(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Martin Truex Jr. Clubs the Competition at Auto Club

Who’s in the headline

For the first time in 14 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, Martin Truex Jr. won a stage other than the final one. He started on the pole at Auto Club Speedway, won both stages and the race for a clean sweep of the weekend. Truex won by more than 11 seconds over Kyle Larson with Kyle Busch coming home a distant third.

What happened

Truex led the field to green and led the first 10 laps before Kyle Busch took charge for the next 18. After pit stops, Truex regained the lead from Busch and held it through the end of the stage. During that time, Kevin Harvick was racing with Larson and contact sent Harvick into the wall off Turn 2. The damage was extensive, and while he kept competing, the No. 4 went several laps down and was never a factor for the win.

Joey Logano led a handful of laps to begin the second stage, but Truex took the top spot for much of it. The No. 78 Toyota would lose it briefly during pit stops only to regain the top spot before the second non-stage caution of the race for Trevor Bayne wrecking in Turn 4.

The final stage saw Kyle Busch lead for a few laps before David Ragan wrecked in Turn 2 to bring out the final caution. A couple drivers held the lead during yellow-flag stops before Busch restarted from the point.

During the final round of green-flag stops, Truex and Denny Hamlin led before Busch snuck up front again with a faster stop than the No. 78 when both cars came down the pit lane together. Unfortunately for Busch, it appears there were loose lug nuts and a bad adjustment from a crewman. That may have played a role in Truex passing him with 31 to go and running away for the win.

Why you should care

Ford has been dominant early this season, but Toyota and even some Chevrolets have shown signs of life over the last couple of weeks. The Auto Club 400 was a race that made it look like they are all getting a handle on their cars for the 2018 season. Three Fords, three Chevrolets and four Toyotas made up the top 10 at the end of the day. While Harvick might have changed things up a little, the bottom line is manufacturers are pretty equal after five races this season.

What your friends are talking about

For decades, Hendrick Motorsports has been among the sport’s elite if not the team to beat. But last year was a struggle for most of the organization and 2018 has not started out any better. Looking at the 16 drivers who would make the playoffs at this point in the year, the only HMS driver on the inside would be Alex Bowman, who is sitting 16th in the standings. Jimmie Johnson is in 18th while William Byron is 20th and Chase Elliott sits 21st. It is hard to keep a good team down, and Johnson finishing in the top 10 is a positive note, but there’s a long way to go before they are feared again.

LUNKENHEIMER: JOHNSON SPEAKS OUT AFTER FIRST TOP 10 OF 2018

Speaking of Hendrick Motorsports and Johnson, it was announced this week Lowe’s will not return to sponsor the No. 48 car in 2019. The announcement was surprising to many fans but the writing on the wall has been there for a while now. Keep in mind Lowe’s had a new Chief Marketing Officer appointed in 2017 and has laid off workers the last few years.

It can be difficult to persuade someone who isn’t a racing fan the investment necessary for a full-season NASCAR sponsorship is a good one. It is surprising that Lowe’s didn’t at least do a partial schedule, though. That may be emblematic of the greater problems facing the whole sport. Or, it could be an indication the driver of the No. 48 might be looking at hanging up the helmet so Lowe’s is going to take the opportunity to bail out. We’ll have to wait and see if that wild speculation is accurate or not.

BOWLES: NASCAR’s LOWE’S-T POINT

After Sunday’s race, Kyle Busch was stopped at the end of pit road for loose lug nuts. As a result, he was not in the area where top-five finishers are normally parked for post-race interviews. As Busch walked up pit road to the garage, the MRN folks interviewed him. Apparently, the FOX TV folks didn’t find him. As a result, Busch was raked over the coals for ducking post-race comments on social media which brought out Angry Twitter Kyle. It was a polarizing moment; some fans don’t like that Kyle while other fans of the sport truly enjoy his candor.

In what can best be described as a fiasco, 13 teams failed to make a qualifying attempt for the Cup race at California by failing to pass tech inspection in time. As a result, NASCAR implemented a new rule for the XFINITY Series at Fontana. Teams who failed to pass qualifying tech not only had to start at the rear of the field, they had to make a pass through on the first green-flag lap once the race began. This rule will most likely be implemented at Martinsville next weekend for the MENCS. The premium placed on tires at California made failing pre-qualifying tech a strategic move; that gave teams a better set of Goodyears for the race. Most likely, penalties will continue to ramp up as NASCAR works to curtail the number of failures in technical inspection.

