Youngster Elliott drove like a vet in Glen win

For the record, Chase Elliott was a soon-to-be eight-year-old when his father won for the last time in NASCAR’s top series.

About a half dozen drivers in Bill Elliott’s 44th and final victory competed alongside Chase on Sunday when the youngster, now 22, finally made his way to victory lane in the Cup series.

Maybe that makes them feel old or maybe they were kids back then and it’s just the changing of the guard here in NASCAR.

The younger Elliott was making his 99th career start in the series Sunday, but drove as if he’d been racing for much longer. He battled with pole winner Denny Hamlin and went toe-to-toe with the hard-charging Kyle Busch and in the end held off Martin Truex Jr., the guy who had won the series’ last two road course races.

Truex, the defending series champion, might have had something for Elliott at the end but his gas tank did not. The No. 78 Toyota sputtered on the final lap and that was that.

Sunday’s Go Bowling at the Glen Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race will be talked about for a good bit and with good reason. Compelling race, exciting finish, first-time winner, link to a former era in the sport, take your pick. NASCAR officials have been waiting for one of these races all season. WGI delivered.

Elliott has had his share of success in NASCAR, just not at the top. He won a K&N Pro Series East race at Iowa when he was just 12 … no, make that he won a race IN 2012. He was all of 16 at the time.

He’s won in Cup, twice capturing his Can-Am Duel qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway in February of ’17 and ’18. But those aren’t “real” races even though they now award points to the top 10 …

Elliott’s rise up through the ranks included stops in the Camping World Truck Series (two wins in 12 starts) and Xfinity Series (five wins and one championship in 77 starts).

All along he’s had the support of team owner Rick Hendrick who once vowed he was done with funding a feeder program for younger drivers because it was expensive and time consuming and, well again, expensive.

But then a talent such as Elliott lands on your doorstep and well, Hendrick is a great businessman but also something of a soft touch but a great judge of talent too so … he’s always said he believed the younger Elliott could win in Cup with the right team around him and the right equipment underneath him.

Elliott is the 17th Cup driver to win for Hendrick Motorsports and four of those are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame and several others will be soon enough.

The win was No. 250 for Hendrick Motorsports and that is No. 2 behind either Petty Enterprises (268) or Richard Petty Motorsports (273 if counting the PE wins).

Either way, No. 250 was a milestone for the entire HMS organization, a group that had not won since June of ’17.

It’s also worth noting that Elliott became the fourth different driver to win with crew chief Alan Gustafson, and the stout list he joins also includes Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.

It appears the Elliotts are the seventh father-son duo to win at least one race at the Cup level.

My unofficial list contains Lee and Richard Petty; Richard and Kyle Petty; Bobby and Davey Allison; Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Ned and Dale Jarrett; Buck and Buddy Baker and now the Elliotts.

There are several brother combinations as well as at least one uncle/nephew.

Elliott said he “learned a lot about myself the past couple of years,” and part of that probably involves how to handle those near misses. He finished second eight times before Sunday’s breakthrough.

“I think kind of one thing I tried to beat in my head was that you don’t run second eight times by luck and take it for what it is,” he said.

“That’s the truth; you just don’t. You have to realize that you were in those positions for a reason … and if you were in them at one point in time you can get back to them and learn from whatever it was that prevented you from ultimately getting a win.”

Elliott learned, and it appears those lessons are beginning to pay off.

Farewell old friend

I always enjoyed reading Tom Higgins’ stories about NASCAR.

Particularly when it involved a race that I had also covered for another paper; I made sure I read what Tom had written afterward.

A lot of times his story would include something colorful, something interesting, maybe something overlooked by others.

More often though, it would just be a better overall story. It would be told better.

I knew that would be the case before I ever turned the page.

Part of that was because Tom had been around. He didn’t just cover Richard Petty (and eventually Kyle Petty), he covered Lee Petty, founder and patriarch of the Petty racing clan.

He covered Dale Earnhardt but that came after he covered Earnhardt’s father, Ralph, who dominated short tracks around the Carolinas.

