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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2019 Auto Club 400 at Fontana

The Headline(s): Kyle Busch recovered from a mid-race speeding penalty to cap off a dominant west coast swing, winning the Auto Club 400 after race leaders Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski lost momentum battling each other side-by-side with about 25 laps to go. 

For Busch, the win marked the 53rd Cup win of his career, and his second consecutive Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win. It is the seventh time in his career that Busch has won consecutive Cup races.

At the explicit instruction of my editors at Frontstretch, I am obligated to report that Kyle Busch has now won 200 NASCAR races. Fake news has come to Thinkin’.

How It Happened: A dynamic opening 25 laps saw both Aric Almirola and Denny Hamlin lead early before a dominant Kyle Busch took his first lead of the race, which he would hold until green flag pit stops on lap 31. He would take the lead back after William Byron made a green flag stop, and held that lead until the first yellow of the race on lap 56 when pole-sitter Austin Dillon cut a tire and slowed on the turn 1 apron. Busch led the majority of the lead lap cars onto pit road and made quick work of leader Hamlin (who stayed out on old tires) to win stage one.

After a brief challenge from Logano to start stage two, Busch took the lead on lap 72 and held it through the majority of an uneventful stage to sweep the stages for the third time in his career. 

The smooth sailing went out the window from there. Pitting between the second and final stages, Busch was part of a Joe Gibbs Racing implosion on pit road that saw both Busch and Hamlin busted for speeding on pit road, while Martin Truex Jr. was penalized for too many men over the wall. 

For the next 35 laps, Team Penske ran the show, occupying the podium positions for much of the run with a resurgent Keselowski, who dropped from 13th to 27th in the opening laps, at the point. With Busch mired in traffic eight seconds off the lead, the No. 18 team stayed out while the rest of the leaders pit trying to catch a caution, and they got the yellow they were looking for on lap 163 when Bubba Wallace brought out a debris caution with a blown tire:

Coming to the final restart of the race on lap 170, Busch lost the lead thanks to a strong push from Keselowski, who went from third to first on the restart and went to the lead. But on lap 174, as the Penske teammates were racing for the top spot, Busch took advantage and powered by for the lead. With both the Nos. 2 and 22 slowed by their battle, Busch kept momentum and never looked back.

Should You Care: Yes, but not because of anything that happened Sunday. As has been described ad nauseam in this column throughout the 2019 season, NASCAR’s new aero package did little to change the racing on an intermediate oval. Those who can appreciate Fontana racing for its varied grooves and abrasive asphalt got as much as they could out of this event given FOX’s narrow window of coverage, while those that can’t handle lulls in 400-mile races were adamant that NASCAR racing sucks and can’t be saved. 

What the final weekend of NASCAR Goes West 2019 could go down as is the weekend that NASCAR finally fixed the farce that its qualifying system has become. Friday was the worst day NASCAR racing has had in the 2019 regular season, and in every way rivaled the debacle that this season’s rain-soaked Clash was in Daytona Beach.

Let’s start with the first round of qualifying, which had plenty of flaws. Though there can be no doubt that NASCAR opted for group qualifying as a made for TV production (see Ryan Newman’s comments at Las Vegas a few weeks back), round one was hardly a made-for-TV moment, with much of the 10 minute first round dead air as the cars made their pack run and sat for the final three minutes. Despite all that dead air, the commentary booth was lackadaisical in its coverage; for example, despite Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase not taking time during the first round, there was no mention as to why these entries didn’t make it on track.

Then, there were the ridiculous rulings that marred the session.

For one, Chase Elliott spun of his own volition in the third minute of qualifying. Lobbied by the No. 9 team, NASCAR allowed them to change tires, and by session’s end, Elliott was third on the time chart. It’s bad enough that charters and short car counts have made qualifying irrelevant, but to see Elliott’s team literally benefit from spinning out in qualifying defies all logic and reason.

