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Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2010 Fontana Race Recap

The Key Moment: Kevin Harvick reeled in and ran down race leader Jimmie Johnson but slapped the wall with three laps to go, breaking his momentum and handing the victory to the No. 48.

In a Nutshell: Foul weather in the area and uncertainty as to whether the race would run its full distance ignited something fans have never seen during a Cup event at Fontana before… real racing.

Dramatic Moment: The final 20 laps of the race featured some intense racing within the top 10. A nod also has to go out to the rear tire changer for the No. 1 team, Adam Mosher, for his leap over the hood of the No. 29 exiting the pits.

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

Fans were treated to two memorable finishes at Fontana this weekend, but let’s put things in context. On Saturday, Joey Logano completely dominated the Nationwide race until the last lap of a green/white/checkered finish, when Greg Biffle bumped him aside. Johnson also seemed to have matters in hand for most of Sunday’s Cup event before looming storm clouds off the back straight amped up the rest of the field.

Despite Sunday’s finish, I’m still convinced that the races at Fontana need to be cut back to 400, if not 300 miles – and the track still attracts a crowd that could be described as “a bit sparse.” Official estimates seem to indicate that the grandstands were half empty for the event – or, as my dear friend KevinInSoCal will term it – they were half-full.

Wow, ratings were down 16% for the Daytona 500. This was supposed to be the year that NASCAR turned around declining TV ratings, but I guess along the path there’s going to be a few bumps… or potholes… in the road.

After several less than successful attempts at fixing the potholes at Daytona, what was the high-tech solution that allowed the race to at least continue? Bondo. You’re kidding me, right? Bondo may be the third-eldest element in the universe behind dirt and rust. Rust was, of course, the nemesis that caused Bondo to be created, as all of us car guys have used that quick curing pink stuff to patch holes in our rides that’ll last long enough to pass state inspection. Some guys were artisans with it while others, generally derided as Bondo Barbarians, slathered the stuff on rusted sheet metal several inches thick to avoid costly repairs or to hide sheet metal sinfulness under a new coat of paint for resale. But in this new century, if the most “high tech” weapon NASCAR has for combating crumbling tracks is Bondo, I’d suggest they also use the old school method for putting butts in the seats… cheap beer. As countless untalented bar bands can attest, nothing packs a roadhouse like cheap beer…

Danica-Mania, Part Deux: Ms. Patrick charged to an electrifying 31st-place finish Saturday, a mere three laps from competing for the race win. At least she looked quite pretty in doing so as, after all, next to actually succeeding we all want to look good in failure. Ms. Patrick has been entrusted with a solemn duty of putting paying butts in the seats, and at California she succeeded notably. If the crowd for last year’s Fontana Nationwide race was humiliatingly small, this year it was merely pitiful. Patrick will run just one more time in NASCAR, next week at Vegas, before returning to her day job in IndyCar for several months. What happens then? My guess is the Nationwide series announcers will be rendered mute by her departure, since they seem to talk about little else other than “Herself.” Maybe it’s time to roll out those Mustangs and Challengers a bit early?

Superstition is apparently still rampant in NASCAR racing. At Fontana, there is no pit stall “13” but instead pit stall 12A, which was chosen by outside polesitter Juan Pablo Montoya and his team because that stall had a clear exit path through an entry to the garage area. Joe Weatherly would be proud. Weatherly, a NASCAR champion, was so superstitious about the number 13 that he refused to run in the 13th Southern 500 until the promoters billed it as “The 12th Renewal of the Southern 500.” Sadly, Weatherly eventually died in a wreck not far from Fontana at the Riverside road course. Had he won that day, he’d have scored his 26th Grand National win (and 26 is, of course, two times 13.)

Maybe I’m reading too much into something, but in light of the track problems at Daytona last week might NASCAR want to redo their commercial promoting standardized start times that shows the animated track blowing apart? Oh, and for the record, if they’re going to promote 1:00 and 3:00 start times, how about fans that tune in at 1 or 3 see the cars already on the pace laps?

Styx? You’ve got to be frickin’ kidding me. I remember meeting those guys at the record store where I worked during college, and I graduated college three decades ago. I suppose I should be grateful that they haven’t aged any more gracefully than I have. But what’s up with these pre-race concerts? When’s the last time you went to a concert and they used footage of a NASCAR race as a lead in?

