – not under the caution after the checkered flag, costing me $15,000 to fix it. It is unacceptable."
Stewart's crew chief Darian Grubb said there was an incident that precipitated the one after the checkered flag, which gave Stewart cause to retaliate.
"They can be (upset) if they want," Grubb said. "They're racing us one race – road-course ringers. (Said) came in and knocked Tony out of the way, so Tony got him the next lap. That's road-course racing.
"They don't race every week. They don't understand the game."
Said was "disappointed" in Stewart's actions, he said.
"At the end of the race, Tony Stewart just ran in and took the side of my car out after the checker," Said said. "He's one of my heroes, so that kind of upset me a little bit."
Martin Truex Jr. was furious with Jeff Gordon for spinning him out prior to the big wreck on a restart that ended Truex's day.
Truex had been running inside the top 10 when Gordon dive-bombed the No. 56 car inside Turn 11 (the carousel turn at the end of the track) and spun him out.
After a caution was called, Truex was mired in the middle of the pack and got caught up in a multicar wreck that ruined any chance of a good finish.
Truex placed the blame squarely on Gordon for the poor track position that led to being involved in the big wreck.
"I guess Jeff figured if he couldn't catch us on the racetrack he was going to spin us out on the restart," Truex said. "How many times have I spun Jeff Gordon out? How many times have I spun anybody out?
"I lifted for them guys on those restarts; they get all stupid and crazy and wild, and I lift and wait and they just run into you. It's stupid!"
Truex was particularly upset because he said Gordon wasn't anywhere close to him heading into Turn 11 before the 24 car took him out.
Because Gordon was "six or seven car lengths" behind, Truex said "I didn't think I had anything to worry about."
"Next thing I know, I'm spun around," Truex said. "You know, if he's a car length or two back, you take a defensive line and prepare for him trying to dive-bomb you. But he was seven car lengths back, there's no way he should have been where he was."
Truex said he was prepared for Gordon's excuses, but he refused to buy it.
"I know he's going to say, 'Well, Juan (Montoya) was trying to pass me and I was trying to block him.'" Truex said. "I don't care.
"Just because he's trying to pass you, it's alright for you to spin me out? No! Let him pass you, then."
Gordon and Truex have different philosophies, according to Truex. If he had been in Gordon's shoes and the decision had been between either getting passed and losing one spot or wrecking the car in front of him, "I would have lost a spot," he said.
"That's the difference between me and him," Truex said, raising his voice. "That's why I'm here, that's why he's out there (still on the track), that's why I'm pissed off."
Immediately after the incident, Truex vowed payback on both Gordon and Montoya for continuing to take advantage of him.
"I don't give a shit!" Truex said on the team radio. "I'm going to wreck em both! I'm tired of this! They're done! Bye bye Jeff and f*&$* Juan!"
So did Truex plan to come through on his radio threat to get revenge on Gordon and Montoya in a future race?
"We'll see," he said before turning and walking away.
It's time for another race-day chat, this time the Sonoma road course nestled in the brown hills of Northern California.
Who will win? Marcos Ambrose or someone else?
And which drivers will get pissed at each other for a late spin?
Talk about everything related to today's race here with other fans, and make sure you have the "auto-refresh" box checked so you can see the latest comments.
Here we go!
Denny Hamlin apparently has no problem speaking his mind about NASCAR's sometimes-iffy debris cautions.
Hamlin not only refused to back off his comment after winning Michigan last week that NASCAR throws cautions for "show business," but he added fuel to the fire during his media session on Friday at Sonoma.
While he stopped short of calling the cautions illegitimate, Hamlin said NASCAR could call a debris caution at anytime but chooses its spots based on the pace of the race.
"I think there's always debris around the track, without a doubt you can call anything debris," he said. "I can look out right now and I can see debris pretty close to the race track. You can say that that's a legitimate safety hazard.
"I think it's the timing there: (NASCAR says), 'It is right there, let's pick it up to tighten things up, let's regroup.' For the sake of show it's OK, but for the sake of competition, it's not always the right thing."
Hamlin said when he had a sizable lead toward the end of the Michigan race, he was certain NASCAR would call a debris caution to reset the field in order to create a chance at a close finish.
"I knew it was going to happen," he said. "Legitimate or not, the odds are that we were going to have some non-wreck caution in the last half of the race. Pocono it was the same way, we had a long green-flag spell and I knew it was going to be a matter of time before we see a caution for one reason or another."
