The Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series in California

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIMarch 18, 2014

The Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series in California

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    Denny Hamlin (l) & Joey Logano final lap 2013 Auto Club 400
    Denny Hamlin (l) & Joey Logano final lap 2013 Auto Club 400Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    This weekend, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series heads back to the west coast in a strange scheduling hiccup that everyone talks about, few can explain, and yet continues year after year. That’s a lot of jet fuel and diesel for a series touting itself as environmentally friendly.

    Maybe that’s why NASCAR plants all those trees outside of racetracks across the country.

    A quick look to the past shows that the Auto Club 400 is usually a real snooze. However, last year’s edition was—at times—exciting and quite entertaining even though most media recollections focused on the final ten laps. 

    Former teammates Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin—in a feud that began the previous week in Bristol—battled each other as things  wound down on the 200 lap race. On the final lap, Logano was not only dealing with Tony Stewart—who had been blocking him—but Hamlin, who was aggressively racing him for position. Hamlin made a move on Logano just as the two took the white flag and passed the start/finish line. They drove side-by-side until the back stretch when a bump by Logano sent Hamlin’s Toyota spinning head on into an inside retaining wall. The impact fractured Hamlin’s back and the rest, as they say, is history.

    Logano and Stewart later had a confrontation of their own on pit road, which is currently being used in a television commercial highlighting NASCAR's drama and unpredictability. 

    Kyle Busch, the race winner, received one- and two-sentence mentions in most race recaps and insisted that the media pay him a bit of attention. His pleas fell on deaf ears. The big story was the Hamlin and Logano feud—which most observers say got out of hand—that caused serious injury to Hamlin and caused his 2013 season to be a write off after only a handful of races.

    We can only hope for something similar in the final laps of this Sunday’s edition—without any of the destructive physical injuries, of course

    It’s the very least we can look forward to if we’re to endure another 400 miles of mind numbing, single-file, fuel economy racing from Auto Club Speedway.


Junior Has a Bristol Kind of Weekend

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr.Will Schneekloth/Getty Images

    Maybe it was the rain. Maybe it was the long day. Maybe it was that his car was setup for different conditions. Or maybe blame it on the bossa nova.

    For Dale Earnhardt Jr., it was a typical Bristol race day.

    Regardless of what it was that gave Junior Nation heartburn through much of Sunday night and into Monday morning, it’s given sports writers plenty of ammunition.

    Even if he told a national television audience during one of the rain delays that it was his favorite race track—reason being he’d spent so many good race days there as a child while his father was racing—Bristol Motor Speedway hasn’t always been one of Junior's better race tracks.

    Childhood memories notwithstanding, last Sunday was just not a good day for the No. 88 team. As the race progressed, Junior’s Chevy became more and more difficult to muscle around Bristol’s tight confines and he tore up his left front tire. He eventually went four laps down to the leaders and finished 24th.

    This "bump in the road" outing—at one of his toughest tracks, no less—immediately gave rise to a flood of opinions from a media determined to examine the outlook on the rest of Earnhardt Jr.’s season.

    Give the guy a break, guys and gals. Even Springsteen has his bad days and occasionally there’s an off-beat performance. 

    As far as next challenges go, Auto Club Speedway doesn’t offer up much optimism. In 21 outings here, Earnhardt Jr. has a mere 6 top-tens on his resume, with an even more worrisome 28 total laps led.

    If you’re looking for a rebound, this isn’t going to be the race. Think Martinsville, the following weekend.

A Good Day for Smoke, but Issues Remain at Stewart-Haas Racing

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    Tony Stewart
    Tony StewartJamie Squire/Getty Images

    Yes, Bristol was just what the doctor ordered for Tony Stewart.


    “To come to Bristol and run 500 laps here and get a top-five is just what the doctor ordered,” Stewart said immediately following the race. “It’s big. This is a physical place. If you look at the lap times we were running—mid-15 second laps around here all day—it’s no walk in the park, by any means. It’s not a win, I know that, but it feels like a win.”

    All questions surrounding Stewart’s health and his ability to function inside a Sprint Cup car should be history. The 42-year-old team owner showed he’s able to handle a long day on a short track, a routine which requires a lot of movement from both feet and legs.

    Stewart’s “win” was also just what the doctor ordered for his ailing race team Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), which can’t seem to have a race weekend where more than one car has performed well. 

