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Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Auto Club 400 in Fontana
For 15 years, Fontana has played the role of weird aunt in the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule. You know the one. It’s who you have to suck it up and speak with every reunion even though the hug creeps you out, she believes aliens live on the street corner and “didn’t you just do the cutest thing you don’t remember when you were four.” Extended conversation makes you sleepy … or suicidal.
That, in a nutshell, is what watching every race scheduled at this two-mile oval has been like. (The fact Jimmie Johnson, criticized for his cookie-cutter personality on camera, is the all-time winner here speaks volumes.) But Sunday, in the midst of NCAA basketball’s showcase weekend, stock cars created a miracle all their own. For perhaps the first time in an L.A. market dominated by movie stars, an unscripted Hollywood race car finish became the talk of the town. Suddenly, a track that lost one of its two dates on the schedule becomes — dare I say it? — a “must see event” in 2014, one that puts someone like Tom Cruise back in attendance and not just some “D” level star from a movie you never heard of dropping the green flag.
If NASCAR’s Gen-6 car can make the weird aunt normal and relevant in the midst of another sport’s heyday, then the potential is there for sustained success. Let’s go “Through the Gears” on how it got to this point …
FIRST GEAR: NASCAR rivalries make or break this sport.
Denny Hamlin. Joey Logano. A finish so impressive, we need to watch it again. For a first-timer, that ending is exciting enough. But anyone who watches a lick of NASCAR racing will tell you their heart was pounding, regardless of who they root for, long before the white flag. Knowing the two went at it at Bristol, sparking a soap opera week of light shoving, Twitter tantrums and unaccepted apologies, the last 10 minutes came paired with a strong sense of anticipation. You just knew something was going to happen, with drama down the stretch providing that “hook” which takes a fan’s interest another level.
The spark of those rivalries (what drives that other March Madness) is what had been missing from NASCAR in recent years. Sure, we’ve had Brad Keselowski, the reigning champ and his “I don’t get no respect!” routine, but his main adversary (Johnson) won’t even turn on the jets to respond until September. The sport needed an ending with this type of spark, a reminder its A-list stars won’t always “go through the motions” when they’re sitting with a good points day in the spring.
As for where we go from here? Clearly, Logano has been listening to everyone from Keselowski to the media who say he needs to stand up for himself. But while any wreck can turn tragic, there’s a major difference between speeds at Bristol or Martinsville and Fontana, where 200-plus mph is not uncommon. Sure, Penske Racing’s newbie was doing all it took, fighting for victory just like he should. But there was a point, in the midst of Turns 3 and 4, where the game changed and Logano made a choice. Hamlin, on the top line, had fresher tires and the angle off the turn — and was in position to take the checkers (or finish second to Kyle Busch). At that point, Logano could have backed off; a wreck did neither one any good. But he didn’t, causing the incident and the comments afterwards make it sound like the action was clearly intentional. “Now we’re even,” he said on the radio before following up with a “that’s what he gets” to a crowd of reporters while Hamlin was being loaded up in an ambulance.
Yes, I know we have to remember the guy is only 22 years old. Unfortunately, after three-plus years in the Cup Series and paired with one of the sport’s most prestigious owners, Logano doesn’t get the luxury of being immature. What would have happened there if Hamlin was seriously hurt … or worse? (He was kept overnight, for hospitalization complaining of back pain.) Nationwide Series driver Michael Annett is out for 6-8 weeks after being injured at these types of speeds; you can’t just “assume” the cars will be safe.
I see a classic case of overreaction here. A young driver reeling from comments he’s too passive and feeling he needs to make up for it immediately in one full swoop. Problem is, it doesn’t work like that. Earning respect is a gradual thing, and judging by Tony Stewart’s comments after the checkered flag — championed by many peers on Twitter — Logano just isn’t quite there.
“It’s time he learns a lesson,” Stewart said. “He’s run his mouth long enough … he’s nothing but a little rich kid that’s never had to work in his life. He’s going to learn what us working guys who had to work our way up (know about)how it works.”
SECOND GEAR: Smoke is blowing Smoke, well, everywhere.
Those comments from Stewart, a three-time champ, came 10 minutes after an interview peppered with enough profanity to spice up anyone’s Sunday. Somewhere in between the bleeps was a simple message for Logano: I’m going to tear you in two.
But the car owner, more than anything, is just frustrated. As we spoke about last week, his slow start is even slower than usual and a block by Logano on the final restart robbed the No. 14 car of its momentum. That left him drifting outside the top 20, on a day where a top-5 result could have kept him from digging a deeper hole. Now he sits 22nd in the point standings, 37 markers behind 10th-place Hamlin and with some tracks ahead (Martinsville, Texas) where he’s not a surefire favorite.
With that said, seeing the Stewart of old, the rogue entertainer who once got fined regularly for “telling it like it is,” was a refreshing sight to see — even if his thought process was irrational. I seem to remember a Chase wreck at Talladega last fall caused in part by a Stewart block. Wasn’t Logano doing the same thing, making a whatever-it-takes move to win the race? It’s hard to be disrespectful on a restart that late in a race when you’re running for first place.