The same could be said with Kevin Harvick’s struggles, as Harvick lost a money lap for backing off the gas when the caution flag flew…exactly as drivers have been told to do since racing back to the yellow stopped in 2003. There’s logic for you. The same weekend NASCAR does something consistent and enforces pit road speed on a live pit road, they then rule that racing back to the yellow applied to qualifying. 

It got no better in the second round. Short of Kurt Busch running his own solo lap to start the session, the majority of the session was dead air, though the booth made a comment that will live in infamy when, with three and a half minutes left, they laughed off the possibility that the field would wait too long to make a lap. “That’s not gonna happen,” said the talking heads.

Fifteen minutes later, it happened. All 12 cars that made the final round of qualifying failed to take the green flag in time, and Austin Dillon won the pole on his top speed from the second round. As Mike Joy put it, “by not running, he won the pole.”

There’s no shortage of irony that the only driver in NASCAR history to win a national touring series title without winning a race became the first driver to win a pole without posting a final round qualifying time. But for once, NASCAR President of Competition, Scott Miller, summed up what Friday was, “a mockery.”

If, as NASCAR alluded to the media present in Fontana Friday, qualifying at Texas in two weeks looks different from the season’s first few races, suffering through said mockery will have been well worth it.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Kyle Busch was the dominant force in Sunday’s race, winning both stages, leading 134 of the 200 laps run and becoming the first repeat and first consecutive race winner in 2019. And in a season that’s fast-becoming a Gibbs v. Penske duel, Busch has proven to be JGR’s most potent weapon. 

Close behind Busch though, both Hamlin and Truex rebounded from pit road penalties (and, in the case of Truex, right front damage resulting from Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s spin on lap 60) to score top-10 finishes.

For Truex, the eighth-place result marked his fourth consecutive top-10 finish, the first time he has accomplished that since last summer at Loudon. Lastly, even though Erik Jones finished a disappointing 19th, he did have one of the more under-heralded saves of the weekend:

Not that everyone got to see it…

On the one hand, Keselowski and Logano finished second and third and were among the only cars in the field that were in the same league as Busch’s Toyota. On the other hand, the two Penske drivers did appear to squander a chance at holding off Busch for the race win with a vicious side-by-side duel that saw the teammates force each other down the entire width of Auto Club Speedway’s backstretch, costing momentum that allowed the No. 18 to drive into the sunset. 

At race’s end, kudos to them both.

With each driver already locked into the playoffs with a win in hand, it was refreshing to see teamwork go out the window and see two racers with fast cars go at it, the good of the “team” be damned. Formula 1 is on another continent for good reason.

And Ryan Blaney quietly delivered another top-five finish. Team Penske has retaken the Ford throne from Stewart-Haas.

And speaking of thrones, Kurt Busch now holds the point of the bowtie brigade, as his sixth-place result Sunday marked four straight top 10 finishes, the first time the No. 1 team has achieved that since becoming associated with Chip Ganassi Racing. 

Doing his best Keselowski impression, Austin Dillon followed up his pole-winning run with his first top-10 finish of the 2019 season. The result was important for he and Richard Childress Racing on several fronts. For one, it’s the first time that the organization’s new qualifying prowess translated into on-track results.

More importantly, he achieved the result despite suffering right rear damage from a flat tire on lap 56. His own comments suggest that RCR is trimming out their bodies to find speed on the track…that their cars are proving both more durable and reliable on the long run is a big step forward.

Chris Buescher finished 16th, his fourth consecutive top-20 finish and his fourth straight lead lap finish. That’s the first time Buescher has achieved that in his time with JTG Daugherty Racing. Matt DiBenedetto finished 18th on the lead lap, his first lead lap finish with Leavine Family Racing. For comparison, it took Kasey Kahne until Michigan in June to do that on a non-plate track with the No. 95 team last year, and that race was rain-shortened.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

Clint Bowyer finished dead last after limping through 130 laps with an engine that apparently was down a cylinder. Meanwhile, Harvick and Almirola both finished comfortably in the top 10. As the broadcast booth put it, Almirola has supplanted Bowyer as the No. 2 driver at SHR.