    Of course, you might consider Danica Patrick’s 18th place finish as performing well. Her teammates Kurt Busch (35th) and Kevin Harvick (39th) had a forgettable Sunday at Thunder Valley.

    Auto Club Speedway (ACS) is a good track for Kurt Busch, who has 3 wins and 10 top-tens. Stewart does have 12 top-tens, with no wins. Harvick, who would like to do better at what is regarded as his home track—like maybe finish a race without an issue—has a mediocre record at ACS. And Danica…well, her slate is clean and so there’s always room for improvement.

    The organization is in disarray. It’s obvious from their performances. Many factors feed into this situation, all of which can be resolved by a good race weekend (Read: 3 out of 4 cars in the top-10).

    ACS might not be the place for it. Martinsville is more like it. You hate to write a team off this soon before a race weekend, but SHR has history working against it. Better off waiting a week for the turnaround.

Short Track Report Card Grades

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    Bristol Motor Speedway
    Bristol Motor SpeedwayWADE PAYNE/Associated Press

    Several teams and one manufacturer received “A” grades following strong showings at Bristol last weekend. That will bode well for them in two weeks when the Sprint Cup Series returns to short track racing on the 1/2-mile paperclip-shaped Martinsville Speedway.

    Clearly, Ford has a leg up on its competition on the short track with a strong engine that delivers the kind of torque and throttle response needed to drive the Fusion off the corner. 

    Short track stock car racing has several critical factors for success; key among them is rotating the car in the middle of the corner as effortlessly as possible and hauling butt on exit. Ford teams, which share their data, have obviously been able to do just that with their cars.

    Four of the top-5 finishers at Bristol were Fords, representing two teams—Roush Fenway Racing (RCR) and Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM).

    Team Penske—another Ford powered organization—had early success until Joey Logano suffered a power steering failure, essentially ending his day. Brad Keselowski, who struggled with a difficult race car, finished 14th.

    Chevrolet teams, which usually have a strong short track showing, were mired in the pack—with the exception of Tony Stewart who finished 4th. The Hendrick Chevrolets of Jeff Gordon and defending race winner Kasey Kahne looked good in the closing laps (7th and 8th, respectively), but neither had the car to challenge the top-five. For most of the race it was either a Ford or one of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas up front.

    One race however does not represent how a team will do all season. But, Martinsville is just around the corner and it will be another test. Success on the short tracks means success not only at Bristol or Martinsville, but more importantly at Richmond—which just happens to be the final race before the Chase.

The Trouble(s) with Kyle

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    Kyle Busch
    Kyle BuschTerry Renna/Associated Press

    Rowdy’s season is off to a rough start. One top-10 finish in four starts is not exactly something to get excited about. And it's not like his Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) teammates are making him look bad, either. 

    Maybe it's the cars coming of the JGR stables that just don’t fit Busch’s style and he’s not comfortable. Maybe he and crew chief Dave Rogers need to get back on the same page (not likely). One could spend hours trying to figure out why the one Sprint Cup driver with the most raw driving talent isn’t finishing in the top-five every weekend.

    Busch led a meager 73 laps at Bristol, a track where he’s won five times. And he finished 29th, six laps down from the race leaders.

    That’s his season so far in a nutshell.

    “I think as long as you can get a win, I don’t think it really matters as much anymore,” Busch told the media prior to the Las Vegas race two weeks ago. “If you don’t get a win, then you still want to have a strong start because there still are going to be guys make the Chase without having wins.”

    Nice philosophy, but flawed to the extent that Busch hasn’t gotten off to a good enough start to think he’ll be one of the Chase drivers who gets into postseason racing on points. He sits 14th, down four after Bristol. Not necessarily a bad position to be in. But he’s got a big group of heavy hitters in front of him both in and out of the top-10. 

    The JGR No. 18 team needs to deliver a few top-five performances over the next several race weekends or just have Busch slam dunk it by scoring a Victory Lane appearance.

    It’s that simple. 

Kurt Busch: A Man out of Time

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    Kurt Busch
    Kurt BuschMark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Kyle’s older brother, Kurt, isn’t having a much better time at it this season either. In fact, he may be having a much worse time.

