Who’s in the headline – Kyle Larson had been knocking on the door of a second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win all season with three consecutive second-place finishes. He took the final step Sunday after winning the pole on Friday. Larson won the first stage, finished second in the second stage, led the most laps and won the race. He survived four cautions over the final 21 laps of the race, including passes on Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., who each stayed out on the penultimate caution of the event.
What happened – Larson led at the drop of the rag, and aside from a couple of stints by Truex at the point, dominated the race except for cycles of green-flag pit stops. Larson managed to make the only on-track passes for the lead (two) during the event. In the end, the race came down to a tire strategy call on a caution with seven laps to go. He came down pit lane, while Hamlin and Truex rolled the dice on older tires. Larson bypassed Hamlin before the final caution waved and then ran away during the overtime finish. Brad Keselowski came home second, ahead of Clint Bowyer, who scored his best finish in 61 races. Truex and Joey Logano rounded out the top five.
Why you should care – Fontana has been one of the best race tracks on the schedule for years thanks to the well-aged asphalt. 20 years since the track was paved has resulted in one of the highest character tracks on the circuit. The racing surface allows drivers to run from the top to the bottom and everywhere in-between. It is the ideal racing that some fans hope to see. While the cars aren’t in packs, they are all over the track and can make passes even if a car is in front with clean air. The thing that gives you the biggest concern is that, just like Atlanta, the tracks that provide the best racing on the schedule had massive amounts of empty seats. The TV money is still carrying the sport, but it is a question how long it can keep doing that.
What your friends are talking about – The talk over the last week has been about penalties, or lack there of. The sanctioning body did not issue any penalties for the post-race altercation at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. They followed that up by simply issuing a warning to Austin Dillon after he pinned Cole Custer against the wall during the XFINITY race at Phoenix International Raceway last week. The surprise about the Dillon decision was drivers had been warned during the drivers meeting about using their cars to retaliate. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was one of the drivers vocally questioning where the line is that will result in fines and/or suspensions. When that line is crossed it will certainly be questioned after these recent decisions.
The other penalties being discussed were handed down to Paul Wolfe and Rodney Childers after Phoenix. Wolfe was penalized for the car failing to meet rear steer requirements. Wolfe was assessed an L1 penalty, which includes a $65,000 fine, a three race suspension and a loss of 35 driver and owner points. Childers was assessed an L1 penalty as well for an unapproved trackbar slider assembly. Childers penalty is a $25,000 fine, a one race suspension and a loss of 10 driver and owner points. Wolfe has begun serving his penalty, while Childers has elected to appeal his penalty and was still on top of the box for Kevin Harvick in California.
The decision to move the XFINITY series to Indianapolis Motor Speedway continues to get worse. After ripping the date away from Lucas Oil Raceway, the race has played to smaller crowds each and every year at the big track. In an effort to try and bring excitement to the event, NASCAR has decided to put restrictor plates on the cars. A test a few months ago saw slingshot passes and no driver leading consecutive laps. The worry is that tests are not races and things are different once cars turn laps in anger. Cars most likely will not be able to run side-by-side in the corners and that will be a hindrance for sure. For more discussion on this development, check out the Frontstretch podcast : https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/frontstretch/id1023154421
Rick Hendrick needs to hit the ATM on his way home from California and make sure that he’s got a decent balance in his checking account. Both Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson are reported to be in talks with Mr. H on contract extensions. Earnhardt stated early in the year, that he wanted to put a few races behind him before he talked to the boss about a new deal. It appears as though that is happening now. It will be interesting to see what Johnson’s next deal looks like. It was about this time in his career that Jeff Gordon was awarded a “lifetime’ contract.” You’d have to think the driver who has won the most championships for the organization, and will probably be the all-time win leader for the company, will get a permanent gig.
Kurt Busch has wound up in court again. After being sued by his former agent for $1.4 million in unpaid and future fees for terminating his contract last year, Busch has filed a countersuit. Busch contends that Jon Caponigro had conflicts of interest, pressured him into signing a release from Team Penske and ultimately cost Busch millions of dollars in compensation thanks to that pressure. In the end this may be much bravado about nothing but it could expose the underbelly of sports agents and their inner workings in the coming weeks.
