Restart rule reenergizes Sonoma

When I was in fifth grade, Jason Dunn was the undisputed coolest kid in Macy McClaugherty School. Why? His mamma had bought him a red leather jacket with zippers and straps galore -- just like Michael's. From that moment, the rest of the shaggy-haired country boys had no shot at wooing Lindsay Hendrix. Michael Jackson flipped the script. I couldn't have grown up farther away from that man or more differently, and he certainly seemed to be a troubled man. But like he did on most folks in my generation and the one before it, he had a profound effect on me through his work.

His music was groundbreaking in 1972 and 1982. It will be so in 2082.


I used to hate road courses. They were nothing but single-file parades. But I couldn't make myself change the channel last Sunday. Sonoma was pretty good. What the [heck] changed?

-- Zack Cryder, Zephyrhills, Fla.

Double-file restarts changed, Zack. As a result, Sonoma was the best race of the year. Period.

I've long been a road course advocate. I was Sonoma before Sonoma was cool. But if you'd told me in February that a road course would provide the season's best, most furious action, I'd have responded NASCAR-style: "Do what?"

There was an added sense of urgency about Sunday's race. Road courses in the past quickly settled into a rhythm and the leader invariably checked out, the benefactor of a clean track. Especially at Sonoma. Watkins Glen offers several more passing zones than the tighter, more technical Infineon course.

But the double-file wrinkle Sunday bunched up the field all day long, making for instances like Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch, and Marcos Ambrose's hell-bent march to the front. And, of course, Kasey Kahne's duel with Tony Stewart.

NASCAR does some hairbrained stuff at times. We all know that and are quick to criticize. I do it. Weekly. But NASCAR is right a lot, too. Difference is, we tend to overlook the positive for lack of the dramatic. This positive created the dramatic.

And the best part? It was the result of NASCAR's willingness to listen to what the fans wanted.

I've said this before: The best thing that came out of the "town hall meeting" was the fact that NASCAR held it at all. Suddenly, it's willing to listen. The sport will benefit from that.

It already has, obviously. Sonoma stands as proof.


Kasey Kahne fans have waited a long time for that win, and the way the year has gone many of us didn't think it would happen. It seems like a lot of the other writers didn't believe it either. Were you as shocked as we were? You know Kasey, so you may have expected this more than others. Did you?

-- Kristine Zallamydia, near Enumclaw, Wash.

The simple answer is yes, Kristine. In context, I'm surprised Kahne won the race. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, save maybe Kahne himself.

It's not that Kahne's effort is baffling by any means. It's context. The victory was meaningful on so many levels for so many people, but the reason it's so surprising is the very reason Kahne is so dang proud of it. He told me midweek that it's the most gratified he's ever felt as a racer, being an oval guy and outgunning the road course elite. He beat the master at his own trade. It would have been impressive for Kahne to fend off Stewart on one of those restarts. But five? Awesome.


My husband and I are from Johnny Benson's hometown and are huge fans of his. We're still upset with Red Horse for dumping him. But now we're more worried about his health. Do you have any updates for us on how Johnny is doing? Will he race again this year?

-- Mary Hilton, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Benson is healing slowly, Mary. I spoke to him this week as he rode to lunch with his daughters. He's not driving just yet. His list of injuries is insane: three broken ribs on the left side; broken left scapula; broken collarbones, both, at the sternum; broken right wrist; bruised left lung. He just got a cast on his right hand. He's uncertain just yet whether he'll require surgery on his shoulder.

He said the lung seems to be the biggest issue, because its healing is so indefinite.

"It's near the top of the worst wrecks I've ever had," he said with his trademark chuckle. "It's in the top two, for sure. That Richmond one was pretty bad, and this one was pretty bad, too. They both rank up there.

"We went into the corner, and I went on the outside of another car and he had turned to the bottom, and I was just going to roll to the outside of him. He got a little loose or pushed up or something and slid up the track just a little bit. I basically ran him over. I was doing probably 15 mph faster than he was. We hit wheels, and cars spun in the air, and I driver's-side-doored it into the wall."

