NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2008 Fontana Spring Race Recap

The Key Moment: Carl Edwards took the green flag third on the final restart behind Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. He made quick work of Gordon, then set sail after Johnson, finally overtaking the No. 48 car with 13 laps to go. From that point forward, Edwards took off into the sunset on cruise control.

In a Nutshell: Waiting that long for a race that bad isn’t going to improve fans’ moods any.

Dramatic Moment: When Johnson leapt out to a big lead on that final restart, there was some question as to whether Edwards had time enough to catch him. He did.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

Why was the race allowed to start with water still seeping up through the track, dirt all over the place, and oil dry kicking up in thick clouds? (Thanks, Michael Waltrip!) Yes, the network and fans wanted to get the race in – but safety has to be an overriding priority. Brian France said prior to this season that the post-race discussion would be about the racing, not the off-track issues. Yeah, good luck getting around that this week. Despite NASCAR’s assurances (parroted by FOX) that the drivers all said the track was ready to go prior to the abortive first attempt at racing, Kevin Harvick and several others broke the party line and said they protested the track was still wet before the green flag dropped.

BOWLES: CALIFORNIA JOKE PUTS NASCAR PASSION TO TEST

Honestly, I don’t know who made the call to try to restart the race at 2 a.m. ET. But whoever it was, nobody has stubbornly ignored more disaster since Pharaoh refused to let Moses and his people go despite a plethora of plagues.

For the record, the weather in Rockingham, N.C. Sunday (where the second race of the season used to be held) was partly cloudy, topping out at a high of 51 degrees with no precipitation. However, it’s doubtful that Tom Cruise would have showed up in the Carolinas to try to convert Gordon and Johnson to Scientology.

FOX couldn’t wait to announce that ratings for all the Speedweeks events at Daytona were up slightly. Well, I can’t wait to see this week’s ratings. My guess is half the TV sets on the East Coast that tuned in when racing resumed were triggered by restive housecats accidentally treading on the remote.

I’m not sure where all that side-by-side racing was that the FOX team claimed was taking place this weekend — unless it was the drivers in their golf carts trying to get back to the motor coach lot around 11:00 p.m. PT last night. To me, the racing looked fairly similar as with the “old model.” Gordon’s Chevy was dominant when he led the race; but once that car got behind, the No. 24 couldn’t pass hardly at all when mired in traffic. That sounds remarkably like the same old story to me; the car up front always seemed to have the advantage, while the ones behind the leader struggled with grip on the front end. The only exception would come with a dominant car like Edwards, who could drop by a ways and make a hasty pass at a track as wide as California with clean air on the nose.

Bottom line, passing was at a premium once again at this 2-mile facility. When the cars were on fresh tires, there was the usual wild scrambling just after the restarts – but then the field got strung out. If this is the sort of racing we’re going to see in 2008, it’s going to be a long season.

Does it seem that Tony Stewart is going out of his way not to mention his car is a “Toyota” the first few weeks of this season? It’s the “Home Depot Car” or “my car;” but if he’s used the word Toyota yet during a TV interview after or during a race… I’ve missed it.

The whole Robby Gordon penalty issued after the Daytona 500 has me scratching my head. On one level, it does seem like an honest mistake. Gordon switched from Ford to Dodge at the last moment prior to the season, so perhaps some bumbling warehouse worker with a rush order did indeed send the team the wrong nose. Either way, since the error was caught prior to any competitive racing, I can’t see any advantage gained, so perhaps a 100-point, $100,000 penalty is a little over the top. (In comparison, that’s the same penalty the No. 55 team got last year for doctoring their fuel, which was clearly an attempt to gain a competitive advantage post-inspection). I never thought I’d be in the position of defending Robby Gordon; but hey, this time send me the petition and I’ll sign it.

But here’s what’s really got me confused. With the new “Car of Tomorrow” bodywork, aren’t all the noses on all four makes supposed to be the exact same? If that’s the case, why then would Dodge be developing a new nose for 2008 – a nose said to be submitted to NASCAR for approval? What was the issue, an unapproved set of headlight decals? I don’t get it. And Robby might be playing the violin a little too loud saying that the penalty endangers the future of his team. Here’s an easy fix, Rob; go to that Gillett dude and tell him you need another few zillion bucks. In the end, he may need to, for my guess is that the appeals board will rule against Gordon; and when it does, they might recall his bizarre and violent behavior after taking out Marcos Ambrose in the Montreal Busch Series race last August.

PUGLIESE: CAR OF TOMORROW PROVIDING PARITY TODAY

Rain at a racetrack is never pleasant; but as long as races are held out of doors, there’s no preventing the occasional bout of lousy weather. Over the years, NASCAR has spent a lot of time and talent trying to perfect ways to dry racetracks, if even a small window of opportunity presents itself. Unfortunately, at the racetrack formerly known as the California Speedway a real challenge did present itself. While track drying efforts were monumental on Friday, the track officials’ best efforts were hampered by what’s known as “weepers,” cracks in the track that allow water to rise up from the ground below onto the racing surface. NASCAR could park a jet dryer aimed right at one of those weepers; but given water’s inherent ability to find the path of least resistance, their drying was all in vain. The last racetrack to feature such weepers was Texas way back in 1998; and after that problem became clear, an incensed Bill France told track owner Bruton Smith to fix the track or risk losing his race date. Well, considering that precedent it ought to be interesting to see what NASCAR tells the ISC to do with their own track – an order which amounts to the France family talking to themselves.

