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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2015 Auto Club 400 at Fontana

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered each week with the answers to six race-day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H… the Big Six.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

While Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske are grabbing attention by owning 80% of the wins in 2015, Richard Childress Racing has made significant gains as an organization, and it showed this weekend. Paul Menard and Ryan Newman scored top-five finishes, placing fourth and fifth respectively. Austin Dillon just missed the top 15. And it’s not just RCR’s house teams making a splash. It’s absolutely apparent that the information sharing with Furniture Row Racing, JTG Daugherty Racing and Germain Racing is paying off for all involved. Martin Truex Jr. finished in the top 10 for the fifth straight week, equaling his 2014 top 10 total before April. AJ Allmendinger and Casey Mears are 11th and 12th in driver points (ahead of, among others, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle), with Newman and Menard inside the top 10. The team still needs to make the final leap into Victory Lane, but each week it looks more and more like that’s coming.

What… beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?

For Joey Logano, it was a questionable call by NASCAR resulting in a penalty for an uncontrolled tire. The rules state that right-side tires must be moved to the inside half of the pit stall and be under the crew’s control. The crew does not have to have a hand on them at all times. Logano’s rear tire took a small bounce on the way back to the wall, but the crewman gathered it back in, and it never veered into the path of the rest of the pit crew or anywhere near the next pit box. Calling it an “uncontrolled” tire was overzealous on the part of officials, and it’s exactly the kind of penalty that makes fans question NASCAR’s integrity on rules enforcement.

A similar call on Hamlin was correct; the tire in question rolled outside of Hamlin’s pit stall and that’s a definite violation. Putting one wayward bounce within the team’s own stall that interferes with nothing and nobody the same thing was a big stretch.

Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?

Kurt Busch was on his own plane in practice, started on the pole, led the most laps and took the white flag in front of the field. The only thing he didn’t do was win the race. Busch had to settle for second after Brad Keselowski dive-bombed past him on the final lap. Still, for a driver whose entire future was uncertain a couple of weeks ago, and who endured a 2014 season plagued with inconsistency, it was a strong message that Busch isn’t done yet.

As for the debris, was there or wasn’t there? On the caution that set up the first green-white-checkered attempt, there was. The television cameras caught it, a small something in the racing groove. It was hard to tell what it was, but if it was metal, it could have caused a problem. The next caution was legit since the debris was Kyle Larson‘s entire rear panel. The non-call on Biffle? He drove away. There was no safety issue of a car sitting on the track. In other series, it wouldn’t even have been a question, but in Cup where NASCAR is notoriously heavy-handed with the yellow, it raised eyebrows. It wasn’t a bad call. It wasn’t a conspiracy. It’s actually a call that should be made more often if there’s no visible debris and the driver is able to drive away without shedding parts.

Kyle Busch won in Fontana a year ago, the last non-restrictor plate victory for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota. Still recuperating from a terrible Xfinity Series crash in Daytona, Busch had to watch this year’s edition from home while sub David Ragan took the reins. Ragan qualified fourth and was running inside the top 10 when he tangled with Jeff Gordon and spun. Ragan didn’t hit the wall but lost a lap in the pits. He eventually got that lap back and finished 18th, respectable after the incident, but not quite the ending the team wanted from a promising weekend.

When… did it all go sideways?

It wasn’t surprising that most of the leaders came in for tires on a last-minute caution, and it wasn’t a surprise that a few teams gambled and stayed out, hoping to improve their finishing position on the two-lap dash to the checkers. Gordon, Tony Stewart and Biffle all did just that and restarted at the front. Gordon and Stewart gave way as Kurt Busch caught them before the first turn, knowing they couldn’t hold him off; that was never the intent. But when Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a move to the inside of the slower No. 16, Biffle threw a block, creating mayhem.

As a result, Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson, both of whom were poised for top finishes, immediately lost several positions, and as Biffle fell back at a rapid pace, the field piled up accordion-style, causing contact among several other drivers, and ultimately, another caution as Larson’s rear panel flew through the air. Several drivers lost a large number of positions, including but hardly limited to Earnhardt, Johnson and Larson. When Biffle hit the wall after the next restart, a team release stated it was from contact with another car. Payback from one of the drivers he angered with his ill-advised block? Hard to say.

Why… did Keselowski win the race?

He made a hell of a move on the last lap. The dive-bomb he made on Busch was signature Keselowski: fearless and brash. What put him in position was a call to take four tires on the final pit stop when others took just two. Fontana’s abrasive surface chews tires up, with lap times falling off rapidly in as little as 10 laps, so it’s no surprise that the extra grip gave Keselowski the edge. It was wholly a legit win, though a Busch victory would have perhaps produced a more sensational headline. Keselowski doesn’t care about other people’s headlines.

How… did the little guys do?

Furniture Row Racing; Truex (No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy): Another week, another top 10. They’re so predictable it’s boring. This week, Truex finished eighth and sits third in driver points. This team is the real deal.

HScott Motorsports; Michael Annett & Justin Allgaier (No. 46 Cypress Chevy & No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Allgaier drove like a ninja in the closing laps, using stealth mode to slide in to a 12th-place finish, his career best. Annett was having problems with the purple Cypress machine for much of the day and came home 38th. His team is having some growing pains, but he showed last year that he is capable of better finishes, so there’s no need for this newly-expanded team to panic just yet.

