NASCAR at Fontana 2014: Winners and Losers from Auto Club 400
It took until the fifth race of the year, but Joe Gibbs Racing finally got its first Sprint Cup points race victory of the 2014 season when Kyle Busch crossed the finish line ahead of rookie Kyle Larson.
The final lap of the green-white-checker finish featured the same two players from a nearly identical final-lap duel that took place in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, when Larson finished first.
On Sunday, the roles were reversed, as Busch used up every foot of the track to keep a charging Larson behind him and capture the win. The Target/Chip Ganassi Racing rookie, meanwhile, proved once again that he’s good enough to play with the big kids and that he's also good enough to beat them at their own game.
The sellout grandstand crowd of more than 61,000, according to the television broadcast, which in itself was a tremendous accomplishment, was treated to an uncharacteristically entertaining race that featured 35 lead changes, breaking the previous record of 33.
The race was marred by nearly 20 tire failures, the result of a large number of crew chiefs aggressively chasing the worn-out surface of Auto Club Speedway (it has not been paved since 1997) with lower-than-recommended tire pressures and aggressive tire camber angles in an effort to obtain more mechanical grip.
As mentioned, Larson was second, followed by winner Busch’s older brother Kurt, who scored a much-needed top-five finish. Pole winner Matt Kenseth finished fourth.
Carl Edwards, who finished 10th and was never a real factor in the race, inherited the points lead by one point over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Winner: Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch has been demolishing the competition on Saturdays in the Nationwide Series races for the past 10 years. Unfortunately, a good deal of his success with those cars did not translate into wins on Sundays.
This time around, it did. Although he did not win this past Saturday, his skillfulness in managing his tires and knowing when to run low on the track and when to run high—both of which he acquired a knowledge of while racing in Saturday’s Nationwide event—helped him in his final-lap battle against Larson.
"I think the fans won today, too," Busch said in Victory Lane. "Holy cow, what do you expect when you get a green-white-checker finish and everybody has to come down pit road for tires. That right there is a Days of Thunder thing right there."
The reference to the classic and oft-maligned Tom Cruise movie, which many observers will tell you is closer to the truth than most would like to believe and which signaled the start of NASCAR’s nearly two-decade-long run of popularity, is befitting of all things Busch. He’s even taken to giving himself the nickname “Rowdy,” after one of the lead characters in the movie.
Once again, the hard-working engineers at Goodyear tires will take the brunt of both fans and competitors' wrath due to the excessive wear and resulting failures during Sunday’s Auto Club 400. There were nearly 20 separate incidents that sent drivers either into the outside wall or spinning into the infield grass as a result of one or more of their tires failing.
In an effort to gain more grip from Auto Club Speedway’s decades-old surface, which also features long strips of tar filling in the gaps in the seams between the paved asphalt lanes, crew chiefs got overly aggressive with tire pressures and tire camber angles.
Lower air pressures meant more grip, and some teams went beyond the minimum recommended tire pressures from Goodyear. Mixing low tire pressures with speeds approaching 200 miles per hour became a recipe for failure.
Third-place finisher Kurt Busch did a great job of defending Goodyear when asked about the many tire failures during his post-race press appearance.
“Goodyear is doing a good job,” said Busch. “It's the same type of tire (as last year). But here's what we have. We have faster cars, more downforce, and NASCAR is allowing us to put whatever cambers we want into the cars, and therefore it's up to the team's discretion if you're going to have a problem or not.
“I've been in this game 15 years, and normally NASCAR mandates what certain air pressures you have to run and what cambers you have to run not to have a black eye for Goodyear, by no means is this a problem for Goodyear; it's actually a thumbs up for NASCAR allowing the teams to get aggressive in all areas.”
Unfortunately for several drivers, their teams paid the price for gambling with an aggressive car setup. However, that’s exactly what NASCAR’s very smart and highly paid crew chiefs are paid to do—push the envelope and win.
Some came up winners; others, losers.
Winner: Stewart-Haas Racing
For the past few race weekends, it's looked like Tony Stewart’s dream team had turned into a recurring nightmare.
With cars and engines coming from powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, you’d think that all the engineers at Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) had to do was follow the instruction book, and its drivers would deliver Jimmie Johnson- and Jeff Gordon-like performances.
But it doesn't work that way.
