It was bound to happen sooner or later, and it finally did Saturday. The Nationwide Series regulars’ streak of wins to start 2012 ended at four in southern California, with polesitter Joey Logano pulling away from the field after a late restart to score Joe Gibbs Racing’s eighth consecutive victory at Auto Club Speedway. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Brad Keselowski, Brian Scott, and Austin Dillon rounded out the top 5.
Though Logano proved able to weather a furious storm all day from Stenhouse and even Kyle Busch, the class of the field happened to be Brad Keselowski’s No. 22. The Penske Racing driver ended up derailing any hopes of victory on his own though, losing 13 positions on two later-race pit stops due to poor placement of his car in the pit box.
Elliott Sadler finished ninth and maintained the points lead, losing ground after a two-tire pit call late in the event dropped the No. 2 in the final running order. He now leads Stenhouse by 18 markers, with teammate Dillon third, 27 points back.
*Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.* proved to be a player in Fontana despite the fifth race of the season being the strongest showing yet for Sprint Cup regulars this year. Even with Logano and the No. 18 team in dominant form, Stenhouse and the No. 6 car were up front and challenging for the lead almost the entire day, scoring an important bonus point for leading as well. Perhaps most importantly, this team, which saw a strong bid for victory at Bristol derailed last week because of a pit call, finished second in this one and made up ground in the points race because they got the tire strategy right when it counted. The runner-up result after sour disappointment a weekend ago was a statement showing for the defending champs.
*Brian Scott* and the No. 11 team carried much of the same form that their race-winning teammate showed at ACS, delivering an uneventful fourth-place performance that saw the car come home in one piece without incident. This one is big on two fronts: an obvious confidence booster and, more importantly, a rock-solid showing at Toyota’s home track. Between having Dollar General on the car, and now being the face of JGR’s vaunted Nationwide Series program now that Kyle Busch is on his own, Scott is not going to be able to rely on being a self-sponsored ride… the results have to come this year. Saturday, they did.
*Brad Sweet* had never raced at Auto Club Speedway and hadn’t run a NASCAR race of any kind since the truck event at Kansas last spring. Yet, when all was said and done, Sweet brought home a sixth place finish that carried the flag for Turner Motorsports. There’s something to be said about how the No. 38 car benefited from a late race yellow that bunched up the field for the final laps… but there is also something to be said about how Sweet, with so little experience in the middle of a five-wide pack, kept his ride under control and brought home a top 10. One would expect Kasey Kahne’s protégé to show mettle at an intermediate oval.
Perhaps the only driver whose charge through the field late could top Sweet’s was that of *Austin Dillon*, who was an absolute trailblazer shifting lanes left and right to score his third top 5 in the first five events this year. Any hint of a learning curve for last season’s Truck Series champion has been missing the first month of the season.
Meanwhile, that same late race caution proved to be kryptonite for both *Sadler* and *Trevor Bayne*, who each sought to two-tire their way to the front after the caution flew on lap 132. That tire strategy didn’t last half of a lap, as a hard-charging lead pack on four tires swallowed up both drivers; Sadler dropped quickly, while Bayne had an adventure gathering up his car after Keselowski bumped him out of the way in turn 1. Sadler ended up finishing ninth and losing a sizable chunk of his points lead, while Bayne fell all the way to 14th in the final running order, depriving the No. 60 team of vital momentum as they head into a two-week bye that must find sponsor dollars; Bayne is not guaranteed to race at Texas.
*JR Motorsports* went 0 for 2 on the day. *Danica Patrick* was a non-factor all afternoon, running 21st until having debris puncture the radiator and park the No. 7 for the day by lap 66 (the 35th place finish was her worst since Daytona). Meanwhile, *Cole Whitt* was equally irrelevant on the track, running outside the top 10 and then falling victim to the same pack that saw Dillon, Sweet, and others emerge; Whitt got out of shape in the pack exiting turn 2 inside of 15 laps to go and slapped the wall hard enough to force the team off the track; the No. 88 DNF’d in 30th place.
