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The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Auto Club 400 at Fontana

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Considering that 10 months ago, he was facing heart surgery and his future as a race car driver was in serious question, finishing eighth at Fontana was a victory of sorts for Brian Vickers. Vickers, who made the Chase in 2009 before missing most of last season due to blood clots, has gotten off to a bit of a slow start this season, and this, his second top 10 of the year, was just what Vickers and his team needed.

What… was THAT?

While a sect of race fans might have been cheering when Kyle Busch wrecked his primary car in practice, the incident brought up a disturbing pair of intertwining issues: the ongoing problem with “weepers” on the track when it’s rainy in southern California, and NASCAR’s willingness to turn a blind eye to the ongoing problem. Busch’s wreck wasn’t the first to happen in this situation. In the spring race in 2008, NASCAR insisted on starting the race on Sunday despite questions about safety from drivers and crews. Just a few laps in, Casey Mears hit one of the wet sports while racing in traffic, spun and took out his then-teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. before NASCAR admitted the track was too wet and moved the race until Monday. But the damage was done to the drivers involved in the wreck, just as it was done to Busch this week. Bottom line, two things need to happen. One, Auto Club Speedway needs to fix the problem, even if that means tearing up the track completely to do it. Two, NASCAR needs to make sure that cars don’t go out on a questionable racetrack, ever. Also, if ACS can’t get their act together and fix the problem, the sanctioning body needs to take their sanction away until they do.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Juan Pablo Montoya wants an oval win in NASCAR, and 2001 is looking more and more like the year he could do it. Montoya grabbed and held onto the pole, and when all was said and done, finished 10th, keeping his eighth-place points standing and altogether looking like a legitimate contender early on with three top-10 finishes in five races.

When… will I be loved?

As often happens at Fontana, there was no real villain, because for the first 190 laps, there wasn’t much close racing. The end was one of the best the track has produced, and while it would be easy to pin the villain award on Kevin Harvick for choosing to use his bumper on Jimmie Johnson in a multi-groove track, it wasn’t really a dirty move (some of the blame lies on Johnson for not doing a better job of blocking). So as it often does, the award goes to ACS for the brand of racing it produced for 190 laps on Sunday. 10 good laps doesn’t justify the race not being at Rockingham.

Why… does Ella Gordon want to be a racecar driver?

In case you missed Jeff Gordon’s appearance on Ellen this week, the interview produced one of the cutest moments of the California race week. When Gordon’s daughter told her “Papa” she wants to be a driver someday, Gordon asked her why. Her answer? “Because I love you!” In a season of feel-good moments, add another one to the list. And don’t be surprised if she does it, either. The face of NASCAR is changing, after all.

How… is the points battle shaking down now that this year’s points count?

At the top of the leaderboard, we’re getting a glimpse of a couple of things: which drivers will likely contend for all the marbles in the Chase and Johnson’s hauler parking space in 2012, and which teams have it together this year. The former is looking more and more like a battle between Carl Edwards and Busch, with Johnson making it difficult for them, but so far not looking like a six-time champion. The latter is really looking like the bigger question mark as teams struggle to find either durability or across-the-board consistency, or both. Hendrick Motorsports is as strong as always, and Roush Fenway Racing is solid, though they don’t have four teams running quite at the level of Hendrick’s quartet. Richard Childress has good stuff, as evidenced by the strong runs of Paul Menard, but they have had terrible luck and enough engine issues to be concerned, as has Joe Gibbs Racing. The Gibbs organization almost looks like a team so determined to win a championship for one team that it will come at the expense of the other two. The surprise of the year? Richard Petty Motorsports, which was not expected to even be at the track this yeas as of last fall, yet has made a strong showing to start of ’11.

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