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Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2014 Auto Club 400 at Fontana

Key Moment – When five drivers lost tires between laps 193 and 197, a caution finally came out. All of the lead lap cars except for Landon Cassill hit pit lane. Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Paul Menard took two tires, moving to the front while the remainder of lead-lap cars took four. In the end, the four tires of Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson prevailed, though Kurt Busch managed a third-place finish, hanging on with his two-tire strategy.

In a Nutshell – NASCAR somehow managed to throw the 2-mile oval of Auto Club Speedway into a time machine; the late 1990s emerged in 2014. Goodyear brought a tire that would wear out and teams were too aggressive with setups, ultimately killing that rubber and bringing out six of nine cautions on the day. The teams that did figure it out were part of the 15 cars who had 35 lead changes, a track record. A wild day saw the final pass for the lead take place on the final lap, during a green-white-checkered finish as Kyle Busch passed his brother and kept Larson at bay to take the win.

Dramatic Moment(s) – After Jimmie Johnson flattened his tire, then Clint Bowyer spun out, the race came down to the drivers who were strong on the short run and the drivers who took two tires on that last stop.

Every 20 laps or so, it was not a matter of “if” a Goodyear tire was going to blow but who it was going to happen to, where, and whether it would cause a caution.

The green-white-checkered finish was about as heart-stopping an ending as you’ll get. The cars were three-wide, all over the pack, for nearly two straight laps until the checkered flag.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

Denny Hamlin called out sick for the Auto Club 400. Roughly 30 minutes before the “start your engines” command for Sunday’s race, Hamlin complained of blurred vision due to a sinus infection. Sam Hornish Jr., who spent Saturday on call as a sub for Matt Kenseth, was tapped to fill in for Hamlin at the last minute. Hamlin, who failed the “follow the finger test” was taken to a local hospital for further evaluation before the race began. Since the driver attempted to qualify, Hamlin should still be eligible for the Chase provided he can win a race and end up in the top 30 in series points. Ironically, it was Auto Club Speedway that knocked him out of contention last season after an incident with Joey Logano late in the race. Hamlin was released on Sunday evening and will be evaluated later in the week at Charlotte.

There were some tire issues at Auto Club Speedway this weekend. But while they are categorized that way, they are actually setup and configuration issues, according to many. Goodyear provides minimum and maximum values for multiple variables involved with race tires on a weekend. Some teams chose to exceed those recommendations and, as a result, had tire failures. The beauty of racing at Fontana, with the 17-year-old asphalt, is that the tires wear out and it is up to the drivers to conserve their equipment. Abusing the tires can cause a problem, but it isn’t the manufacturers’ fault. Hopefully, Goodyear will point this discrepancy out and continue to bring tires that wear to racetracks. That’s preferable instead of trying to engineer safety into the rubber, at the expense of racing in order to save face.

Money makes the racing world go ‘round these days and the number of drivers who have rides because they bring money to the table is quite long. But while some of the drivers who have rides have them solely on their parent’s money, some don’t deserve to be held in as much contempt as they receive. Brian Scott was called out by Aric Almirola after their wreck on lap 70, when Scott swept up from the bottom of the track to the primary lane on the front straight and made contact with the left rear of Almirola’s car. Almirola called out Scott after the incident, saying “He’s just out here racing for fun and his daddy gets to pay for it.” Well, that may be true, but Scott also has two wins in the Camping World Truck Series and 11 top fives in 62 starts. That’s in addition to eight top fives, including a near-win at Richmond last Fall in 147 Nationwide starts. While those numbers won’t set the world on fire, it isn’t like Scott is a slouch.

