When one thinks of Fontana, chances are they’re not thinking of wild finishes. But in what was an uncharacteristically entertaining race for a track that even Marty Reid admitted was conducive to “freight training” (or maybe ESPN actually did their jobs for once), Kyle Busch turned the tables on teammate Joey Logano.
After Logano beat out Busch for the pole earlier Saturday morning, the No. 20 had the field covered and then some. Holding the point for 130 laps, Logano was at the front of the field when a late spin by Brendan Gaughan prompted a restart for a green-white-checkered finish. On the restart, Greg Biffle (who had a run-in with Logano at Fontana this past fall) appeared to make contact with Logano in turn 1, driving him up the track and out of contention for the win. Biffle held off a hard-charging Busch until the exit of turn 4, where racing side-by-side, Busch was able to get the better of Biffle’s Ford, scoring the fifth consecutive trophy for Joe Gibbs Racing in Nationwide competition at the Auto Club Speedway.
Scott did a whole lot more than secure rookie of the race honors, he turned a lot of heads in his first Nationwide Series start at ACS. After qualifying third, Scott proved to be the only car not of the JGR stable to have anything for Busch and Logano, at one point running in the second position and gaining ground on the No. 20 before the caution flag flew. Scott ran in the top five for much of the afternoon and seemed to have a top-five finish locked up before a late race caution burned the No. 11 team on pit strategy (they were among the last teams to stay out while the rest of the cars on the lead lap pitted for tires). Still, the 10th-place finish Scott and team scored was both an impressive performance and one that took the team that much closer to locking into the Top 30 in owner points.
Justin Allgaier backed up his career-best run at Daytona last week with another effort that was anything but a sophomore slump. After qualifying 15th, Allgaier immediately made a move forward, and hovered in the top 12 for the duration of the afternoon. Coming home ninth, Allgaier scored back-to-back top-10 finishes for only the third time in his career and a career-best result at Fontana. The No. 12 team now has momentum on their side heading into Las Vegas… the race that was unofficially Allgaier’s coming out party last March.
And the return of Scott Riggs to the Nationwide Series continues to go well, as Riggs rebounded from starting dead last to score a 16th-place finish for RAB Racing’s unsponsored Ford.
While Steve Wallace has gotten off to the best start of his career through the season’s first two races, the same can’t be said for his Rusty Wallace Inc. teammate Gaughan. While Gaughan challenged for the top 10 at various points throughout the race, by the late going the No. 62 was running outside the top 15. And on lap 146, any chance of scoring a solid finish was erased when he lost his Toyota in the high groove of turns 3 and 4, spinning out and relegating himself to a 24th-place finish. Gaughan’s disappointing finish came in one of the first cars built by RWI to imitate what their partners at JGR are doing… but apparently cloning their cars isn’t all this team needs to get running back up front again.
John Wes Townley legitimately shocked the team in the broadcast booth on Saturday with his qualifying effort, earning a career best starting position of sixth in only his second start with Richard Childress Racing. Unfortunately, despite driving RCR’s formidable No. 21, Townley didn’t stay sixth for long. Dropping out of the top 10 less than 10 laps into the event, Townley ran in the pack all day until his single-car spin on lap 124. The resulting smoke cloud forced Ricky Stenhouse Jr. into a spin of his own. While Townley drove away from the incident and went on to finish a dismal 30th, Stenhouse slammed the interior retaining wall off turn 2. Unfortunately, even with better equipment, the Zaxby’s driver is still proving to be an erratic presence on the track.
