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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big Six: Questions Answered After the 2016 Auto Club 400

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

From the “where did he come from?” category, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. didn’t look like a top-5 threat this weekend…until he was.  Stenhouse qualified 15th, and ran in the top 15 for most of the day, occasionally cracking the lower half of the top 10.  He had worked his way to 10th just before the final caution of the day flew for Kyle Busch, and good pit strategy and solid driving in the wild final laps did the rest as Stenhouse brought it home fifth, his fourth career top-5 finish and his first since Bristol last spring.

What… is the takeaway from this race?

One: old surfaces make for the best races. Had Fontana raced like this years ago, it would have deserved the two races it had for a time.  If you’d said five or 10 years ago that one of the best races of the year would be at Fontana, people would have thought you were absolutely crazy, and the two-mile oval really isn’t nearly as conducive to stock car racing as it is to Indy cars, but the worn pavement (it feels rougher than sandpaper to the touch) has made for multiple grooves, and Sunday’s race was an instant classic despite the lack of a photo finish.

Spotters earned their paychecks all day long, calling drivers through two- and sometimes three- or four-wide battles for position throughout the field.  The final restart was mayhem, and yet the mayhem was contained, with no pileup to mar the ending. Atlanta and Fontana, with the oldest racing surfaces on the circuit, produced the two best races of the year…which shows that the low-downforce package coupled with a softer tire is a huge step in the right direction.

Two: Racing has come a long way over the years, but perhaps the biggest innovation in the sport in the last quarter century is the introduction of SAFER barriers and head and neck restraints.  Kyle Larson took a brutal hit on Sunday, crushing the front end of his No. 42 Chevy after a tire went down and cut a brake line.  Replays of the crash showed the SAFER barrier giving on impact, and Larson, though sore, walked away from the crash.  Time was, that might not have happened, and instead of talking about a fantastic race, we’d be pondering life and death on Monday.  This is Dale Earnhardt’s real legacy, though it should have taken his tragic death to ring a wake-up call through the industry.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade /NKP)
On Sunday, Jimmie Johnson was at once the hero and the kid who dreamed of being one. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade /NKP)

Where… did the pole sitter and the defending race winner wind up?

Austin Dillon had a great start to the weekend, winning the pole for the Auto Club 400 and stealing a victory from Kyle Busch in the XFINITY Series race Saturday. He ran in the top 10 for the first half of Sunday’s race, but fell into the teens late and lost a slew of positions on the final restart.  Dillon finished 24th, his worst of the season so far.  He’s shown that he’s capable of running with the big dogs, but so far he hasn’t been able to lead the pack when it matters.

Brad Keselowski came to California with confidence on his side after winning at Las Vegas two weeks ago, but he never got back on that horse this weekend. Keselowski qualified 15th and raced in and out of the top 10 Sunday and came back from a pit road penalty for an uncontrolled tire, but he never really looked like a threat to win, and while he tried to make a charge at the end, he finished ninth—not a bad day, really, and it snagged him a couple of spots in points, where he’s ninth as well.

When… did it all go sideways?

It would be easy to blame Goodyear for the myriad of tire failures that marred Sunday’s race, but it would also be short-sighted. The softer tire the manufacturer brought made the race reminiscent of the old days at Darlington and Rockingham, where drivers would be crying for tires long before the end of a fuel run if they didn’t take care of them, and drivers who were slow at the beginning of a run would often find themselves passing several cars later on.  Fans have been clamoring for a softer tire for a long time and Goodyear delivered.  With a tire that wears out, there will be failures, no way around that, and this tire made the racing exciting all day long, failures aside.

And some of the blame does go to the teams—aggressive setups and poor tire management during a run is on them, not Goodyear.  Several teams who ran conservatively early reported that their tires looked fine when they changed a set.  What the softer tire did was everything it should have—it brought back strategy where the line between too aggressive and too conservative was razor thin.

Why… did Jimmie Johnson win the race?

It seems simultaneously like yesterday and a lifetime ago that a young driver leapt into the arms of his crew at Auto Club Speedway after winning his first NASCAR Cup race.  At the time, Jimmie Johnson was thrilled to have won a race.  14 years and 76 more wins have passed with six titles along the way, but Johnson celebrated the win like it was his first, diving into the waiting arms of his team, celebrating like the champion he is but looking, for just a moment, a little like the little boy in Superman Underoos dreaming of greatness and a lot like the young driver who’d found himself on an April day in 2011.

On what would be the last long run of the race, Johnson faded to where he looked out of contention entirely, but a late caution and fantastic pit work breathed new life intp the No. 48 on the green-white-checkered.  Johnson restarted third, behind Kevin Harvick when leader Denny Hamlin opted for the outside lane.  Joey Logano started behind Hamlin and got a terrible start while Johnson was able to push Harvick past Hamlin and then make his own run for the lead.  From there, it was lights out as Johnson took sole possession of seventh on the all-time wins list. Making sixth this season would be a big stretch as Johnson would need six wins to tie Bobby Allison at 83, but that and Darrell Waltrip’s 84-win mark are obtainable in the next couple of seasons.