Remember the Busch Clash? How about the Busch Pole Award? Well, Anheuser-Busch and NASCAR announced this week that the Busch Beer brand has returned as the official beer of NASCAR. As a result, the MENCS pole winner will garner the Busch Pole Award on race weekends. Pole awards in Cup have been sponsored by beer for ages and Busch returns to continue that long and storied history.

Who is mad

It is pretty hard to be too salty after three consecutive race victories, but Harvick getting into trouble in the first stage and wrecking any chance of scoring his fourth straight win was not only embarrassing but also foolish. Harvick admitted it was a bonehead move on Twitter and is ready to move on to Martinsville.

Jeffrey Earnhardt was the driver who kept the family legacy intact at Daytona in 2018. While that was a feat in itself, it didn’t go very far in keeping him in a Cup car. After finishing 11 laps down on Sunday, Earnhardt parted ways with StarCom Racing after the event. When a driver is doing his best for a backmarker team, it can be a frustrating existence because fingers are always pointed in multiple directions. But the reality of the situation is that the car just isn’t going to be good based on the team’s limited budget.

Who is happy

Austin Dillon has been scuffling around the top 15 since his win at Daytona in the Great American Race. Sunday, he notched his second top-10 finish of the year, crossing the line in 10th. The Richard Childress Racing team is still dealing with a new body and inherent growing pains that come with it. But they are also doing some experimentation since the No. 3 team knows they are most likely in the playoffs. It takes baby steps to get to the top of the mountain and Sunday marks another one for Dillon.

It is rare to celebrate a top-10 finish for a seven-time series champion. But when that driver hasn’t scored one since the fall race at Charlotte last year, there is a reason to be happy. It is hard to believe that Johnson forgot how to drive a race car, so it is more a systemic problem with all of Hendrick Motorsports. Similar to Dillon, it is baby steps back to competitiveness for the No. 48. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them continue to soldier on and get to a point where they are threatening to win, scoring them just in time to make a run at title number eight.

When the checkered flag flew

  • Martin Truex Jr. won his 16th Cup series race in his 446th career start.
  • This is Truex’s first career triumph at California. It is also Truex’s first win of 2018.
  • Truex ranks 53rd on the all-time MENCS wins list.
  • Kyle Larson was the runner-up on Sunday for his third career top two at Fontana. This was Larson’s best result of 2018.
  • Larson has scored 15 career second-place finishes which ranks him 53rd on the MENCS all-time list, tied with Speedy Thompson.
  • Kyle Busch came home in third for his third consecutive podium run.
  • Busch has finished top three at Auto Club Speedway eight times in his career.
  • Busch’s 112th career podium finish ranks him 17th on the all-time MENCS list.
  • William Byron ran 15th to earn top rookie honors. For the year, Byron has three Rookie of the Race awards while Darrell Wallace Jr. has won it twice.

AUTO CLUB 400 UNOFFICIAL RESULTS

Dillon, Harvick and Truex are the three race winners in 2018. Assuming there are 16 or fewer unique winners in the regular season, they will be locked into the playoffs based on winning a race. Harvick is locked into the playoffs thanks to two victories assuming he attempts the remaining races in the regular season.

Here are the drivers who would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today and their associated playoff points.

2) Kyle Busch – 1

3) Joey Logano – 0

4) Brad Keselowski – 1

5) Ryan Blaney – 1

6) Denny Hamlin – 0

7) Kyle Larson – 0

9) Clint Bowyer – 0

10) Aric Almirola – 0

11) Kurt Busch – 2

13) Erik Jones – 0

14) Ryan Newman – 0

15) Paul Menard – 0

16) Alex Bowman – 0

What is in the cooler (one to six beers, where one is a stinker and six is an instant classic)

After a race that nearly scored a six pack last week, Sunday’s race was a stinker. Truex dominated the vast majority of the 400-miler at Auto Club Speedway and ultimately won by over 11 seconds. Harvick, who has dominated the last three races, wrecked out before the end of the first stage, quickly ending the drama of his attempt at four straight wins. The lead changed hands 16 times amongst seven drivers and that is the only aspect of the race that saves it from being a total stinker. In the end, this race gets two cold War Bond IPAs from Inland Empire Brewing.