*Blake Koch* had what appeared to be an avoidable spin on lap 132 to bring out the final yellow. It was hard to tell from the replays whether a charging Keselowski took the air off the spoiler of the No. 41 car, or whether Koch cut too hard to the left trying to get out of the way (would have been nice for ESPN to replay some radio traffic). Either way, Koch finished a quiet 25th with a damage right front fender as a result.
After a very subdued start to the 2012 season, *Justin Allgaier* was arguably the strongest Nationwide Series regular in the field for the first half of Saturday’s race, running second and leading laps. Even after mid-race adjustments loosened the No. 31 car more than intended, Allgaier was running sixth and in position to score his best finish of the year when disaster struck 38 laps short of the finish as the motor expired (the No. 31 ended up 32nd in the running order). While the performance certainly demonstrated that Turner Motorsports can still pack some heat, Allgaier is going to be looking at a possible make-or-break weekend for the entire campaign when the Nationwide ranks return to racing at Texas; another intermediate oval, there will be no reason for the Brandt team not to show strong in Fort Worth.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: Jason Bowles* Talking to the longtime West Series racer at Daytona prior to the season opener, Bowles remarked that it was going to be a tough adjustment for a championship-winning driver to accept 15th as a great day. Well, the No. 81 team finished 15th after qualifying 12th this Saturday, and there’s no disputing how great a day it was for MacDonald Motorsports and crew. Bowles dropped from his starting position at the start but never fell out of the top 20, and in finishing 15th scored the No. 81 team’s best finish at Fontana since 2009, and only the second top-15 result at the track in team history. Outside of an early engine failure at Daytona, Bowles has given a strong accounting for himself in his first full-time NASCAR touring ride.
*Start-and-parkers* occupied 8 of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $113,527 in purse money.
*Cup regulars* won Saturday’s race, scored 3 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 4 of the 43 starting positions in the field, and took home $153,483 in purse money.
60 of 215 starting positions occupied (27.9%)
$1,566,385 dollars won
1 of 5 trophies collected (20%)
*Who You Didn’t See*
Start-and-parkers and Cup regulars occupied 12 of 43 cars that started the Royal Purple 300. Of the 31 remaining cars, Sam Hornish Jr., Blake Koch, and Cole Whitt were involved in incidents, leaving 28 Nationwide regular entries. Of those, *David Green, Darryl Harr, Kevin Lepage, Morgan Shepherd, Robert Richardson, Tim Schendel, Benny Gordon, Joey Gase, Erik Darnell, Jeremy Clements, TJ Bell, Eric McClure, Tayler Malsam* and *Mike Bliss* all were not mentioned in any capacity during the telecast. In addition, *Bowles* was complimented for his run without TV time for the car, *James Buescher* was only seen from a pit crew man’s camera, and *Mike Wallace* was only mentioned in passing. That leaves 16 of the 28 Nationwide regulars without incident uncovered, or *57.1% of the field*. That includes two cars retired early for mechanical failures (Lepage, Shepherd) and six top 20 finishers (Buescher, Bowles, Malsam, Bliss, Wallace and Clements. Considering how many green flag laps were run Saturday, that’s nothing short of atrocious.
*The Final Word*
– I never thought I’d say this… the Auto Club Speedway put on a very entertaining race. With all the side-by-side racing up front, this was a show worth watching.
– The 40,000 attendance estimate was generous, but it is worth noting that the grandstands looked better than they have the past few years for Fontana’s first race of the season. The move back to one event annually for Fontana looks good in that regard so far.
– The three engine failures seen Saturday was the most a Fontana NNS race has played host to since the fall race of 2005.
– Even in the midst of lengthy green flag runs, the parity at the front of the field meant that there was side-by-side racing and passing to watch almost the entire afternoon. That being said, the number of debris and unnecessary yellow flags was egregious, even for a race slowed by only five caution flags. None of the debris yellows were conclusively seen to have put dangerous objects in the racing groove, while the flag thrown on lap 132 for Koch’s spin that saw him able to keep going through the infield grass without hitting anything or dirtying pit road was by no means a necessity, even for safety purposes. Officials, please get out of the way of the race… especially when it’s one worth watching.
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