He covered Buck Baker long before he wrote about Baker’s talented son Buddy.

The Jarretts, the Pearsons, the Wood brothers, Tom knew ‘em all and covered ‘em all and he told their stories like no one else ever did or likely ever will.

His longevity was only a small, small part of the reason he was so good at his craft. Tom was a natural storyteller. He simply had that gift.

His stories were not just about the stars. Tom could hold your attention talking about the sport’s legends, the near legends and just as easily the folks you probably had never heard of or read about.

Higgins was the first full-time NASCAR beat writer. In 1980, he attended every NASCAR Cup race for the Charlotte Observer, his paper of record for 33 years where he covered not only NASCAR but handled the outdoor beat as well.

On many occasions, he combined the two – NASCAR competitors were often avid outdoorsmen – and those stories were just as entertaining and enjoyable as the ones that made up his race coverage.

There were 31 races in 1980, by the way, and the season began in early January at Riverside, Calif., and ended 10 months later, again on the west coast, at Ontario, Calif.

That came nearly two and a half decades AFTER he covered his first NASCAR race, in 1956.

In 2015 Tom received the Squier-Hall Award of Excellence, an honor presented to members of the media for contributions to NASCAR. In my opinion, no one has been more deserving.

Tom passed away earlier today and a huge part of NASCAR is gone. He was 80 and a proud father and grandfather and great-grandfather.

To many of us who worked alongside him in the NASCAR garage, he was a tremendous friend.

And one hell of a storyteller.

For Busch, the numbers keep adding up

Career win No. 49 for Kyle Busch came Sunday and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver is now tied with former teammate Tony Stewart for 13th on the Cup series’ all-time win list.

Stewart, retired from Cup competition since the end of 2016, won three series championships; Busch has one but is only 33 and likely plans to stick around awhile.

Busch has 20 wins in the series since 2015, the year he missed 11 races due to injury but returned to win five times and capture the title.

He also tied Ron Hornaday Jr. for the most career wins in the Camping World Truck Series Saturday with his 51st victory at Pocono.

And if you’re keeping track of JGR Cup victories, Busch has 45 of the organization’s 155 wins.

Overall, it was a solid day for the JGR group at Pocono with Busch (No. 18 Toyota) winning, teammate Daniel Suarez finishing second, Erik Jones taking fifth and Denny Hamlin 10th.

By the way, Busch now has multiple Cup wins on 14 of the 23 tracks on the schedule, with singles wins on the remaining nine. Perhaps that’s his next feat – multiple wins at all facilities?

A week after reports of sponsor 5-hour Energy’s impending departure from Furniture Row Racing, JGR officials announced a multi-race deal with Craftsman across two series with drivers Jones and Ryan Preece.

A division of Stanley Black & Decker, Craftsman will be featured on Jones No. 19 Toyota in four of this year’s remaining 15 races (Richmond, Dover, Talladega and Kansas). The sponsorship will ride with Preece in Xfinity Series races at Watkins Glen, Richmond, Dover and Kansas.

Team owner Joe Gibbs also said Sunday night that the plans are for Stanley to be a sole primary sponsor in 2019, likely on the No. 19 of Jones.

5-Hour Energy has been a primary on the No. 78 Furniture Row Toyota featuring 2017 series champion Martin Truex Jr. this season. The company was paired with Jones when he was at Furniture Row in 2017. From 2012-16, 5-Hour was aligned with driver Clint Bowyer.

This weekend’s Cup schedule for Watkins Glen is similar to that at Pocono with two Saturday practices scheduled to be followed by qualifying. That may or may not mean more post-qualifying inspection issues.

Thirteen teams saw their qualifying times tossed out at Pocono due to problems clearing tech after qualifying had been completed.

Credit innovations in vehicle and track safety for allowing Bubba Wallace to walk away from Sunday’s hard Turn 1 crash at Pocono. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver suffered a brake failure on his No. 43 Chevrolet nearing the end of the front straightaway late in the race, shot across the grass inside the Turn 1 entry and then came back across the track to strike the outside wall.

