You don't get many chances in life to win a race at the highest level, and when you do, you can't miss a single trick. It's extraordinarily tough to get to the front of the pack, but sadly, it's all too easy to surrender that lead.
Marcos Ambrose, the Aussie tornado, was well on his way to his first win at the Sprint Cup level, leading the field and looking dominant at the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway. But during a late caution, while trying to save fuel during a caution, the unthinkable happened:
In an attempt to save fuel, Ambrose was shutting his engine on and off. But then he stalled out on an uphill, and surrendered half a dozen places to the field. No big deal, right? We're under caution, everybody shuffles back into position, we get ready to go green — wait, what? Those positions are gone? You can only imagine the gut-punch that Ambrose and his crew must have felt at that moment.
NASCAR determined that Ambrose had "failed to maintain speed," and thus deserved to be rotated back in the pack. Ambrose, for his part, tried to be contrite:
"My bad," Ambrose later said. "Just feel really disappointed. Might not like the call, but it is what it is. I know the rule. It's a judgment call."
Thing is, the rule is a wee bit flexible in its application. Most observers immediately pointed to the 2007 Kansas race where Greg Biffle ran out of gas on the final lap, and was passed by Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer. But Biffle got the win anyway.
What's the difference between that event and this one? NASCAR Sprint Cup series director John Darby offered an explanation that is the very definition of splitting hairs: Biffle's car continued moving, Darby said, and the cars behind him sped up to pass.
Which is all well and good, but take a look again at where Ambrose stopped — on an uphill. If this had been an oval course, Ambrose could have kept moving just fine. Moreover, Ambrose simply stalled out; he got the car refired within seconds.
You can make the case that both rulings were correct, but you'd better stretch to do so, because it's a nice little contortion. (Let's not even get into the 2008 Michigan race where Dale Earnhardt Jr. passed the pace car under caution while trying to save fuel.)
Let's get this straight — NASCAR didn't steal a win away from Ambrose. He didn't need to be saving fuel as much as he did, and he certainly didn't need to be trying a maneuver like that on an uphill slope. He also had a restart against Jimmie Johnson coming up, and there's no guarantee that he would have won that.
But by once again making a ruling that favors the big dog over the little guy, NASCAR has perpetuated the perception of favoritism.