Four years ago, Auto Club Speedway surrendered a race date because the attendance for both of their races was lacking, significantly below the NASCAR average. Many fans complained about the racing because of the lack of passing at the front of the pack. Now, for the second year in a row, the race at Auto Club Speedway was exceptional with a tremendous finish. Add to that the fact the race was sold out and it would sound like the future is bright in southern California. However, after a quick look at one simple fact, the joy needs to be tempered a little bit. The facility reduced their seating capacity to 68,000 for 2014. That is nearly 100,000 less than Bristol Motor Speedway and 3,000 more than Martinsville Speedway. While it is great that the race sold out, leading to Standing Room Only tickets, Fontana isn’t drawing nearly as many people as they should from the second-largest metropolitan area in the United States.

Fans normally complain that racing is too far removed from the old school days, but Auto Club Speedway was a throwback to yesteryear when it comes to the tests of man and machine. Kasey Kahne lost a rear hub seal, Logano lost a rear gear, multiple drivers lost tires, and several more bounced off the wall. While the race was only 400 miles rather than the traditional 500, it still pushed many aspects of the teams to their absolute limits.

It was noted after Las Vegas that the on-track passes for the lead have doubled from the previous year. At least some of that was attributable to the new rules that do not enforce a post-race ride height measurement. The benefit has been at least some reduction of the infamous aero push that prevents cars from completing the pass when they get close to the leader. Sunday’s event seemed to confirm that, as the track record 35 lead changes included nine passes on track for the top spot.

Larson has been garnering a lot of attention and some have questioned whether it is warranted. Well, Larson silenced at least some of his critics by not only winning the Nationwide race on Saturday, but holding off Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick over the last 16 laps of the race, including losing the lead by inches to Busch on lap 145. He followed it up with a surgical move through traffic on the final restart of the Cup race to move from ninth to fourth on his way to a runner-up finish.

Speaking of Larson, I’m hearing that NASCAR had a talk with him about the victory celebration after his Nationwide Series win on Saturday. I could understand if Larson was driving across the finish line with his wheel out the window, or running down pit lane after the race without the wheel on — that might be a problem. But he is on the racetrack, by himself when doing the donuts! Fans scream for drivers with personality and once again, the suits in Daytona are stifling them. Hopefully, he’ll continue to win and continue to do donuts with the steering wheel out the window.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Aric Almirola was minding his own business, next to the wall on the exit of turn 4 when Hornish Jr. pulled up in front and caused him to check up. As his car slowed, it fell into the path of Scott, who was swinging up to the wall from the apron of the track. Scott made contact with Almirola, spinning him to the infield and damaging the No. 43 car enough to knock it right out of the race. Almirola was coming off of a successful run at Bristol, a career-best third and looking to ride the wave of momentum that provided. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it to the end to find out how well that would carry over to Auto Club.

Johnson was the car to beat for the majority of this event. But as the laps were winding down, making his first win of 2014 a near certainty the left-front tire on Johnson’s car gave up with seven to go. The tire let go on the back straight, which resulted in him losing a lap by the time he made it around to the pits. In the end, Johnson finished in 24th, a late caution giving him a lap back but not the track position needed to contend.

The new rules are giving teams a myriad of options when setting up their cars, but the forces and demands applied to them have never been dealt with. As a result, there are more part failures happening over the first five weeks of the season than have happened in many years. Kahne lost a seal on his right rear hub that cost him 26 laps and ended up saddling him with a 41st-place finish.

The “Seven Come Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

AJ Allmendinger took advantage of the total chaos on the final lap to come home with a season-best, eighth-place finish. He had been running in the teens the vast majority of the day but swept to the top 10 as the cars were spread out everywhere over the final two laps. Prior to Fontana, Allmendinger’s best run of the season was an 18th at Las Vegas. Prior to Sunday, JTG-Daugherty hadn’t run that well since a seventh, in July 2011 with Bobby Labonte as their driver.

Larson scored the win in the Nationwide race on Saturday but wasn’t much of a factor for most of the race on Sunday, spending it in the teens and back end of the top 10. When the final restart of the race happened, he was sitting in ninth place. But the field fanned out, from the top to the bottom of the track in turns 1 and 2 the seas parted for Larson. He shot through the middle of the pack and found himself in fourth as the cars spilled onto the backstretch. He then worked his way past the Stewart-Haas cars of Busch and Stewart to score a second-place result.

