The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2018 Auto Club 400

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, Jimmie Johnson drove his way to his first top 10 since Charlotte last fall. After a miserable start to the year, the ninth-place run was a bright spot in what’s been a difficult year for Hendrick Motorsports in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

LUNKENHEIMER: JOHNSON SOUNDS OFF ON SOLID TOP-10 EFFORT

Johnson’s car had speed Sunday, particularly early, when he raced his way from a 33rd-place start into the top five. But long runs still need work at the No. 48 team, and he fell to ninth by the end of 400 miles.

The shadow still hanging over Johnson’s team is inspection; he was among 13 drivers who didn’t make a qualifying run Saturday after the No. 48 couldn’t pass through tech in time. Still, he had a solid top-10 car for the first time this season, a big step in the right direction. If the seven-time champion can carry a bit of luck to Martinsville next week, the competition could get a reminder of why he’s got all those grandfather clocks at home.

What… is the takeaway from this race?

If NASCAR wants to produce racing fans want to watch on its intermediate tracks, the key is discovering a way to force teams to find mechanical grip and manage tire strategy. While a car with aerodynamic grip may be easier to drive, cars dependent on aero are always going to have trouble passing because they’re simply too equal in the air.

But, if you make teams manage tires and brakes, forcing them to rely on making good adjustments, you’ve got a race. That’s exactly what we saw Sunday afternoon in Fontana, where the action was strong despite Martin Truex Jr. pulling away from the field late.

The reason Auto Club Speedway has had good races in recent years is the age of its pavement. It hasn’t been repaved since the Cup teams started racing there, and over time, the competition has changed from aero dependent to much more reliant on tire strategy and setups. Side-by-side action has improved drastically as a result.  Pit strategy becomes critical as staying out too long on worn Goodyears costs several seconds during a pit cycle, to the point where fuel strategy can’t make up for it.

The lesson for NASCAR: work with tracks on their long-term planning. Tracks shouldn’t be repaving unless the old asphalt becomes a safety hazard.  Want to reconfigure? Cool, but wait until the track needs to be resurfaced. Perhaps NASCAR and its track partners can do some R&D on a pavement that races more like an aged surface from the start, similar to the Darlington and Rockingham of old.  Track surfaces won’t make up for everything, but they’ll go a long way in producing a better show for fans.

Where… did Martin Truex Jr. come from?

Did you think the defending champ was going to roll over this year?  Truex and Co. picked up right where they left off in 2017 this weekend, dominating the race, winning both stages and every available playoff point. They became the first MENCS team of 2018 to win the pole and sweep all stages of a race.

Truex continues to prove over the course of the last three seasons that equipment is everything.  When he’s had competitive equipment, at every level of NASCAR, he’s won in it.

BOWLES: TRUEX PUNCHES BACK AT HARVICK DOMINANCE

But Auto Club Speedway hasn’t been one of Truex’s best tracks. Sunday’s win was just his second top-five run in 18 starts, and his career average finish is a mediocre 18.5. That makes the reigning Cup champion’s 16th career win that much sweeter.

When… was the moment of truth?

Some fans wouldn’t like stage racing even if every stage produced a finish like Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington. But clearly, it’s made teams work a little extra for the extra points offered.  Stage 1 in particular on Sunday featured some fantastic racing for the top 10 with William Byron, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman and others fighting tooth and nail for position.

I’m usually the first to criticize NASCAR for gimmicks, but I’ve never been able to get on board with the hatred here.  Would drivers risk their race for 10th place, and put on a heck of a show in the process, at lap 75 or wherever without these bonuses on the line? Nope. At the end of the day, the stages don’t change much – though without them Sunday, I strongly suspect fans would have been treated to a couple of debris cautions instead – as far as the outcome of the race. Instead, they give drivers a little extra incentive to race hard all day.  Sunday’s race was more exciting because of them.

Why… didn’t Kevin Harvick pull off four in a row?

It’s hard to say whether Harvick had the speed to contend with Truex this weekend; a 10th-place qualifying effort ties his worst of the year, though he did fine from there at Phoenix.  What kept him from trying was his own overenthusiasm. Harvick brought out the first caution of the day just 38 laps into the race, making contact with Kyle Larson and launching the No. 4 into the outside wall. Harvick managed to continue, but his day was shot.

Harvick and Larson had been swapping positions at the time of the incident. Coming off turn 2, he was on the outside of Larson and simply turned down a bit. Whether that was to catch a bit of side draft or to deliver a message is open for debate.

Harvick took the blame of the incident after the race was over.  He finished nine laps down in 35th while Larson went on to finish second.

How… much momentum does Truex carry to Martinsville?

That’s a good question.  We’ve seen what momentum can do for a team this year (we’re looking at you, Kevin Harvick), and Truex channeled it all the way to a title in 2017. But there’s nothing like Martinsville to bring reality crashing down. The track itself is an equalizer in that it’s much easier to overcome a slower car or to have a bad day despite a fast one. Truex has had mixed success at NASCAR’s shortest track, with eight top 10s in 24 races; that’s a third of his starts.  But he has just three top fives and has never won a grandfather clock, so it’s hard to call him a favorite.

All in all, look for Martinsville to be a more accurate meter of Johnson’s performance than Truex’s.  If Johnson can’t perform well there, it’s time to start asking some difficult questions.  If Truex has a bad day, it’s more easily explained away.  That means there is zero pressure on Truex and a lot of it on Johnson.  That probably bodes better for the No. 78 team.

About the author

Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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