While Stenhouse Jr.‘s wreck on lap 124 was undoubtedly triggered trying to avoid Townley’s smoke cloud, Darrell Waltrip did make a valid point that Stenhouse’s inexperience turned what should have been a close call into a race-ending accident. Though Townley spun from the exit of turn 2 down onto the flat asphalt of the backstretch off the racing groove, Stenhouse didn’t hold his line, instead harshly jerking his No. 6 Ford down onto the flat. When Townley failed to catch his after his first spin on the flat, Stenhouse moved to avoid too quickly, losing control of his machine. With two finishes of 36th and 39th to start the season, it’s definitely early… but one can’t help but wonder both if Stenhouse’s year out of racing (he went from a full ARCA campaign in 2008 to only seven starts in 2009) is going to make his adjustment to full-time Nationwide competition harder… and whether the Roush Fenway camp made the right choice pushing him to a full-time ride over Truck Series winner Erik Darnell.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Mike Wallace. Mike Wallace made his first start at the then California Speedway way back in 1998. 12 years and 14 race starts later, Wallace had the best weekend he’s ever had in his career in Fontana. After posting a 19th-place qualifying effort that saw him outrun a number of fellow Chevrolet competitors, including both Hendrick cars in the field, Wallace stayed under the radar all day long, led a lap during green-flag pit stops and capitalized on pit strategy during the race’s final caution to score a 12th-place finish, his career best at Auto Club. The finish was a welcome rebound for he and the No. 01 team, as last week’s 28th-place finish at Daytona was certainly a disappointment for one of NASCAR’s best plate racers.
Who You Didn’t See: And what was further disappointing, both for Wallace and for his fans, is that despite his solid race efforts, he was not featured on ESPN’s broadcast even once on Saturday (unless you count the part where he was smirking in the background during driver intros while Danica Patrick was being interviewed). Wallace was not alone in this regard. In addition to his No. 01 car, Scott Lagasse Jr. (finished 15th), Riggs (16th), Colin Braun (18th) and Jason Keller (20th) all scored top-20 finishes… and zero TV time. Add Mark Green, Eric McClure, Parker Kligerman, Willie Allen, Derrike Cope, Tony Raines, Michael McDowell, Josh Wise, Kenny Wallace, Robert Richardson and Mike Bliss to the list, and the reality is in a 43-car field, excluding three start-and-park entries, 16 cars, or 40%, of those that ran the full race were not covered once. Further, Kevin Lepage was shown briefly for receiving the lucky dog, but the broadcast never informed viewers that his car ever went behind the wall early, which it did.
The Final Word
Keselowski made comments during his post-race interview that he was surprised at how racy ACS has become. Based on the action seen Saturday, I’m not ready to write off the long history of snore-inducing racing that the track has produced, but I will be the first to say that this 300-miler was entertaining. There were lead changes, there was side-by-side racing, and the finish was memorable to put it lightly. What’s more, the crowd in the stands was definitely larger than last year’s… though honestly, how hard can it be to top last year’s 15,000 marker?
I have a hard time believing that the new tires or anything of that sort actually made the racing better… rather it seems that ESPN finally woke up and got half a clue how to cover a race on a longer racetrack. There was a significant amount of coverage dedicated to battles between positions 10 and 20 that kept side-by-side racing on the track for extended periods of time. There were also a number of wide shots provided that had three and four cars at a time on screen, allowing fans to see up close and personal where different drivers were running all over the track. Even when the field got strung out, or when Logano’s lead got huge, the action on screen was still enough to keep attention. That’s a marked improvement over last season.
ESPN deserves credit, they’ve made progress with their race coverage. It has been better in both instances two races into the season. And while Saturday’s broadcast still gave an inordinate amount of coverage and praise to a particular driver who’s got to be the most celebrated figure in the history of stock car racing to have never finished in the top 30 or to run laps 10 mph off the pace, that same coverage also could be the solution to the most glaring problem left for the broadcasts to fix: that 40% of the field went without any coverage over 300 miles.
The little Danica boxes that give her running order, positions changed and other updates are a non-obstructive means to cover drivers in the back not racing for the lead without cutting the cameras to positions not being contested on the track. If ESPN can find time to refer back to a backmarker every 20 laps or so, they can definitely find a way to incorporate series regulars the same way.
That said, I’m surprisingly encouraged by the start of the 2010 Nationwide Series season. The coverage has been better. The crowds have been solid. The racing has been excellent. And the regulars have shown solidly, with Allgaier challenging Tony Stewart for the win on the last lap at Daytona and this week Scott proving to have the horses to run with Logano. What better time to head to Las Vegas… the same track where Allgaier gave Cup regulars all they could handle and then some last year.