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Where do you point your DVR for next week

The series heads to the only track still in operation that was on the original Cup schedule of 1949, Martinsville Speedway. Race coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET on FS1 and can also be streamed on the Fox Sports Go app. The race can be heard on your local MRN affiliate, www.motorracingnetwork.com or SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.

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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.

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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    “Some fans don’t like that Kyle while most of the fans of the sport truly enjoy his candor.”

    Well I always ask when I see the “some” and “most” DID you interview everyone who is a NASCAR fan? Of course not. So it is stupid. Lame dig to those who can’t stand him and those like yourself (it seems) who are amused and entertained by him. And getting the gist of your dig, the rest of us idiots just DON’T understand him!!!!! LOL. I understand him plenty. And me no like at all, his whole persona, , his pay attention to me wife, his mini me looking kid, woof. The whole promoted package, yuck. IMO of course But that is me. I did not take a poll to see if others feel the same way. And frankly don’t give a good damn. My opinion….but hey…whatev’s.

    • Avatar

      Well, KB, if you hate everything on Frontstretch, why do you torture yourself by reading what’s posted? Have you ever stopped to consider the NASCAR world doesn’t revolve around you and your brilliance? While I do believe NASCAR is getting worse under BF’s reign of terror, your bitter bear faced, rants get just as bad every time you post.

  2. Avatar

    just had a feeling it would be toyota’s weekend. can say i didn’t watch any of the nonsense. friend had texted about the circus pre-race show and then i flipped it on and saw michael waltrip making a jackdonkey out of himself with some rappers who were at bubba wallace’s car. went back to nap and really glad i did so.

  3. Avatar

    stinker to early to in the year go to martinsville!!!!!!!!!!! for sure this year. all these rules for parity please? racing is getting worse……….

  4. Avatar

    I am really confused by what is going on in Nascar.The Fords which were predicted to be dog wagons this year are quite impressive. Even the Penskes which Brad K predicted would be trampled by the Chevys and Toyotas are regularly beating the Chevys which were supposed to be saved by the change to Camaros. The new Camaros have trouble passing inspection and except for Larson appear to be a downgrade from the previous model.Was Nascar afraid that there would be too much inequity and change the inspection procedures to give the Fords a break? The Toyotas especially those that receive the factory support of TRD seem to be able to hold their own though other teams without that support continue to be back markers.
    I also find it difficult to understand how teams like the #4 and the #78 can be so dominate with the very tight parameters Nascar has imposed on the cars.Having been a follower of Nascar since nearly its inception I know that domination usually means that somebody is bending the rules . The spirit of Smokey and the Pettys kept Nascar guessing but the rules were more relaxed then and the best performers would keep searching for makes that gave them the best chance even if it meant switching manufacturers.( there were a lot more choices back in the day) Now there are only three and the success of each brand depends on how closely the manufacturers choose to work with the teams and the chosen teams at that. In the past a well funded team like Hendrick Motor Sports would have switched to Toyotas by now based on the recent success of that brand.My guess is that we can look forward to more rule changes and new parameters in the high tech inspection equipment that make pre race inspections a blight on the racing

  5. Avatar

    Something smells. Truex won 8 races last year in a Toyota satellite team for JGR. True x trounced Kyle , Hamlin and kenseth. True x wins 1 of 4 this year making him a winner of 9 races out of the last 40, almost 25%. True x has 16 cup wins in about 450 starts. No way can I see Martin all of a sudden learning to be a very good driver and better than Kyle, Hamlin, Matt, his JGR teammates. Wake up Nascar.

    • Avatar

      Maybe with all the aero dependence, it no longer matters how good of a driver you are. Maybe how the car is set up is all that matters anymore. That’s one of the reasons fans like short tracks and road courses so much. They are the last places where driver ability trumps the aero and engine factors.

      • Avatar

        Or maybe Truex is driving better equipment and responds well to a low downforce package that puts more emphasis on driving skills.