Auto Club Speedway — once a “cookie-cutter” track in every sense of the term — has developed a unique identity, becoming notorious for exciting racing as its pavement has worn. The trade-off is accelerated tire wear caused by the tar-filled seams and rough, bumpy areas that populate the two-mile oval.
Goodyear’s current Fontana tire compound was under constant stress on Sunday, its third appearance, and aggressive camber settings only increased the high amount of flats and blowouts that occurred in practice. Ultimately, how long fresh rubber lasted, along with how long drivers could handle it controlled the flow of a caution-filled Auto Club 400.
Drivers who embraced the importance, along with the luck of keeping their cars intact dominate the upper tiers of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not this week. Those whose cars could not hold up, tires trashing their sheet metal have another demanding assignment ahead in Martinsville Speedway this week, where durability is of the utmost importance. Are their welders prepared to work overtime?
The white flag has become an invitation for Kyle Busch when he visits Southern California. The No. 18 entered the final lap trailing a pair of Stewart-Haas Racing teammates, but that did not prevent him from returning to Victory Lane. Busch went back-to-back in Fontana, becoming only the second driver to do so in the track’s history despite only leading five laps — jumping from Row 3 on the green-white-checkered to seize control. Busch, now armed with that “Chase win” has posted four victories overall in NASCAR’s Cup, Nationwide, and Truck Series so far in 2014.
Kyle Larson made a run at Busch in Turn 3 but ended up second after being blocked by the Joe Gibbs Racing star. Larson got there after weaving his way through five-wide traffic during the early stages of a hectic green-white-checkered finish. The rookie posted a career-best mark a day after getting his first Nationwide Series win, giving him back-to-back top 10s of his own on the Cup level.
Tony Stewart is also streaking. A week after a fourth at Bristol, Smoke took another positive stride in his return thanks to a gutsy call on the final pit stop. Crew chief Chad Johnston opted for a two-tire strategy — risky because no one attempted that approach before the No. 14 team — that put Stewart third upon exit. He then crossed the line fifth, despite two worn Goodyears and an early spin that temporarily relegated him to 43rd.
Carl Edwards became the Sprint Cup Series points leader a week after winning in Bristol, but it wasn’t easy. Edwards was among those hurt by tire wear; a lap 117 flat left rear sent him into the grass and back to 37th. The No. 99 later received a Lucky Dog to get onto the lead lap and came under the checkered flag in 10th. The highest-finishing Ford, Cousin Carl was the only one to crack the top 20 and continued a streak of four top-10 results on the Cup level.
Tire issues? What tire issues?
A fortunate few avoided the complications that defined the afternoon for so many others. An even smaller group will carry those lax SoCal mindsets back to Martinsville, where they have had plenty going for them in recent years.
Matt Kenseth is among those who fit into both categories. He started the week off right, knocking out the field in qualifying to receive his first Coors Light Pole Award of the season and first ever at Auto Club. Kenseth later secured a fourth, utilizing track position and numerous quality stops on race day.
The No. 20 team now returns to the shortest Sprint Cup track, where Kenseth tied a career-best mark with a second during the 2013 Chase. Could Sunday be the day he gets his first win of 2014?
Another driver with success in both locales might surprise some people. However, anyone who watched Happy Hour will understand why Brian Vickers did so well Sunday. The No. 55 led the way in the final tune-up session, clad in a special TreatMyClot.com scheme.
Vickers then turned fast preliminary times into a solid performance, consistently staying inside the top 10, then charging back from a mid-race speeding penalty before coming home with a season-best seventh.
Vickers has also developed into something of a short-track specialist. Since joining Michael Waltrip Racing, his showings at tracks like the Paperclip have received a boost. Vickers piloted the No. 55 to an eighth there in 2012 and followed that up with an 11th last April. Ninth at Bristol, two weeks ago this team is building momentum towards a Chase run after a slow start to 2014.
