(Photo: Randy Lanning)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 Auto Club 400 at Fontana

The Headline(s): After winning the first stage and showing speed all weekend, Alex Bowman took the lead on lap 133 after a hotly-contested restart to begin the final stage, and never looked back. Gapping Ryan Blaney over the final run, Bowman cruised to his second career Cup victory and third career NASCAR national series win.

Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top five. Blaney’s runner-up finish disappeared in the closing laps when he was forced to pit for a vibration inside of five laps to go.

How It Happened

Polesitter Clint Bowyer led the opening 10 laps on Sunday under threatening skies, but his concerns about long-run speed came to fruition shortly after Bowman seized the point on lap 11. Bowman would stay out front until green flag pit stops commenced on lap 26, and when he pit on lap 29 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. assumed the point, employing the same long-run pit strategy the No. 47 used at Las Vegas a week ago. No caution would fly this week, however, and Bowman reassumed the lead on lap 36, cruising away to the stage one win. The stage went caution-free, though Denny Hamlin essentially ended Kyle Larson’s day on lap 34 with a rough bump-draft down the frontstretch.

Jimmie Johnson’s crew won the race off pit road for the No. 48, though his time out front ended shortly after the start of stage two, when Blaney took the lead on lap 72 after swapping the lead with Johnson off the restart. Blaney held the lead until pitting under green on lap 91, reassumed that lead after William Byron made his green-flag stop, and weathered a lap 96 restart after a questionable caution for Bowyer’s flat tire to score the stage two win.

Johnson’s pit crew again won the race off pit road during the stage break, but Johnson again could not hold the lead, ceding to Blaney on lap 128. Bowman and Martin Truex Jr. would swap the lead between laps 129 and 132 before Bowman seized control of the race. Keselowski would lead from laps 161-166 as he stayed out on old tires trying to catch a yellow, but would eventually return the lead to Bowman for good.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Winning in a contract year is essentially a must for a driver in the Cup Series, so for Bowman not only to do that, but to do it three weeks into the season is a major story. Not only does Bowman go from playoff bubble to a lock, his No. 88 team now has 22 races to experiment, gamble, and rack up trophies that will do nothing but aid in contract negotiations. The win does not come without its challenges; Bowman’s 2019 campaign bottomed out immediately after his win at Chicagoland last June, and his ability to land the major sponsorships needed to keep a Hendrick Motorsports team afloat remains in question. Having said that, after a dominant showing in Fontana, challenge accepted.

Bowman’s win is only part of the larger story at Hendrick Motorsports, which proved decisively that the speed they showed in Las Vegas a week ago was no fluke. Johnson’s No. 48 showed a staying power it hasn’t in the era of “package” racing, and his pit crew was in ludicrous mode all day Sunday. Elliott proved a fixture in the top 10 all day as well. Hendrick isn’t back to being the captain of the yacht in Cup racing, but three weeks into 2020 they are back on the bridge.

Both Kurt Busch and Keselowski not only scored their first top-five finishes of the season, they also scored their first stage points of the year. Both veteran drivers have been decisively supportive of their race teams despite disappointing starts to the year, and now they have concrete results to back it.

There’s no doubting Tyler Reddick’s talent level after scoring consecutive Xfinity Series championships leading into this year, but it has been surprising to see his time in Richard Childress Racing’s underachieving Cup cars position him over fellow rookies Cole Custer and Christopher Bell after consecutive intermediate-oval races. Reddick finished 11th, the best finish at Auto Club for any driver not named Austin Dillon at RCR since 2015.

One week after being AWOL in Las Vegas, Joe Gibbs Racing returned to be a factor at Fontana, despite issues that saw Truex fail pre-qualifying inspection three times and Hamlin forced to start at the rear after changing a shock absorber during the pace laps. At race’s end, Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Erik Jones all scored top-10 finishes, and Truex likely would have done so had his tire changer not suffered a wrist injury during the race’s final pit stop that dropped the No. 19 from second to 14th. Having said that…

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

The Monday morning debrief at JGR will likely be about as tense a team meeting as will be seen in professional sports. Truex was audibly critical of teammates Hamlin and Jones on the radio multiple times during Sunday’s race. Hamlin did his best Joey Logano at Daytona impression, playing bumper cars with teammates (Truex) and non-teammates (Larson) alike. The most composed driver in the stable, it could be argued, was Rowdy himself, who despite being unhappy with the amount of work his No. 18 team has to do expressed gratitude for their efforts over 400 miles. The team’s Xfinity Series driver Brandon Jones brought back Bobby Labonte’s paint scheme at Daytona… the team could certainly use that kind of senior leader in their stable right now.

