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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Fontana’s Wild NASCAR Race Recap

Key Moment – Kyle Busch stayed out when most of the other lead lap cars came to the pits during two crucial caution flags. His two biggest rivals all day chose to stop. Denny Hamlin came in and took tires with 24 to go; Joey Logano got fresh skins with 29 laps left. Those moves, while costing them track position early allowed them to get past Busch and set up the day’s crazy ending.

In a Nutshell – Logano. Hamlin. Fireworks… at Fontana? Hard to believe but NASCAR’s much-maligned track put together a miracle ending. You can say the same for Kyle Busch – he was the car to beat, until pit road strategy left him a sitting duck. On older tires, Logano and Hamlin blew by for the lead, fighting it out amongst themselves until they started trading paint in Turn 3 on the final lap. Busch took the high line, then snuck by on the outside before the two bounced off the wall to finally score a win for Joe Gibbs Racing at Fontana.

Dramatic Moment – Coming to the white flag, Hamlin and Logano made contact on the front straight. Hamlin had a nose in front as they exited Turn 2. Logano side drafted on the back straight, pinching his rival close to the wall to have the lead entering Turn 3. The two were side-by-side, then touched which slowed them enough to allow Busch to pass them on the high side. But that’s when it all fell apart – for both of them. Logano hit the wall and saved it while Hamlin slid to the inside of the track and made violent, head-on contact with the inside wall that does not have a SAFER barrier. As of Monday morning, Hamlin was still hospitalized, kept for observation while Logano remained uninjured. “Now we’re even,” he said on the radio before reemphasizing the point with a “That’s what he gets” to reporters while Hamlin was being loaded into an ambulance. Ouch.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin were the topic of discussion all week. As the NASCAR Gods would have it, they end up battling for the win and end up wrecked as the checkered flag flew. (Logano is credited with a third-place finish while Hamlin ended up 25th thanks to not completing the final lap.) On Lap 6, Logano laid the groundwork for the finish of the race. Coming to the start/finish line, Hamlin was making a move on Busch. Logano took the air off of Hamlin’s spoiler, then possibly made contact while sweeping to the bottom of the track to take the lead from his former JGR teammates. It was clear from that point on that Logano was determined to do whatever it took to win, regardless of etiquette and he almost pulled it off.

BEDGOOD: What To Take Away From Sunday’s Wreck

Among the many drivers that Logano ticked off Sunday was Tony Stewart. After the race, Logano was parked on pit road. Stewart came over and grabbed Logano by the front of his driver suit with his right hand and unloaded a left at his head. The teams separated them at that point in time but Stewart wasn’t done voicing his displeasure with the upstart driver. After the altercation, Steve Byrnes interviewed Stewart as the three-time champion was heading back to his garage. Byrnes asked what he was mad about. “What the hell do you think I was mad about?” Stewart snapped back. “Dumb little son of a b*tch runs us clear down to the infield. He wants to b*tch about everybody else when he’s the one who drives like a little prick. I’m gonna bust his ass.” Smoke kept going, hours later, claiming Logano was a “rich kid who never worked a day in his life.” Note to self: don’t block “temper temper” on a final restart, in the future when he’s third, desperate for a win and said actions take his car – already struggling in 2013 – well outside the top 20.

But while Stewart cools down a little bit, this Monday he might want to think back to Talladega last fall, when he threw a block in turn three that took out about 20 race cars. When you’re going for a win and there is a restart, you have to do what you have to do. You can debate the Logano/Hamlin incident, who was right and who was wrong… but on this one, Smoke is blowing Smoke up, well, you know…

NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver is having a most unexpected run to the front of the point standings. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ran below average at the beginning of the race, then clawed his way to third before a pit road miscue dropped him to the back half of the field. He settled in around 13th for a long run, slipped back to the 20s, but used the two final cautions to his advantage. Putting on new tires on with 11 to go, he fought his way to fourth and ended up second when the dust settled on the final lap. It’s clear the driver has full confidence in crew chief Steve Letarte to make the right adjustments, at the right times for the No. 88 to fight its way back to the front. Remember the days when Earnhardt would run well, during the first green-flag run only to fade every 100 laps? Not anymore.