    Kurt is 31st in points after Bristol and he’s a man running out of time. If you’re not within shouting distance of even the top-15 at this stage of the season, no amount of wishing and hoping is going to get you on the big stage in Homestead. That is, of course, unless you win a race. But Kurt doesn’t appear to be any closer to winning, as he is making that big points jump upward.

    Busch’s season so far might just be described as “if it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

    Sunday in Bristol, he hit the wall attempting to avoid younger brother Kyle’s spin. That sent him to the garage for lengthy repairs. 

    It's just been that kind of year.

    Auto Club Speedway could bring some good vibrations to this team. It certainly needs it. Busch has three wins there along with 10 top-ten finishes. Maybe, just maybe a top-five finish is in the making?

    Nah…just kidding.

A Rocky Mountain Low for Truex Jr.

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Only a year ago, Martin Truex Jr. appeared to be a driver on the rise. His team at Michael Waltrip Racing was clicking and Truex Jr. had his eyes on the Chase once again.

    And then, oops. After the debacle at Richmond, his entire world came crumbling down. His sponsor left, his team dissolved and Truex Jr. was banished from the big race city to a job in the mountains.

    Since arriving in the Mile High City with Furniture Row Racing, it’s not been a real "Rocky Mountain High" for Truex Jr. He’s struggled. No, let’s be honest here: Its been a near disaster. 

    His average race finish is 28.8 and the start is 17.5. Could this be the same team that put Kurt Busch in the Chase last season? Todd Berrier is still the team leader and, while several positions on the squad have had personnel changes, the biggest change is the driver.

    Maybe Berrier’s South and Truex Jr.’s Jersey are having a difficult time synchronizing. Every weekend they seem to be just a tick off. Both men are very good at what they do. Somehow they need to figure out how to march in step, hold hands and head off to the promised land—meaning, “let’s figure out how to win one and then worry about it later.”

    I’ve got faith that they can do just that.

Working the Kinks out of Qualifying

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    A hose here, a hose there. Somehow we all knew NASCAR would find a way to solve the myriad of problems that popped up when the group qualifying format was first introduced.

    Group qualifying has added a whole new dimension to the show. Single car qualifying was absolutely the worst show in all of racing. I can’t wait for when the series gets to Talladega and them boys are drafting!

    It took only three races for the smart guys in Daytona and Charlotte to figure out how to solve all the issues. And it should give the NASCAR fan base a reason to stop and be thankful they’ve got a smart bunch of guys who know a smarter bunch of guys who can get things figured out so that the smartest bunch of guys who call themselves crew chiefs, can be happy.

    Auto Club Speedway’s qualifying sessions on Friday should be very entertaining. With this new Gen 6 car, there will be a lot of aerodynamics in play on the big 2.0-mile track. And very fast speeds.

Because Were Going to Surf City Where It's Two-to-One

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    Walt Weis/Associated Press

    NASCAR would like us all to think that Auto Club Speedway (ACS) is just a block down the street from the Santa Monica Pier. Or maybe a short bicycle ride from the Venice boardwalk. Or a quick right off of Sunset at Doheny.

    Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s about sixteen million miles east of those locations, down the street from Bumwhatchamacallit Avenue and on the site of an old steel mill. 

    I remember attending CART Indy Car races at Auto Club Speedway back in the 1990s. No one back then tried to make the fans across the country believe that the track was in Hollywood—or Los Angeles, for that matter. All that mattered was that the track was unbelievably fast. The CART Indy Cars were doing 250 mph on the back straight. That was fast!

    So now we have the new Gen 6 stock cars that can finally go fast at a place like ACS and instead of promoting itself as the fastest stock car track west of the Mississippi, Auto Club Speedway gives us Billy Ray Cyrus doing a hip hop version of "Achy Breaky Heart."

    Go figure!

    Not even Wofgang Puck’s food was good enough to get anyone who actually lives in Los Angeles to drive out to NASCAR’s event in the middle of nowhere. 

    I once suggested that they make the track 2.5-miles, bank it higher and turn it into a restrictor plate race. Then, offer a triple crown-cool million bucks to any driver who could win at all three tracks in one year. I still think that’s a good idea. Maybe someone with a bit of sense at International Speedway Corporation (the owner of ACS) will think it’s a good idea, too and sell it to the board room.

    Until then, I guess the racing will be OK. The cars are fast and there’s a bit of drafting going on with these new cars.

    I’ll still be watching. And you should, too.