NASCAR at Fontana 2016: Winners and Losers from the Auto Club 400

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2016

NASCAR at Fontana 2016: Winners and Losers from the Auto Club 400

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Kevin Harvick didn’t have the requisite kryptonite to bring the Man of Steel down to earth in the Auto Club 400.

    Jimmie Johnson took flight in the Superman Chevy on the third overtime of the season with a paint-peeling restart. He found a superhero gear and buried General Zod in the No. 4 car.

    “Sometimes special athletes do special things,” Fox NASCAR analyst Michael Waltrip said during the Fox broadcast. “He ran the fastest lap of the race on the last lap. He saved his best for last.”

    That he did, in a race with 26 lead changes and while taking down a dominant driver (Harvick) who led 142 of the 205 laps in Fontana, California.

    Don your cape. It’s time for a comic-book-laden edition of winners and losers.

Loser: The Dark Knight

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    Eric Charbonneau/Associated Press

    Batman has one rule: He doesn’t kill.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., who piloted the No. 88 Batmobile Chevy, adhered to Batman’s code of honor and didn’t kill anything on the track.

    For the amount of hype that went into this promotional stunt—apparently the NASCAR demo has a real spirited yen for action movies of this ilk—the billing on track was every bit like most sequels: dull.

    If NASCAR and Warner Bros. really wanted a battle they should have put Harvick in the Batmobile since Johnson and Harvick actually battle it out. When was the last time Junior and Johnson finished 1-2? Beats the Robin out of me.

    I mean this was Age of Ultron bilge water. It became utterly clear that Batman was what he was: entirely human. And that let Johnson, decked out in alien attire with the symbol of—thanks, Zack Snyder and David Goyer of Batman v Superman fame for this bit of schmaltz—hope.

    The sign should mean kickin’ serious tail, but no, we have to live up to some “truth, justice and the American way” slogan, a bunch of propaganda jammed down the throats of impressionable eight-year-olds borne from the Boom.

    Anyway…

    Junior wasn’t good.

    That’s the point.

    Let’s move this along.

Winner: SAFER Barriers

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Three cheers for SAFER barriers.

    Kyle Larson didn’t win in his native state of California, but he’s lucky to be standing after his No. 42 car violently collided head-on with Auto Club’s SAFER barriers.

    The hit spun him 360 degrees in the air before he ultimately came to rest 50 yards from the point of impact.

    “I’m all right,” Larson radioed in (as caught by the Fox broadcast), “but that one really hurt though.”

    “You’re talking about a 3,400-pound car, all four wheels lifted off the ground and he gets spun like a top,” added Fox NASCAR analyst Jeff Gordon.

    The culprit for Larson’s crash was a downed left rear tire that ended up cutting his brake line. All he could do was brace for impact.

    Each replay of Larson’s crash turned my stomach. What amazing technology rests inside those SAFER barriers to distribute the energy of these kinds of collisions.

    Larson walks because of these cushions.

Loser: The Desperation of Kasey Kahne

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    WILL LESTER/Associated Press

    Danica Patrick is a notorious hothead on the track.

    Her temper has forced spats with Denny Hamlin, and now it appears she’s got a beef with Kasey Kahne.

    On Lap 121, Patrick made the pass on the lap-down No. 5 car. Kahne came down the track and into Patrick’s right rear quarter panel.

    That put her into the wall for the day’s second violent collision. Fire on her car’s back end forced her out of the cockpit. She walked up the track and did the "what-the-(cuss)?" arm gesture as Kahne drove by.

    Patrick said during the Fox broadcast:

    I had a run on him. I went down low. If you get too close to him, it will drag you back. I saw him chase me down the track. The next thing I know, he spun me up the track. I don’t know what kind of day he was having. I feel bad if he felt he had to be that desperate to be a lap down. He must be having a very tough time.

    Her last sentence was so insultingly tongue-in-cheek as to be garner no fewer than three belly laughs from the press box.

    In any case, apparently there was no malicious intent on Kahne’s part.

    "I didn't mean to do that," said Kahne in Tom Jensen’s report for Fox Sports. "I was just trying to side-draft."

    Don’t tell that to Patrick though.

Winner: Chase Elliott

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    WILL LESTER/Associated Press

    Chase Elliott proved his mettle again in Fontana, this time staying out of trouble (just barely) and earning a quality sixth-place finish at a challenging track.