Fortunately, the wall is covered with SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier.

Pocono has installed additional barriers on at least two occasions, most recently in 2017 when more than 5,000 feet was put in place.

Initial studies found the SAFER barrier could reduce lateral g-forces by as much as 75 percent during impact.

Amid struggles, another milestone for Johnson

He’s having a tough go of it these days, riding out the longest winless streak of his career, but Jimmie Johnson will reach another milestone Sunday when the Gander Outdoors 400 gets under way at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.

Johnson, 42, will make his 600th career start in NASCAR’s top series.

He’ll be the 30th driver to reach that marker, part of the one percent that makes up those drivers with 600 or more career Cup starts.

Eleven of the current 29 are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which isn’t to say that running a lot of races is a requirement for Hall consideration.

Unofficially, drivers making their 600th career start haven’t fared extremely well, so the bar’s not been set too high for the Hendrick Motorsports driver this weekend. The average starting position has been roughly 20th and the average finishing position has been just shy of 18th.

It appears that no driver making his (or her) 600th career start has won the pole – the closest was Bill Elliott who qualified No. 2 for the 2000 DieHard 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. In fact, only one other driver, Richard Petty, started inside the top five. The King lined up third in the ’73 Carolina 500 at North Carolina Motor Speedway.

No drivers have won while making career start No. 600 either.

Closest in that category appears to be Darrell Waltrip (third in the ’94 Purolator 500 at Atlanta) and Jeff Gordon (also third, in the 2010 LifeLock.com at Chicagoland Speedway).

Dover has been the site of more drivers (five) making their 600th career start than any other track. If you’re wondering, that’s from a list of 18 tracks, three of which no longer host Cup events.

As for Johnson’s winless streak, it has now reached 43 for the driver of the No. 48.

He’s won 83 times, tied for sixth most in the series with Cale Yarborough; one more and he’ll share fifth place with Waltrip and Bobby Allison.

Along with Petty and Dale Earnhardt, he’s one of only three drivers with seven championships.

Jimmie Johnson has made it all look so easy for so long.

Perhaps he will once again.

A tweak as teams hit the roval at CMS

CONCORD, N.C. – Charlotte Motor Speedway’s “roval” is practically brand-new but the 2.28-mile layout has already had its first facelift.

Nothing major, just a touchup, but enough to bring Tuesday’s open test for Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams to a halt for more than one hour.

“It’s all about keeping everybody honest,” Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing said. “Not bypassing what is supposed to be the racing groove, the racing line.”

That “groove” was along the backstretch, through a chicane near the entrance to Turn 3 that is meant to slow cars down. The initial “rumble strips” weren’t enough to dissuade some from staying on the gas, however, and shooting through the area without losing any speed.

That presented a safety concern for NASCAR and a product concern for Goodyear officials, who developed a tire combination based on speeds and tire wear following two previous tire tests.

After consulting with drivers, crew chiefs, track and NASCAR officials, a consensus was reached. Additional rumble strips were installed as well as a tire barrier just at the exit of the chicane.

The move was expected to slow cars by approximately two seconds, the original plan before drivers discovered the drive-by. Or drive-over.

Teams seemed to be happy. Officials with the track and NASCAR and Goodyear seemed to be happy. Testing resumed. An hour was added to the schedule to make up for the down time.

“It’s the same thing they do at every other road course or street course or whatever,” Newman said. “We’re dealing with SAFER barriers on both sides, which is great, but you don’t want to put up any kind of hard walls over there in a situation like that where we carry 150, 160 mph in a braking zone.

“Putting up the tires and taller than average speed bumps (or) curbing … is in my opinion one of the best ways to do it.”

There was only one incident of note in the morning session – Darrell Wallace (Richard Petty Motorsports No.43 Chevrolet) slid into the tire barrier at the Turn 1 entrance to the road course portion of the layout.

Wallace was not injured, however damage to the car was too significant for the team to continue.

Seventeen teams were scheduled to participate and most, if not all, showed up.