Despite driving the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 car of Dale Earnhardt Jr. fame, Alex Bowman and any references to him were completely absent from Sunday’s broadcast as Bowman finished 21st. There’s a lot of words to describe that kind of performance, and showman isn’t one of them.

Both Daniel Hemric and Wallace fell victim to flat tires, each finishing more than five laps down outside the top 25. Five races into 2019, despite all the accolades for their attitude and demeanor, these two have combined for no top fives, no top 10s and no lead lap finishes. Wallace is in year two of his Richard Petty Motorsports deal and his results are already behind 2018, while Hemric has a hard-charging and media-friendly Tyler Reddick waiting in the wings. It’s early, but both drivers should consider their seats hot. 

Insight, Opinions and Fake News

There were a few brief moments where FOX’s coverage this weekend seemed to be making more of an effort to cover drivers outside the top 10 in the running order, but they were short-lived.

During the second Cup practice, Jamie Little and crew did make their way over to interview Ross Chastain, but spent all of their time focused on his running double-duty as a Cup driver (and didn’t even end with a parting shot illustrating that the No. 15 actually had a sponsor this weekend):

Fast forward to Saturday’s Xfinity race, and the other Keselowski (former Xfinity Series owner and short track ace Brian Keselowski) got a shout out for his work as crew chief on Chad Finchum’s No. 42 car. That coverage proved non-committal, as Finchum and team were off the track by lap 54…and FOX never gave viewers any reason as to why they pulled off track.

Then, there was Sunday’s Cup race. Going back to Chastain, there was no mention of his running on the broadcast. BJ McLeod went behind the wall for more than 15 laps and then re-entered the race. No mention. Corey LaJoie, prior to his run in with Bowyer, had suffered visible damage to his No. 32 Ford:

No mention. Gase’s pit crew was penalized on pit road, no mention. Same thing for Ryan Preece and his suffered nose damage. For Reed Sorenson putting the No. 27 back on track for the first time since Daytona. For Landon Cassill, or Smithley, or Cody Ware, or pretty much the entire Front Row Motorsports stable. 

And that’s with short fields. 

Despite Busch winning races against Ford and Chevrolet’s performance and even halo cars in a Camry sedan, Toyota’s advertising during Sunday’s race and for the majority of the west coast swing was instead focused on their new Supra sports car, which the manufacturer adamantly denied would be coming to the Cup Series at Daytona (Toyota, unlike Ford and Chevrolet, is maintaining production of sedans).

No matter what Toyota says, it’s a matter of when, not if, the Supra is coming to Cup. After all, as much as Toyota might love being able to say their people mover is taking down Mustangs and Camaros, the marketing reality is nobody heading to a dealership for a sports car is going to end up buying a Camry, even if it’s winning on Sundays.

A couple of notes to stick with on the Xfinity Series front. As John Hunter Nemechek’s Saturday wreck proved, racecars will find the most obscure places on a race track to hit hard:

Credit where it’s due to Auto Club Speedway and its aggressive placement of SAFER barriers.

On another note, the Xfinity race featured a penalty call on Busch’s team for an uncontrolled tire that continued the pattern of tacky-tack “hawkeye” calls bordering on absurd. In the case of Busch’s crew, the uncontrolled tires were never rolling and never left the No. 18’s pit box. Letter of the law being what it is, this penalty actually changed the result of Saturday’s race, and did nothing to enhance pit safety or control in doing so. 

Despite a ridiculously strong start to the final stage that saw Kyle Larson surge from 10th to fourth on the restart, by race’s end the No. 42 team faded to 12th despite being at arguably Larson’s best (and home) track. It was a rare instance of insight from Sunday’s broadcast, but the booth was correct in observing that he appears to be struggling with this new package because of the lack of throttle response, a polar different package from the dirt cars that Larson has proven a master at. Meanwhile, while Busch has long been known as one of, if not the, most talented driver in the current Cup field, this package also seems to be right up his alley:

While Wallace’s race-changing tire failure was a debris incident that clearly merited a yellow flag, NASCAR’s decisions on debris cautions prior to that Sunday were obviously inconsistent. Austin Dillon brought out the yellow on lap 56 for a tire rub, but fast forward to lap 75 and an incident with Hemric suffering the same type of damage (damage that the in-car camera showed visibly punched a hole in the car’s right rear corner) did not bring out a yellow.   

