Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2022 Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway

What happened?

Reigning NASCAR Cup Series Champion Kyle Larson continued where he left off in 2021 by winning his first race of 2022 at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday, Feb. 27. It is his second career NASCAR Cup Series win in the California-based circuit. Following close behind him was Austin Dillon, who held off Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Joey Logano to complete the top five.

How did it happen?

Survival and patience won the day.

Throughout the whole first 180 laps, Larson almost was never in the mention for the lead of the Wise Power 400 in his home state except for one lap. Names such as Tyler Reddick, Jones, Chase Elliott and William Byron seemed to be the drivers in the hunt for the victory in Fontana.

Yet Larson was always near the front. He finished in fifth in both stages one and two.

It was an event marred by mechanical issues, ill-handling race cars and flared tempers. By the end of the race, almost all of those aforementioned leaders experienced issues that took them off the lead pace, and it was Larson’s time to pounce.

With 22 laps to go, one of the final restarts of the race found the Hendrick Motorsports trio of Larson, Elliott and Alex Bowman battling Logano for the lead. Bowman hit the wall upon the restart in turn 3, leaving Elliott and Larson to battle against Logano for the top spot.

The trio was three wide when Elliott built up enough momentum to pass around the other two on the outside. Unfortunately, his HMS teammate had the same idea.

The contact ruined Elliott’s day and he fell well off the pace.

With Larson taking the lead, Logano falling back, and Elliott swearing up a storm, it seemed it was time to drop the curtain on another Hollywood performance for the Californian.

Unfortunately, from the damage he sustained, Elliott couldn’t keep his Chevrolet straight for the rest of the race. He brought out the 10th and final unscheduled caution of the day.

After a late-race pit stop, Larson was left to defend against Suarez who is still looking for his first career Cup Series win.

With four laps to go, Larson restarted on the outside of the No. 99 Chevrolet, and they were dead even into the first corner.

Suarez received a push from Jones with three laps to go and took the lead briefly, but the dirt track savant of Larson used the high lane of turns 3 and 4 to his advantage. The momentum launched him around the Trackhouse Racing Team car and into the lead with two laps to go. He stayed there to the checkered to collect his 17th career Cup Series victory.

Who stood out?

Larson may have taken home the win, but Reddick stole the show.

From the moment he took the lead on lap 11, the driver of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was the favorite for everybody to win in Fontana. On his way of leading a race-high total of 90 laps, Reddick used his tried-and-true high line to rim-ride the blue walls of Auto Club Speedway. His high line gave him the advantage over the rest of the field and allowed him to win both stages one and two.

In the opening laps of the final stage, Reddick was holding off Jones, who was the only other driver throughout the day that appeared to have enough speed to contend with the dominant RCR Chevrolet.

By lap 151, the duo was still dueling in the top lane of the speedway for the lead when Reddick reported a vibration.

That vibration became a flat tire.

Just like that, Reddick’s perfect day ended. His race resulted in a 24th-place finish, one lap off the pace. After such a dominant performance for most of the day, however, it’s hard to think we won’t see Reddick running up front for the lead again in any of the remaining 34 races in 2022.

Who fell flat?

With overheating issues, spins and flat tires galore, Joe Gibbs Racing had an abysmal day.

Only one out of the four cars was able to score points in either of the first two stages of the race when Denny Hamlin earned one point with his 10th-place result in stage two.

Their headaches began when Kyle Busch spun early on followed by overheating issues for the Toyota which forced him to pit road. The issues placed him well behind the leaders where he would then suffer a flat tire. At one point, the candy man was multiple laps down.

Overheating issues plagued Busch’s JGR teammates of Christopher Bell and Hamlin as well. While Hamlin was able to overcome his dilemma, Bell would spin later on.

Bell’s spin blew out his Goodyear eagles and was unable to get his Toyota to move on its own power again, a Gen 7 car problem that has plagued a few drivers this weekend and is being reviewed by NASCAR for a solution.

The Oklahoma native eventually received a tow back to pit road, but by that point, he was multiple laps down. The No. 20 team abandoned the race and did not return.

Bell’s day ended with a 36th-place result – dead last.