On July 17, the remainder of those competing in the series this year will get their chance on the “roval” during a second open test.

The Bank of America Roval 400 is scheduled for Sept. 30 at CMS.

For Jones, Daytona win was Sonoma fueled

Erik Jones will be in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs in two months and the reason for that is perhaps only partly due to Saturday night’s victory in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

Career win No. 1 for the 22-year-old Jones came in his 57th career start. But he and crew chief Chris Gayle and team owner Joe Gibbs pointed to a recent seventh-place finish at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway as a key to the improved performance of Jones and the No. 20 Toyota team.

Gayle, who had won with Elliott Sadler, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Sam Hornish Jr. and Jones to victories in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, talked afterward about a change in his young driver in recent weeks.

“We went into that (Sonoma) weekend knowing it was going to be tough and we were going to have to battle,” Gayle recounted Saturday night. “And the first 10 laps of that race were pretty tough. It could have gone either way.”

Jones and the team did their best, though, and the result continues to provide benefits.

Confidence bred from that top-10 finish at a track where Jones confessed he felt out of sorts carried over to Chicago, where he finished sixth, and Daytona, where he finished, well, first.

The win didn’t alter the playoff picture – Jones was inside the top 16 in points and with only six different winners thus far, qualifying for the 10-race playoff seemed likely if not certain.

Still, it’s best to have all the boxes checked, so Jones can pencil himself in to the playoff picture and move ahead.

He is the ninth different driver to win a Cup race for Joe Gibbs Racing, joining Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.

At Daytona, he admitted he didn’t circle the race as a potential victory on his calendar.

When his car was damaged in an incident during the second stage and he fell off the lead lap, a win seemed even less likely.

“I didn’t give up at that point, but thought ‘OK, we’ve really go to do our best to salvage a solid day,’” Jones said.

Eventually he had made it back inside the top 15 and then the top 10 and then the top five and “on that last restart, I was like ‘We’ve got a legitimate shot at this point,’” he said.

More than a shot. In the end it was a win.

Still a bit astonished, and disappointed, that there were only 18 cars running at the end of Saturday night’s race. That’s the fewest amount for a Cup race at Daytona since … well, the record is 11, set in July of 1963 so let’s just leave it at that.

They didn’t run restrictor plates back then; the attrition was due to mechanical woes.

Jones’ victory didn’t do a lot to shake up the playoff picture outside of solidifying his own plans – he was 14th in points heading into the race. No new faces moved into or out of the 16-team field and there was only minor movement among those without wins inside the cutoff.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., winner of the first two stages, is four points closer to the cutoff and trails Alex Bowman by 19 while Paul Menard and a few others just inside the top 20 lost significant ground.

The 17 laps led Saturday night by Kasey Kahne weren’t the first for the LFR driver this season – he led 11 laps at Michigan. But the fourth-place finish was the team’s best since former driver Michael McDowell finished fourth in the 2017 Daytona 500.

This week’s races: Camping World Truck, Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup teams will be in Kentucky for a three-day show (Thur.-Sat.). FS1 will have coverage of Thursday’s Truck race while NBCSN will handle Xfinity and Cup events.

A return to Chicago – minus playoff setting

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Chicagoland Raceway this weekend to begin a 10-week run that will wrap up the “regular” season and complete the 16-team playoff field for 2018.

Eight of the 10 races will air on NBCSN as the annual switch in TV partners takes place. Daytona in July and Watkins Glen in August will get the NBC treatment.

All 20 that remain will get the Dale Jr. treatment as Dale Earnhardt Jr. begins his post-driving career with a move to the television booth.

As for Chicagoland, after seven seasons as Stop No. 2 in the 10-race playoffs, the 1.5-mile track’s main event is back to roughly the same spot it held on the schedule its first 10 years – in the heat and the heart of summer.

The September date, meanwhile, has been awarded to Richmond International Raceway.

David Reutimann won the last Cup race contested in July at Chicagoland and his crew chief was Rodney Childers and that’s a name that’s familiar to a lot of folks these days.

