AUTO CLUB 400
The story no one else will tell
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Mon, Mar 25, 2013
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED IN FONTANA Story and pictures by Brian Kennedy We warned you that if you missed the NASCAR race in Fontana, you might miss something spectacular. If you didn’t listen, well, by now you know. The Auto Club 400 race featured wrecks and a fight along with one of the most exciting finishes possible. Now just to be clear, that’s not going to happen every time, but the thing about live sporting events is that you just don’t know, and you risk not being part of something if you don’t go. I’ll get to the fight before I’m done, because it happened within a hundred feet of where I was up in a spot where I could see it develop. But first, a couple of other storylines that you don’t get from the rest of the media. Why? Heck, I don’t know. Maybe they’re just not paying close enough attention. Or maybe covering the big stuff is more important. Who cares? I think that what I’m about to share with you will enhance the race reports you’ve already read elsewhere. First, Jimmy Johnson came from a starting position of 18th to end up twelfth. But he spent most of the day mired in the pack, with about 90 laps floating between 19th and 25th. His move only came late to end up where he did. Now, like him or hate him, here’s something worth knowing. His crew got his car to tech last in line. Why? While everyone else was in line, they were changing the ballast in the car. For those who don’t know, the cars must reach a minimum weight, and there are blocks put into the frame rails in order to achieve that. At 10:30, while most other cars were in line, his was changing the weights. Some are solid blocks about the size of a half brick of Velveeta. Others are the same size, but drilled out, and hence lighter. They can be put in in whatever order is desired. I asked a crew member about the change, and he told me this: “We have a certain amount of time allotted to us, and we’re going to use it. I’m not saying that others don’t, but . . .” he kind of trailed off. “We got here at six, for instance,” he finished. That’s when the garage opened, and I’m willing to bet most crews were there about then. But most didn’t take the very longest time allotted before putting their car in line. These guys on the 48 team, however, just expect to do the most possible. It’s what makes them good.
He elaborated on the changes, “The weights can be moved, but we have to have a certain weight per side, and ride height is regulated to one-quarter of an inch.” So everything they do affects everything else, and thus every change must be compensated for by another. He also filled me in on the inspection process. The rear end location, wheelbase, and many other things are regulated, and last year and before, all these measurements were done by hand. This year, it’s all computerized, with the car going onto a machine that looks kind of like a dyno. He didn’t say this, but the impression I got was that the accuracy of the computer evaluation far outweighs the old way, and hence that the teams can’t get away with nearly what they did. He did say that the body templates this year are laid on with the spoiler on. Last year, they brought the cars to the tracks with the spoilers off. This means that “now it’s easier to check everything; there is not the tiny bit of room there was before” to tweak the bodies. If you’re listening, you know why you love (or hate) Jimmy so much. Because his team is that good. They don’t take anything for granted. Second, Matt Kenseth was driving a car that took three tries to get through technical inspection. In fact, he might not have been all that crazy to know that an hour before the race, his crew were cutting chunks off of it. No, that’s not a lie, and there are pictures to prove it. And OK, it was just a strip about one-third of an inch wide off the left side. But that was just after failure number one. They went back through and then were seen working under the car again, out in the parking lot, literally, before going back through the tech garage once more.
Kenseth started fifth and ended seventh. He was in the top five most of the day, but between laps 110 and 160, he dropped and bounced around, scoring as low as 26th. On lap 190, he was 16th. A frequent drafting partner was Jamie McMurray, who stayed with him early before falling back. Third, Kurt Busch was called the third-place car after the race. He even did an interview with the media in that guise. But before most of us had gotten around to transcribing the quotes, a revised finishing order was put out with Joey Logano shown third. Busch was put back to fifth, and Logano got this spot despite wrecking on the final lap and originally being categorized as sixth. Now, what you’re thinking is that Tony Stewart’s claim that that rich kid has never worked a day in his life and yet, one assumes, has had a lot of privilege was paid off by his being moved up. In fact, it seems even more unfair given that he was at fault for the accident which took Denny Hamlin out and allowed Kyle Busch to run the high line to the win. But no. NASCAR scoring is always reviewed. That’s why, on TV, it always says, “unofficial results” on the board they post. And the rules say that the positions are assigned at the time the caution comes out. Watch the replay carefully, and Busch is around before the other two really wreck. When the yellow comes out, Logano must be in third. Hamlin, though, was revised nowhere. The early scoring showed him 25th, and the corrected version also. And no, that’s not explainable via the videotape. But see below. Finally, Kyle Busch finished his press conference by catching sight of the poster that has been seen around SoCal for a month or so on billboards. He pointed to it and said, “Crash, bang, Vroom, Go,” which is how it reads. “You crash bang, and I’ll vroom and go,” he said and laughed, then headed out to get on his golf cart and be zoomed, or vroomed, away.