Participation Trophies

Best Paint Scheme: Brad Keselowski The Wurth paint scheme is nothing new to the No. 2 team, but this scheme was aggressive for Team Penske standards. And it was sharp.

Let’s Get This Over With Ready-Printed Flag: Wallace’s right front tire was as tired as the rest of Twitter waiting for Busch to score win No. 200, and the reams of comparison material to Richard Petty’s No. 43 that would result, so it destroyed itself at just the right moment to get the No. 18 car back in the race. 

Baby’s First Racecar: Bowyer, who in enduring his race-long engine woes, summarized NASCAR’s new package succinctly:

Do You Know Who I Am?: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Or, as Twitter put it, “Wrecky Spinout.” Stenhouse was heard berating his team over the radio under the caution near the end of stage 1, stating he didn’t care what their data said and that he was driving their car as fast as he could. On the following restart, Stenhouse spun himself out. Enough said.

Whats the Points? 

Kyle Busch, Logano, Keselowski and Hamlin have all locked themselves into the playoffs with their early season race wins. If the playoffs started today, Harvick, Almirola, Truex, Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Blaney, Stenhouse, Elliott, Jones, Jimmie Johnson, Bowyer and Bowman would point their way in. Newman currently sits three points behind Bowman for the cutoff spot.

How It Rated

Just like every race on the West Coast swing, good, not great. This wasn’t a blockbuster or a best picture winner, but it’s one that would get clicked on as soon as it popped up on a Netflix stream list.

Dust Off the VCR

Heading back to the East Coast, NASCAR finally gets back to its roots with a Sunday afternoon trip to the Martinsville Speedway in the Virginia hills. Coverage from stock car racing’s most famous paper clip starts at 2 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.

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15 comments

  1. Avatar

    Two things, William Byron gave it away in an interview that NASCAR is constantly tweaking the rules, translated, giving some advantages to the Chevy brigade. Fits with giving Chase “Golden Boy” Elliott new tires in qualifying. Sad. GM is run by a completely incompetent individual and so is its motorsports program. They sunk a lot of money into NHRA Pro Stock and the Force brigade. That brand is still in serious trouble.
    Second, the Supra. That car, and please check this, is made by BMW. So will that give us a different name plate? Food for thought.
    Also, that 200 number is worse than fake news, it is something created by the numbskulls at NASCAR marketing.

  2. Avatar

    Stenhouse actually has to try in his equipment and all the fans treat him like sh*t. Drivers like Elliott, Kyle Busch, and Logano have always been in top-tier rides that have way more resources than Roush-Fenway has. It’s sad to see a fanbase where people favor the drivers who have never proven their talent.

  3. Avatar

    i really fail to understand all the Busch haters.
    Sure he’s not made of charm, far from it especially seen through the eye of a camera.
    Personally, I’ve never met the man, so I can’t really say.

    What I can see is that he works extremely hard and is dedicated to racing and he’s really really good at it.
    As a former short track racer, I know how hard it is to be good/lucky enough to win.
    I can’t say that I’m a Kyle fan but I do enjoy his dynamic performances. Plenty of high’s and lows to keep things interesting.

    He’s no Sr. and he’s no King. No one is. Those two race car drivers are were special talents and are standouts, one of a kind, as is shrub.

    Why should people be afraid of whatever number of wins he ends up with?
    He’s no threat to anyone’s legacy.
    Sr and Petty have survived some harsh actions and cheating scandals they’ll survive Kyle.
    Maybe Kyle will survive his personality. (his brother did.)

