(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2020 Auto Club 400

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

After losing a major sponsor prior to the season, Alex Bowman could be racing for his ride this year.  The 26-year-old Arizona native is a free agent after the season, and he may need to convince Hendrick Motorsports that keeping him is in the team’s best interest.

If Bowman has a few more races like he did Sunday in the Auto Club 400, it’ll probably be all the convincing needed. He was fast all weekend and he and his team adapted to everything Auto Club Speedway threw at them Sunday. He led 110 of 200 laps and finished first and second in the first two stages before capping the day with a convincing win, beating Kyle Busch to the checkers by a tick under nine seconds. With two teammates in the top seven, Bowman has reason to be optimistic this spring.

The 2020 Cup rookie class is one of the strongest in years as last year’s top Xfinity contenders Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer all moved up to the top ranks. The general consensus was that Bell and Custer would outperform Reddick on equipment, and while long term that is likely, Reddick has been the top rookie in two of three races so far and was running for that honor at Daytona as well before getting caught in a late crash. Reddick finished 11th at Fontana on Sunday, not only the best among the first-year drivers but also tops – by at least 13 positions – among the Richard Childress-prepared cars as well, with Austin Dillon finishing 24th, Ty Dillon 26th and Bubba Wallace 27th. Even after back-to-back Xfinity titles, Reddick has had his doubters, but he’s making them eat their words now. His equipment might be outclassed, but Reddick has not been.

What… was the hidden gem in the race?

You know what’s fun? Watching really good drivers drive. While most Cup drivers are good, though, there are a few elite talents who are simply fun to watch race, and a lot of them brought their A-games on Sunday.

Kyle Busch took a lackluster start and turned it into a runner-up finish by picking off one car at a time, all day long, including a battle with older brother Kurt for that finish. Jimmie Johnson had a great car early and drove it into some of the turns almost impossibly deep to try and gain any advantage, showing that when he has a capable car under him, he’s as competitive as ever.

Brad Keselowski took the No. 2 all the way to the razor’s edge in the closing laps. Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola took it three-wide with Johnson for sixth place on the day.

The race as a whole wasn’t nearly as compelling as a week ago. But the best of the best rarely leave anyone wanting for much.

Where… were the other key players at the end?

Polesitter Clint Bowyer led the first 10 laps, but that was the highlight of his day in California. He faded fast after losing the lead, but it was a cut tire on lap 94 that sealed Bowyer’s fate. He made it to pit road in one piece but lost a lap and wasn’t able to bounce back, finishing 23rd.

Defending race winner Kyle Busch had a good day, starting 17th but moving forward.  Busch finished 10th and seventh in the first two stages to grab a few points, and in the final stretch, he mowed down several competitors, climbing all the way to second. But in the end Bowman was too strong for him to mount a run for the win.

All-time Fontana win leader Johnson had a good car, qualifying second and racing in the top five for much of the day, including third-place finishes in stages one and two. He struggled with a tight car late in the race but fought for every position and finished seventh, his second top 10 in three races this year.

Last week’s winner Joey Logano never found the magic of a week ago at Las Vegas, struggling a bit in Fontana.  His did finish seventh in stage one, but that was the height of his run.  Logano faded to 12th by the finish.

Point leader Ryan Blaney has been strong since Daytona, where he finished second, but the last couple of weeks turned into a bit of an “if only” for Blaney. Last week, a late caution flew while Blaney was leading, and a miscalculation in pit strategy left him 11th at the end. This time, Blaney won stage two, led 54 laps and was running second to Bowman inside 10 laps to go. He wasn’t fast enough to catch the No. 88 as the tires wore out but fast enough to easily hold his spot. A vibration sent him to the pits as the laps wound down, and he came home 19th, a lap down. The bright side? He’s had a top-two car every week. One of these weeks he’ll close the deal.

When… was the moment of truth?

If you’re looking for a game-changer, it might have happened when the No. 88 rolled off the truck on Friday. Bowman topped both practice sessions on Friday and, despite changing weather conditions, he carried that speed into Sunday, dominating the race.  The race was vintage Hendrick Motorsports; the team might have been down and out for the last couple of years, but give them competitive cars and it’s like they never missed a beat.

It was also vintage Fontana, with long green-flag runs and a margin of victory wide enough to make a beer run before second-place Kyle Busch crossed the line.  The track’s aging pavement makes for great restarts, and had there been a late caution, there were about six drivers behind Bowman who would have gone for broke. While that would have been exciting to watch, NASCAR played it absolutely right.  There could have been a debris caution any time in that final stage but there wasn’t. The race was allowed to play out, and while it wasn’t one for the highlight reel, it was authentic.  There was just one caution other than the two stage breaks, and at one point there would have been at least a couple more, manufactured for restarts and a close finish. NASCAR’s non-call was the right one. A dominating finish beats a manufactured one any day, even if the battle is less than compelling.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

Three races in 2020, three manufacturers in victory lane.  It took 10 races for that to happen in 2019, and the good days for Chevrolet were few and far between for most of last year. Even the stronger Fords often lagged behind the Toyotas. One driver dominating always makes for talk about whether the dominance is good for the sport, and while it’s not bad, it’s definitely better from a fan interest point of view if there are more winners and more teams capable of winning on a weekly basis.

The same is true for the manufacturers. Many fans still put manufacturer above driver and the more we see different emblems at the front, the better – and better still if it’s among several different drivers. The season has kicked off in a good place for NASCAR.  The next test will be whether the parity can hold. After that, whether it will be carried over when the new car debuts next year. It’s important long-term that it does.

How… many drivers are really capable of winning every week?

It’s a question that’s actually thrown around a lot, and the depth of the Cup Series field is one reason that winning races and titles at that level is such a big accomplishment. But are there really 15 or 20 drivers who could win every time out?

Well, yeah… and no.

It’s hard to find a driver in a Cup ride who isn’t capable of winning. For the most part, they got there because they won races, usually, a lot of them, somewhere along the line, in and/or on something with wheels and an engine. While there are a handful of elite talents who really are capable of winning every time out, just about anyone in the field is good enough to win if the chips fall right, because they know how to position themselves to take advantage of every twist and turn.

How many drivers are in cars capable of winning every week? That’s a better question and while it can vary, there are some very good drivers in very good cars that still can’t beat the elite teams and drivers. There are some drivers who are better than their equipment, and there are teams with better equipment than drivers. What makes the series difficult, and compelling, is that there are so many who can win. Not all of them will contend every week, but any given race has probably 15 car and driver combinations that could find themselves up front if strategy and circumstances fall in their favor.

The competition is as good as it ever was, maybe even better as there are so many teams with the resources to compete. Winning is hard, and even one win at the Cup level is an accomplishment a whole lot of drivers never realize.

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Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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4 comments

  1. Avatar

    I love the fact that NASCAR has, for the most part, greatly diminished pulling out the yellow flag for questionable cautions. That is the only redeeming value of stage racing.

    As for who can win on any given weekend, I don’t look at drivers or cars, I look at teams:
    JGR 4
    HMS 4
    SHR 4
    Penske 3
    Ganassi 2

    So that’s 17 cars.
    The rest need some sort of miracle (rain, fuel mileage, etc.) or a crapshoot track (Daytona, Talladega).

    • Avatar

      To back up your assertion. 9 of the top 10 cars yesterday were from the teams you listed, with Kurt Busch being the only exception. And I would say that CGR, the Wood Bros, and RCR (especially Reddick) make up the next tier.