SONOMA, Calif. — Marcos Ambrose had his first career Sprint Cup victory in sight when a late caution threw a roadblock into his path. Then his own bizarre gaffe cost him the win.
Ambrose stalled his engine while trying to conserve gas late in Sunday's Toyota/SaveMart 350 race at Infineon Raceway, where his car came to a stop while leading with six laps remaining. He restarted and tried to reclaim his position at the front of the field, but NASCAR ordered him back to seventh place and Jimmie Johnson inherited the lead.
Johnson then cruised to his first career road-course win, while Ambrose finished sixth.
"My bad," the Australian said. "I'm disappointed. It's NASCAR's house, and I'll always play by the rules. I don't agree with it, I don't like it and that's only because I lost the race because of it. I had the motor turned off trying to save a bit of fuel and just had trouble getting it fired again."
It was yet another cruel defeat for Ambrose, a road-racing ace who has fallen short of victory several times. He was spun by Robby Gordon while leading a Nationwide race at Montreal in 2007, and last year he was passed by Carl Edwards in the final turn at the same track. Although he has two Nationwide wins on the road course at Watkins Glen, N.Y., he's winless in the Cup series despite three top-threes in five career road-course races.
"I feel bad for him," said Johnson, who leaped from sixth to second in the points standings. "It was definitely a gift kind of handed to us."
The four-time defending series champion won for the fourth time this year but first since Bristol in March, a 10-race drought.
More important for Johnson was adding a road-course victory to his resume and knocking Sonoma off the list of five active Cup tracks where he had never been to Victory Lane.
Road-course racing has never been Johnson's strength in NASCAR. He went into Sunday with an average finish of 17th at Sonoma, which caused him to enter two Grand-Am races in an attempt to gain extra practice at making right and left turns.
"I grew up racing off-road trucks, made a name for myself in that style of racing," Johnson said. "To come into the Cup series and not have success early irritated me. That's why today is so special to us, why it has meant so much."
Although Johnson led 55 of the 110 laps, it was Ambrose's race to lose at the end.
Ambrose, who led 35 laps, had a comfortable lead over Johnson when Brad Keselowski's spin brought out the late caution. Instructed by crew chief Frank Kerr to conserve fuel, Ambrose began flipping his motor on and off at various spots on the track.
Unable to get it restarted at one point, his Toyota stalled and Johnson led a handful of cars around him. NASCAR ruled Ambrose failed to "maintain reasonable speed" and dropped him to seventh.
Kerr said he understood the ruling, but replied, "No comment," when asked if he was "content" with it.
"When you look at (Ambrose) coming to a stop, I think it really eliminates the gray area or the discussion of, 'What is a reasonable speed?' " Johnson said.
Robby Gordon finished second and series points leader Kevin Harvick was third.