New Day for NASCAR

Much more goes into the execution of a  NASCAR race than appears on TV. Take this weekend in the Auto Club 400 in Fontana. This is an “impound race,” which means  that there is no  tech on raceday. Instead, teams unloaded Friday, had two sessions of practice, and then were garaged. On Saturday morning, they went through a full technical inspection process, and if they  passed, they were allowed to qualify. The qualifying order set, everyone was locked back in their garages. This is the “impound,” and it allowed for no further race setup except minor changes on Sunday morning.

So teams had a choice—set up for qualifying and get a good starting spot, or try to approximate race setup and live with what happened in the qualifying. The latter choice means a better race setup, less chasing of what will make the driver happy as he goes through the 200 laps that are the race.

Auto Club 400 (PC: Gabriela Moya)

I discussed this all with a member of the Wood Brothers team, fielding famous car #21 for Matt DiBenedetto, and he told me that their choice was always to go with race trim. In the past, he said, when NASCAR teams practiced and kept developing the car after qualifying, it had been different, but now, qualifying didn’t matter enough to them to sacrifice race setup.

Their car started in 12thand was in 6thplace on lap 57, challenged by Joey Logano. DiBenedetto stayed visible throughout the middle part of the race, faded to 19tharound lap 150, but surged again and ended the day in 12th spot. He scored stage points in stage one of the race for finishing eighth.

But before any of that happened, there was doubt as to whether anyone would be starting this race. The weather forecast for Sunday had called for 40% chance of rain most of the day. But by Sunday morning, it was down to 30% chance around noon and from 4pm onwards. Here’s why  that’s a problem, Houston: the race was set to go at 12:30. And at around noon, the grid was getting little spits of rain. Crew members covered the cars.

Auto Club 400 (PC: Gabriela Moya)

It continued, increasing some, as the starting time neared, but fortunately, NASCAR ignored the drip-drop and sent the cars out for several pace laps. They would eventually start the race at 12:51, after being told to start engines at 12:39. The weather was certainly different than in qualifying Friday, when it had been in the range of 81 degrees. Now it was mid-50s, which would change grip and handling characteristics altogether, so all teams, whether they had set up for a single lap or 200, were now likely to be chasing the track.

The parade laps were five-wide with Johnson out front of the field. Ryan Preece and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. were put to the rear because of a mechanical infraction that also got their crew chiefs sent home early. Martin Truex was already there due to three problems passing tech in qualifying.

In that qualifying, held on Saturday, Jimmie Johnson, a bit of a sentimental favorite as this is his last year in the Cup series, was barely nudged out by Clint Bowyer, normally not a good qualifier, for the pole. My immediate thought—Johnson sacrificed it for qualifying, and Bowyer somehow lucked into the right single-lap setup.

But as the race went green, if JJ was handling a poor car, it sure didn’t show. On the second lap, he chased Bowyer down the back straight like a scalded cat. He was still in the top three past halfway through the race. In fact, he led the field as they restarted for stage two around lap 67. He battled hard most of the afternoon, freely placing his car in jeopardy and eventually coming  home in 7th place.

Auto Club 400 (PC: Gabriela Moya)

Meanwhile the eventual winner, Alex Bowman, the teammate of Johnson, dove underneath Kurt Busch on lap one. He maintained third by lap five  after having started there. By lap ten, he had faded a bit, with Bowyer still leading from the pole. The top four cars were in a line. But not for long. Next lap, Bowyer, Johnson, and Bowman went into turn one three abreast, but in the dicey way that prevailed early, by lap fourteen, Bowyer was in fifth and pushing Busch for fourth.

By close to lap 50, the sun had come out (at 1:15 pm), and the top six or eight cars were in a long line with slower cars between them. Lap 44 saw Hamlin, Truex, and Kevin Harvick three wide for 11th place. Johnson meanwhile was alone in 16th place. Twenty-three cars were still on the lead lap, of 38 who started.

Martin Truex had started at the back because of a qualifying infraction (or three in fact, as detailed earlier). He tried to push his pit strategy to make up time, being the first to stop, on lap 27. The first stage was to end at lap 60. The stage was won by Bowman. Johnson was third. DiBenedetto was eighth.

After a lap 67 restart, the field began green flag pit stops on lap 88. Kurt Busch came in with the first of them, hoping to pull a strategy move and increase his position. Bowyer was with him, apparently with a very tight car. Stops were over around lap 92, and it was Byron, Blaney, Bowman, Johnson, and Truex.

That wouldn’t last, as Bowyer caused the only mechanical caution of the day because he had a low tire. Remember him? Pole sitter. Bowyer was up and down in the first half of the race, then brought out the first caution other than that thrown for the end of a stage when he blew a left front tire going into turn four on lap 94. The cause was likely low air pressure because he had dropped it down to try to get some handling out of an evil car.

Auto Club 400 (PC: Gabriela Moya)

At lap 100, it was Blaney leading with Johnson and Bowman mixing it up for second. Then Keselowski and Chase Elliott.

On lap 114, Truex was being pushed by Keselowski for fourth, or maybe so that they could create a two-car draft and get up  to the top three. Those cars were Blaney, Bowman, and Johnson. Behind Brad K was Kyle Busch, then Erik Jones and Harvick. Bowyer ended stage two still hanging on, on the lead lap, but way back in 24th  place. Good thing the stage caution would allow him to catch up the 30-second deficit he suffered to the stage winner, Ryan Blaney, who was also far out front of his competition, leading by 3.2 seconds at the green checker flag. Bowman came second in this stage. Johnson was third. The caution period lasted until lap 127.

