Last stop on the PR approved hashtag #NASCARgoesWest. Auto Club Speedway, which since I’ve been watching NASCAR for over 25 years, I still call Fontana, has been producing fantastic races over the last few years. Even with the mediocre aero package last year, Fontana was a highlight of the season. Expectations were very high for this race. The track is wide and speeds top 200mph. Lower downforce this year means there was lots of passing. Junior had a race high 144 green flag passes. 144! Last year’s crappy aero package didn’t produce that many passes by the whole field at times.
Did NASCAR’s trip to southern California live up to the expectation?
Yes. Yes it did.
Jimmie Johnson won a race that Kevin Harvick dominated. Harvick has been the guy everyone wants to beat so the fan base seems more than ok with him losing. Even though the #4 car led 145 of the race’s laps, almost 2/3 of the race, there was a lot more passing than that stat makes you believe. The wide track lets drivers find speed all over the place with multiple viable racing lines right from the green flag. Restarts can fan out four or five wide without wrecking anyone.
The big thing about this race again was tire issues. Multiple people had flat tires that hosed up decent runs. Kyle Busch lost a tire while running second. Larson had a scary solo crash after losing a right rear. The Fox coverage talked about how teams often ignore Goodyear’s recommended PSI on the tires. The tire pressure builds up as the heat builds on track, but it wears those tires out faster, especially when combined with aggressive camber (which we saw create issues last week). Frankly, I think ignoring Goodyear’s PSI rec’s is a self policing issue, like number of lug nuts on the tires during pit stops. Ignore Goodyear at your peril.
The comfort for this is that NASCAR is safer than it was years ago. Larson’s crash on Sunday was the second or third of the year that I don’t think the driver would have walked away from 20 years ago. Maybe not even fifteen. Larson hit that wall at over 150mph head on. The crash looked spectacular when the SAFER barriers flung him back out on the track, but that was the barrier doing its job. He was winded, but ok. Danica’s wreck (which was totally Kahne’s fault) was similar. The in car camera showed just how close she came to flipping a barrel roll in traffic. Roof flaps for the win. I remember before cars had those and everyone winced when a car got turned around hoping it wouldn’t flip.
Crashes make the highlight reels among the mainstream media, but I only want to see highlights of passing and checkered flags. I don’t want to see our drivers in danger.
Safety rant aside, how did my predictions do?
Well RCR ran well during the front half of the race. As a high horsepower track, they tend to do well at Fontana. Dillon started on the pole. For a large chunk of the race, he was in the top ten with teammates Menard and Newman. The #31 ended up with an ok 14th place finish but pit road miscues doomed Dillon and Menard to mediocre finishes. The #27 team in particular needed a good finish after the tire issues at Phoenix gave them an 38th place finish and the whole or RCR got docked those 10 points a couple weeks ago. Dillon ended up 24th but still good enough to remain 10th in the early season points.
The Penske cars both pulled top 10 finishes. Keselowski’s was pretty quiet. Logano mixed it up at the front and had a run in with Truex to hose up the #78’s day (more on that later). Jimmie Johnson who I called out with the early advantage, well, we already know he won the race.
Fontana had a lot more shenanigans than a high speed track usually does. Expect NASCAR to drop some penalties very soon.
First, Kahne wrecked the hell out of Danica. As much as many people in the sport snark about her mediocre finishes in top shelf equipment, myself included, nothing about that wreck was her fault. Kahne hooked her car and dumped her in the wall. Now, I don’t think it was intentional, but if it wasn’t, it was definitely careless. Kahne has never been a beating-and-banging kind of driver and he’s never had a beef with Danica like some others have. I remember run ins with her and Vickers, Gilliland, and if memory is serving me correctly, Cassill. In her post-wreck interview on TV, Danica said “…the next thing I know I was getting spun up the track. I was passing him. He was behind me in the right rear. I don’t know what kind of day he was having. I just heard he was a lap down, actually. I feel bad if he felt like he was put in a position to have to be that desperate a lap down.” She was running the lead lap, he wasn’t. I think Danica hit the nail on the head with ‘desperate.’ I can’t be the only one who thinks Kahne’s job is going to be on the line real soon if he doesn’t improve.
Will Kahne get penalized… I don’t know. A big part of me wants to say no. NASCAR has made a trend of not over policing the drivers in the last few years. It’s not like Kahne pulled a pile driver like Kenseth did last year with Logano. But NASCAR has also made it clear that context matters and with two cars on different laps… eh… hard to say.
Speaking of Danica…
After the wreck, she marched up the track go give Kahne the ol’ WTF gesture. Not the first time she’s done that when pissed. But it is the first time she’s done that since NASCAR dropped a rule post-Kevin Ward that says it’s a no no. I expect a fine. Jennifer Jo Cobb got nailed with $5k in fines for doing that in a Truck race last year. Cup fines tend to be more what since they make more money to start with.