How… did the little guys do?

The three best:

(Photo: Russell LaBounty / NKP)
Small team photo of the week: Jeffrey Earnhardt thinking things over at Fontana. (Photo: Russell LaBounty / NKP)

JTG Daugherty Racing – AJ Allmendinger: Allmendinger was strong all weekend, qualifying just outside the top 10 and racing in the top 15 most of the day, though he had to start at the back of the field after a gear change and a couple of early pit stops nearly cost him a lap before he got on sequence with the field.

This team looks a step ahead of where they were a year ago, and while they’re still aways away from looking like Furniture Row Racing did on its rise to elite status, they’re running more like a mid-level team now than the others in this group. Allmendinger’s a threat on the road courses in any case, but if they keep the game strong, they could point their way into the Chase with a few gains.

Front Row Motorsports – Landon Cassill: Landon Cassill can get more out of a car than he ought to sometimes, and with a step up to Front Row Motorsports, finishes like this show why Cassill is one of the best-kept secrets in the series. The team used late strategy to gain track position, and on the green-white-checker, it was up to Cassill to get all he could.  He got more than a lot of drivers in much more expensive cars did en route to finishing a very strong 16th.

Germain Racing – Casey Mears: To hear Mears on the radio, you’d have thought he was struggling to run 30th, not racing for 20th, 15th and, briefly, 10th.  The driver complained throughout the race that his car wouldn’t turn, but he picked off cars all the same, running as high as 11th in the closing laps. At one point, Mears fell to the low 20’s after a minor pit fire caused the need for multiple stops under caution, but he did gain the spots back. He slid back to 17th before the final restart, fell to 21st at the white flag, and then got past four cars on the final lap to finish a strong-looking 17th. This team and driver are capable of finishing in the top 20 most weeks and in the top 15 in a good one…and it’s time to prove it.

All the rest:

No. Driver Team Car Start Finish +/- Points Position
47 AJ Allmendinger JTG Daugherty Racing Food 4 Less / Scott Products Chevy 11th 8th
Started in rear after gear change; running inside top 10 before halfway; lost a lap after unscheduled pit stop but cycled back
+3 19th
+1
38 Landon Cassill Front Row Motorsports MDS Transport Ford 35th 16th
Made gains all race; in and out of top 25 as he fought a tight car, played good strategy on final caution to finish 16th-a very good day for this team
+19 28th
+1
13 Casey Mears Germain Racing GEICO Chevy 23rd 17th
Running ok at halfway, pit fire cost a lot of spots; Mears complained a lot about not being able to turn, but he was able to pass cars
+6 26th
+1
15 Clint Bowyer HScott Motorsports 5 Hour Energy Chevy 29th 18th
First top-20 finish of 2016 for Bowyer
+9 31st
+3
23 David Ragan BK Racing Dr. Pepper Toyota 35th 22nd
Team making significant strides so far in 2016 w/ Ragan and DiBenedetto and MWR equipment—another good day
+13 30th
+1
7 Regan Smith Tommy Baldwin Racing AIPAC Chevy 28th 23rd
Solid day; narrowly missed being collected in Danica Patrick spin; team noted solid pit work all day. 3rd top 25 in 5 races; had 8 top 25s in all of 2015
+5 23rd
98 Cole Whitt Premium Motorsports Rinnai Chevy 36th 26th
Quiet on the radio during first half of race but moved up in second half
+10 37th
+2
83 Matt DiBenedetto BK Racing Cosmo Motors Toyota 33rd 27th
Gear issues early; caused problems on pit road; stayed on lead lap until penalty on green flag stop for removing equipment; brushed wall at halfway but continued
+6 33rd
46 Michael Annett HScott Motorsports Pilot Flying J Chevy 38th 29th
Annett brings money to the team but was keeping him over Justin Allgaier really best for the team overall?
+9 34th
-2
95 Michael McDowell Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing WRL General Contractors Ford 30th 31st
Interesting stat: average start is about three spots lower than 2015…but average finish is four spots higher
-1 32nd
-2
34 Chris Buescher Front Row Motorsports Love’s Travel Stops Ford 16th 33rd
Great qualifying effort; had a tire go down and tagged the wall hard enough to bring out first caution; maintained at one lap down until late in race
-17 35th
32 Jeffery Earnhardt GO FAS Racing Ford 39th 34th
One of just a couple of cars multiple laps down without having major incident; did have a pass-through penalty for speeding in pits
+5 39th
+2
21 Ryan Blaney Wood Brothers Racing Motorcraft / Quick Lane Ford 14th 35th
Ran in top 15 most of the race until a crash with five laps to go sent him to garage early
-21 17th
-5
30 Josh Wise The Motorsport Group SBC Contractors Chevy 37th 36th
Multiple laps down but not involved in anything on track
+1 38th
-1

 

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