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Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Auto Club Speedway
Six years ago, I sat through a Fontana raceday in what’s been termed the never-ending rain delay. After constant mist all weekend caused water to seep out of the asphalt, wrecking Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, the race was mercifully stopped but never called. Hour after hour, water pelted what is now Auto Club Speedway, the stands empty while NASCAR bungled the weather forecast. By the time it was pushed back to the following day it was the following day — well, after 2:00 am EST on Monday morning. The stands for the finish, when it did get underway that afternoon, were as empty as I’ve ever seen at any track I’ve ever been to. And the racing? Dull would give it too much credit.
There was so much buzz then to tear up Auto Club Speedway, a facility built just a decade earlier, and start from scratch. Suggestions ranged from a “new Talladega” plate track, to a half-mile short track, to progressive banking seen at places like Homestead-Miami Speedway. Instead, the answer was … to do nothing. Fans screamed in protest. Teams complained to the powers that be. Media wrote as if they were trying to shame the owners, International Speedway Corporation, into shuttering the facility for good.
Six years later, the once-troubled oval in the desert is labeled one of the finest intermediate tracks in NASCAR. With Sunday’s sellout crowd for the Auto Club 400, a second straight white-knuckle finish and aging pavement, it’s now one of the sport’s hottest tickets. One week ago, the legendary Bristol short track played to half-filled seats and weary crowds. Could it be that Fontana has now replaced it as “Most Popular” outside of February’s Daytona 500?
As crazy as it sounds, numbers on paper may say yes. And in a sport filled with change, who would have guessed that “sit back and do nothing” would have ever worked out?
If only they could have taken a breath, sat back and done nothing to NASCAR’s championship system … but I digress. “Through the Gears” we go, post-Fontana and hopefully we don’t blow a tire while doing so.
FIRST GEAR: Tire trouble or teams taking risks?
The finish of the Auto Club 400 was as March Madness as you’ll ever get it (in NASCAR, of course). Kyle Busch, whose car was junk three to four laps after a restart, took advantage of a green-white-checker ending to surge towards the front from fifth place. After Clint Bowyer’s spin set up the final yellow, a bunched-up field was all the No. 18 team needed to jump ahead of Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart.
Busch’s opportunity, however, was due to a lack of tire problems, part of a Joe Gibbs Racing program that was in the minority. Throughout the race, half the field suffered through at least one flat; typically, it was a left-rear or left-front tire. It cut short the green-flag racing — spectacular at times — in producing a track record 35 lead changes. Instead, attention turned away from where it should, towards a troubling pattern of blowouts where drivers started pointing the finger at, well, everyone around them.
“Twelve pounds,” said Busch’s crew chief Dave Rogers, placing the blame on teams running low air pressure. “You put 12 pounds in left sides and you're going 1,200 miles-an-hour in California, you might have a left-side tire problem. That's awful low. That's dangerous.”
Rogers wasn’t alone, as several crew chiefs claimed aggressive setups didn’t take into account higher speeds and new 2014 rules allowing teams rear camber approaching dangerous levels. Goodyear, for its part, stood firm in its opinion that poor setup strategy caused the problems; after all, the tire itself was the same compound brought to the track last year. No one was complaining about the racing then, so why now?
“The tires weren't wearing,” added NASCAR Vice President Robin Pemberton. “At some parts of the race, the tires were abused a little bit, so I guess that's why the failures.”
Jimmie Johnson, at the very least, would beg to differ. After blowing a left front while leading with less than seven laps remaining that cost his No. 48 team a win, he and crew chief Chad Knaus were highly critical on the radio. “It’s all our fault,” Knaus snapped sarcastically before listing all the tracks these past few years where Goodyear has brought a faulty compound — only to blame drivers and teams.
The real answer lies somewhere in between. Comparisons to NASCAR’s big tire disaster, the 2008 race at Indianapolis where teams blew tires every 10-12 laps, is a little dramatic. In that one, drivers literally had to run at 70 percent in almost single-file procession to finish the race. By comparison, Sunday’s race found drivers running all out and passing at will, capable of moving through traffic with ease. I doubt fans, whether watching on TV or in the stands, felt cheated.
But you also don’t have nearly two dozen teams with three different manufacturers suffer blowouts and pretend all’s OK. There was clearly a breakdown in communication between what Goodyear thought the setups would or should be, how crew chiefs chose to evolve, and some laziness — simply assuming last year’s compound would work without spending the money to update.
NASCAR, as we know, is a sport where teams fall behind the second they take a rest. Goodyear, while not completely at fault, also needs to learn a lesson: go back to the drawing board and get better for other intermediates. Softer tires? Sign me up. But this one was borderline dangerous.
SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s California crumble
Hard to believe that, with 10 laps left, Hendrick Motorsports was headed toward a 1-2 finish. Jimmie Johnson, who had dominated on short runs, was in a comfort zone up front in the No. 48. Even after a blown tire, Jeff Gordon stepped up from second and was in his own time zone, poised to coast toward victory. After falling to the back not once, but twice throughout the race, his drive up through the pack was simply remarkable.
Instead, Bowyer’s spin changed the outcome as the leaders were forced down pit road. A four-tire stop for Gordon, as opposed to two for many others, left the 24 car a sitting duck as he faded to a 13th-place finish.
“They gave me the most incredible race car today,” said Gordon of his crew. “And it is just so disappointing for it to end like that.”
So Gordon and Johnson, two of the strongest cars of 2014, remain on the outside looking in on Victory Lane. And with five different winners in the first five races it’s increasingly important to break through and get that Chase bid on file. Expect both to be hungry at Martinsville this weekend; it’s one of their best tracks and where Gordon scored the victory last fall.
THIRD GEAR: Kyle Larson’s coming out party
The hyped 2014 rookie class has been underwhelming thus far — until this weekend. Young Kyle Larson had himself a breakthrough, first winning a nail-biting Nationwide Series race where he held off both Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick on Saturday. It was as good a competition as you’ll ever see, with Larson running cleanly and maneuvering perfectly to kill any runs coming behind him.
Then, the California native followed through with a solid, top-15 run all day on Sunday. And when chaos reigned during the green-white-checker ending, he found a hole from ninth place, dug deep and passed traffic like it was stopped.
“I was stuck in the middle,” he said. “I guess it was pretty hectic, but nothing too scary for me, either.”
Exactly what you expect a fearless 21-year-old to say. What you don’t expect is for him to come out second, nearly challenging Busch for the victory when 99 other drivers would have gotten loose and wrecked. This Larson is going to be something, and with Chip Ganassi Racing improving its cars quickly (see: teammate Jamie McMurray, sixth place) he could wind up in Victory Lane far sooner than anyone thought.
FOURTH GEAR: Finally … we’ve got a feud!
One of the knocks on NASCAR of late is there hasn’t been a full-out rivalry among drivers. Well, one year after Denny Hamlin vs. Joey Logano, we got the “B” level undercard version that at least puts some criticism to rest. Aric Almirola, after getting turned by Brian Scott, ripped into the rookie over the incident that ended his day on Lap 65.
"The 33 (Scott) was obviously a dart without feathers and coming across the racetrack," Almirola said. "Man, he came from all the way at the bottom of the racetrack and ran into me. He's not even racing this series for points. He's out there having fun because his daddy gets to pay for it and he wrecked us. That's frustrating.”
It’s also not the first time the two have bumped heads. In 2011, the shoe was on the other foot as Scott got angry at Almirola for rough competition when the two ran the Nationwide Series full-time. There’s no proof that one was ever fully settled, and with Scott running Cup later this season for the No. 33 he’d be wise to do so now. It’s rare to see the mild-mannered Almirola that fired up, and after a career-best finish at Bristol a week ago, driving Richard Petty’s No. 43 he’s ready to run over anyone standing in his way of success.
So much for the Denny Hamlin – Joey Logano rematch. In a major surprise, Hamlin was pulled from his ride just before the start due to a sinus infection. Owner Joe Gibbs said it sent his driver to the hospital, where tests are pending because Hamlin’s vision was affected. Hamlin, who dropped to 11th in points will still be eligible for the Chase should he make it due to NASCAR’s “medical exemption” policy. Meanwhile, Logano wrecked his car in practice, leaving him starting from the rear and then broke a rear-end gear in-race. The No. 22 car wound up in 39th place. … Give a call to Sam Hornish Jr., the reigning Nationwide Series champion who’s spent most of 2014 unemployed. Hamlin’s last-minute replacement, starting dead last on the grid, fought all the way to 17th. Passed over for a full-time Cup ride by owner Roger Penske and left in just a part-time Nationwide ride for Gibbs, Hornish made a case to other owners that choice was a big mistake. … For the second straight week, NASCAR had problems with its lighting system. A red light indicating pit road was closed failed to change under a mid-race caution that left Brad Keselowski, Bowyer and Gordon out on-track. The teams argued to no avail the lighting was faulty, costing them precious track position as they pitted a lap later than everyone else (or not at all). One week after the caution light snag at Bristol, how can NASCAR keep having such bungles? … Danica Patrick quietly came back from tire issues and running over debris, dropping her a lap down at one point, to finish 14th. It’s the first time in her brief Cup career she’s posted back-to-back top 20s, slight but steady improvement as the spotlight shines on others at SHR.