Speaking of lawsuits, April 18th will be the mediation date for Tony Stewart‘s wrongful death case brought by the family of Kevin Ward. A St. Louis attorney and former judge will preside over the mediation. Glenn Norton who once served on the Missouri Court of Appeals and as legal council to governor Bob Holden has been tabbed to hear the case. The case was holding for a suit between Stewart and an insurance company over who would be liable for the result if it is awarded against Stewart.
Who is mad – Matt Kenseth has a top five and two top 10 finishes in 2017. His other three finishes are 36th, 37th and 40th. All three of those deep-field finishes are DNFs thanks to crashes. Kenseth is 25th in points. While the win and you are in point system still makes it far easier for Kenseth to make the playoffs, the kind of hits he has taken have to be taking a toll on his body. Sunday’s impact with the inside wall was especially frightening after the loss of Dave Steele Saturday night. Next on the list is Martinsville, where Kenseth’s average finish is 14.8, one of his worst tracks outside of plate tracks.
During media availability this week, Johnson was asked what was wrong this season. He pointed out that he has 80 career wins and seven championships and people are asking him what is wrong. The question is valid as Johnson’s average finish this season is 18.8, the worst of his career and he has one top-10 finish in the first five races of the season. As Johnson pointed out, a driver with his resume should have a little latitude when it comes to questioning his abilities. Still, wrecking in practice, and missing qualifying put the team behind to start the weekend and they never recovered. Don’t be surprised to see Johnson come home with the W in Martinsville.
Who is happy – Bowyer has been talking all year about how happy he is working with an organization like Stewart-Haas Racing. He’s been running well since crashing out of Daytona. His worst finish since then is 13th and he rounded out the podium Sunday. The flagship car of the SHR stable is beginning to show signs of battling for wins again very soon.
Daniel Suarez was thrust into a Cup ride thanks to the unexpected retirement of Carl Edwards. While Suarez is an XFINITY Series champion, many people felt he needed some more experience before stepping up to the top rung of the stock car ladder. His first three finishes were in the 20s and there were already rumblings about him being over-matched for the series. Thanks to last week and this week, he has back-to-back seventh place finishes and seems to be adapting nicely to the big leagues. While Martinsville will certainly be a test for him, it looks like Suarez is earning his stripes nicely.
When the checkered flag flew:
Kyle Larson scored the second victory of his Cup career Sunday in his 116th career start.
This is Larson’s first career win at Auto Club Speedway.
Larson’s win is his first of 2017.
The triumph puts Larson in a tie with 23 others drivers for 101st on the all-time list.
Brad Keselowski’s runner-up finish was his second top two of 2017.
This is Keselowski’s second career second-place finish at Fontana.
Keselowski has crossed the line as the first loser 18 times in his career.
On the all-time list of runner-ups Keselowski is tied with James Hylton, Junior Johnson and Cotton Owens for 45th.
Clint Bowyer’s third-place run was his first of 2017.
Bowyer has finished in the top three on three different occasions at Fontana.
In his career Bowyer has stood on the podium 30 times.
The total for Bowyer ranks him 64th on the all-time list, tied with Dave Marcis.
Daniel Suarez was the Rookie of the Race for the second straight race.
Based on their wins, assuming there are 16 or fewer winners during the 26 regular season races, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman and Kyle Larson will be in the playoffs when they begin. The remaining 11 drivers who would qualify, and their positions:
- Chase Elliott
- Joey Logano
- Jamie McMurray
- Ryan Blaney
- Clint Bowyer
- Kevin Harvick
- Kyle Busch
- Denny Hamlin
- Kasey Kahne
- Erik Jones
- Trevor Bayne
What is in the cooler (one to six beers where one is a stinker and six is an instant classic)
The race track at Fontana used to be one of the worst on the schedule for the Cup series. Some eight years ago, Goodyear got the tire right and since then, the aged surface and continuing character have made it must see racing. While clean air is still an issue, the racing surface at Auto Club Speedway overcame it. Cars were everywhere on the track, tire strategies were varied, and the restarts at the end of the race jumbled the field extensively. It isn’t a classic, but it was a darn good race. It earns four cold Inland Empire Riverside Rockers from Inland Empire Brewing Company.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – This coming week the series heads to the only track still in existence from the original schedule of the Cup Series. The half-mile track at Martinsville will provide the close-quarter racing that many fans scream for. One of the most coveted race trophies in the sport will be contested on FS1 at 2:00 PM Eastern, Sunday April 2nd. It can also be heard on your local MRN affiliate, motorracingnetwork.com and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90. It can also be streamed on the Fox Sports Go app.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.