AUTO CLUB 400
Just Don’t Make No Sense
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 Sun, Mar 20, 2016
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Story by Brian Kennedy
Pictures by Gabriela Moya
Kyle Busch was about to do something nobody had done before: win his fourth Xfinity series race in a row. In historical terms, that’s a big deal. In terms of the series and its interest for fans (and media members), it was more a problem, with many people, including the TV commentators who did the pre-race, indicating that this kind of dominance, being the product of superior engineering (combined with talent) was not good for the series.
It’s a debate that’s been going on for a while, with the Cup series drivers going down market to race in the second-tier NASCAR series on weekends when the two travel to the same racetrack. One response the sanctioning body has had is to make those drivers ineligible for series championship points. But that doesn’t mitigate the fact that it’s boring to watch the same guy win every week, no matter how big a fan of his one might be, and especially not when the difference is as much engineering (ie. money) as talent.
The racing gods took care of that on Saturday afternoon, though they waited until the last lap of the race at Auto Club Speedway to do so. To that point, Busch had led 133 of 149 laps. But LA Car was there being your eyes, and here’s what we saw: as Busch went past the start stand for lap 149, there was stuff coming out from under the hood of the car. “Fan belt blow?” was my first thought.
As he went into turn one-two, he slowed and drifted up the track. His nearest competitors, who had been Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, and Austin Dillon, had been fading over the last 18 laps or so. But now there was Dillon, closing and passing, leading the only lap that matters, to cite the cliché, the last one, for the win.
He was so excited that he did a monster burnout and actually set the track itself on fire across from the starter’s stand. How could that happen? Because this old surface is riddled with seams and those are filled with black tar, sticky, gooey stuff that you could pull up, especially when it’s hot. That apparently ignited. He didn’t care. He was headed to victory lane.
Behind him in the running came Busch, who, from what was said in the media center after the race, immediately got out of his car and disappeared. There’s some mystery here—was he mad? Heck, yeah. The real question was what had happened? A bad tire? Contact? Someone said that Dillon said Busch had run into him on purpose.
The race, by the way, ended under a green flag. Busch, despite the damage to his car—and when he came around after the checkered flag, he had molto damage to the front fender on the driver’s side and the hood—had had enough of a lead that he could coast through the finish without losing the second place trophy. Wait. This is NASCAR. There is no trophy for second place, no podium like in other motorsports. It’s just win or pout. Busch did the latter, apparently.
But when you’re at a track the size of this speedway (two miles around is a long, long way), you’re gonna have to make a sacrifice for the excitement of being there, and that is that what you can see is almost precisely mirrored by what you cannot. When the cars go by you, you can make direct observations. When they’re halfway around the track, they’re pretty small in your view. And on this Saturday, they were also shrouded in a kind of misty fog that obscured the far side of the track from view, even though I was up high, in the outdoor press area overtop the media center.
So what happened on that last lap? What follows will try to unpack it. Let’s start with three clues: fuel mileage problems (Busch), a tire that blew (Busch), and some surprised dodging of trouble by Austin Dillon to make a last-lap charge to the end added up to an unlikely victory and the end of Busch’s streak.
You might think it’s best to hear all of this from those who were actually out on track. But in fact, they saw about as little as anyone else. (And you get the motif here, right—it’s that firsthand witness to an event is better, even if a bit fuzzy-imprecise, than the sanitized and packaged version TV gives you.)
Th two but didn’t really know what else was happening. I was just hoping that they wouldn’t call it, because I really wanted to finish the race and hope that [number] two would run out and get us one spot better. I wasn’t really worried about anyone else, just worried about our program and how we could get it better.”
He said he wasn’t as fast as he wanted to be in practice, and, “I kind of screwed up qualifying, but I knew we’d race good, and it came to life there after the second stop.” He said that he thought the race might have gotten strung out and have been a bit boring for the fans, but for him, “Running up against the fence is my forte, coming off Eldora, running Homestead. . . . This is one of the fun racetracks for us to come to, and we can definitely capitalize [with the good finish].”
Dillon had a long delay coming to talk to the media, but when he did show, he first said he would wait for his team, but then went forward with his comments. “We were about a fourth, fifth-place car the entire race, and just kept working very hard to make our car better, and it seems like we were a little better compared to the 19 [Daniel Suarez] before the run.” He said he got a gap and then started saving fuel, though Wallace was behind him pushing him, he added.
“Sometimes things just go your way, and today it definitely did. . . . Fun race, and I hope the fans liked that last lap; that was exciting. A little bit of everything happened there—tires flat, fuel, hitting walls, and a victory.”
His crew chief explained the last-lap events. “I seen the 19 run out [of gas], I seen the 20 run out, and I seen the 18 come by real slow the next lap. He had a flat tire. We just kept trucking on, never gave up. I think we almost got wrecked out of four, but Austin did a heck of a job and came home the victor.” That’s Danny Stockman, Jr. speaking.
Even Richard Childress, the car owner, didn’t know what had really happened. He said that he thought Busch had blown up, but he couldn’t see what happened in turn four.
Is this confusing? No, it’s real life, where fallible humans try to take in a multitude of information and process it. Is it as clear-cut as the constructed narrative of the media as they broadcast? Heck no. But now you know exactly what it felt to be at the track on Saturday afternoon.
The questions for Dillon returned to a Busch-Dillon late-race dust-up in which Busch, apparently, hit Dillon. The latter described this as, “He made the move to try to win the race. Anybody in their right mind would have tried to win the race. It just made for a crazy finish. At least it was fun.” Was this why Busch came home so banged up? That wasn’t explained.
He summarized, “You never give up, in this sport, in any series, because you never know what can happen. Three things happened on that lap. One guy ran out of fuel. One guy had a tire blow, and we came through with the victory. You just stay in the race, because a lot of things happen here.”
He was asked yet again what he heard and saw in the last lap. He said his crew chief took over the radio chatter, saying, “He’s running out, go! Go! Go!” and that his reaction was, “My tongue’s out right now, I’m trying to get there. I actually started big time saving that last lap, and I rolled into the bottom, and when they said he had a flat, I was in a bad situation to pick up the gas where I was. I kind of slid off of turn two, and it took the whole backstretch to get my momentum up. When I got to turn three, I got in there pretty hard, and I knew that we had enough to get to the checkered flag. I probably would have made it easier on myself just to turn left, because his tire that was flat was going to make him go right. He probably wouldn’t have had a shot at me if I would have went left. I just stuck the pedal to the floor, banged it off the wall, and I heard [someone] say, ‘You’re going to win this thing.’”
But even then, people kept asking the same question. Of the crew chief, someone asked, “Was there any concern about NASCAR throwing a caution at the end?”
The answer was, “I guess we wouldn’t have won the race?” said in a questioning tone. And the question-asker, “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” Then the crew chief again, “He [Busch] would have won it if they would have thrown it right then.”
Dillon jumped in jokingly, “It was plenty good out there. I didn’t see any debris. I don’t know what y’all are talking about.” And the crew chief, “Great call.”
Busch, who ended in second, never turned up to give his side of things. More Auto Club 400 coverage by Brian Kennedy: AUTO CLUB 400: "Seams" Easy From The Outside AUTO CLUB 400: The Calm Before The Storm