NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2008 Pepsi 500 at Fontana

Key Moment: Pole Qualifying on Friday. Jimmie Johnson‘s pole-winning run set the tone for the rest of the weekend.

In a Nutshell: I can describe the race in eight words or less: Johnson came, he saw, he kicked butt.

Dramatic Moments: With such a dominating performance by Johnson, the biggest excitement on the track was caused by falling caution lights. Not one, but two yellows were thrown because of them. The first resulted from an entire light assembly falling off of the catchfence and crashing to the track on lap 20. Fortunately, it didn’t hit any cars below – that would definitely mess up a racecar.

The second was caused by a small piece of the light shield detaching from the assembly on lap 161, which fell down into traffic and bounced off a few cars. Weird stuff. In the 20 years and 671 races have been run since I discovered the now-Sprint Cup Series, I’ve never seen that before!

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

Is it just me, or has there been a lot more butt-kicking in races this year? Johnson led all but 22 laps (or 44 miles) on Sunday. This type of domination has never been seen before at Auto Club Speedway. The last time someone even came close was in the 2006 Auto Club 500 when Greg Biffle led 168 laps, or 120 miles less than Johnson did Sunday night. These runaways have not been limited to so-called cookie-cutter tracks or to just the Nextel Cup Series.

While attendance has been estimated at 70,000 for Sunday night, it is approximately 15,000 fewer people than that attended the race last year, when temperatures were over 100 degrees during the day for most of the weekend. This is slightly over 75% of the listed seating capacity for the track and is also more than 30,000 less than the peak attendance for this race. The point is, you could see the empty seats pretty well.

Sunday night’s Pepsi 500 is the last time that the fall race at Auto Club Speedway will be held on Labor Day Weekend. Maybe the move to October on next year’s schedule will help the speedway out. In the span of two years, the now-ACS went from having one race that sold out to having two that don’t. And I won’t even go into how I personally think they should have never gotten the second race in the first place.

This weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series goes back to Richmond. The last time the Sprint Cup teams were at Richmond, Denny Hamlin led 381 laps during the race. Hamlin finally lost the lead because of a flat tire, but up to that point he had led all but one lap in the race. The race ended with a grand total of four lead changes, mainly because Kyle Busch pulled an overly aggressive move on Dale Earnhardt Jr., which resulted in Earnhardt Jr. crashing and Busch going up the track, allowing Clint Bowyer to skate by and claim the victory. Had Hamlin not had the flat, we could have been looking at a situation where Hamlin could have led all but one lap.

I couldn’t help but notice just how close the owner points are around the 35th-place cutoff at the moment. AJ Allmendinger’s 14th-place finish on Sunday boosted his team five spots in the standings up to 31st, which locks the No. 84 in for Richmond. The odd man out is Sam Hornish Jr. in the No. 77. His 31st-place finish dropped the Penske Travel Centers/Mobil 1 Dodge to 36th. Robby Gordon’s No. 7 on the bubble, with an 18-point cushion over the No. 77. However, just in front of the No. 7, positions 31 through 34 are separated by five points. It’s just crazy to look at, but I can only imagine how the individual teams involved in this scrap feel.

STAFF: SPRINT CUP BUBBLE BREAKDOWN AFTER FONTANA

Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth both managed top-five finishes despite starting in 33rd and 37th, respectively. Due to Johnson’s complete and utter dominance, their amazing advances through the field went largely unnoticed by ESPN. Each driver moved up a spot in the points standings, but neither is locked into the Chase as of yet. Both should be able to with relative ease next week at Richmond.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Joe Nemechek‘s night ended on lap 70 after a hard hit to the turn 2 wall. Nemechek pancaked the right side of the No. 78 Chevy, destroying his car and all chances of completing the event.

Kurt Busch made contact with Martin Truex Jr. early, cutting his left-rear tire. NASCAR was slow to throw a yellow, and Busch lost two laps in the process.

Brian Vickers ran in the top five most of the night, only to have his pit crew erase the advances made on the track. A penalty for a tire violation on lap 182 put Vickers at the tail end of the longest line, a deficit he could never fully overcome.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Kyle Busch wrecked, but didn’t hit anything as he took the checkered Sunday night in his battle for seventh-place with Kasey Kahne.

Overall Rating: On a scale of 1-10, this race gets 4.7. There was good racing in and around the restarts, but when Johnson got away, there was no drama.

Next Up: Richmond, for the Chevy Rock & Roll 400. It’s the last race before the Chase begins, so expect constant reminders of the points leading up to and all throughout the race. The Chase takes precedence and certain notable facts can be completely overlooked. If someone out of the Chase actually ends up winning on Saturday night, they will be treated like an afterthought, with the only exception being Joey Logano. The broadcasters are bound to keep a steady watch on him all night.

Matt McLaughlin will be back next week to give you some more of his thoughts and musings about the race at Richmond, and likely some thoughts about the upcoming Chase to the Cup.

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