    At one point while jammed in traffic, Elliott cut right across Carl Edwards’ splitter in one of the most gutsy passes of the day. That could’ve gone horribly wrong, but it showed his conviction behind the wheel.

    Throughout the second part of the race, he crept up and hung in the top 10. He even led a lap and chased down Johnson.

    His performance bumped him into the Chase grid, right in spot No. 16. Not bad, rookie.

Loser: Kyle Busch's Time in Fontana

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Kyle Busch attempted to win his fourth straight Xfinity Series race Saturday, but a late flat tire on the final lap opened the door for Austin Dillon. Busch finished second.

    Time to rebound.

    What could possibly go wrong?

    Well, early in the race tire, issues mailed him from the top 10 to 38th. He worked his way back into the top five when he cut a right-front, bringing out the race’s final yellow flag, the one that sent the race into overtime.

    As the rubber came loose like string cheese, Busch traveled to pit road while the other teams geared up for a spirited restart.

    Busch, who had won this race in 2013 and 2014, could not win three in a row at Auto Club (he missed last year’s due to injury). Nothing like bad luck late in a race to ruin a day.

    He finished 25th, a far cry from the eight straight top-fives he had earned.

Winner: Denny Hamlin's Good, but Not Great Day

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    Will Lester/Associated Press

    If you have one pit crew you need when the race is on the line, you want Denny Hamlin’s crew.

    It vaulted Hamlin up two spots to the lead for the final restart, this after a day that saw all kinds of bad things happen to the No. 11. He was lucky to finish third.

    “A disappointing third, I can tell you that,” Hamlin said during the broadcast.

    Well, fine, Denny.

    “Two penalties, radio changes, just a lot of mistakes on my part,” he said.

    Uh, huh.

    “We gave ourselves a shot there,” Hamlin said. “[Joey Logano], for the one time, didn’t get a good restart. We didn’t have that push there. It hurt us.”

    Yeah, but given where you started, finishing third is a major victory for you, the Daytona 500 winner.

    Now it’s on to Martinsville, where you won a year ago. Go get a clock.

Loser: The Short Run of Kevin Harvick

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    Will Lester/Associated Press

    Harvick lost his mojo on the final restart.

    It cost him the race, and he finished second to Johnson yet again.

    According to the Fox broadcast, Harvick has finished second to Johnson eight times.

    Harvick said during the broadcast: "It was the worst it was taking on restarts, but weren’t that good on restarts for four or five laps unless we were all by ourselves. The 48 was able to hang with us, and I wasn’t able to drive it in like I needed to. I just didn’t have the front tires turning, and the back wouldn’t grip."

    The No. 4 car led 142 laps, which makes finishing second a roaring disappointment. He had the lead before that final caution came out. It was his race to win, but most of the cars were in that caution window, and this time it bit Harvick.

    He dropped a spot on pit road and started inside of Hamlin.

    Harvick let Johnson get to his quarter panel, and the side draft catapulted Johnson to the front.

    Game over for (Un)Happy Harvick.

Winner: The Man of Steel

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    Jonathan Moore/Getty Images

    You can call this track Johnson’s home track.

    Thirteen top-threes, six wins and now 77 for his career.

    The final pit stop proved crucial as it moved Johnson up two spots to Row 2. Once he got to Harvick’s quarter panel, he dropped the hammer on the throttle, letting that engine tear off with the Auto Club 400.

    “To go there in the end and to have good tires on the car” Johnson said during the broadcast. “Harvick and I got past Joey, and I got a great run off Turn 2, and I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got a shot at this thing,’ which I didn’t expect to happen.”

    Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s former teammate, said: "I didn’t think anybody could beat Harvick, but if anybody could, it was Jimmie Johnson especially as Superman. What a super restart he got. He got to Harvick perfectly, he hooked the white line and made that big move down the back straightaway to take the lead.”

    And, more importantly, Superman slayed the Dark Knight.

    “I told everybody Superman would kick Batman’s butt, and it happened!” Johnson said.

    Foreshadowing? The movie comes out in a week.

    What it might be foreshadowing is Johnson’s bid for a seventh title. He just surpassed Dale Earnhardt Sr. in career wins, and winning the Sprint Cup would tie Johnson with the Intimidator.

    This aero package and this team have hit on something.

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