The only JGR driver that had a normal day was Martin Truex Jr, but it wasn’t the typical top five run we have come to expect out of the No. 19 Toyota. Truex spent his day hovering near the edge of the top 10 and that’s where he finished in 13th.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the team by the end, however. Despite his abundance of issues and setbacks, Busch rejoined the lead lap late and clawed his way to a 14th-place finish. Hamlin followed suit in 15th.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the JGR team struggle at the beginning of the season, and the team will almost certainly be looking forward to next Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a track where it won last September.

What did this race prove?

The new car is hard to drive, and that’s great.

It was a lesson 10 drivers learned throughout the practice and qualifying sessions on Saturday, Feb. 26. In practice, multiple drivers experienced handling issues that caused them to spin and even damage their race car, resulting in most being forced to forfeit their qualifying run to either repair their car or replace it. One such driver was the experienced veteran and 2011 Fontana winner Kevin Harvick.

In the final qualifying session alone, Elliott, Byron, and Brad Keselowski all failed to post a time after each spun during their one-shot lap because of poor handling. Logano also smacked the wall but was able to post a qualifying time, albeit a much slower one.

In the race itself, it was clear from the beginning every driver must survive an ill-handling car if they wanted to stay ahead or even stay in the race at all. Busch was the first victim.

Then Elliott spun, followed by Josh Bilicki, then Bell, Keselowski, Ross Chastain, and you get the idea.

Despite the spins, the damage, and no doubt the money spent on repairs and part replacement, the feedback has been positive.

Even from the drivers.

The event had 12 yellow flags throughout the day, which is the most since 2008 when the race was 500 miles rather than 400. It was only two yellow flags shy of the overall record.

Almost all of them came from spins.

In all, fans and drivers alike wanted the new car to be hard to drive so they can see talent – rather than money alone – rise to the top. They got what they wanted.

Now if we could only figure out that flat tire issue.

Paint scheme of the race

The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Interstate Batteries is one of NASCAR’s oldest ongoing sponsor relationships, and it looks as good as ever.

Busch had an absolute nightmare of a day, but at least his car looked good. The traditional Interstate Batteries lightning bolt mixed with a bright green primary color and white number and lettering made the Toyota stand out among the rest of the field.

Better than last time?

Let’s put it this way.

After the Fontana race in 2020, plans were developed to turn Auto Club Speedway into a short track and be rid of its 2-mile “cookie-cutter” design.

After this race, many fans believe it should be left exactly how it is.

The last race at Fontana saw eight different leaders for 17 total lead changes. There were only three unscheduled yellow flags. The race winner, Bowman, led a whopping 110 laps when it was all over.

Sunday’s event saw only nine leaders. With 10 unscheduled caution flags, however, drivers had ample opportunity to take a shot at the top spot, resulting in 32 lead changes.

The competition was far better it seems, and with no 550-horsepower rules package, the cars were sliding around on the bumpy surface making the on-track action more unpredictable.

Oh yeah, and the crowd was great too.

What’s next?

The Cup Series returns to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the first of two visits to Sin City in 2022.

Cup Series practice at the 1.5-mile oval starts on Saturday, March 5, at 1:30 p.m. ET and will be followed by qualifying at 2:05 p.m. ET with TV coverage being provided by FOX Sports 1. The Pennzoil 400 will follow on Sunday, March 6, at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. A race fan since he was three years old, he began freelance writing in 2018 and wrote for IMSA in 2020 after graduating with a B.S. in Communications from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share this article

17 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Tom B

It’s not blocking if you didn’t know a car was coming behind you. It is just changing your racing line.

Bill B

I like Kyle Larson and rooted for him to win the championship last year, but I would have rather seen Jones or Suarez win. I was really disappointed that Reddick had that issue and wasn’t around at the end to battle for the win. If I had my way, I would have like d to see him win his first race.

The new car is creating an interesting race right now due to the uncertainty team face trying to figure it out. Once the top teams figure it out I think they will rise to the top as usual. It may take until the second half of the season but it will happen. For the time being it is refreshing to see the good, the bad and the ugly all having issues driving the car.

For those that don’t want the track to be reconfigured to a short track, keep in mind that the track is old and due for a repave if it isn’t reconfigured. When that happens it will probably take a decade before we see great races again.

janice

once suarez got to the lead, was kind of hoping he’d be able to hold onto the lead for the few remaining laps.