Are any of you out there old enough to remember that NASCAR was officially incorporated on this date in 1948? We can mourn what we’ve lost or we can celebrate what we’ve achieved, often at the same time. To put it musically, “It was 62 years today, Bill France taught the band to play, they’ve been going in and out of style, but can still occasionally raise a smile, may I introduce to you, the one and only National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing… What would you do if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me….”

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

While his boy Jamie McMurray engaged in a whirlwind media tour, Daytona 500-winning team owner Chip Ganassi ended up with a rack of broken ribs in a skiing accident Saturday.

Some folks were ready to pronounce Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s problems behind him after that stunning second-place finish in the Daytona 500. But the No. 88 team and Earnhardt returned to mediocre form at Fontana before some sort of problem in the rear of the car finally stuck a fork in their day.

Logano had a career day at Fontana on Saturday until a little brush to the rear bumper, courtesy of his good buddy Biffle, ended his chances at a win. At least a fifth-place finish on Sunday had to ease a bit of the sting for the young driver.

Montoya ran strong early in the Fontana event, but was sidelined by engine failure shortly before the 300-mile mark.

Only two races into the season, it’s a bit too early to hit the “panic” button in earnest, but two consecutive DNFs are obviously not the way Ryan Newman and his team wanted to start their 2010 campaign.

While his engine held together well enough to allow him to finish the race, three-time Fontana Cup winner Jeff Gordon could garner no better than a 20th-place result.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Johnson’s title defense didn’t start out well with a miserable finish in the Daytona 500. But he returned to form at Fontana, exiting the pits ahead of leader Jeff Burton as a caution flag flew for Brad Keselowski’s spin with 25 laps left. That eventually left him on the lead lap and back up front for the final restart once everyone else had to pit.

Clint Bowyer’s car was doing its best imitation of Mount Vesuvius late in the race, blowing water out the overflow, but the engine hung on well enough to allow Bowyer to post a top-10 finish.

Second and third-place Harvick and Burton both had to overcome pit road speeding penalties earlier in the race to contend for the win. Whoever was handing out the speeding tickets at Fontana this weekend seemed rather trigger happy. Or, maybe, with passing at such a premium out on the track with these new cars, drivers are in fact pushing the limits to the breaking point on pit road.

It was another great weekend for Richard Childress Racing, with all three of Childress’s drivers finishing in the top eight.

It was a pretty good day for Red Bull Racing, as well, with Scott Speed finishing 11th and Brian Vickers 12th.

Worth Noting

  • Johnson and the No. 48 team have now scored 48 points-paying Cup victories – although the Fontana win was only the second that they’ve managed in the month of February.
  • Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Bowyer and Biffle have scored top-10 results in both of this season’s Cup points races.
  • The top-10 finishers at Fontana drove six Chevys (including the cars of the first four finishers), two Fords, a Toyota and a Dodge.
  • Half the drivers who finished in the top 10 in this race last year did so again in 2010: Johnson, Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Biffle. The cream always rises to the top, it would seem.

What’s the Points?

Harvick assumed the points lead by 19 over teammate Bowyer. But as Harvick himself stated, it’s kind of hard to read too much into that with 34 races left to run.

Biffle’s season is starting out well, and he’s currently third in the standings. Behind him… fame is fleeting, as Daytona 500 winner McMurray has already slipped to fourth. The Great American Race pays pretty well to win, but it provides no more points than any other race.

Rounding out the top five in the championship is Burton, meaning that all three RCR drivers are currently fifth or better in points. In comparison, at this time in 2009 just one of them was in the top 15.

Further back, Johnson’s win propelled him forward 23 positions in the points to 12th after his disastrous Daytona finish. My guess is he’ll easily maintain that top 12 ranking the rest of the season.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): I’ll give this one three-and-a-half cans of reasonably cold generic stuff… which is, I believe, the highest I’ve ever rated a Fontana event. It took a long time for the race to come to a simmer, but it was cooking quite nicely there at the end.

Next Up: The Western Swing continues with an event at Las Vegas. Is there anyone else here old enough to recall that NASCAR once headed to Rockingham and Richmond after the Daytona 500, gathering momentum for the season rather throwing it away at cookie-cutter tracks?

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