Benson's spirits are quite high for such an awful wreck. As he's up walking around, he's content, sort of.

"Bones and muscles will heal. I'm not worried about that," he said. "The [healing] time aspect of it isn't very fun. I'm really looking forward to getting back in a race car; just don't know when that's going to be. Time will be the essence of that.

"It drives me crazy. Any racer wants to be back in the car tomorrow if they could. I don't think physically I could right now. Do I think in two weeks I could? I think physically I could probably drive it. But what happens is, if [another wreck] happened, I would be in a bad scenario.

"I've just got to let things heal. When they feel I'm ready, and I feel ready, they'll release me. Of course I have to find a ride first. I'm optimistic about that. Being a past champion and as well I've run the past few years, it shouldn't be much of an issue."

Hey Martdog,

Why does Joe Nemechek continue to pull himself out of his car when Scott Speed doesn't qualify, so Speed can drive his car? Is it strictly because of what Red Bull pays him to do that or is there something more there?

-- Casey, New Springfield, Ohio

Excellent question, Casey. I spoke to him about this for you, and he explained to me that ultimately, it's about money. Had he had sponsorship for the Sonoma race, he'd have been in the car. Period.

But since he didn't have a sponsor and therefore had no obligations to anyone but himself, he handed the ride to Speed. Here's why: Red Bull Racing was integral in helping Nemechek build his team. He decided two weeks before Daytona he'd try it, and Red Bull sold him cars, part and pieces.

Nemechek also has a close relationship with Red Bull GM Jay Frye, as well as Ryan Pemberton, crew chief for the No. 83 Toyota. Frye ran MB2 Motorsports when Nemechek drove the No. 01 Army car. His crew chief back then? Pemberton.

Moreover, he's run Sonoma 14 times. Speed had never run it. He needed the seat time. Nemechek made a little money on the deal, too, but he said it's not about that.

Great question, again, Casey. I found all of that to be quite interesting.


Who do you think Brad [Keselowski] will be racing Cup with in 2010, [Stewart-Haas Racing] or JR Motorsports? Do you think JR Motorsports will move to Cup in 2010?

-- Lisa in Morristown, Tenn.

He's definitely thinking about it, Lisa. Kelley Earnhardt told me in an e-mail this week that JRM is in the process of funding its Nationwide Series teams for 2010, while contemplating the opportunity to move to Cup as well. She told me they're running budgets and models to determine whether Cup is the right move at this time. If they do choose to field a Cup car in 2010, though, the decision must be made in short order, if they hope to be properly prepared for competition.


A lot of open wheel drivers have driven in NASCAR with varied success. Which NASCAR driver do you think could move to open wheel and have success?

-- Greg Stubbs, Cumming, Ga.

Simple, Greg. Juan Pablo. He already has won in every type of open wheel car, anyway.

I think I know what you mean -- I answered this question for you on television and don't think I "got it" until later, when the "read the question again, idiot" e-mails started to flow. Which traditional stock car guy would excel in open wheel? Several would, given time. Johnson. Gordon. Kahne. Both Busch boys. Does Stewart count? He's already an IRL champ. Robby Gordon? Hornish? I'm probably naive, but I feel like a lot of our guys would do well over there.

Hi Marty,

My question is -- what do you think of [Richard Childress Racing] possibly going with two cars next year because of sponsorship issues? Are the sponsors all that questionable in NASCAR now because of economic woes?

-- Irene, hometown unknown

Richard Childress Racing will run at least three cars in 2010, Irene. Three of its cars already are fully funded for 2010. The only question mark is the No. 07, which currently is in a renewal stage with Jack Daniel's.


I read your D2D two weeks ago about why Ryan Newman is so much better this year. It's none of what you said as to why he's running up front. It's the paint job on the car, old-school Earnhardt look, 1994ish. I was 12. Man, I miss him. At least Mark is back. Tell Hendrick to do an old-school Valvoline scheme for Mark.

-- Joe, hometown unknown

No question, Joe. That 39 sure does look familiar, although the team tells me it's coincidence.

That's my time this week. Off to Virginia to see Gran. She turned 95 this week, and she's still stronger'n Ajax.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.