Jeremy

Time will tell, but so far I like that the diffuser seems to be helping with aero issues impacting a trailing car’s ability to pullup and make a move to pass. While passes for the lead should be difficult (but not impossible), it appears a decent balance is maybe here in that regard.

They have to figure out the issue where a flat tire completely immobilizes a car. I’m sure they’re looking at it, but I hope they find a solution soon. A spin and flat tire should not require a wrecker to drag a car back to the pit.

Otherwise, I’m pleasantly surprised so far. Daytona was better than I expected (though I’m still not a fan of pack racing). Fontana is so big it tends to generate strung out snoozers, but this one was one of the better races I recall here. I only napped for 30 minutes or so during the 2nd stage.

Not sure I buy Larson’s claim he didn’t know Elliott was there, but my opinion doesn’t matter. I wonder if Elliott believes it? He’s the only one Larson needs to convince.

Bill B

Keep in mind that with all the cautions, the cars didn’t get a chance to get strung out and produce a snoozer. I like a few real cautions during a race but there is a point where there are so many that the race never gets a flow to it. I felt the race yesterday crossed the line (for me) a bit in that regard.

I am not sure I buy that Larson didn’t know Elliott was there, and I am not sure that Elliott didn’t spin on purpose to take away the easy ride to victory that Larson would have had without that last caution. I really don’t care as I like both drivers. File it under IT HAPPENS.

DH

but – at least they didn’t throw a caution on the last lap, i was going to be very annoyed if that happened. I did enjoy the race, i do think the tire thing is bad, i am excited to see how the season goes about, and i’ve always enjoyed the worn out surfaces and those gnarly bumps on the backstretch.

DoninAjax

The tire solution should be easy for the NA$CAR brain trust: go back to 15 inch wheels and get the inner liner back. But that would mean they have to admit another of their brilliant ideas was a bust and we know how likely that is.

Bill B

If they can make a 15 inch wheel with an inner liner and still have a single lug then they may go for it, but I don’t see them going back to 5 lugs. That would make NASCAR look bad, and we can’t have that, can we?

BTW, my friend told me that he heard that Gibbs wants his pit crew to only have to deal with one wheel or the other (5 vs 1) because switching back and forth screws up their timing. He doesn’t want his cup crew to do pit stops in Xfin or trucks, which means an extra crew. So much for the new car saving teams money.

Last edited 4 months ago by Bill B
DoninAjax

I heard that about Gibbs during the Busch event on Saturday. Makes sense to me to do it that way. I agree about how NA$CAR made another decision that will save teams money.

Iceman202290

It does save money.
If you only want to participate in cup, this helps.
Also means more people employed if you do chose to be an owner in multiple series..win win in my book.

Bill B

How does this help? If you only want to participate in cup you still need to hire 7 guys to pit the car. If you want to participate in all three series then you need to hire 7 additional guys. Are you saying the teams that run in all three series should be OK with having to spend more?

Don’t you think this might make teams more reticent to want to field teams in all three series? The profit margin in Xfin and the trucks is razor thin already.

Iceman202290

Yes

Kevin in SoCal

No, with the larger wheels we get larger brakes and better stopping power. 15″ wheels stink! There’s a reason why passenger cars have been getting larger wheels in the last decade.

But some kind of inner liner should help, as these run-flats aren’t working like they’re supposed to.

DoninAjax

VW Beetles had 17 inch wheels in the 50s. Lots more torque taking off.

WJW Motorsports

It’s the “team” mentality rearing its ugly head. Drivers now expect their teammate to dutifully follow them and give them a push out front. They don’t expect said teammate to take them 3 wide right there, as Kyle’s deliberate arc of a corner displayed (but I think all HMS spotters – esp. Byron’s – were sampling too much of CA’s signature product yesterday). I like what Chase did and hope he keeps pressing it (not a big fan of that intentional spin, if that’s what it was).

Carl D.

I enjoyed the race. Felt terrible for Reddick; his car was bad-fast, and he was dominating. At the end, I was secretly pulling for Suarez to win (wife is a proud Larson fan). As for the Larson/Elliott dust up, that’s just hard racing.

Age has seasoned this track well. The owners need to leave it alone.

Shayne

I wish NASCAR would get rid of the free pass. Elliott was down 2 laps. Want your lap back? Pass the damn leader.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com