Chicago was tabbed the City of the Big Shoulders by Carl Sandburg (no official NASCAR starts), but down by Joliet where the track is actually located, it’s been Martin Truex Jr. carrying the load and winning the races.

He’s won the last two times out at Chicagoland, and it was Denny Hamlin in ’15 and before that Matt Kenseth in ’13 and they all drove Toyotas so we know the brand and perhaps even the driver who should be favored in Sunday’s race, known as the Overton’s 400.

It is not a track that’s been particularly considerate to those who drive Fords – only once has one of their kind been to victory lane and that was in 2014 and that was Brad Keselowski who’s yet to win this season at the Cup level.

Kevin Harvick, on the other hand, has put Ford in victory lane five times this year and he won the first two Cup races here. Those were in Chevrolets and those were for Richard Childress Racing in ’01 and ’02.

The ’01 win was just the second of Harvick’s career and the second of his rookie season. He led 101 of the final 130 laps so it was no gimme.

Robert Pressley’s only career runner-up finish came in that race, by the way, for those who still recall the Ashville, N.C. native and former Xfinity Series regular.

Harvick’s wins this year have come at Atlanta and Las Vegas, Phoenix and Dover and Kansas and three of the five are mile-and-a-half layouts similar to Chicagoland. His overall average finishing position is 8.9. That’s better than good, in case you were wondering.

His crew chief is Childers, by the way, so between the two of them they have three wins at Chicagoland.

Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer has scratched out a pair of wins and Joey Logano (Team Penske) won at Talladega for Ford. But Harvick and his No. 4 team have been the mainstay, the one group that’s been there week after week.

On the Chevrolet front, Jimmie Johnson has led more laps (695) at the track and has more poles (two) than any other active driver so maybe if there’s a time and a place for the seven-time champion to snap out of his 39-race funk it’s this weekend at Chicagoland. Given recent results, that might qualify as a surprise.

There are only two 1.5-mile stops, Chicago and Kentucky, until the field of 16 is set and the rest are made up of big tracks (Daytona, Pocono, Michigan and Indy), another road course (Watkins Glen), a short track (Bristol) and a short-tempered track (Darlington).

Certainly, that would seem to open the door for a number of possibilities, but we’ve gotten this far on a steady diet of few winners so who can say for sure?

Sandburg’s piece begins:

“Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler …”

Nowhere does it say anything about parity in NASCAR.

Sonoma can’t slow big three domination

Six winners in 16 races and the guess here is that the topic of the week between Sonoma and Chicago will be why have there not been more folks in the winner’s circle this year in NASCAR’s top series.

Chances are, those fortunate few who may sneak into the Monster Energy Cup Series playoffs later this fall aren’t up in arms about the lack of diversity in victory lane. Quite the opposite. They likely breathed a sigh of relief as they began the long trip back home Sunday evening.

Each different winner bumps out a potential points player and if you’re riding the fence from a points standpoint, 10 available spots looks a lot better than say six or eight.

Sixteen drivers and teams will qualify, either by winning one or more of the first 26 points races or by virtue of points should there be fewer than 16 different winners.

At this rate, the chance of there being 16 different winners ranks up there with the Archies making a comeback.

The series has now hit all the different layouts, from superspeedways to a road course and everything in between. From hairpins to clothespins, restrictor plates to dinner plates. There’s a roval later in the year and it’s part road course, part oval and entirely suspicious.

No surprises remain for the regular season, though.

Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch and Sunday’s winner Martin Truex Jr. have combined to win 12 of this year’s first 16 races and the three are making a good case for reservations in the championship round in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway later this year.

The thing is, it’s a table for four and nobody’s really stepped up and said that fourth chair belongs to them.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves …

By this point a year ago we had a dozen different winners, the year before that there were 11 and 11 the year before that one, too. You’d have to go back a ways, the ‘70s or so, to find a year with as few or fewer winners during the season’s first half.

Fords and Toyotas have dominated in ’18 and there’s little reason to believe that will change to any great degree as the season begins the slow roll into its annual summer stretch.

