Ryan: Three thoughts on Sunday’s race at Sonoma

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1 – Chad Knaus can call strategy: Put aside the finish of Sunday’s race for a moment: If not for the caution from a bizarre axle failure involving Casey Mears, Jimmie Johnson had a hammerlock on his second win at Sonoma courtesy of a daring call by Chad Knaus.

A point arrived a few years ago where Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief threw his hands up during a race and said (sprinkling in a few expletives) that he had lost his tactical muse. But Knaus absolutely has regained his pit-box mojo this season. With many predicting tire wear could turn Sonoma into at least a three-stop race, Knaus calmly played his cards perfectly and kept Johnson on two stops. It helped the No. 48 Chevrolet had blazing speed throughout the weekend, but it still took moxie to choose a divergent strategy from the rest of the contenders.

It was reminiscent of Knaus’ gutsy moves that resulted in wins at Kansas and Dover (in both cases, keeping Johnson in the lead on old tires during a late caution instead of pitting). Perhaps it’s rooted in the aggressive freedom afforded a guaranteed Chase for the Sprint Cup berth, but it must be a boon to Knaus’ confidence to know his decision-making is making a difference by keeping Johnson in position to win on a weekly basis instead of negating strong cars.

2 – Tire barriers can be effective: They mostly have been downplayed as stopgap safety measures as tracks scrambled to erect SAFER barriers in the wake of the injuries suffered by Kyle Busch in a crash into an unprotected wall at Daytona International Speedway. But Sunday’s race at Sonoma (which Busch happened to win in the fifth race of his return) showed tire walls can be effective in helping protect drivers.

David Gilliland emerged unscathed after a heavy impact with a barrier because of a flat tire exiting the esses, and Carl Edwards and David Ragan also had their ricochets off a concrete wall cushioned by a mountain of radials. Though crashing into the tires can create a mess (necessitating a red flag for cleanup in the Edwards-Ragan incident), it’s worth the tradeoff if it prevents injuries.

3 – Tire management is entertaining: Aside from the obvious right turns and elevation changes, the most striking difference about Sunday’s race occurred at the front. Unlike this season’s aerodynamically dominated events on speedways, where the leader often has been impervious to being challenged, track position wasn’t the overwhelming storyline at Sonoma.

With tire degradation playing a critical role in handling, drivers with faster cars and fresher rubber could overtake at the front – even in the limited passing areas of the 1.99-mile track. The constant battles for position were a refreshing change of pace and offered a glimpse of what the action on 1.5-mile ovals could be, provided NASCAR lands on a more optimum rules package.