Front Row Motorsports; Chris Buescher & Cole Whitt & David Gilliland (No. 34 Dockside Logistics Ford & No. 35 Rinnai Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): How about a top 20 for Buescher in his Cup debut? Buescher finished 20th, exactly the type of finish that the team needs to bring home more often this year. Whitt also had a strong run in 24th, hinting that this team is indeed showing growth. Gilliland struggled a bit this week, working his way from the back into the top 30, but falling back to 35th.

Germain Racing; Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Mears had an up-and-down weekend, finding some speed and moving up from his 36th-place start to contend for a top 20 by the closing laps. Unfortunately, Mears was one of the victims of Biffle’s questionable block, and fell to 31st before clawing his way back to 23rd. He’s still 12th in points, so all was not lost, other than a little pride.

Hillman Smith Racing: Landon Cassill (No. 40 Precon Marine Chevy): For the second week in a row, Cassill finished in the top 25 (25th) and on the lead lap. That’s a great couple of weeks for a team with this one’s budget, and illustrates perfectly the rift between the big teams and the ones who fight week to week to stay in the game.

Circle Sport; Brian Scott (No.33 Whitetail Chevy): When Scott’s in the car, the team runs RCR equipment, and RCR (and its various affiliates) has been running strong in recent weeks, so Scott’s solid early run wasn’t totally uncharacteristic. Scott fell back to 27th at the end, but the influx of money, experience and equipment he brings can only benefit the team at the end of the day.

Tommy Baldwin Racing; Alex Bowman (No. 7 Nikko/Toy State Chevy): Bowman’s 33rd-place run illustrates that TBR isn’t quite where they were in 2014, but it’s hard to say whether that’s due to the team itself or the driver. Annett had some promising runs for TBR last year, but it’s hard to pin anything on Bowman, as competition is tight even among the sport’s smallest teams.

JTG Daugherty Racing; Allmendinger (No. 47 Scott Products Chevy): It’s rare for Earnhardt-Childress power plants to have problems, but they do happen, and this week, they happened to Allmendinger. Running on seven cylinders for most of the race, Allmendinger was able to finish, but the 10 mph it cost him in the form of a 34th-place finish, a rarity for this team these days. He fell to 11th in points but can certainly bounce back and make the Chase for a second year.

Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Curb records/Lee Brice Ford): Wise could use a little boost. After finishing 36th, his average finish is a couple of spots lower than last year. The team is finishing races, which is great, but can it show it’s capable of more? That’s still a question.

BK Racing; JJ Yeley & Jeb Burton & Matt DiBenedetto (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 26 Maxim.com Toyota & No. 83 Burger King Toyota): A couple of years ago, BK looked to be making positive steps. It was building new cars and making gains in the finishing order. Since then, though, the team has fallen back a few strides. This week, Yeley was the top finisher in 37th, with Burton 39th and DiBenedetto 42nd.

GoFAS Racing; Mike Bliss (No. 32 King Taco Ford): This team keeps plugging, and it has some solid people within. What’s the key to the next step? Perhaps it should take a page from the Hillman book with a young, talented driver like Cassill, who can bring in some sponsorship dollars and help it to the next level. It looked like the team was doing that a couple of years ago with Timmy Hill, but there hasn’t been any momentum since.

Jay Robinson Racing; Brendan Gaughan (No. 62 Chevy): Gaughan is a solid journeyman driver doing his best for a team whose owner is in over his head. Gaughan finished 41st, and while suspending operations of the second team was a positive step for Robinson, it’s not going to turn around overnight.

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5 thoughts on “The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2015 Auto Club 400 at Fontana”

  1. Re “The non-call on Biffle? He drove away. There was no safety issue of a car sitting on the track. In other series, it wouldn’t even have been a question, but in Cup where NASCAR is notoriously heavy-handed with the yellow, it raised eyebrows.”

    How many times have we seen a single file race with no passing where you just can feel NASCAR looking for any excuse to throw a caution. More times than not, if someone spins out in the exact same manner as Biffle, the caution flies. Personally, I don’t think a caution should have been thrown but we have all seen a caution thrown for less if NASCAR is looking for a reason to bunch them back up.

    NASCAR’s motives are so obvious that it’s no wonder why so many fans have walked away. Is it a sport or reality television? If it’s a sport than ass-kickings are part of the deal.

    • Normally a spin isn’t even required, how about a hard bump against the wall….especially if Jr, Danica, or Jimmy are about to go down to the leader.

  2. 1) Who is DAnny Hamlin, and 2) Kurt Busch finished 3rd, not 2nd. Need to make sure your editor has an extra cup of coffee or 2 in the morning.

  3. My only issue was the #22 pit penalty. In my opinion (imo), that is definitely an unwarranted level of scrutiny! But the debris caution scrutinizing is typical. Now-a-days there is a much greater level of camera coverage & personnel trackside, so debris situations are more recognizable, hence more numerous. Regarding the Biff incident, imo, the difference many SHR fans fail to recognize is with the Daytona 500 they had a multi-car incident occur mid-pack. It was the presence of debris (fluids & metal bits) & disabled cars on track before oncoming traffic that necessitated that yellow flag. At California, there was no such oncoming traffic or debris. With the onset of SAFER walls & Gen 6 car construction, it is relatively commonplace for cars to make wall contact & go on, with no need for Nascar intervention, especially in the absence of oncoming traffic, but imo, don’t hold your breath waiting for SHR fans to acknowledge that.
    And Kudos to KuBu & RCR. But for me the stand out performance was the #34 FRM Ford of Chris Buescher. We’ve seen many a stout run by a kid recently. He has a very bright future!

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