The Auto Club Speedway has sometimes drawn disapproval because of the distinct style of racing that the venue breeds, but that all changed on Sunday when the Gen-6s visited California.
Kyle Busch won in the Sprint Cup Series’ annual trip to Fontana for his first victory of the 2013 season and the second overall for Joe Gibbs Racing. But that wasn’t the biggest news of the weekend thanks in whole to some current and past JGR drivers.
When is a race winner not the center of attention?
Find the answer to that question and more in this edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not.
The Auto Club 400 made one thing clear; it’s becoming impossible to ignore the fact that rivalries are officially back. Just one week removed from an altercation at Bristol, the Denny Hamlin-Joey Logano rivalry took another blistering step towards supernova when the drivers were involved in a last-lap crash while approaching the checkered flag in Southern California.
Round two between the former teammates cancelled their chances to capture the surfboard-shaped trophy, instead leaving Logano third in the official running order and Hamlin in the hospital with a fractured vertebra in the lower spine.
Because the injury left Hamlin slumped to the ground aside his totaled No. 11 FedEx Toyota, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was unable to meet with Logano directly. Tony Stewart, however, was.
The three-time champion resorted to punches and an expletive laced interview because Logano aggressively blocked him on the final restart. After fading to a 22nd-place finish, Stewart parked his machine next to the wounded Penske Ford Fusion along pit road and had to be restrained from the 22-year-old after confronting him.
Logano showed no signs of remorse for either driver in his own interview, meaning that the temperature of these newfangled blood feuds could potentially rise once the Sprint Cup Series returns to action.
The late-race antics left Kyle Busch standing happily in victory lane for the second time during the weekend, despite changing batteries with 70 laps to go and being uncharacteristically safe during the final hectic moments. Rowdy led on seven occasions for a race-high 125 laps and moves into sixth in the standings, recording his third straight top 5 after getting off to a sluggish start.
The quality of racing at Fontana bodes well for NASCAR and its promise that the Generation-6 models would make racing more exciting from a fan’s perspective at non-restrictor plate superspeedways.
Auto Club Speedway, with its wide two-mile layout, has a reputation for strung out cars and minimal passing. But the new cars brought about change Sunday, putting on a display that included speeds in excess of 200-mph and passing from multiple grooves. After cautions, drivers raced in three and four-wide bunches that didn’t dissipate as quickly or as frequently as in years past. There were only 17 lead changes, but this low figure can be traced to the dominance of Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, who combined to lead roughly 75 percent of the event.
Kurt Busch can thank Marcos Ambrose for bringing out a late caution—giving the No. 78 Chevrolet the free pass—that led to a great day in Fontana.
Busch had been fighting back from an earlier pit road speeding penalty before the yellow flag put him in position to collect a second consecutive top-10 finish, something he didn’t accomplish last season until landing with Furniture Row Racing during the Chase.
Back-to-back WARM appearances are a pleasant awakening for the Las Vegas native, who seems to have regained some composure leading into Martinsville Speedway, where he must continue on this roll to reverse a long string of run of the mill finishes at the small venue.
A benefactor of Busch’s Lucky Dog award, Marcos Ambrose, would like nothing more than to forget about the 36th-place finish that dropped him eight positions in the driver standings to 23rd.
The Australian was running mid-pack before a blown left-rear tire, his second flat of the day, destroyed a portion of the No. 9 Ford Fusion. The damage was severe enough that Ambrose was forced to park the car and settle for a season-worst finish.
Ambrose had been close to breaking into the WARM category by taking the consistency route after a decent showing at Phoenix left him close to breaking into the top-10 in points, but struggles from Las Vegas until now have erased any hope of constructive criticism.
Michael Waltrip Racing also deserves some disparagement after a lackluster weekend left the organization in an unsettling spot, outside the top 12 in owner points.
Mark Martin had trouble shaking off the rust from a one week layoff; subsequent to bouncing off the wall early because of an oil slick, things only got worse. After getting caught speeding on pit road, the No. 55 Toyota was finished off by a lap-175 blown tire that sent Martin hard into the wall, breaking the track bar in the process.
Shortly thereafter, Clint Bowyer blew his engine, finishing 16 laps down in 35th position.
With two Camrys behind the wall in a 10 lap span, Martin Truex, Jr. quickly became the only MWR driver left standing, eventually coming home in the 18th position.
The stable has grown accustomed to success in stock car racing’s premiere level over the past year, but this season has been marred by inconsistency suffered by all three teams.
Sure MWR has it bad right now, but if there’s one organization on the ropes after race five of 36, it has to be Stewart-Haas Racing. The three-car effort has been unquestionably under the weather since expanding to house rookie Danica Patrick over the offseason.
America enjoyed free Bloomin’ Onions at Outback Steakhouse on Monday after Ryan Newman’s top-10 finish but not even a million of the appetizing treats could help owner Tony Stewart feel content.
Newman is the highest ranking SHR driver in the owner standings, but that isn’t saying much because he’s 22nd. The No. 39 driver leads his teammates with three top-10 finishes, however that number is marred by two DNFs in just five races.
Patrick managed an eighth-place finish at Daytona, but reality has hit the former INDYCAR driver quickly and she finds herself 29th in driver points, having struggled mightily over the last four weeks.
Juan Pablo Montoya is slotted one position behind Patrick after an abysmal day ended with a 38th-place finish. Montoya’s shifter broke apart from the gear box when he stalled on pit road with 79 laps remaining. Misfortunes escalated with transmission problems that sent the No. 42 Chevrolet to garage for a short time.
For the Earnhardt Ganassi driver, it’s gotten to the point where a top-10 finish is something out of the ordinary.