Hamlin's general argument about debris cautions sounded much like what football fans say about NFL referees: They could call a holding penalty on any play, but choose when to do it.
The winner of a series-high five races this season said NASCAR will sometimes let debris go when there's exciting racing on the track; other times officials will use the cautions to tighten up a strung-out field. It's not a coincidence, Hamlin said.
"You don't have to be so smart to realize that these things are not by chance," he said.
But in some ways, Hamlin said that was a positive.
"I think if we weren't talking about that last week – if NASCAR would have let it go (without a caution) – then people were going to be talking about a boring race," he said. "That's something that we don't need right now."
Fans still whisper about the crash that could have ended Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career – or worse – during a sports car event at Sonoma in 2004.
Earnhardt Jr. crashed a Corvette, which exploded in flames and left him burned. Fortunately, he escaped the worst of the fire before he was injured more seriously, but fans have wondered over the years whether the wreck left an impact on his psyche.
Could that somehow explain Earnhardt Jr.'s slump in recent years?
In a word, no.
"I promise – and I've been asked that a lot – it really doesn't have an impact on my career as far as stock cars go," said Earnhardt Jr., who still has scars on his neck and leg from the crash. "I feel completely overly safe in that (Sprint Cup) car."
Earnhardt Jr. said the fire was "really scary" and that "I did not realize how hot fire was."
"You never know," he said. "It's probably not healthy to daydream about situations like that, but I never realized it would be as hot and crazy as it was."
The memories of the wreck would bother him, he said, if he drove sports cars for a living. But he doesn't. And in Cup cars, he said, "I don't never, ever worry about it."
"I don't think it had a negative effect on my ability to run how I run here," he said. "I've been running that way since I got here."
Speaking of how he runs at Sonoma (traditionally not very well), Earnhardt Jr. said he hasn't always had the best attitude about road courses because "I grew up driving short tracks and raced ovals all my life, not to make it to Formula One."
On Friday, the 88 car wasn't very good to start the day and then broke the rear gear during a qualifying practice run, Earnhardt Jr. said.
The team will still work to figure out a setup for the race, but the fallback is the setup that had Earnhardt Jr. running in the top 10 late in the race last year before he was wrecked out.
"We can still plug that old setup in right before the race starts," he said. "It's really not about having a fast car anyways. Everything's really in the drivers' hands here."
At any rate, Earnhardt Jr. told reporters that he wanted to "improve from mediocre to sub-par this weekend."
But as one reporter pointed out, "That's worse."
"Oh, is it?" Earnhardt Jr. said. "What's better than mediocre, without really giving myself too much credit?"
"Average," the reporters said.
"I'm already average!" he said. "I'm average now."
"Decent," another reporter said.
"Decent?" Earnhardt Jr. said. "I've got ‘decent' for seventh, so what's like 10th?"
"Above average," another reporter said. "Right now you're 'meeting expectations.'"
"Really?!" Earnhardt Jr. said, laughing. "Can I get that in the news? Like, could you say that in your articles?"
The reason why he's only "average" at Sonoma, Earnhardt Jr. said, is because he gets lured into racing too hard at the wrong time of the race.
"My biggest problem is I get to racing everybody around me and the guy in front of me, and I want to catch him and I drive into the next corner like it's a short track, trying to roll in on him and get in the throttle sooner," he said. "And then we've got another corner up and I'm totally off line for it and I'm slow. And everything I gained, he gets back.
"We sit there and do that shit all day long, all of us back in 20th or 15th or whatever."
Editor's note: Below is a video of the ALMS race in which Earnhardt Jr. was injured in 2004.
(At Sonoma) last year I was running eighth behind Sam Hornish and just kept trying and trying and trying to pass him. And finally, I was just tired of running there and I made a bold move to pass him and I ended up wrecking myself – and him – instead of just waiting for him to make a mistake and let time pass.We weren't even at the last pit stop yet, you know? You've got time, you've got all day. You don't have to get that aggressive until the last 10 laps here. Especially with all the restarts that happen.
When NASCAR comes to Sonoma, some fans complain that road-course racing isn't interesting. But I disagree: If you think about it, road-course racing often has some of the best drama and excitement.
So relax and enjoy the weekend; don't whine about Wine Country. Keep checking back here for news, updates, analysis and a live race-day chat where you can compare notes with other fans.
In the meantime, here's the schedule for this weekend (all times Eastern):
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