Speaking of bumper cars, Larson accomplished nothing at a track he’s won at previously, but that was entirely Hamlin’s fault. See above.

Bell’s rough start to 2020 continued, with the No. 95 succumbing to engine failure after having a bolt go through the car’s grill during the first stage. What was surprising about this was documented by Frontstretch alum Brock Beard:

Despite winning the pole Sunday, Bowyer’s day went backward from lap 11 on, culminating with a flat tire on lap 94 that eliminated the No. 14 from contention. To see such performance from the Stewart-Haas Racing flagship on a day that saw both Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola battle from early adversity to top-10 finishes is concerning. Bowyer and the No. 14 are going to need to keep being a story off the track if races like Sunday’s become the norm… because they’re going to fast become irrelevant on it.

Blaney was again the class of the Penske brigade, and arguably the field, on Sunday before being hamstrung by a tire issue in the closing laps. The concern isn’t speed, but how much longer the No. 12 can stay out of victory lane before the mental exasperation that Blaney exclaimed when he told his crew he was pitting from second place becomes a physical burden for the race team.

Insights, Opinions and Fake News

The Xfinity Series has gotten used to hearing regulars such as Jones and Jeremy Clements reference the speed of Xfinity internet every time they get interviewed on TV. Sunday’s post-race interview with Bowman was the first time I can remember a Cup driver giving the same plug. Yes, Xfinity is now a Cup Series sponsor as well, but I have a hard time believing that Mountain Dew-sponsored Elliott is going to be instructed to earn Coke chug points this season. Which begs the question… is Xfinity a more “preferred” sponsor?

Or, the more likely situation, is Bowman trying to come off as sponsor-friendly as possible? The reality is, Sunday’s win was likely as much an audition for Bowman to possibly move into Hendrick’s No. 48 car as it was to stay in his current No. 88 car. Why? The No. 48 has a full-season sponsorship from Ally Financial… the bank that emerged from the ashes after the former GMAC (and long-time Hendrick Motorsports sponsor) went belly-up during the Great Recession. Despite being Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s selected replacement for the No. 88, Bowman was not able to keep relatively new Cup sponsor Nationwide Insurance in NASCAR racing, and has yet to bring a major sponsor to the Hendrick camp (this year’s expanded dollars came from Axalta, another long-time Hendrick backer). Given the drivers that Bowman, in a contract-year, is competing against for a 2021 seat (Blaney and 2012 Cup champion Keselowski come to mind), landing dollars may end up being more important than trophies.

How does it make sense that the same year NASCAR’s Cup Series has no primary sponsor that the Cup Series brand goes on the windshield, with the driver’s last name going to the rear window? Take a good look at the Xfinity cars, which combined sponsorship and driver name on the windshield, to see how it’s done. To be fair, also look at the short spoiler, high horsepower package of those Xfinity cars to see how racing is done.

Hamlin proved untouchable in the fall race at Phoenix last year. The way he barged through the Cup field, and his own teammates, in Fontana on Sunday, he better hope the No. 11 proves that dominant again next week. 

Saturday wasn’t Jeff Gordon’s strongest performance in the booth (more on that later). But, he deserves a lot of credit for picking up on and criticizing NASCAR’s spacing of cars on the track during qualifying. Stenhouse’s run was obviously impacted by a lapped car returning to pit road blocking his use of the apron in turn 3 and 4. Meanwhile, Logano took the provisional pole on his lap, because he had unencumbered use of the apron. Either NASCAR needs to, as Gordon suggested, leave more time between releasing cars off pit road, or, in the likely event that they’re trying to compress qualifying for TV’s sake, instruct cars that completed their runs to stay in the gas and hustle back around the track to avoid impeding the next run. 

After 400 miles of radio traffic Sunday, I’m not sure who’s whinier. Truex…

…or his fans.