Stewart brought out a caution flag on lap 57 with a spin on the backstretch. He scored the Lucky Dog on the lap 71 yellow and ran around 15th for much of the rest of the day until the final pit stop. A two-tire call put him in third position, and he managed to hang on until the checkered flag for a second straight top-five result. Stewart hasn’t been running that well over the last two races, but manufacturing finishes can build the confidence and momentum for a team that can eventually pay off.

Worth Noting

  • 17 drivers, of 43 starters had tire problems during the event.
  • Kyle Busch’s win was his 29th in 334 career Cup Series starts. The win puts him in sole possession of 23rd on the all-time wins list, two behind his teammate Kenseth for 22nd.
  • The win is Busch’s third career victory at Auto Club Speedway, including his second straight. He has eight career top fives and 12 career top 10s at the facility in Fontana, California.
  • Larson’s runner-up finish was his first career second and first career top five in the Cup Series. He now has two top-10 finishes in five races this season.
  • Larson was obviously the highest finishing rookie in the race.
  • Kurt Busch’s podium finish (third) is his fourth of his career at Auto Club and his sixth top five there in 21 starts.
  • Johnson led the most laps at 104 of the 206 laps run. 15 drivers were involved in the 35 lead changes during the race.
  • 24 cars finished on the lead lap, the most in a race this season.
  • Hornish ran 17th in the No. 11 after finding out 30 minutes before the green flag that he would be driving in the race.

What’s the Points?

After Brad Keselowski finished the race one lap down in 26th, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to chase multiple tire issues during the day, the points lead was left wide open. Carl Edwards rebounded from a spin to finish 10th, pushing him to the top spot in the standings after just five races this season. Earnhardt Jr. put in a workman-like performance that resulted in a 12th-place result, dropping him one point behind Edwards. Jeff Gordon, meanwhile was poised to break into the win column and grab the point lead before the final caution of the race set up the green-white-checkered finish. Unfortunately, Gordon was not strong the first few laps of a run all day and, as a result, slipped back to a 13th-place result. He now sits two points out of the top spot in the standings after Fontana. Keselowski has not lost sight of the leaders as he sits just four points behind Edwards and three ahead of Kenseth, whose fourth-place finish has him sitting fifth in the point standings.

Johnson’s disappointing 24th-place result finds him sixth in points, 21 in arrears to Edwards. Kyle Busch rides the wave of momentum from his win to seventh, 28 behind Cousin Carl. Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon are tied for eighth at 150 each, 36 out of the lead. Rounding out the top 10 in points is Logano. His rear end gear failure cost him 11 laps, but he hangs on to 10th, 40 away from the lead.

After five races this season, there are five different drivers who have won races. While each one isn’t guaranteed a spot in the Chase, they are in good shape. The winners include:

Daytona – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Phoenix – Kevin Harvick
Las Vegas – Brad Keselowski
Bristol – Carl Edwards
Fontana – Kyle Busch

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – “That’s a Days of Thunder thing right there!” is what Kyle Busch said in Victory Lane. Cars spread from the top of the track to the bottom, some on two tires, most of four, one on none, it was wide open to the finish. Drivers wore out tires, cars broke parts and some were able to run all day without issue. While no one slid across the finish line on fire, 35 lead changes, nine on-track passes for the lead and racing everywhere garners six frosty American Lagers for this one. Two years in a row, Fontana has put on fantastic shows. Hopefully, the message has been delivered to track owners and Goodyear: don’t repave your track unless there are enormous pot holes and make tires that wear out.

Next Up – The series now heads to the oldest track on the schedule which is also the shortest. After two great races, the table is set to make it three in a row. Martinsville Speedway hosts the 131st Cup race in the track’s history at 1:00 ET on FOX. The race will also be available on MRN radio.

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