Race Capsule: Busch king of yet another exciting race in California
In a nutshell: Auto Club Speedway is no longer a boring race track. After years of tepid racing on the 2-mile oval outside of LA, the last two races have been barnburners. Old pavement/tire wear and several distinct grooves have made for constant two, three, four, and sometimes five-wide racing and for hair-raising finishes. This Auto Club 400 saw Kyle Busch win the race for the 2nd year in a row and in similar late dramatic fashion.
The day started with Matt Kenseth on the pole and quickly saw Brad Keselowski (finished 26th), Jimmie Johnson (24th), Kyle Busch (1st), Jeff Gordon (13th) emerge as the contenders for the day. The 200-lap race saw cautions fall roughly every 15-20 laps on average, as drivers constantly got flat tires and brushed the wall. Among those doomed to that fate early were Kevin Harvick (36th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12th), but both drove back to contention. The big layout meant few drivers lost laps under green, unless they had trouble. Joey Logano (39th) looked to be a solid top 10 car, after starting in the back of the field after a Saturday practice crash, but broke a rear-end gear and went to the garage for about 11 laps. Kasey Kahne (41st) had mechanical issues as well, going to the garage for over 25 laps. The likely cause for these issues is the aggressive setups teams are trying, now that NASCAR no longer has rules for the ride heights of racecars.
Jimmie Johnson led the most laps in the race at 104 and was leading with just a few to go, when he cut a left-front tire. Jeff Gordon had been chasing his teammate down in those laps, but lost the handle as his car started vibrating. He took the lead as Johnson, Marcos Ambrose (30th), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (34th) and Clint Bowyer (16th) started having tires go down. Bowyer's caused him to spin and bring out a caution with just two laps to go, forcing all teams, but Landon Cassill's (25th) to pit for tires. Kurt Busch (3rd) and teammate/car owner Tony Stewart (5th) each took two tires on that stop and Kyle Busch beat the drivers that took four tires out to restart in the top 5. Cassill brought the field to green for the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish and immediately fell back on old tires. Kurt Busch and Stewart dove into Turn 1 side-by-side as the field fanned to five-wide in some areas behind them. Kyle Busch and rookie Kyle Larson, who dueled for the win in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, broke free of the gaggle and raced hard for the finish. Larson was stuck in the same position as Harvick was the day before when he chased Larson - diving low entering the turns and then sweeping wide to exit high. But that wasn't enough to best Busch, who got his first Sprint Cup win at the track in 2005.
The rest of the top 10 were Kurt Busch, Kenseth, Stewart, Jamie McMurray, Brian Vickers, A.J. Allmendinger, Paul Menard, and Carl Edwards. The race saw a track record 35 lead changes, many of which were attributed to the high tire wear that brought out nine cautions. There were just under 20 tire failures in the race, which Goodyear said were because teams were using aggressive camber, setups, and lower-than-recommended tire pressures. Whatever the reason for the failures, tires were not holding for more than 20 laps. But the falloff and multi-grooves on the track surface produced a stellar race. Busch's win marks the fifth different winner in five races and virtually locks the No. 18 in the Chase, unless different drivers keep winning at this paces. Busch's teammate Denny Hamlin got pulled from the race just a half-hour before the green flag, as a sinus infection reportedly was impairing his vision and sent him to the hospital. Sam Hornish Jr. drove the No. 11 to a 17th-place finish and he made a great save after contact with Menard just before the last yellow.
RaceTweet: Kyle Busch wins 2nd-straight Cali race. Packed house saw wild finish/worn tires. Look out for Kyle Larson.
Handsome Boy Modeling School "Stud of the Race": Jimmie Johnson - No. 48 team didn't win, but Johnson led over half the laps and had an almost perfect setup. If his tire doesn't go down, he still wins the race, even with that wild restart.