It figures that only two weeks after I applauded NASCAR for showing restraint with the yellow flag, that both Saturday’s Xfinity Series race and Sunday’s Cup race saw the yellow fly for incidents that involved no contact with the wall and saw the driver involved immediately able to drive away (Justin Haley spun at pit road entry on Saturday, while Bowyer lost a tire without spinning on lap 93 Sunday). At least the long green-flag run during the closing laps on Sunday was allowed to play out.

Yes, Harrison Burton’s first career Xfinity Series win is a big deal, and seeing his mother Kimberle celebrate as he took the checkers was worthy of being on TV. Seeing Kimberle on camera literally 11 times during the race before he took the checkers was a tabloid level of absurd. Translation: the team mom of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 got more TV time than Josh Williams did for a top-10 finish, Vinnie Miller for a top-15 finish, Chad Finchum for a top-20 finish, all during a race that saw Landon Cassill’s return to the series in Morgan Shepherd’s car, Josh Bilicki, David Starr, Tommy Joe Martins not even mentioned during the telecast. FOX’s credibility covering this series is right on par with this week’s National Enquirer that blamed Ryan Newman’s Daytona 500 crash on his off-season divorce. Pathetic.

Fellow Frontstretcher Michael Finley pointed out in our site’s group chat this Sunday that between Michael Waltrip riding a Jeff Gordon-themed pedicab in the infield and FOX’s decision to employ the post-burnout interview in its telecasts, NASCAR on FOX seems to be bringing their own version of Rutledge Wood and his antics to their broadcasts. Here’s hoping that means NBC will axe said antics in a bid to distinguish their brand later this season.

Staying away from purple cars this weekend (read below). Paint scheme of the week goes to Ross Chastain’s Castrol Mustang. 

Doesn’t matter if it’s on an oval or a drag strip, a Castrol-themed Mustang is as sexy a racecar as they come.

Finally, on a truly sad note a long way away from California, Brendan Gaughan tweeted the worst news imaginable for those of us that visit ghost tracks.

Back in 2016, when I was in that part of Texas on a road trip to see the filming locations of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I made a point to stop by the Texas World Speedway to see if I could get a good view. It turned out, there were amateur sports car racers taking to the track that day, and of course I talked my way into the infield to watch them tackle the circuit. To this day, it remains one of the coolest experiences I’ve had as a race fan to see a fleet of backyard Miatas take to a superspeedway. TWS, you will be sorely missed.

You Heard It Here Before

I guess there’s a reason I’m a writer, not a network executive. For the life of me, I don’t understand how it’s going to help TV ratings for a race to constantly remind viewers that the Oscars would be airing on a competing network later in the evening. Hey, anyone who’s bored of this column, you might want to go see what Monte Dutton had to say about this weekend’s race! He’s a very talented and funny writer. – Matt McLaughlin, 2009

Fortunately, Monte Dutton remains a talented and funny writer. And fortunately, the nightmare that is the Oscars transpired before this season’s trip to Fontana. Having said that, NASCAR’s efforts to make itself a relevant part of the ongoing tributes to Kobe Bryant reek of the same stretching that FOX’s broadcast team has historically made to cinema’s big night. Now look, Blaney’s purple car makes perfect sense. Bryant’s ties to sponsor BodyArmor are well known, and Blaney actually met the man before his untimely passing. That doesn’t explain the need for Daniel Suarez to wear Mamba-themed driver gear while espousing Bryant’s cultural impact on sports. Let’s face it, Kobe Bryant is not why Suarez got a shot in big-time NASCAR, Carlos Slim is. And as for Byron and the No. 24 team carrying purple colors, listening to former driver Jeff Gordon state during Saturday’s qualifying broadcast that he was constantly proud of how the No. 24 on his car was the same as NBA legend Bryant was utterly laughable. Why? Gordon started driving the No. 24 car in 1992, more than a decade before Bryant changed from the No. 8 to the No. 24 on his jersey. Gordon is quickly learning to channel his inner Waltrip for ruthless exaggeration of career significance it seems. It takes a lot for a four-time Cup champion to pull that off.

It’s ironic that in 2020, at the same Auto Club Speedway that came to objectify everything the sanctioning body did wrong in the early 21st century, that NASCAR again is trying to play stick and ball sports. NASCAR exploded in the late 1990s because it wasn’t a stick and ball sport. Kobe Bryant is a legendary basketball player. His tribute is not NASCAR’s to make.