What would be the final restart saw Johnson up front with Bowman, then Blaney, Bowyer, and Harvick. Johnson also had Truex in his mirrors, and one of the most thrilling moments of the race came when Truex and Blaney were split by the tandem of Bowman and Johnson. Next thing you know, Blaney and Kyle Busch had Truex squeezing low beneath them in an attempt at the lead.

Moments are what make races, and this one had a lot. It’s just that little of that shows up on a box score (which is why you’re reading this).

Laps 130 and 131 were crazy, with Truex going with Bowman and Blaney underneath them. Then it was the tandem of Hamlin and Kyle Busch coming up, then Hamlin looking inside entering turn two.

At lap 133, the top 10 were all shifting positions, as if nothing at all had been accomplished in the prior two hours’ racing. And they were right. It was all green from this point to the end of the race.

Auto Club 400 (PC: Gabriela Moya)

Johnson started to fade back a bit, and Bowman, who had won stage two, was solidifying his lead, ahead by about 2.4 seconds. At lap 141, Hamlin brushed the outside wall, but he carried on. He would eventually finish sixth. By this point, the sunny weather had turned to cold and breezy conditions, so handling was pure guesswork.

At lap 157, Truex was 2.33 seconds shy of Bowman. The next lap, Johnson and Elliott pitted together. So did Truex, and this was his undoing, as a slow pit stop (due to a problem getting lug nuts off apparently) put him way down. He would finish the day in 14thand having gained fifth-place points for his performance in stage two.

Auto Club 400 (PC: Gabriela Moya)

On 175, Elliott was on Johnson’s bumper. Then Kurt Busch got between them and bobbled. The moment passed.

On lap 188, Bowman led Blaney and Kyle Busch. Things spread out after that, with nobody even close to catching the leader. Blaney made a pit stop with a couple of laps to go, putting himself behind by a wide margin. He came home 19thas a result. On the good side, he was second in stage one and first in stage two. He led four times for 54 laps, but in the end, his finish won’t make his career highlight reel.

3:29pm brought the 200-lap race to a conclusion. The elapsed time was 2:37, and the average speed, 152.753 mph. Bowman won going away, with an 8.904 second margin ahead of second place Kyle Busch. Kurt Busch was third, Elliott fourth, and Brad Keselowski fifth. Johnson came seventh, and he spoke to the media after the race.

Auto Club 400 (PC: Gabriela Moya)

He started, “A lot of neat things took place  today, so my heart is full, obviously.”

About his race, he said, “The last run, we got super tight. I think I was pretty lucky  to  finish. I think one of the front tires was getting ready to blow out. We just didn’t stay on top of the adjustments needed to keep the car free and going. But we had a great day. Ran up front. Led some laps, raced for the lead, but the longer the run, the tighter I would get and the slower the car was.”

He finished: “I’m a competitor at heart, and I want to be up front and win races and get it all done. I was pretty disappointed in the way it [the day] finished. We ended up seventh, and that’s a good sign of where we’re headed.”

Eight drivers held the lead, with 16 lead changes. Bowman led five times, including the last stint where he was out front from laps 167-200. He led 110 laps in total. This was his second career victory in NASCAR Cup competition.

Auto Club 400 (PC: Gabriela Moya)

He spoke with the media for a long while afterwards, revealing a personality much different from the corporatized drones that were sometimes on display in NASCAR races past. Good thing—the sport needs an injection of real people. Bowyer’s one. Blaney’s another.

Bowman said, amongst other things, “Today was good for us. I felt that if I got bad restarts, I would have burned my stuff up getting back to the 12, so I was glad to get clear of him there that last restart, and be able to run hard and build that gap. I felt that it fell off a bit at the end of runs, but we had a really good car.”

He repeated, “I knew we had a really good car. We just had to keep up with the race track from there.” He credited his crew chief for that.

“Every year of my career is a contract year,” he said in response to a question about his deal, which runs only through this campaign. “I’ve had contracts and two weeks before Daytona, read a tweet that said I’m not going to Daytona. There’s never a situation that I feel completely comfortable in . . . .  I’m as motivated as I can be, doing everything I can on and off the race track to be the best I can be.”

He later said, “There’s a lot of pressure to win races, especially when you drive for Hendrick Motorsports. I drive for the best team in the sport, so I feel like that’s where a lot of the pressure comes from . . . . There’s a lot of ‘best’ things that I have to back up and do my job with.”

Auto Club 400 (PC: Gabriela Moya)

He was asked about the possibility of racing V8 Supercars in Australia, and he said, “I’ll race anything. I’ll race a lawnmower. I’ll race the rental car. We’ll probably race the rental cars back to the airport. Don’t tell California Highway Patrol.”

Verging on the funny, he then got into the rumor that he and his friends were going to get “88” tattoos, and that his was supposed to be a neck tattoo. He put that to rest, but not the tattoo idea altogether. His friend is a drummer in a cult band and he and a bunch of friends agreed, “Next time we’re all together, I guess we’re all gonna get tattoos.”

New day  for NASCAR, indeed.

Notes

The series races at Phoenix next weekend.

Please follow me on twitter @growinguphockey

 

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