North Korean Missile Dud: Brad Keselowski - Keselowski and Team Penske stablemate Joey Logano have been the class of the Ford camp to start the year and the No. 2 team was dialed in early, leading 38 of the first 59 laps. But the handle wore off and Keselowski lingered in the back of the top 10 for most of the race, rising to the top 5 late, and then cutting a tire and finishing a lap down in 26th at the end. The No. 2 should have been closer to the front at the track built by Roger Penske, but was a non-factor most of the day.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Jeff Gordon - So many drivers had the chance to drive through the field and make up lost ground, because of the many grooves on the track and the many cautions in the race. But Gordon managed to overcome a pit road speeding penalty on an early caution and a miscue of not coming to pit road just after that, to drive back into the top 5 for the 2nd half of the race and had the thing won before that last yellow. Gordon seems to have the drive to win championship number five, but is going to have to do better on restarts (fell to 13th at the end of Sunday's race), if he wants to hoist the Homestead trophy.
Wheel of Misfortune: Kevin Harvick - Many drivers were victim of faulty tires, but Harvick was twice. He piloted the No. 4 Chevy from the back of the pack forward after an early tire failure on lap 20, but lost three laps when losing one again late and getting the brake lines cut in the process. This marks three-straight races - Las Vegas (hub failure) and Bristol (cut oil line from on-track debris, blown motor) - that Harvick has had a very good finish taken away. The results may not be there, but the No. 4 team is "Freaky fast."
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: A.J. Allmendinger - Lackluster results have been the course for JTG-Daugherty Racing and their new driver Allmendinger in 2014, but Sunday saw the No. 47 Chevy run in the top 15 most of the race and rise to 8th at the finish. Both this team and Germain Racing seem to be benefiting from their newfound relationships with Richard Childress Racing - the improved runs show it.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Clint Bowyer - I saw several tweets, mainly from fellow reporter/blogger @RacingWithRich, chronicling frustration on the No. 15 team radio. Crew chief Brian Pattie relayed to the spotter multiple times to try and get Bowyer's focus back into the race. He seemed to think that Bowyer just didn't have his edge and was making mistakes. Bowyer is known to be awfully animated on the radio when things go wrong, but this notion that maybe he's not focused is something deeper. We've heard before when, say Chad Knaus, will suggest things to the drivers that they can do better. But this lack of focus could be something deeper and has to make you wonder if there is trouble in paradise on the No. 15 team. Bowyer's 5-Hour Energy commercials brag about his focus behind the wheel. Maybe he needs another energy shot before next week's Martinsville race. Honorable mention in this category goes to NASCAR, for again having another lighting problem. A lap 58 caution saw the lights for pit road being open or closed show red. So frontrunners Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, and Jeff Gordon (who had cracked the top 20 after his pit road speeding penalty), all stay out. The problem was that the pit road flagger was holding up a green flag, so the pits were indeed open and the rest of the lead lap cars obliged. Those three cars dropped like rocks through the pack on the next restart on old tires and only Gordon ever returned to the front. NASCAR needs to work these kinks out soon, especially since the whole season boils down to the Homestead race.
NNS RaceTweet: Kyle wins the Nationwide race. Wait...Kyle LARSON? A first-timer...how fresh! #StillACupRegular #GreatFinish #NoSteeringWheelBurnout
Georgia On My Mind: The late race chaos in the Cup race at Cali helped the Georgia gang at the finish. Reed Sorenson scored his best finish since Daytona, placing 21st and ahead of some bigger names on the lead lap. David Ragan got a free pass on lap 119 and was saved from making a green flag pit stop for a flat tire on lap 168, when teammate David Gilliland wrecked. He still finished a lap down in 27th. Ragan led one lap during a pit sequence early on. He also ran his third Nationwide Series race of the year Saturday, placing a respectable 13th for Biagi-DenBeste Racing. Chase Elliott started 5th, ran in the top 5 most of the day, fell back after fellow rookie Dylan Kwasniewsky got into him and he scraped the wall, then drove back into the top 5, before falling to 9th at the end of the day. Elliott's highlight of the day was making a big pass of Kyle Busch for 4th late in the race. Ryan Sieg finished the day a couple of laps down in 22nd and resumes is full Camping World Truck Series schedule next weekend at Martinsville Speedway.