NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Five Points: Wins, Near-Wins and Wide-Open Spaces

ONE: Fontana

The #NASCARGoesWest swing — and how else to say it but with a ubiquitous hashtag –concludes this weekend with a trip to the two-mile, low-banked D-shaped oval of Auto Club Speedway.

This is the 20th-anniversary visit and the 28th time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup cars have traversed the (four) wide open spaces of a track that was much maligned but now produces some of the best racing on the circuit. This time last year it was Jimmie Johnson, appropriately in the Super Man livery, who got it done following a late restart and a dominant effort on the day from Kevin Harvick.

Statistically speaking, it was a huge win for Johnson who overtook Dale Earnhardt on the all-time win list – his then 78th top-echelon victory. And it’s a result the No. 48 team would love to replicate this Sunday afternoon after a relatively sluggish start to the season for the seven-time champion, who has secured just one top-10 finish (ninth at Phoenix International Raceway this past weekend). I, for one, can’t wait to see how the action transpires. I’m expecting a good one.

TWO: Newman!

Speaking of good things, how about that win for Ryan “the Rocket Man” Newman, who snapped a long winless streak of some 127 races for the 18th victory of his 18-year, 552-race career. It was also his first win since the Brickyard 400 in July 2013.

In the end, it was a late-race gamble by crew chief Luke Lambert, who eschewed the chance to pit instead staying out on worn rubber.

“I called for two tires and he called for none,” said an ebullient Newman post-race. “I’ve won more races on no tires than I have with four. I’m just proud of these guys. We had a good car all day. We kept it out of trouble and collected in the end.”

Now we’ve seen these sort of gambles backfire in spectacular fashion but Newman, widely noted as the hardest man to pass on the circuit, wasn’t going to be denied in what was a hugely morale boosting win for team owner Richard Childress and his RCR organization, who hadn’t tasted Victory Lane champagne for 112 races. Let’s not forget either, that Newman finished second in the 2014 championship behind Kevin Harvick – pushing it all the way to the final lap of the final race. Can he repeat that under this points system? Well, that remains to be seen but there’s no question it was great to see a veteran driver and team win one albeit in unlikely circumstances.

THREE: First Loser (again)

For the third time in the four races run this year, and the fourth in the last five going back to 2016, Kyle Larson finished in the not-so-coveted first-loser position. You might think this would be something that would already be irking the Elk Grove, CA, native. Quite the contrary.

“We’ve never had that speed,” noted Larson post-race, “It’s a lot of fun right now. I’m sure if I ran second for the next eight weeks, yeah, it’s probably going to grow old. But it’s so cool to be one of the fastest cars every week.”

And speed is something the Chip Ganassi teams appear to have in spades as evidenced also by veteran teammate Jamie McMurray who has run up front as well notching two top-10’s already in 2017. Of course the key for Larson will be converting these strong runs into actual trips to Victory Lane.

“The wins are going to come,” concurred Larson. “I could easily have four wins right now.”

With just one win in 115 races on his resume, the time is now for Larson to be making that victory total a crooked number. Watch this space, as they say, folks.

FOUR: Top 10 for Jones

Another driver with a good weekend was rookie Erik Jones, who wheeled his No. 77 5-hour Energy Toyota to his first top-10 at the Cup level in just his seventh attempt on the big-boy circuit. All told, it was an excellent weekend for Jones, who was near the top of the speed charts in practice before qualifying eighth and running around the top five all afternoon long in the race.

“This was our best weekend, for sure,” noted Jones of his eighth-place finish. “We got a lot better throughout the race and we made good adjustments all day, which made the car better. It’s the best put-together race we’ve had.”

Jones had previously tested at PIR in late January and it was this experience that helped give him a baseline for what was a successful weekend.

“I think every time we start coming back to these tracks for the second time, we’re just going to be that much better and that much stronger,” noted Jones.

And given his form so far, and that of his teammate Martin Truex Jr., there’s every reason to suspect this will indeed be the case.

FIVE: Busch vs Logano

And finally this week, a quick, and I promise, last word on the topic of Busch vs Logano (or, more accurately, Busch vs Logano’s crew.) It’s so easy when you write a weekly column to just go for the controversial comments or points of view so this one is the other way round.

What I want to say is that I was delighted to see no further penalties (besides the proverbial trip to the headmaster’s office for both drivers) were assessed.

“NASCAR was built on the racing that took place on the final lap by two drivers battling for position,” noted Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “The emotions of our athletes run high, and Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are two of the most passionate and competitive drivers in the sport. Both competitors are very clear on our expectations going forward…”

Well said, Mr. O’Donnell, well said.

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