Stewart-Haas has appeared to be out of sync since Daytona. This team couldn’t find its bottom with two hands. Disappointing performances at the season opener followed by races where Danica Patrick was the best driver out of a stable of drivers that included two Cup champions and a Daytona 500 winner had most observers wondering if things would ever be right with this organization.
Sunday’s Auto Club Speedway scorecard was SHR’s best of the young season, with Kurt Busch finishing third, Stewart fifth and Patrick 14th. Harvick fell victim to one of the many tire issues and went several laps down early and never recovered. He finished 36th.
“Yeah, it was an awesome finish racing your boss Tony Stewart for a win,” said Busch in his post-race press conference. “A little like happy, but sad—one of us should have brought it home for Stewart-Haas Racing, and it just didn’t pan out with the four tires versus two.”
Patrick was competitive for much of the afternoon, especially on long runs.
“It’s nice when you get fortunate and lucky and your best running position on track happens to be the last lap so I will take it,” Patrick said following the race. “That doesn’t normally happen.”
Now, if only Phoenix race winner Harvick can have a race where he runs all the laps without an incident.
Loser: Jeff Gordon
A show of hands: How many of you out there were thinking Jeff Gordon would be the race winner at Auto Club Speedway?
The Hendrick Motorsports driver had the best car on long runs. He led four times for 23 laps, mostly near the end of the race. He was able to drive past five-time Auto Club Speedway winner Jimmie Johnson (who suffered a tire failure) with ease before the last caution flag came out
All that effort got the four-time Cup champion a 13th-place finish. After the race, his disappointment was obvious, although he placed an undue amount of blame on Goodyear for his predicament.
"I don’t know where to begin with the disappointment for this Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet team," Gordon said. "They gave me the most incredible race car today, and it is just so disappointing for it to end like that. I hate (that) the caution came out. I hate (that) Goodyear was not prepared today for what happened. They are so good at what they do, and that is just uncalled for.
"We were having a tire issue there on that last long run, and I just backed off. When I saw the No. 48 had issues, I was just hoping we would make it to the end, and I was just going as slow as I possibly could trying to maintain the lead and cars were just blowing tires left and right all around me.
"It’s unfortunate that was happening. But most importantly that the caution came out because we did not need that restart."
Despite his finish, Gordon moved up one place in the driver standings, to third. The No. 24 team might be a lot happier right now had that last caution not come out, and that long flight home to the East Coast would have been just a bit merrier with a win under their belt.
Next week is Martinsville. Gordon has eight wins and 34 top-10s at the circuit’s oldest track. Sounds like the perfect place to score a win for this team.
If only that last caution hadn't come out…
Winner: Brian Vickers
With his second top-10 finish in as many weeks, Brian Vickers has emerged as a driver to be reckoned with.
Sidelined for much of the second half of last season by a recurring medical issue, the former Nationwide Series champion (2003) is paying back team owner Michael Waltrip for sticking with him.
A slow start to the season led many to believe that maybe Vickers wasn’t ready to return or, perhaps, wouldn’t be able to compete full-time again. But a 13th-place finish at Las Vegas followed by ninth last week on the tough Bristol bullring made it clear that Vickers was back—for the long run.
After his win at Loudon last year, Vickers was expected to breeze into the Chase, only to be sidelined. He vowed to fight back and secure his way into this year’s postseason racing. With performances like we’ve seen over the past two weekends, there’s no questioning whether Vickers can win a race; rather, it's a matter of when he’ll win one.
Loser: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Oh my, has the Junior juggernaut come off the rails?
Many will think so. And sportswriters across the country (many of whom know nothing about NASCAR) will write endlessly about it. Still others will devote hour-long radio shows to it this week on NASCAR’s Sirius XM station. Tune in, and you’ll see I’m right.
They’ll tell you that the start of the season was a fluke, that Junior can’t take the pressure. Neither can his crew chief, Steve Letarte. They’ll also say that more resources at Hendrick Motorsports are being directed to getting Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon their first wins of the season, to secure those two drivers in this year’s Chase.
Two bad weekends in a row does not a season make. But Junior was quick to point out Auto Club Speedway’s bumpy back straightaway as a possible reason for his poor performance.
"Look at that rocker panel on that race car right there," Earnhardt said on pit road following the race, pointing to the panel. "That panel is tore up and folded up and it’s literally pushed up three inches. That’s from traveling and hitting the ground through those bumps. Hell, it’s like an off-road track back there and it shouldn’t be like that. It doesn’t have to be that way, even if it ain’t the problem."
