The NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase Says Goodbye To Hollywood
Not only did the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship say farewell to Fontana for this year, but it also said farewell to the Auto Club Speedway's Fall race for next year, and for the foreseeable future. Like Atlanta before it, ACS will no longer host a Chase race, being replaced by Chicagoland in a shuffling of the final 10 races announced for next year.
Before Sunday this was the tightest the Chase points standings had been since it began, with eight drivers within 101 points of Championship leader Jimmie Johnson. Ten drivers were within 150 points—less than what can be gained in a single race.
The general consensus was that there might be some movement, but with the race being only 400 miles long compared to 500 in the past, nobody expected the number and kind of problems that beset a number of Chase drivers today.
But by the end of the day, only three drivers were within 100 points of Johnson, who had extended his lead over second place Hamlin to 36 points. Two more were within 161 points (the most a driver can gain on another during a race) and three more were less than 200 points out, leaving three drivers now over 200 points behind Johnson in his drive for five.
So, of the drivers in the Chase, they are split evenly in two with the bottom half being those who are now more than one race behind Johnson.
Most of those in the top half of the standings are likely not as happy as those in the bottom half to say goodbye to Southern California—either for this year or for future years as many of them are drivers who have done well here time and time again.
In particular, California son Jimmie Johnson must be one of the least happy to say goodbye to Chase races at ACS. Even though he didn't win his fourth fall race in a row, he did finish third and extend his lead by 28 points over Denny Hamlin.
And Hamlin has to leave here feeling good about having ACS in the Chase as he started from the back of the field after a transmission change sent him there yet he still came through the field, passed Johnson at times, and managed an eighth place finish.
Although Hamlin's average finish here over his career has been an abysmal 17.2 with one DNF coming in last year's fall race after making the mistake of not clearing Juan Pablo Montoya going into turn one on a restart, he did sit on the pole in that race. And his fall finishes have generally been far better here than his finishes in the spring.
Two more drivers who call California home—Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon—managed to mitigate the damage they inflicted upon themselves with pit road speeding violations to come back to salvage seventh- and ninth-place finishes respectively.
And winner Tony Stewart finally crossed this race off his "bucket list" of tracks to visit Victory Lane on Sunday, and pulled 20 points closer to Johnson.
And although not quite as dramatic nor as meaningful for this year's Chase given his position in the standings, Clint Bowyer's finish has to leave him riding away from the sunset with a smile on his face, but wishing he could run 10 Auto Club Speedway races like Sunday's every Chase.
Those mainly in the back half of the standings, however, are most likely more than happy to say goodbye and head on to Charlotte, with some happy not to return as if the Chase depended upon it.
Those more than happy to move on do so with the realization that although the Chase may be saying goodbye to Southern California, these six drivers most likely leave behind their Chase hopes for this year.
6. Kurt Busch
Although Kurt Busch didn't lose any places in the championship standings and he has done decently here in the past, he has to be one of the happier Chase drivers to see the sun set in the West in his rear view mirror on his way out of town.
This hasn't been a terrible track for Busch over his career—he's logged three poles, one win, four top-fives, eight top 10s, and has an average finish of 12.7.
He ran fairly well throughout the race even given his terrible weekend here, which included a 38th place qualifying run and numerous brushes with the wall.
But with less than 10 laps to go, he had a run-in with the No. 6 of David Ragan that blew a left tire forcing him to pit and sending him back on the track in 30th place with little time remaining and a badly-damaged race car.
At best, Kurt said, "It could have been a really solid day here with the Miller Lite Dodge, but I guess it just wasn't meant to be. Hopefully we can bounce back next week at Charlotte."
And there he has good reason to be optimistic. He has been good on the mile-and-a-half tracks and next week he can look forward to trying to accomplish something no other driver ever has—a true sweep of all three races at Charlotte Motor Speedway—the two points-paying regular season races and the All-Star race.
Busch finished 21st, losing 70 points to the Chase leader. He maintained his position in the standings at sixth, but still lost ground and now sits 140 points behind Johnson.
5. Jeff Burton
Jeff Burton is not well-known for stellar qualifying performances, but he is known for his consistency. He is also usually known for consistently working his way from the back to the front throughout a race—something he unfortunately was unable to do in Sunday's race.
Although he actually gained a position in the standings thanks to so many others having extremely bad days, Burton still lost 76 points to the Chase leader with his seemingly abysmal run throughout the race.
Burton finished 23rd, losing 76 points to the Chase leader. He gained one position and now is eighth in the standings, 177 points behind Johnson.
4. Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards came into Fontana in fourth place in the standings only 53 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. After hearing that last week, he was ecstatic. And why wouldn't he be? Even though ACS is one of Johnson's best tracks, it is also one of Roush Fenway Racing's as well.