The most amusing shenanigan of the weekend comes courtesy of Cole Pern, the crew chief for Truex’s #78 team. Logano ruined their day. It didn’t quite seem like contact was made between the cars, but Logano took the air off the spoiler anyways and still managed to ruin it. Pern broke the number one rule of Twitter, don’t tweet while angry. The tweet, which as been deleted, said that Logano couldn’t see with his “squinty douchey eyes.” I find this wonderfully hilarious.
Fines? Eh, probably not. As long as you don’t trash NASCAR itself and don’t say anything bigoted, NASCAR usually lets that stuff go.
Speaking of trashing NASCAR (as the shenanigans list gets even longer), Kyle Busch expects to be in trouble. He blew a tire in the lead on the last lap of the Xfinity race, which Austin Dillon ended up winning. Well… NASCAR didn’t fly the yellow flag, which would have frozen the field and given Busch the win even though it was his tire which caused the yellow. But the yellow didn’t fly. Suarez took the lead for a straightaway and then ran out of gas handing the win the Dillon (which makes every Xfinity race won by Cup regulars this year). Busch was livid on the radio about how NASCAR got their wish to fix the race. Woah. That’s a big one.
I normally don’t care if drivers get heated or use salty language on the radio. The radio is primarily for them. Fans and TV don’t have to listen in on them even though it has become a big thing to do so. Look, I’m glad someone beat Busch in the Xfinity race. I’d rather it was an Xfinity regular, but take what you can get. But to even hint that NASCAR delayed the yellow to make it happen, whoa, that is going to get all the ire of the NASCAR front office right there. That’s big time fighting words.
This post is getting real long, but I have to drop some shout outs for some good finishes. It is one of my favorite parts of these posts and we’ve got a new cast of characters to shout out this week at Fontana.
The first shout out goes to Rickey Stenhouse Jr. Look at that, a Roush car in the top five! This is his first top five since the spring Bristol race last year and only his fourth top five in Cup. With a 10th at Atlanta and a 12th at Vegas, it looks like RFR and Stenhouse are starting to turn the corner and live up to their potential.
Shout out number two goes to another driver with a quietly solid run. AJ Allmendinger finished in 9th place and ran solid around the top ten most of the day, except for a stretch in the middle when he was off sequence in pit stops. Every race this year for the one car JTG Daughtry Racing has been an improvement on the last for this team and scored them their first top ten since the August Pocono race last year.
Brian Scott, the rookie racing for Petty, matched his best finish in Cup with a 12th place finish. He ran a handful of races before this year in the Circle Sport But Really RCR car, but now he managed to score a good finish for himself with his full time team. The team only had three finishes better than this last year with Hornish so this is a good boost for the Petty team. If Scott can keep throwing down decent results, combined with Almirola’s constant gains, Petty Racing could be in the mix for the Chase.
Pit Stall 13… er… 12A Update
Fontana is just like Daytona in that there is no Pit Stall 13. Sad face. Harvick did have pit stall 12A which is close enough for an update, but won’t count for real in the season standings. By the way, I’m making a season standings for the 13th pit stall.
12A is in a good location at Fontana with an opening in front. Harvick had McDowell and the #95 team behind which works out for them as the #4 can be in and out before the #95 rolls in. Harvick led the most laps by far but only finished 2nd.
- 26th – #98 Cole Whitt – Ran flag to flag, finished on the lead lap. This is an excellent finish for the small team.
- 35th – #21 Ryan Blaney – The Wood Brothers team was running ok, but mishaps cost them ten laps on the track.
- 36th – #30 Josh Wise – Ten laps off the pace, but Wise has talked about the progress the tiny team is making.
Martinsville Up Next
NASCAR takes the Easter weekend off so all the teams have a week to stew about the Fontana shenanigans. Or, if you’re Landon Cassill, you get your wisdom teeth out.
I love short track racing. Love it love it love it. And three of the next four races are all short tracks. This is one of my favorite stretches of the year. I love when NASCAR gets to roughhouse on the track and the short tracks are all about the driver.
What do I expect from Martinsville? Well… I think things will get hairy fast. Drivers let their on track beef linger until the short tracks show up and they can shove each other around (somewhat) safely. You can’t pull a payback move at Daytona, but you can at Martinsville. So expect hard racing. Expect ugly sheet metal. Expect good racing.
Early advantage… Kyle Busch. He’s going to be racing mad after the close-but-no-cigar races this past weekend and the New Kyle Busch gets focused when he races mad unlike the Old Kyle Busch which would fall apart if things weren’t perfect. The Gibbs Toyotas are top of the class to start with and Martinsville favors the Busch brothers.
I want to see Allmendinger take his momentum to Martinsville too. He’s finished 11th or better in 3 of the last 4 races at the track. The man has been sneaky good there. With the team making gains this season, I’d like to see them continue. The driver and team both bust ass week in and week out so I like to see the small teams get the paydays to reward the work.