Auto Club 500: When Second Isn't Good Enough

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Auto Club 500: When Second Isn't Good Enough

I quote the famous response of Gen. Anthony McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Pressed to surrender by the German commander who had the town surrounded and under siege, McAuliffe simply answered, “Nuts!”

That’s what I think about Sunday’s Auto Club 500 at Fontana.

Nuts.

Jeff Gordon had this one. The DuPont Chevy was the car to beat, and he was able to drive up, around, and away from any and all contenders.

Until his pit crew screwed him on the last stop.

Or maybe it was just that Matt Kenseth’s team was a little better.

Either way, I say, “Nuts!”

It has been a long and frustrating wait since Gordon visited victory lane at Charlotte in fall of 2007. After going winless last season it has become a question of “When” will the team take a checkered flag in a points-paying race (Jeff won the first of the two Gatorade “Duel” qualifying races at Daytona, but that doesn’t count), and “If” Steve Letarte will remain on the pit box for the No. 24 should it not happen by mid-season this year.

Call holding for Rick Hendrick, Ray Evernham on line 1.

I had no doubt that Gordon would be able to drive up to and pass Kenseth in the waning laps of the race, and he did the former, but failed at the latter. He tried the high line, middle line, and was gaining ground on the apron through turns three and four–to no avail.

Nuts.

Either way, the race was lost in the pits, and that falls on one person’s shoulders: Steve Letarte.

In reality, the 13th-place finish in the rain-shortened Daytona 500 was destined to become a disaster for the 24 team. If you watched the broadcast, you saw the severe wear that the right-front tire was suffering, and it was only going to be a matter of time before that sucker blew and sent Jeff into the SAFER barrier.

The setup on the car was just too aggressive. But a long run in practice should have revealed this problem. Since there were days of practice leading up to the 500, why wasn’t it corrected before the green flag? The only answer I can come up with is it was something they threw on the car at the last minute, hoping it would help.

It may or may not have, but fortunately for Gordon he was able to change tires every 25 laps – which seemed to be the limit of wear on them, though that is far short of a 40-lap fuel run.

After two races Jeff is second in points to Matt Kenseth, who has been lucky to win both events to start the year. This actually says a lot in credit to the 24 team, particularly after last years’ performance–or lack thereof.

But it also says that Jeff was a lap away from being in the cellar coming out of Daytona due to a bad setup, and lost an opportunity at victory at Fontana because the pit crew failed to get him out first on the final stop.

If you haven’t heard it before or recently, then remember this: Races are won and lost in the pits. Learn it, live it, love it.

That’s exactly what happened Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. The “Killer Bees” on the DeWalt (Carhartt) team gave Matt Kenseth the lead in the pits, and the “Rainbow Warriors” got stung.

Nuts.

Time’s ticking for Letarte, and I gotta believe that Evernham is just biding his time before sweeping in and getting Jeff Gordon back to victory lane – where he belongs.

 

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