Meanwhile, Paul Menard greeted the birth of daughter Remi Barbara Christine Menard with a ninth in California. Menard took over for backup driver Matt Crafton and ran one practice session before starting the No. 27 from the rear of the field. So far this season, he’s got a 6.0 average finish on intermediates compared to a gaudy 25.3 everywhere else.
Menard’s was not the only noteworthy driver change we saw at Fontana. Denny Hamlin was forced to miss his highly anticipated return to the track, out because of a severe sinus infection that adversely affected his vision Sunday morning.
The decision to send Hamlin to the hospital for further evaluation came just 70 minutes before the drop of the green. Joe Gibbs Racing then summoned part-timer Sam Hornish, Jr. — on call for expectant father Matt Kenseth — who piloted the No. 11 Toyota to 17th.
Hamlin’s rivalry with Joey Logano came to an abrupt end during the 2013 Auto Club 400, and their return to Fontana was arguably a contributing factor to the sellout crowd on hand this year. Fans witnessed a different kind of story, however, as Hamlin no-showed and Logano did not fare much better.
It appeared Logano would be a factor in the second half of the race after going to a backup car in Happy Hour, but a rear-end gear broke inside the No. 22 on lap 114 and he labored home to a 39th. Logano, after a hot start has now spent two consecutive weeks outside the top 10, encountering mechanical problems in both cases.
That was just half of a disappointing West Coast trip for Team Penske. Brad Keselowski entered Fontana with an advantage atop the standings, but left in fourth thanks to a flat on lap 190 that left the No. 2 team with a disappointing 26th.
Keselowski looked uncharacteristically good around the speedway until that moment, having led for 38 laps, and overcame a missed stop caused by a pit road entry light malfunction.
NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton announced that the red light was left on accidentally by an official whose uniform became stuck in the fence, preventing him from turning off the signal. It’s a hard-luck moment, for a second straight week that has NASCAR decision-makers pushing for a race with no mistakes on Sunday.
Auto Club left Kevin Harvick searching for answers after the No. 4 succumbed to parts failures. Since winning Phoenix, Harvick has experienced a letdown in every race that has followed. He recovered from an early blowout to race among the leaders, but a second one doomed him, leaving the SHR Chevrolet two laps down in 36th.
Harvick was not the only driver to suffer under the Golden State sun. Aric Almirola’s finishing position ended up matching his car number because of bad luck.
Heavy traffic ahead of Almirola forced him off the gas on lap 70, and Brian Scott made contact with the No. 43 exiting turn 4. Almirola and Scott went sliding into the infield, where the Petty Motorsports Fusion violently entered the grass, partially destroying its front end.
Almirola went on a rare on-air tirade directed towards Scott afterward, calling the No. 33 a “dart without feathers.” There’s a reason he got so upset, dropping to 26th in points and watching momentum from his Bristol race, a third the week before get completely squandered.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. did not find solace at Fontana, either. A strenuous green-flag stint over the closing laps tested the No. 17 Fusion’s tires, and Stenhouse could not make it for the duration, slumping to 34th after a flat forced a late pit stop. His post0race quotes went from bad to worse: calling out his crew, claiming his car was a “40th-place” effort and saying they simply needed to get better. One thing’s for certain; Stenhouse needed a better finish to provide a buffer for what lies ahead in Virginia. As a rookie, he averaged 28th in two starts at the Martinsville paperclip.
At least Stenhouse has raced there with a high-profile organization. Parker Kligerman has no Martinsville experience at the NSCS level, meaning he’ll have to rely on an inexperienced No. 30 Swan Racing team that has produced no finish better than 29th and three DNFs. California was the ugliest yet, with a wreck on-track Kligerman blamed on Casey Mears when the driver, according to TV replays wasn’t within 50 feet of the crash. (Mears has since gone to Twitter and apologized for contact we apparently didn’t see; however, most TV viewers will never hear that side of the story).
Time is ticking for Kligerman these days — and no, that’s not a reference to the large Ridgeway Clocks awarded to every Martinsville winner.