AUTO CLUB 400
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Kyle Larson wins the big one at the Auto Club 400 (Gabriela Moya)



Story by Brian Kennedy
Pictures by Gabriela Moya

The stands were more full than last year. The stars were more plentiful than in the past. NASCAR seemed to be back this year at Fontana. Stage racing, which has been the topic of discussion for fans since the year began (and for LA Car via my story on Saturday’s XFINITY race) sapped some of that. But the race at Auto Club Speedway was still well worth the effort. Here are the storylines.

Kid magic. Kyle Larson won his first race last year. He’s a baby face, but now, with two wins in NASCAR’s big series, including the one on Sunday, call him “babyfaced assassin.” He did it in dominating fashion, leading off the start and taking the lead into lap two. By lap 11, he was way out in front of the lead pack of cars, which were more a string already than a pack, anyway. He caught the first lapped car, the #55 of Derrike Cope, at lap 17.

In the lap 33 range, he was leading Ty Dillon, Erik Jones, and then Truex. Truex briefly took the top spot, but Larson took it back on lap 50. He then put Johnson down a lap. The reigning champ would eventually finish twenty-first but still on the lead lap.

Martin Truex Jr won Stage 2 of NASCAR Sunday (Gabriela Moya)

Larson won Stage One, and then lost the position on the pit stop to Truex. Truex dominated the middle of the race, as will be detailed momentarily. But Larson took the lead on the restart after the Stage Two caution period. On lap 141, he still held it. By lap 150, the top ten cars were once again in a long line, with 16 seconds separating the top 11. Keselowski was in the 11th spot.

After further pit stops, on lap 164 (of 200, recall), Truex was peering under Larson into turn two for first place. They were side by side on the front straight next time by. Then Truex looked under him through turn two. But Larson pulled out in front of him on the back straightaway. This happened on several consecutive laps, and it looked like this would be the battle for the end. Larson did end up winning, but not as a result of this battle.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Martin Truex might have been the class of the field, as he was at the front much of the day or battling with Larson for the lead. He was fourth early, as I said above, but by lap 40, he was leading. Larson was second. But they were way out front together. Third was Chase Elliott, and the two leaders were eight seconds up on him. He lost the lead, then after the Stage One pit break, he was back out front. Larson was fifth.

At lap 100, Truex was out front, by a (non-literal) mile. He was ahead of second-place Bowyer by 5.8 seconds. Larson was third, and the top six cars were spread out by 15 seconds. So maybe packing them back up would help. Caution two was coming. (More on the stages below.) Just before caution two, Truex was seven seconds shy of the field with 90 laps to go. But then the stage ended, and, well, packed them up. Or, from his POV, erased a perfectly good and well-deserved lead. Larson, by the way, was second, then Bowyer and Elliott. The fifth-place car was down by 15 seconds-plus.

So how did this play out, when Larson and Truex were battling like crazy, as was said above, past lap 165?

Truex lost out on a late-race pitstop that his crew flubbed. His top-five position was compromised, and he ended up mid-pack. They tried to make it up by not taking tires on a late caution, a strategy that left him leading at a restart but vulnerable. As so many people said all weekend, the track surface is old—as old as the track, which is 20 years—and rough. Gritty with sand, too, which if you ever find yourself in the Inland Empire in the summer, you’ll know about.

Auto Club 400 on Sunday, March 26, 2017 (Gabriela Moya)

Here’s how I know: I went to look at a car in a dealership not far from the track about a year ago around this time. The salesman opened the hood as the dirt swirled around us, stinging the eyes. Under there? A horrible mess of dust. No wonder, given that it was in the air. And that’s exactly what’s swirling around the cars on the Fontana track.

Anyway, Truex was a sitting duck with no tires, and a spate of late cautions didn’t give him the boost he needed. He ended up fourth, a day that he said afterwards he was not altogether displeased with. But it could have been a win. He did lead 73 laps altogether. Larson was over 100 in that category, though.

The denouement involved cautions at laps 181, 186, 193, and 198. The final one resulted in what NASCAR calls “overtime,” so the race went to lap 202. Larson, by this time, was reasserting himself. He led seven times altogether, and Truex led four, but not after lap 127. On the other hand, to show you the real story of Larson’s day, he was ahead, among other times, from 128-55, 164-92, 187-202, dominating the latter stages.

His victory complemented his win in the 300-miler on Saturday and his pole position win for Sunday.

Other storylines also prevailed. In the never-count-someone-out category, Brad Keselowski got whacked in the rear end on the race start. He found himself in the pits and a lap down for a good long while. He expended his team’s tape budget putting the bodywork at the rear of the car back together. He steadily worked his way back up through the field. On lap 23, for instance, he was 28th. But climbing.

Brad Keselowski at the Auto Club 400 (Gabriela Moya)

By lap 50, Keselowski stood 19th. Just past lap 100, he was 16th. By the end of Stage Two, he was in the top 10, gaining stage points. And he ended up in second spot, a mess of a race car still holding together well enough to make the aero work, at least for short runs.

And the stages. They came after laps 60 and 120. This might make sense for TV. The commentators, after all, can create a narrative to keep viewers’ attention. But in person. Snore. There was no drama on the track. Cars at those laps were strung out in a line.

But remember what a couple of fans told me yesterday: it’s good to clump the cars together again. True enough, so the restarts were good, but were they worth it? On my stopwatch, the first break was 11:45 long. The second one was 13 minutes. That’s 25 of the first 105 minutes (approximately) in boring, no-racing parades. This just wasn’t fun. NASCAR on TV might benefit, in other words, but live racing is the worse for this rule. But guess which one matters more, butts in the seats on eyeballs on the screen?

The other thing that it seems the stage cautions steal from fans, both TV and live, is green flag pitstops. As happened with Truex, the pits are where mistakes can cost the most. And the pressure’s higher under green. Plus, there’s the strategy factor that has crew chiefs choose when to take their pause. The mandatory yellows take that away. I’m trying not to be too persnickety here, but let’s see how well this works as the season goes on. For now, one must applaud NASCAR for trying to spice up the product, but the law of unintended consequences is definitely playing a role.

Good Years and a good year for the Auto Club 400 (Brian Kennedy)

One final storyline: the celebrities, well, their presence disrupted the drivers’ meeting Sunday morning. Here’s what I mean: there was a red carpet, and the famous walked it and were introduced. No biggie. But the tent they went into needed, apparently, to be guarded by a bunch of cops with machine guns. Some were dressed up full swat style. Ridiculous. These weren’t politicians, mind you, who were the object of such careful protection. They were mostly TV stars.

Worse yet, the meeting, which was scheduled for 10:30, started with fifteen minutes of introductions of these people. Who cared? Not the reporters gathered to find out what NASCAR had to say to drivers. When that started, it was a quick video presentation of the day’s rules and a rundown of the stage rules. Then a few comments and “we’re out.” Waste of time if you really care about racing, or care about that more than about soap opera actors.

But hey, it’s “Hollywood,” right? Actually, it’s about 75 miles east of Tinseltown, and it was racing much more than celebs that interested the diehard audience that crowded the stands and the infield of the Penske-built track that has now finished its first twenty years of history and begun the next phase.

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