Chevrolet teams are still trying to sort through the Camaro ZL-1 and aside from a last-lap pass that put Austin Dillon’s name on the Harley J. Earl trophy for winning the Daytona 500 back in February, the automaker hasn’t had anything else to crow about this year. “We’re No. 3” has a hollow ring to it.

Rather than be disturbed by the lack of variety in victory lane, I think it’s been impressive that three different organizations – Stewart-Haas Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing – have continued to slug it out week after week.

Their three drivers will be favored, as they should be, when the series arrives in Chicago later this week, but maybe somebody else will finally step out of the clutter and grab the spotlight.

Clint Bowyer’s a likely candidate, a two-race winner that any other season would be considered practically a shoo-in for title contention.

And that may be the case yet. Bowyer, 39, is enjoying another breakout season 11 years after his first.

It should come as no surprise that Harvick and Busch and Truex have been those who have nearly won when they failed to win – they’ve finished second eight times combined to lead that category, too.

So not only are they dominating the top spot, but they’re also dominating the next one.

Another possible contender, Kyle Larson, has been runner-up three times and the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has won more races since the start of ’17 than anyone else driving for Chevrolet, including seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson.

Among this year’s winless, Larson is considered by many as the best bet to wind up in the winner’s circle.

Unless the likes of Harvick and Busch and Truex cool off, however, it seems everyone else is racing for second. Well, third actually.

Sonoma stop often a memorable one

There will be mentions of wine country and likely a nod to nearby Vallejo, Calif., talk of elevation changes and ringers and other oddities not usually associated with NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series.

It’s race week in Sonoma and the series’ first road course stop always brings out the predictable as well as the unexpected.

Mention Sonoma Raceway, site of Sunday’s Toyota Save Mart 350, and more than the region’s wineries come to mind.

It’s a track that’s been on the schedule since 1989, coming on board just a year after the demise of Riverside International Raceway, another road course located just down the coast.

Sonoma’s track length is a shade under two miles and the layout includes a dozen turns or so – few of which are remotely similar.

It is a track where the brown grass occasionally catches fire after contact from the hot exhaust of a stalled race car.

“Tower, we’ve got a grass fahr over here by the carousel.”

That’s not something you often hear on the scanner at your local NASCAR venue.

It’s where Kyle Busch, barely a few months removed from what could have been a career-ending injury or worse, returned to victory lane with a vengeance and so much to prove. Winning at Sonoma and then winning it all in 2015.

Remember 2011? The image of Tony Stewart’s car, its’ rear end stuck high atop a tire barrier and going nowhere fast, hasn’t faded. Red Bull Racing’s Brian Vickers probably hasn’t forgotten the incident either. Or what led to it.

A year before that it was Marcos Ambrose seemingly on his way to career win No. 1 in the series. Until the engine stalled in his JTG-Daugherty Racing Toyota while Ambrose was trying to save gas, handing the win to Jimmie Johnson less than 10 laps from the checkered flag.

It remains the only road-course win for Johnson, who has piled up 82 victories elsewhere.

In 2007, Juan Pablo Montoya won at Sonoma for his first Cup victory, giving car owner Chip Ganassi his first series win since ’02. The guy he beat, Jamie McMurray, had been the last Ganassi winner. It was an early charge and a late pass – Montoya qualified 32nd and after slicing through the field, took the lead for the final time with seven laps remaining.

There have been others – Robby Gordon beating Jeff Gordon and igniting criticism from the runner-up for passing another driver under caution; Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace and how they could sling those heavy old cars through the turns and come out dusty but unscathed.

Folks such as Rudd and Wallace and Terry Labonte rose to the top when racing on the road courses was endured but not particularly enjoyed by most competitors. The Sonoma race, and Watkins Glen a bit later in the summer, were nothing more than bumps on the way to determining the season’s champion.

A win at that time didn’t guarantee a spot in the playoffs because there were no playoffs. A bad race at Sonoma wasn’t seen as an opportunity lost. More of those were still to come and on far more forgiving layouts.