The CoT is admittedly a work in progress, but some new issues seem to arrive each time those ugly mutts of racecars are trotted out. It seems that each car must be rebodied or at least heavily tweaked after each event, because the normal flexing of the chassis during a race distorts the cars’ bodies to the point they will no longer meet the stringent templates applied to them before each race. And while the less aerodynamic bodies were supposed to slow the cars down, testing at Fontana and Vegas saw several drivers able to flatfoot it around the track. That resulted in speeds peaking at or over 210 mph Monday down the front straightaway; that’s 10 mph higher than the figure NASCAR has told us they’ll allow a car to go airborne in a wreck. Whoops; now, I’m having nightmares of restrictor plates being required at any track longer than a half-mile in length by season’s end.

You have to wonder if right about now the folks at Nationwide – the new title sponsor of NASCAR’s AAA level product formerly known as the Busch Series – are wondering what they bought into. The track set to host the second race of the Nationwide Series announced this week they’ve sold naming rights to the joint, creating the Auto Club of Southern California Speedway. Now, those dear friends at the Auto Club would like to sell race fans on, well, um, car insurance. And for the record Allstate, another provider of auto insurance, is the “Official Insurance Company of NASCAR.” That’s not including GEICO, either, who is one of the leading advertisers during FOX race broadcasts. But then again, that’s the NASCAR way; take money from ’em all, and let them sort it out later amongst themselves.

If they call Las Vegas “Glitter Gulch,” maybe they ought to call Fontana “Litter Gulch.”

Is there something peculiar to the Toyotas that makes them more susceptible to overheating than the other makes when the grilles get blocked?

You just know when it rains in California, a lot of folks are suddenly going to remember the “groovy” AM radio hit “It Never Rains in Southern California.” But a bar full of my fellow imbibers was unable to recall the artist who sang that lame little ditty so I looked it up, it’s Albert Hammond. He’s got no known relationship to Jeff Hammond, in case you’re wondering – but both are equally annoying nonetheless.

Honest to God, one more word about that stupid gopher cam in the pre-race show and I was would have launched a size 9 1/2 workboot through the TV screen!

This week’s warning from Darrell Waltrip’s sponsor Just For Men hair coloring: Warning: Continued use may make your head look like a Chia Pet.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was simply along for the ride when his teammate Casey Mears hit a slick spot, caromed off the wall and slammed into the side of the No. 88. Earnhardt had some rather pointed words for NASCAR after that wreck; for a moment there, he almost sounded like his old man.

Before the Junior/Mears incident, Denny Hamlin was the first driver to provide graphic documentation that cars with slick tires shouldn’t race on wet racetracks.

Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman led this race briefly and was still running second when his car lost control enough to slap the outside wall.

Waltrip had an engine oil line come loose prior to the green flag on Sunday night, then backed his car into the wall on Monday as he matched the ineptitude of his “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” squad during their second season of competition.

Dale Jarrett‘s retirement tour is going about as well as DW’s.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Jeff Gordon had the engine in his Chevy expire just as the yellow flag flew on the final lap of the race; still able to coast it home, he finished third.

Matt Kenseth was forced to the pits early in the race with a car that was overheating due to trash on the grille. He lost a lap in the process, and with the amount of water the car spit out, it seemed unlikely the engine would survive 500 miles. But the parts and pieces endured, and Kenseth staged a furious comeback to finish fifth in the race.

After an agonizing Daytona 500, it had to feel good for Ford and Jack Roush to score a dominant win at Fontana. Roush watched all four of his five cars finish inside the top 15.

After a frustrating 2007 season, an 11th-place finish was a second straight solid run to start 2008 for Brian Vickers and Team Red Bull.

Nobody wants to end up wrecked 40 miles into a 500-mile race, but both Mears and Sam Hornish Jr. were lucky to walk away from the tail end of Mears’s violent wreck. Hornish slammed the outside wall, was unable to stop, and pushed hard into the still-spinning car of Mears, causing the No. 5 car to overturn while Hornish’s engine caught fire.

Worth Noting

  • Edwards’s win was the fourth consecutive Fontana spring race triumph for Jack Roush (Greg Biffle won in 2005, followed by Kenseth in 2006 and ’07).
  • The top-10 finishers competed in two Fords, four Chevys, two Dodges and a pair of Toyotas.
  • Regan Smith‘s 31st-place finish was the best by a Rookie of the Year candidate at Fontana.
  • Edwards won for the first time since Dover last fall.
  • Jeff Gordon has top-10 finishes in nine of the last 10 Cup points races dating back to last year.
  • Kyle Busch hasn’t finished outside the top five in any of the six points-paying races he’s completed in NASCAR’s top three touring series this season. He’s currently leading the Cup and Truck Series points, and he’s 10 points behind teammate Stewart in the Nationwide Series for that title, as well.
  • Last September at Fontana, Johnson and Edwards also finished 1-2 – but in that race, it was Johnson who took the victory.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): We’ll give this one cup of watery Amstel Light – which is pretty much water to begin with.

Next Up: It’s off to Lost Wages, a town whose nickname seems to be a pretty good summary of what’s going on with both the team owners and the New Cars these days.

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