For a driver who never won a Cup race on anything but a plate track, Michael Waltrip sure loves to talk about how a driver should race another driver trying to win a race. It might be in Mikey’s best interest to leave the non-plate etiquette about that stuff to the guys who’ve actually done it in their careers.

So what made this race so much different than all the others at Fontana? Simple: the track is well aged and the bumps are making the racing as good as it gets. Goodyear also brought a tire to the track that wore out. In the end, tires made a difference but not a huge one. It was the perfect balance that resulted in a great race.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Denny Hamlin looked to be in position to score the first win for JGR at Fontana during the white-flag lap. By the time the race ended, he was on the ground next to his crumpled race car being loaded onto a backboard. (Why was there no SAFER Barrier on the inside wall?) A 25th-place result doesn’t tell the story of a car that ran top 3 for the majority of Sunday’s event.

Mark Martin’s track bar broke loose from the rear end of his car. The result was a spin through traffic and an end to the race on a hook. It doesn’t matter much to Martin, who isn’t running a full season anyway, but it has to be a disappointment for his fans who are hoping to see one more win for the old fart.

The runner-up jinx is still trying to dig its claws into Clint Bowyer. Bowyer’s day started hitting the wall, slipping in oil and spent the rest of the day simply trying to sneak home with a respectable top 15. It wouldn’t happen; his engine gave up the ghost on lap 184 and dropped him to a 35th-place finish. Bowyer is now 14th in points, 62 out of the lead and shows no signs of the 2012 spark that had him up front, week in and week out.

Marcos Ambrose was snake bitten twice by left rear tire blowouts. The second of those tore the back bumper cover off his car, demolishing the quarterpanel and producing the biggest “wreck” of the day outside Logano/Hamlin. He ended the race running, but was 18 laps off the pace (ironically, his best finish so far in 2013 is 18th). You think Ambrose has Qantas on speed dial yet, ready to book his flight back to Tasmania for good?

Crazy things happen on race cars all of the time, but having the gear shift break off of the transmission is one you hear about once every couple of years. For Juan Pablo Montoya, Sunday was his day, forcing the car to limp home 31 laps down in 38th. Then again, considering it’s been 26 races since a top-10 finish, we’re to the point where “it’s always something…”

Timmy Hill did his best to alter the outcome of the race, albeit not intentionally. Hill lost an oil fitting on lap 30 that resulted in nearly a dozen cars making some kind of contact with the outside wall and five of them having to come to pit lane for repairs. Among the ones who were hurt the most: Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Bowyer, and even Brad Keselowski. NASCAR might want to look into having random oil downs when races aren’t turning out as exciting as they would like them to.

After Paulie Harraka’s Nationwide race came to an end in a ball of flames, how can we not have him in a category with Hindenburg in the name? Harraka has been less than stupendous in his racing career since gaining national attention battling with Joey Logano in the Toyota All-Star Showdown. Harraka, a Duke graduate has run four Nationwide and 11 Camping World Truck Series races since without as much as a sniff of a top 10.

The “Seven Come For Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

For Kyle Busch, he is usually in the Hindenburg category far more, but this weekend it certainly fell into his lap. Logano and Hamlin taking each other out allowed Busch, who led the most laps in the race, the opportunity to squeeze by on the top side to grab his 25th Cup Series win of his career.

Thanks to the vagaries of the caution flag rules of NASCAR, Joey Logano bounced off of the wall and kept digging. Even though he crossed the line sixth, the caution was flying so the sanctioning body reverts to the last scoring loop and uses video evidence to set the finishing order. When the caution came out, Logano was in third and, since he was still moving at caution speed throughout, that allowed him to keep the spot.

Jeff Gordon was running worse than any of the Hendrick Motorsports cars before he made a late-race pit stop for Alan Gustafson and the gang to make a major adjustment. Just like the Earnhardt changes, the No. 24 came to life, although not to the extent of Earnhardt’s car. He still scored an 11th place finish, which was a major accomplishment considering how poorly they’d run all day. Right behind him, with similar snail-like speed issues was Jimmie Johnson in 12th, just the fifth time in his career he’d finished outside the top 10 at Fontana.

