By Nate Ryan, USA TODAY
SONOMA, Calif. -- With the front end of the No. 88 Chevrolet shredded and its left rear mangled, Dale Earnhardt Jr. stopped in the garage and tossed his steering wheel on the dashboard.
A crash with two laps left in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 cost NASCAR's most popular driver a shot at his first top-10 finish on the Sonoma road course, but that wasn't the only reason for Earnhardt's frustration.
"I'm this mad because we didn't run better," said Earnhardt, who finished 23rd after starting 19th. "We're better than this. I've run better here. We weren't good all weekend. We've got to put a better car on the racetrack.
"I ain't the best road-course racer out there, but I can damn sure do better than that. I've got to pick up the race car a little bit. That's on my shoulders (and) this whole team to do that. We just have to do a better job."
In the wake of ending a 143-race winless streak at Michigan International Speedway, Earnhardt entered Sonoma with the realistic expectations. He and crew chief Steve Letarte both said this week they would be satisfied with a top 10.
Despite struggling with his car's handling in practice and the race, that goal still was attainable on a green-white-checkered finish. Earnhardt restarted 13th with fresher tires than the top 10 cars.
But a traffic jam in Turn 3 resulted in Earnhardt spinning after contact with Jeff Burton's Chevy.
"We got run into coming over (Turn) 3," Earnhardt said. "We didn't have real good speed in the race. We hung around and were going to finish in the top 15, and the green-white checkered, there's going to be some victims on that deal. I was the one today.
"(Burton) got into me, but I think he had people pushing him. Everybody just runs into each other on them deals. Me and Jeff ran around each other all day. I've raced him before, he's a good driver as far as respect."
"If it'd been somebody else getting wrecked at the end, maybe we'd have finished top 10.
Clean and green
The caution flag flew twice, setting a record low in 24 Sprint Cup races at Sonoma (the previous mark was three yellows in four races, most recently in 2002).
It was a surprising development considering some drivers had labeled Sonoma as the most rough-and-tumble track on the circuit. Runner-up Tony Stewart said he wouldn't have predicted the lack of mayhem, "but I was happy about it. It was a fun race because the field is typically so tight, and there are so many corners that you go from high speed to really low speed on entry that once you're about the fourth or fifth row back on a restart, if you can just find an empty spot, you can gain some easy spots.
"Unfortunately that's what leads to guys trying to take advantage of that, and it puts a lot of guys in bad positions. So not having all of those cautions made it fun because you could actually race guys one-on-one a lot vs. having to worry about getting those big packs and having to worry about whether you're going to get run over "
Kurt Busch said a new tire that had more wear might have helped separate the cars and led to fewer cautions.
"It was a tire designed to give you speed in the beginning and then drop off," he said. "Maybe that helped us all get strung out. (It) felt like a genuine gentleman's road race, but I wasn't in the back."
Cautions also have decreased on ovals in the first 16 races this season.
"That's been the thing this year," Earnhardt said. "I wasn't surprised. That's just been the way the season's been going."
Running the 24 Hours of Le Mans last week apparently was a good warmup for Brian Vickers, who finished fourth in his third start this season.
"The stuff I learned this summer in Europe, racing the sports cars at LeMans, I think helped me," said Vickers, who is running an eight-race schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing this year. "But it also took me a few runs to get back to the heavy car, no traction control, a lot of horsepower."