AUTO CLUB 400
The XFINITY Race: Stage They’re Going Through
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 26, 2017
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Story by Brian Kennedy
Pictures by Gabriela Moya
NASCAR is one-hundred times better live. Period. The speed. The quickness of one car closing up to another. The smoke, the noise, the ways the cars crash over bumps in the track, especially at Auto Club Speedway—all of it is multiplied when you’re there.
But in case you didn’t get there this weekend for the two races (300 miles Saturday and 400 Sunday—still in the future as I write this), here are some of the things you missed.
First, the entries. NASCAR has been struggling, as you likely know. TV is down (though the series claims that if you count digital exposure, things are about what they’ve been). Attendance is down. And now entries are down. The fields used to be 43 cars. Last year the number was reduced to 40. But for Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, only 39 were on the official entry list as of Saturday afternoon.
And the only reason the XFINITY Series race had a full field was that some of the Cup series drivers took some spots. The problem with that is, they tend to be the most talented drivers in the best cars, and that means that they dominate the top spots of the race.
How are fans supposed to care about the second-tier series if it gets dominated by the Cup drivers? Well, the argument could be made that this gives fans of those Cup drivers—on Saturday people like Kyle Larson (who eventually won), Kyle Busch, Joey Logano (all in the top three) and Eric Jones (fourth)—would get a chance to cheer for their guy twice on the weekend.
Problem is, that leaves someone like William Byron, the top XFINITY series driver at the end, picking up the pieces in fifth. Who cares about fifth in a series where there is no concept of “the Podium” (top three, as in IndyCar and F1)? Nobody. And what does that do? It makes races where the Cup drivers do not come to play because of series rules limiting their starts or because they are at a distant track on a given weekend and so can’t do the double the only ones that can catch the fans’ interest in this series. This is not a debate that started with me, though, and it won’t end here.
That aside, Saturday had some great racing. Logano had the pole. He was introduced just before 1pm to a mix of cheers and boos. Five Cup drivers were in the top 12 cars. The weather was perfect, with a dark cloud at the start giving way to bright sun but the temps about 70 degrees, with a breeze. The race began about 1:17. Or better, “stage one” began then.
That’s another thing about NASCAR this year. Every race is divided into three stages. Note that it’s not “thirds.” On this day, the 150 laps were raced in 35, 35, and 80-lap segments. Fans were educated about this before the action began. “A new season, a new format,” the voice on the loudspeaker said. Twice is was emphasized that it would be “35, 35, and 80.”
I wondered if fans were buying in. I grabbed Tom Dixon and his two sons in the pits and asked them.
Tom went first. “I like it. It gets everybody back together.” Part of the scheme is that winners of each stage get extra points, so I asked whether he cared about that. “Yeah. It’s ten points,” he said. Then he commented more on the racing. “Nobody can get way out front, so I like the competition. The last five laps of the stage are intense.”
I asked about what this was like watching on TV, which is what the El Cajon resident has done for the first few races of the season, this being his first live event. “Seems like there are more ads,” he said. His son Thomas concurred. The second son, Tim, who is the real hardcore fan of the family, saw things in the positive. “Gives you a chance to take a break,” he said. Wait—you’re supposed to watch the adverts! Ah, NASCAR, sometimes the best laid plans go awry. But they’re getting Tim’s eyes anyway—he watches all the NASCAR-themed shows on TV all week, as his dad and brother do as well.
Back to the racing. By lap 15, the top 36 were separated by 31.5 seconds. The top ten were 9.3 seconds apart. The top five, five seconds from first to last. By lap 20, what Tom had said had come true. Cars were strung out all over the track, racing in a line. The only battles were for fifth, amongst four cars, for 16th and 17th, cars of Spencer Gallagher and Darrell Wallace Jr., and for 21st, which had three cars contesting it.
The good news? These guys were going into Turn One at 194mph. Like I said earlier, you kind of have to see this for yourself.
They were racing to 35, as established above, and yet at lap 31, a caution flew. This made for a quick one-lap green. That made for some strategy, as some cars came in and others stayed out. You could also read this as, that made for a dash that was entirely artificial, since in the old days (last year), there wouldn’t have been a break coming, and thus whatever strategy was played out would have been taken in the messy uncertainty that is the thrill of racing. This, instead, felt kind of scripted.
A further problem: the stage checker at 35 produced five boring and pointless laps of caution, and on a track this big (two miles), that made for a long, long, long, break. OK if you’re squeezing in the commercials, but horrible at the event live. But there you see my mistaken logic: this is a TV event, right? If there’s a choice between entertaining 20,000 (my estimate) live or 2,000,000 (I am guessing on that, too) on the tube, guess who’s gonna win?
Green flew on lap 41. Three laps later, there was a line of four cars for the top four spots. Logano, who had suffered a pit-road speeding penalty, was threading his way back up through, and was behind Busch for first by lap 55. Good racing, this.
What hadn’t occurred to me before seeing this live is that, because of all that caution after lap 35, this stage was actually shorter than one, at 30 laps. IT went by all too fast, but to go back to the earlier-cited problem—only one car in the top five, Elliott Sadler, was an XFINITY Series regular.
Green flew on lap 77. The top three strung out and left four guys fighting for fourth. By lap 82, caution again, for debris—big pieces of rubber and metal that were lying on the track in front of my position down from the starter’s stand. They went green on 88, and the lead was a huge pack.
On 94, Paul Menard hit the outside wall on turn four. The caution was long, and they spent a lot of time trying to get the oil off the track. Again, a necessary caution, but two questions: isn’t it destroying the flow to have all of these when you already have the mandated stage cautions? And would this incident have even happened had there not been more of a pack due to the stage caution?
This is starting to twist in on itself, its internal logic following the “cautions breed cautions” theory rather than the “stages breed excitement” idea that was supposed to prevail.
That’s not to say the race was boring—just frequently interrupted. In fact, the green finally came out on lap 104, but right after, Cole Custer hit the outside wall between turns one and two, and out it flew again. He was 14th at the time.
They got that cleaned up and, to zoom towards the end, there was another yellow late, setting up a shootout. Logano and Busch fought for second, leaving Kyle Larson to lead. But Logano got that spot and challenged for the win. Larson held on and got the checker, but no points—Cup drivers aren’t eligible for those.
And that brings us back to the stage points. There’s no point in being the stage winner if you’re a Monster Energy driver. Or to say it the opposite way—these guys steal stage wins from the XFINITY regulars, but not the points. But is anyone able to keep track of this while things are going on? Anyone as in fans, that is? Don’t know. Too bad I didn’t run into the Dixons again after the race.
Larson is set to follow up his win with a Pole on Sunday. But that’s a long and grueling 400 miles where anything can happen, so don’t place your bets on him too fast. Know, however, that he can get around this track, dealing with its seams and bumps (the cars literally heave and bounce going into turn one, at the least—and again, you’re just not going to see that on TV), both in qualifying and in race conditions.
His problem—he’s dealing with 39 drivers on Sunday, at least half of whom, rather than a handful of whom, will be his equal in skill and equipment. That’s something you’ve got to see.
Want to see more photos? Got something to say? See more photos and add your Facebook comment regarding this article here.