Today? A win can get you in the playoffs and road-course racing is no longer considered an oddity. The mile-and-a-halves still dominate the series’ schedule but today’s racers are much more agreeable when it comes to turning left and right.

Some are as talented as those who dominated in years past; others simply do the best they can and move on. I suppose nothing, other than the names, has really changed.

As for Vallejo, well, that’s the one-time hometown of Jeff Gordon, the four-time series champ and 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame member.

it’s hard to think of Vallejo, by the way, and not recall former driver Sterling Marlin pronouncing it Valley-joe in his unique Tennessee drawl.

Gordon could wheel a car around Sonoma with uncanny precision and when he finally stepped away he had five career wins and 18 top 10s in 23 starts. His fans were left with just as many memories.

Others have stepped up in recent years. Guys such as Busch and last year’s winner Kevin Harvick. Kurt Busch, Kyle’s older brother, and teammate Clint Bowyer, too.

Then there are a host of drivers who have yet to lead a single lap at Sonoma, much less win. But they’re a talented lot and opportunities are often just around the next turn.

And at Sonoma, turns aren’t exactly in short supply.

Digesting Bowyer’s win, other MIS notes

Clint Bowyer now has two Cup wins in 2018 and no doubt that feels pretty good after going winless for five years and 190 races.

The 39-year-old needs one more victory to equal his career best – his only three-win season to date came in 2012 with victories at Sonoma, Richmond and Charlotte while driving for the now defunct Michael Waltrip Racing.

Overall, Bowyer’s now won at seven of the 23 tracks hosting Cup Series points races.

And he’s tied with Alabama Gang member Donnie Allison and two-time Daytona 500 champ Sterling Marlin with 10 victories. Talk about a trio …

Both wins for Bowyer this year involved races impacted by weather – the STP 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway ran in its entirety on a Monday after a snowstorm hit the region; Sunday’s race made it to lap 133 before rain returned and officials ended the race.

It was the first rain-shortened Cup win since Chris Buescher won at Pocono in 2016.

Stewart-Haas Racing, home of Bowyer and Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola, has won seven of this season’s 15 points races. That’s a high-water mark for the organization. Six wins on multiple occasions but never seven. It’s unlikely that the group is finished winning for the year.

The 1-2-3 sweep by SRH (Bowyer, Harvick, Busch) at MIS was also a first for the organization.

Some folks say no single group has swept the top 3 spots in a race since 2008 when Roush Fenway Racing did it. That was the Dover playoff race and the top three were Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.

It also happened earlier that year, in Bristol, when Jeff Burton, Harvick and Bowyer finished 1-2-3 for Richard Childress Racing in the Food City 500.

And there was the Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Ricky Craven 1-2-3 finish in the 1997 Daytona 500 for Hendrick Motorsports.

So, it happens every now and then.

Ford teams led all but 12 laps Sunday. Chevrolet teams led the dozen Ford didn’t and Toyota, for just the second time this season, failed to lead a lap.

Kasey Kahne led 11 laps for Leavine Family Racing and that’s the most laps led in a race, and an entire season, since the organization debuted in 2011.

The view from afar was a bit confusing Sunday when NASCAR chose not to open pit road in an effort to end Stage 1 under green-flag conditions.

NASCAR closes pit road two laps before the end of each stage. It appeared the field was coming to what would have been two to go when Kenseth had his issue.

The caution flag waved, but the pits were closed and stayed that way until a one-lap, green-flag run was completed to end the stage. I don’t know that NASCAR has ever thrown the yellow, then closed pit road until going back to green. Maybe it’s happened before …

With stage and a playoff point up for grabs, though, I would have liked to have seen what crew chiefs would have done has NASCAR not closed pit road and left that option on the table.

As for the “split field” at the end of the race … fortunately, the issue of half the field coming to pit road and the other half staying on the track as the rain started to fall didn’t impact the finishing order.

It just looked messy. And for a race ending in the rain, that’s really not much of a surprise.