I know I am always giving Auto Club Speedway a bad rap, but all things considered, tonight's event was a decent race.
The Matt Kenseth/Jeff Gordon battle during the last green flag run was exciting, which was a welcome change from the typical protocol with 10 or 15 laps to go (which goes like this: driver X has pulled out to a three or four second lead, NASCAR desperately searches for their French friend Jacques Debris, and throws the caution just so people will not turn off the TV before the race is over).
Maybe the COT has some potential as far as providing good racing on intermediate tracks after all, but let's see what Vegas and Atlanta have in store the next two weeks before developing that hypothesis into a theory.
I also noticed that while clean air was still crucial, the driver at the front of the field was not pulling out to as large of leads as they were last year, but maybe that's because Kyle Busch wasn't in the lead tonight. Rowdy has a tendency to blow everyone out of the water just for the hell of it.
A few attaboys:
1. The fans for showing up and probably filling the stands to 85-90 percent capacity. That was a major surprise, and I'll eat my words from earlier in the weekend.
Expect strong crowds as usual at Vegas next Sunday too. While Atlanta is a heck of a track, they often struggle to sell out due to weather or market oversaturation, so I am optimistic a good crowd will be on hand the weekend of March 6-8.
And after the off week, Bristol and Martinsville are sure to draw the fans for some good ol' fashioned short track beating and banging.
2. All the teams that struggled last year (especially on intermediate tracks) were strong tonight.
I know it's only one race, but these teams should be feeling good heading into the next two races. On that list: Michael Waltrip Racing, Penske Racing, Juan Pablo Montoya (if JPM is going to run 11th, there is no excuse for Truex to finish 27th), and—to an extent—Richard Petty Motorsports.
All four of RPM's cars were out to lunch at the beginning of the race, but came on at the end.
Kahne got a lap down, kept good track position in regards to the leaders, eventually received the lucky dog, and rebounded for a solid 12th place finish.
Unfortunately, the damage had already been done for the 19, 43, and 44 teams—they all finished in the 20s.
Speaking of being out to lunch, what the hell was wrong with RCR tonight? Once again, it's only one race and we'll have to come back and reevaluate truly how much progress these squads have made in a couple months.
3. Goodyear. They deserve an attaboy any time we make it 500 miles without any tire issues. It looked like Harvick blew a tire late in the race, but it turns out that was an engine failure. This ends his NASCAR-record 81-race streak of running at the checkered flag.
4. Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon. All off-season, everyone was pegging the 18, 48, and 99 as the championship front-runners.
Kenseth and Gordon are obviously out to prove that last season's pedestrian performances were a fluke, and they are still amongst the best in the business.
Look for Gordon to end that long victory drought very soon. I wouldn't be surprised to see it happen at Las Vegas—a place he has won at in the past.
5. Tony Stewart. I have a feeling I am going to be eating crow in a few months about inferring the No. 14 team would struggle in 2009 (I recall a 20th place points prediction).