But as befell Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, mechanical problems relegated Edwards to a 34th-place finish, 13 laps down. Throw in David Ragan's late-race tangle with Kurt Busch and you've got a bad day for Jack Roush all the way around.
But for Carl, it left him second only to Biffle in most ground lost to the points leader by the end of the race. In a scene eerily reminiscent of the Chase race in Charlotte in 2008, Edwards suffered from ignition-system problems that left him stranded on the track needing a push back to the pits.
Although the part failure hit him hard in the standings, unlike the others Edwards was fairly upbeat when describing both the problem and moving forward from here.
"That's a really tough day, but you're gonna have days like that ...We just had a parts failure and that's the way racing goes."
When asked how frustrating it is to have a mechanical issue take him out of the Chase, Edwards either didn't hear or didn't care to hear the "out of the Chase" part.
"You've got to run well enough to absorb these kind of days. We've run really well. We've got six races left and we're 162 points back. So over six races, that's not a lot of points per race, so I think we can do it. We just have to keep on digging."
Overall, Carl seemed undeterred. And maybe rightfully so. Even after that problem and problems at Talladega in 2008, Carl went on to be the only person to even come close to challenging Johnson for the Championship.
So although he may be glad to be saying good-bye to a bad day, he seems to be doing so with a "can-do" attitude rarely exhibited on a day where so many lost so much to so few.
Edwards finished 34th, losing 109 points to the Chase leader. He dropped two positions in the points to sixth, and now sits 162 points behind Johnson.
3. Kyle Busch
After last week's run-in with David Reutimann and ensuing heroic effort by Busch, crew chief Dave Rogers and the rest of the No. 18 team to salvage what they could from the day, one of the strong story lines coming into ACS was how much last week's hard work after the disaster would benefit the team in the long run.
Optimism was high as not only had Busch been running well before being taken out last week, but he has also traditionally done well at ACS. Moreover, he came into the last six races having earned more points at them the first time through this year than any other driver.
Busch started 16th and was leading a little after 100 miles. During a caution a little after halfway, a hose popping off one of the ducts in his car forced him to pit a second time for the team to put it back on. Busch restarted in 28th with 82 laps to go but quickly sliced and diced his way through the field up to fifth just past the 300-mile mark.
He said he knew it was coming around five laps earlier, but at lap 155 the engine gave up. He was out of the car before it even made it back to his space in the garage area. When he appeared in street clothes minutes later, he described what happened.
"I wasn't feeling anything. There was just a weird 'pop' off turn two one time when I got to the throttle wide open and it blew the back of the hood seal between the hood and the cowl—it blew up. So I don't know what happened. I said, 'Well, that didn't sound too good. I'm not sure if it's going to make it the rest of the race.' Apparently it didn't."
Asked if he could put the disappointment in perspective, he simply said, "No. Not really. On to another year." Later when asked about his championship chances he said simply, "It's over."
Busch finished 35th, losing 107 points to the Chase leader. He dropped two positions to ninth in the standings and is now 187 points behind Johnson.
2. Matt Kenseth
Biffle wasn't the only Roush Fenway Driver with engine problems who felt taken out of contention for the Championship.
Kenseth ran strong early on, leading 78 laps and running toward the front much of the day. But on the second-to-last restart, Kenseth said he felt the engine wasn't running right.
"I had something wounded that was getting ready to break, so I just held on to what we could."
Answering another question he added, "That probably took all three of us out for a legitimate shot in one race, so that's really disappointing. But I've already made my mistakes and had us in a hole anyway, so we couldn't afford any bad finishes."
Kenseth finished 30th, losing 92 points to the Chase leader. He stays in 11th place in the standings, 241 markers behind Johnson.
1. Greg Biffle
The Chase driver who has to be happiest leaving California behind—at least for this year—is Greg Biffle.
Biffle came into the weekend off a win in Kansas that literally put him in back in the Chase.
That, coupled with the momentum and how well Biffle usually does on intermediate tracks, gave the team high hopes for a good finish as the Auto Club Speedway has generally been a good track for him and for all of Roush Fenway Racing.
But 40 laps into the race, all that changed as Biffle's 3M Ford Fusion's engine let go, ending his race and most likely his championship hopes for the year.
As Biffle put it in his post-race interview, "This was our opportunity to get back in the Chase and it doesn't look like it's gonna happen...We were trying hard to win the title and it isn't going to happen this year."
So even though Biffle doesn't leave California in last place, he does leave the biggest loser to the leader in the points amongst the Chase drivers—this coming immediately after the Kansas race where he was the biggest winner in more ways than one.
Biffle finished 41st, leaving Fontana 130 more points behind Johnson than he was coming into Fontana. He fell two spots to 10th in the standings, 215 markers behind Johnson.