Oh, the fight. Well, as you know, winners do burnouts. And you might not know that at a big track, the rest don’t go all the way around to enter the pits the proper way. Not, at least, when the track is full of debris, as was the case after the last-lap accident. So what happens is that cars get the checkered flag and then come back to the pits by coming the opposite way down pit road from pit exit. So there I was, positioned halfway between victory lane and the site of the eventual encounter between Stewart and Logano. I was trying to get photos of the burnout. Below and to my left, I saw a car pinched off into the wall by another. Hmm. Numbers 14 and 22. What could this be? The brain had already absorbed an exciting retart, an accident, a surprise victory. Someone near me said, “Stewart’s mad at him because he did that to Hamlin,” as if Stewart were the cop of the series. (In fact, as you know, he was angry because Logano had blocked him on the restart.) It seemed like they sat there a long time. It was not, as TV shows, immediately that Stewart got out of the car. Perhaps he was unhooking his belts. Maybe he was fuming, or thinking about what to do. I glanced back at the victory area. Busch was encased in a cloud of smoke.
Back to the left, and there’s Stewart out of the car. And he went over and slapped Logano. Then they scuffled and other people got involved. Now, you’ve seen it. And you’ve heard Stewart say that he hit Logano after the latter threw a water bottle at him “like a girl.” Judge for yourself what order the events actually happened in. Of course, there were also the usual tidbits, about which some elaboration now. Hamlin was on the pole and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was the fastest rookie in qualifying, 31st. Danica Patrick qualified 40th and said in a morning meeting that, while most days she has optimism underneath, she was not at all looking forward to this race. They just couldn’t do much with the car. She ended 26th, the first car a lap down aside from Hamlin, which gives us the answer to the above question. He was scored where he was because he never got around to finish that final lap. The leader was doing laps at about 40.8 seconds at one point in the race, and Danica, while on the same lap, was about 30 seconds behind. That’s 3/4s of a lap, obviously. As for the thrilling finish, had things ended at lap 180, no stories would be told about this race. At that time, the three leaders were Kyle Busch, Logano, and Stewart in a line one behind the other. Behind them, Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, and Brad Keselowski were side-by-side for third. But by 183, the top nine cars were in a line. The battle that ensued after that was for sixth, between Harvick and Edwards. A caution came out, signaling that trouble could come. On the restart, they were four wide, and Kurt Busch dove down under Logano for second going into turn one. But then that settled down as Busch dropped back and Dale Earnhardt Jr. chased him. Dale Jr.? He said after the race, “Do everybody a favor, whoever owns this place, and pave the back straightaway.” “The corners are perfect. This is the age of asphalt that tracks strive for. . . . Fix the two outer lanes on the back side” and, it seemed, leave the rest alone. That caution just mentioned, at lap 186, prompted the dodgy restart, which was at 189. After the restart shook out, the top seven cars, including Jeff Gordon, who had done nothing all day, were lined up, close together. He was scored sixth on 190, by the way, on the way to 11th. But most of the day, he was down around 24th, with a gap behind the leader of over 20 seconds by my watch at one stage. Lap 193 came, and Hamlin charged Logano, who went way down onto the apron past the white line. Hmm. So you say you had to block Stewart, eh? What about everyone else you blocked, kid? Makes Stewart’s point kind of more understandable, doesn’t it?
A, I said, ‘They don’t have any idea I’m here’,” as he explained it in the press conference afterwards. That last lap was not uncomplicated. Hamlin took the lead past the flagstand. Logano got it back through turns one and two. Then they had their contact between three and four, as TV has shown you. But you can see Busch’s point better when you realize that the whole lap, the two combatants were totally locked onto one another. Busch was amazed, saying that he was wondering whether, or why not, their spotters had told them that he was there. Toyota has won a lot in the lesser series of NASCAR at Auto Club Speedway, but never in NASCAR, so perhaps it was fitting that things ended as they did. Earnhardt leaves the track with the points lead. Keselowski is second, Johnson third. Kyle Busch sits sixth. Read Brian Kennedy’s “PURPLE REIGN – What happened at the Royal Purple” Read Brian Kennedy’s “NASCAR QUALIFYING – The Calm Before the Storm” Read Brian Kennedy’s “NASCAR WARS – A New Hope” Read Brian Kennedy’s “NASCAR’s ENTIRE HISTORY in less than 1000 words” Read Brian Kennedy’s “NASCAR at Auto Club Speedway” [nggallery id=autoclub400]