    Me? I’m gonna sit back and enjoy the ride (when ever I can stomach what passes for “cup” racing these days)

    Who’s the best or GOAT?
    They say there are no stupid questions.
    They are wrong, there is one.

    • Avatar

      The media flapping their gums constantly drives me crazy. And as far as Kyle’s new record ,I look at it this way. Barry Bonds has the home run record but still doesn’t garner the respect that Aaron and Ruth do because of how it was perceived to be achieved. You can thank the media for that too.

      • Avatar

        MLB stats are EXACTLY that. MLB stats from the best baseball league. The only combination stats that can be considered are the NHL and WHA, like Gretzky, Howe, Hull…

  4. Avatar

    Always enjoy these columns, nice that Frontstretch isn’t afraid to gore some sacred oxen. Amazing that Roush keeps Stenhouse in that car. $$$$$??????$$$$$$

  5. Avatar

    I agree, it was an average race. Not great by any stretch but not without some interesting moments.

    When I saw the 2 and 22 racing with each other with Busch in the background, all I could think was “Moe is their leader” (thanks Matt). It was like watching two poodles so intent on fighting with each other that they were oblivious to the approaching pitbull.

    Thanks Bryan for keeping the praise of the 200 wins deal to a bare minimum. It has been discussed and applauded enough already. Yaaaawn.

    I’ve already spoke my piece on the qualifying debacle in the earlier articles so I won’t dwell on it other than to say, if they don’t fix it, I won’t be watching any more qualifying sessions at tracks over 1 mile.

    Stenhouse continuously overdrives his car and continuously ends up in a bad situation. Someone needs to tell that boy that he is not going to will a 20th place car into a winner by driving harder.

    So looking forward to Martinsville. Hoping NASCAR (or mother nature) doesn’t find a way to ruin it. One of the highlights of the year for me, along with Darlington, Bristol and the road courses.

  6. Avatar

    i did like when steinhous mouthed back to team engineers and then in the blink of an eye he was wrecking!

    so tired of hearing about someone’s 200th win…..guess next media overload will be “when will he get 201?” honestly i was sooooo hoping his car would not had passed post-race inspection, then the 200th win would be taken away. but then knowing na$car they would make an exception somehow.

    and while it was interesting to see, why the give wide on pace laps? took some of the guys a while to figure out the formation and get into line.

    and why oh why did fox find michael waltrip and take him to california?

  7. Avatar

    Please, Lord, make this the last 2 days we have to be pounded over the head with Busch’s 200 wins. And also Lord, would you inform the Powers That Be in Nascar that less throttle and more aero dependence is NOT the way to go? Haven’t they proven that enough yet? Shoving every car into the same box and expecting excitement is insanity.

  8. Avatar

    Counting wins? Ask Bobby Allison about his 85th win! Back in 1971 NASCAR diluted a few of it’s Cup level events with cars from a lower feeder series. If I remember correctly Allison’s little Mustang beat Richard Petty in a Cup car in that race at Bowman Gray Statium. Then the Winston Cup Era arrived and NASCAR was reluctant to refer to stats from yesteryear. Everyone can and do jingle the numbers to meet their needs.

  9. Avatar

    Why do we not include Richard Petty’s 1 NASCAR Convertible Series race win in 1959 and his 3 wins in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Series from 1978-1981? We’re adding up Kyle’s wins across series, why aren’t we giving Richard credit across series? At my count, that puts Richard at 204 NASCAR wins.

    • Avatar

      OK fine, but it’s a given that Busch will pass 204 this year, so what’s yer point? And what’s the point of comparing apples and oranges, because what Busch did now and Petty did then are as different as night and day.

      • Avatar

        I’m in no way making the case that Kyle’s totals are equal to Richard’s totals. Just pointing out the silliness of the whole thing. They’re totaling up all of Kyle’s NASCAR wins to try to compare them to Richard’s Cup win total. Well, Richard has 204 total NASCAR wins. So, Kyle hasn’t even tied Richard yet. The whole thing is a joke. And I’m a fan of both Richard and Kyle.