What’s the Point(s)? – Come back after the West Coast swing.

Where It Rated (with one bottle a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – Let’s go with four bottles of Hamilton Family Brewery Party Water. Always good to see a green-flag race play out, but slot cars were overshadowed by the Xfinity Series’ throttle play this weekend.

Dust Off the VCR: The West Coast swing comes to a close next Sunday with a trip to the renamed Phoenix Raceway. Coverage from the Diamond in the Desert begins at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

Support Frontstretch on Patreon

About Bryan Keith

Avatar

Check Also

Eyes on Xfinity: Sam Hunt Racing at Crossroads with Coronavirus Outbreak

Entering the 2020 NASCAR season, Sam Hunt Racing planned to make its next step as …

6 comments

  1. Avatar

    When isn’t Mad Marty whining? He was doing it when he was a back marker for years in CUP with nothing to show for the people paying his way, IMO. He always got a pass because he was friends with the BOOGER FLICKER JR. That is how NASCAR media rolls. The audio of him then is the same of him now. What an entitled POS. His team seems always the one almost each week that gets a slap on the wrist from NASCAR pre race. For years.

    When is NASCAR gonna give the GIBBS GIRLS/CHEERLEADING COACHES /JOE a serious slap for wasting their time with this PRE RACE BS? They got it down to a science and seem to laugh at the lame “penalties” given them. Who can blame them? I don’t. But at what point does NASCAR say enough? I think that time has come and gone! Revisit this rule for serial offenders such as JGR. Harsher penalties, why not?

    They threw at least a small novel (NOT BOOK) at JTG racing this weekend. Big no doubt for them. Dance around the semantics all you want, overkill compared to the week in and out of the BS JGR pulls pre/post whatever point before the race. It was far more severe pre/post whatever than JGR gets for their middle finger to NASCAR on a just about on a weekly basis. JGR always skates. My observation.

  2. Avatar

    I can’t say I liked this race. Momentum racing was in full swing as a car (or cars) would make passes and then have the car they passed re-pass them. This might drag on for several laps until they sorted out. On paper this may sound good, but it seems to be a mirage to me created by the tapered spacer, like tandem drafting. I am not a big fan of momentum racing or tandem drafting. (Speaking of tandem drafting, someone needs to tell Hamlin that intense pushing isn’t proper at every track). At least tires mattered which meant by the end of the run there were legitimate comers and goers. I will never be a fan of Bowman but he certainly showed up with a car that was the class of the field right off the hauler; fastest in both practices, qualified well, won the first stage and the race. Although Blaney also had a hotrod as well.

    Overall, I thought the broadcast and booth commentary was decent again (even with the transgressions alluded to above). Once again I didn’t find myself screaming at the TV when they did something annoying and that’s all I ask for. Good call on the Waltrip-Rutledge analogy. I wish both networks would lose those annoying ploys to add levity to the broadcast but I assume some viewers like it.

    As for Truex, my overall opinion of him is positive and I kind of like the guy, but he needs to realize that those other guys out there also THINK their cars are fast and they aren’t going to roll over because he THINKS his is faster. Sometimes it’s obvious when one car is faster than another but yesterday, if his car was faster than some of the drivers he was whining about not getting out of the way, it wasn’t faster enough to warrant them getting out of the way. Shut up and drive! If your car is so much better than pass them already.

    I wasn’t a fan of Kobe Bryant (or the NBA) but I was OK with NASCAR jumping on the tribute bandwagon as I understand what he meant historically to the game and what a tragedy it was for him to die in a plane crash. And I can overlook the dubious “24” connection because, being from Baltimore, I always connected the “8” of Cal Ripken to Dale Jr. for some unknown reason.

    • Avatar

      bill b – yep 8 is cal ripken jr. was at the ballpark when he broke the streak.

      • Avatar

        Janice, do you remember Bobby Labonte driving an orange and black Cal Ripken Jr. tribute car in 2001?

        • Avatar

          i sure do!

          kevin harvick foundation works with cal ripken jr foundation building play grounds and ball fields.

  3. Avatar

    You all know what a Fontana fan-boy I am, but wow that was one of the most boring races I have watched in a long time.
    I’m glad someone different won, though.