Being the defending champ has its privileges. Brad Keselowski’s car went south as the race was coming to an end. According to the announcers, he was warned to pick up the pace or be black-flagged. There was no other mention of the No. 2 over the final five laps; considering the action that was going on at the front of the field that was understandable. But despite reports he was well below minimum speed, the Blue Deuce was able to finish the race and scored as the next to last car on the lead lap in 23rd.

Kurt Busch was right in the mix when the green flag flew with 11 to go. He ended up slipping back to fifth place in the final running order, but it was still an impressive run for the de facto fourth RCR car.

Worth Noting

  • Joe Gibbs Racing had never won at Fontana/Auto Club Raceway before Sunday in the Cup Series. For the team that just upped its record of consecutive wins at a track to nine, at Fontana in the Nationwide Series, it is amazing that Kyle Busch’s win on Sunday was their first.
  • Much was made of Brad Keselowski having four consecutive top-5 finishes to start the season after his championship. The last person to do that was Dale Earnhardt, who did it for the first five races of 1995 after winning the 1994 title. Makes you wonder if Ironhead was looking down and made sure that Brad didn’t tie that record just yet.
  • 25 wins in the Cup series is a pretty impressive number. The win on Sunday put Kyle Busch in that category, which ties him for 24th on the all-time Cup Series win list. He’s tied with Matt Kenseth among active drivers and is now one ahead of his brother Kurt. Busch has won at least one race in every season that he has competed in the Cup series since going full-time in 2005.
  • The win at Fontana broke a 31-race winless streak for Kyle Busch. This is Busch’s ninth weekend sweep, having taken the win in Saturday’s Nationwide race as well. But perhaps the more surprising stat is it’s the first time in ten races where Busch made it out on top after leading the most laps during a Cup event.
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished second, which gave him his fifth top 10 finish in the first five races of 2013. He is the only driver on the circuit who has ended up in the top 10 in all five races this season.
  • Kurt Busch finished fifth, which gives him back-to-back top 5 finishes in the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet. This is the first time since that team started in 2005 that they have scored back-to-back top-5 results. This is the second time they’ve had two top 5s during a season and gives them a total of five top-5 finishes in their history.

There were 17 lead changes during the race on Sunday. The unofficial tally of on-track passes for the lead during green flag conditions was five.

In the top 10 on Sunday by manufacturer were:

Toyota – 2
Chevrolet – 5
Ford – 3

  • In another of those twists that you just can’t make up, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin are ninth and tenth in points. As a result, when they roll into Martinsville in two weeks, they’ll be parked next to each other in the garage. To say the garage stalls at Martinsville are small is an understatement. The two drivers are going to have no choice but to see each other repeatedly all weekend. Whether they’ll speak is yet to be seen.

What’s the Points?

Thanks Keselowski’s mechanical issues at the end of the race, Earnhardt assumes the point lead by 12 over the 2012 champ. Jimmie Johnson’s run on Sunday was less than stellar, but slots into third in the point standings, 16 points behind his Hendrick teammate. Carl Edwards, who very quietly finished fourth on Sunday and has pushed his season total to three top-5 finishes is sitting in fourth, 35 points behind Earnhardt. Tied with Edwards is his Roush Fenway teammate Greg Biffle. Biffle finished sixth on Sunday for his second top-10 finish of the season.

Kyle Busch’s win pushed him from 10th to sixth in the points and leaves him 36 out of the top spot. Kasey Kahne is seventh, while Paul Menard is eighth; he was eighth at Fontana to score his third top 10 of the season. Menard is also the last driver who can mathematically leave Martinsville with the points lead. As mentioned before, Joey Logano is ninth in points and will be parked next to Denny Hamlin who rounds out the top 10.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic) – It is early in the season, and we have to have a little wiggle room, but this race was as close to an instant classic as we’ve seen in a while. The only thing holding it back from that lofty status is the fact that there were only five on-track passes for the lead. If there had been a little more action at the front of the pack during the first ¾ of the race, like there was over the last 30 laps, this would have been a sure fire six pack. Still, we have to give this one five ice cold cans of Guinness Draft or Budweisers, whichever you’d like to have.

Next Up – The Cup series is off for Easter and then heads to the shortest, oldest track on the circuit, Martinsville Speedway. Considering there’s a half-dozen drivers pissed off at each other, expect the retaliation meter – and the excitement that comes with it – to be pegged at an all-time high.

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