His blame wasn’t, however, limited to just the track. He also took a shot at Goodyear’s tires, which hadn’t given the team a problem all weekend—until race day.
"I was fine all weekend," he said. "I’d seen guys having trouble, but our air pressure was in the ballpark with everyone else. And we didn’t feel like we were low on air pressure. We felt like we were good. And we knew where low was and we weren’t there.
"We weren’t going there. We were just going to try to make our car work without going that low. But it just seemed like every other tire you put on just wasn’t quite as tough as the next, and with everything going on with the bumps back there, that plays a big role in it."
Regardless of the reason for his 12th-place finish, Earnhardt Jr. remains second in the driver standings. He is winless at Martinsville in 28 attempts, although he does have 10 top-fives. Could be good medicine for this group.
Winner: Kyle Larson
Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson was already a winner even before the green flag fell on Sunday’s Auto Club 400. He won the Nationwide race the day before with a stunning closing-laps battle against one of the best drivers in NASCAR, Kyle Busch.
It wasn’t the first time these two had tangled, and it's likely not the last. Their fender-to-fender clashes have led them to develop a good friendship, with Busch congratulating Larson in Victory Lane on Saturday.
The 21-year-old did admit after the race that during those closing laps on Sunday, he did let his mind wander, just a bit. And for good reason.
"I don’t know where everybody went, but I somehow ended up in second there and I was right on Kyle (Busch) down the backstretch," Larson said. "It went through my mind 'I might sweep the weekend here.'
"I didn’t know where Kyle (Busch) was going to go in (turns) three and four because I hadn’t seen him all day. So I just kind of followed him in there, but we will take a second. It seems like I run second a lot in stock cars, but I will take a second here at California."
Team owner Chip Ganassi has brought some exceptional young talent into the top ranks of motorsports. Many thought him crazy when he let Juan Pablo Montoya leave at the end of last season in order to put the youngster from California into the No. 42 Target Chevrolet.
While two top-10s in a row isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, Larson continues to get progressively better with each outing. His second-place finish on Sunday might just as easily have been a win had he known which line winner Busch was going to take on the final lap.
Larson will be prepared to match another veteran driver’s line into a corner on the final lap of some not-too-distant Sprint Cup race and reward team owner Ganassi with a special thank you for putting him in that seat.
Loser: Kevin Harvick
At some point during the weekend in his home state, Kevin Harvick was smiling, as witnessed by the photograph above.
But when the weekend was over, Harvick had little reason to smile, much less be optimistic, following yet another disappointing finish, his third in as many weeks.
Harvick’s win at Phoenix seems so long ago, it almost feels like it was last season. Since that glorious afternoon, Harvick has met with a series of misfortunes at the race track that find him 25th in driver points, despite the win that should secure his place in the Chase.
His run of bad finishes (41st, 39th and 36th, respectively) at Las Vegas, Bristol and Fontana haven’t been of his own doing. In Vegas, it was a broken wheel hub; Bristol was a fire; and on Sunday, Harvick became an early victim to the tire maladies that plagued many of his fellow drivers.
Winning early might have allowed Harvick’s team to rest on its laurels. But surely, finishes like these aren’t what they had in mind. Martinsville isn’t one of Harvick’s better tracks, with only one win in 25 outings. And neither is Texas or Darlington. However, finishes like the one on Sunday aren’t expected to be the norm, either.
Winner: Auto Club Speedway
With grandstands filled to capacity, Auto Club Speedway looked like the California Speedway of old—when IndyCar races would pack those same stands beyond their capacity.
For years, NASCAR races have drawn a decent crowd, but then their numbers plummeted when someone decided to experiment, at first with the race date and then with scheduling two races at the venue, which was a mistake. Despite what some might consider a good idea once again, one strong date is all this track should have, period.
The days of struggling to bring the stock-car racing fans living in southern California out to the racing oasis in the Inland Empire appear to be over.
Track executives, led by track president Gillian Zucker, are to be commended for putting together the kind of successful race weekend that should make others across the country envious.
Nothing looks better for NASCAR than having photographs being shown across the country of stock cars speeding by packed grandstands in the No. 2 media market in the country. Hopefully, this show of success by Zucker and co. will continue and be a catalyst for fans living near other tracks in markets both big and small.
NASCAR definitely needs more weekends like this one.
*All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.