Sunday NASCAR Cup Race in Fontana
Sunday's Real Story
The story of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race in Fontana can be told in six numbers: 8, 43, 2, 99, 3, 9.
By Brian Kennedy
Mon, Feb 28, 2022 04:34 PM PST
Featured image by Albert J. Wong.
Here’s a quick summary for those of you who like that. For the inquisitive, what follows the short version is the real scoop on the Wise Power 400, run in the 25th anniversary year of Auto Club Speedway on Sunday, February 27th at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA.
8 Tyler Reddick
Way out front by lap 50 and won Stage 1, which ended at lap 65. Won Stage 2. Didn’t win the race. This would have been his breakthrough in Cup, but that’s OK. This guy’s talent will eventually get him a win.
43 Erik Jones
Top 5 at about 50 laps and second on lap 52. Factored in the action all day. Ended up third. A shame that he couldn’t bring the Petty colors home for a victory.
2 Austin Cindric
Started on the pole. Dropped to 8th by lap 56. Ended Stage 1 as 9th. Stage 2 saw him 7th. At the end of the 200-lap race, he was 12th. Not bad for a youngster in his first full-time season, but a lesson too that proves you don’t necessarily finish how you start. Let’s see how he proceeds over the weeks to come.
99 Daniel Suarez
Mostly invisible most of the race. Played some smart strategy with about 15 laps to go and appeared to have a chance to win, but tires fell off and he ended up fourth. Nobody was disappointed despite him not gaining the win. Showing that he can run with the top dogs was a good omen.
3 Austin Dillon
Ended up second. Did not factor in the Stage results, and gained no playoff points. Survived an early penalty for speeding on pit road.
9 Chase Elliott
By about halfway, he got his second free pass, freeing him from being laps down. He was contending in the lead pack late when his teammate took him out of it. Mr. Popular doesn’t have to win to satisfy his fans, but he’d best get a victory somewhere in the early going of the season to keep the “will he/won’t he” make the playoffs question from plaguing him through the summer.
Now The Longer Version
The NASCAR Cup race in Fontana got underway just past 12:30pm. It was to be run in three stages, a total of 200 laps (400 miles). Austin Cindric, last week’s Daytona 500 winner, sat on the pole. He said Saturday, however, that this guaranteed nothing. That all it said was that his car was dominant over a certain period of time. He didn’t know whether it would be good on the short runs, long runs, or just what.
The first approximately 50 laps were very settled, perhaps itself a feat given that practice and qualifying had been a spin-fest, where 10 of the 36 entered cars took one form of spin or slide or another. In this early going, Alex Bowman in #48 trailed the #8 of Tyler Reddick. The latter would be up front much of the day, though it all came undone before the end.
Behind them, Eric Jones in the Richard Petty car #43 was moving up. His day would end with a third-place finish. He was good enough for most of the event to give old-school fans the hope that maybe the King’s car number would once again find victory lane.
After a caution thrown on lap 54, the restart saw the lineup being 8-43-24 (William Byron), with the pole sitter, Cindric, in eighth place. Stage 1 ended on lap 65, and it was those same three drivers in the top spots. Behind was #14 Chase Briscoe and #5 Kyle Larson. He, like Suarez early on, was largely hiding in the weeds.
Shortly after that restart, Briscoe led Reddick and Larson - the first anyone noticed Larson on the day which would end up in his back pocket. But that was way, way down the road.
On a subsequent caution, lap 91, Chase Elliott got the second of two free passes that he would have on the day, putting him back on the lead lap. He would eventually end up two laps down in 26th place after contact with teammate Larson. Wait for that.
The restart was on lap 96; Reddick led Byron with Briscoe inside. Back just a bit, Cindric was in the middle of a three-wide group. Meanwhile, mid-pack, Elliott was diving low to take 23rd spot. Up front the two lead drivers started to stretch out their lead. At the halfway point, the race was Byron, Larson, Reddick, Briscoe, Logano, Ryan Blaney, Jones, and Cindric.
The cautions started coming more frequently, with the sixth being for Chris Buescher, who hit the wall hard backwards after blowing a tire in corner entry. Both tires and wheels have been a major concern with the new car. It’s now an 18-incher they’re using, lower profile and wider than before, but with no inner liner to keep up the pressure in case of a blowout. Flats thus more often result in spins and contact with the wall than previously. Eventually, there would be 12 cautions. The last, and this is obviously what took him out, was by Elliott, on lap 193. In total, of the 200 laps run, 59 were under yellow-flag conditions.
Aside from the tires, the wheels, too, are problematic, with a single large lug rather than five, passenger-car style lugs they used to use. It seems that the guns jam or that the tire changers haven’t figured out how to time their work, though in theory, they should be faster than prior. This plagued several teams on their pitstops.
After the sixth caution, it was Reddick, Larson, Jones, with Cindric sitting in sixth. Byron came out of the pits 17th. Shortly after this, Buescher was seen backing down pit road (towards turn 4). It turned out, he was looking for the garage entry spot, and he was quickly redirected forward and out of harm’s way.
Caution seven came on lap 117, when Keselowski wrecked. He got loose low and moved up the track, wiggling around out of control. He then slid down the track across traffic with his brakes locked and tires smoking. He went through the grass and to the pits eventually. His day would yield a 27th-place finish, two laps down.
The restart saw Jones battling with Reddick, who was outside. Next time they came by me (I was on the front straight, past the flag stand about halfway to turn 1), he was inside and in the lead once more. Meanwhile, Cindric was seventh. The third lap of this period after the caution saw the top ten cars all in a line, no packs. Jones was in 10th.
Ross Chastain was 12th at this point, an accomplishment for sure after the hard hit he took in practice on Saturday morning which destroyed the front end of his car. There is a photo of that car in my previous story, if you want to see the carnage.
Stage 2 ended on lap 130. Reddick led, and if you’d polled people at that point, most would have declared him the future winner. Jones was right behind, then Logano. Larson was fifth, and Cindric seventh.
After the restart, Jones went way low under Logano for second place going into turn 1, and he then closed up on Reddick for the lead. A lap or two later, the top ten were in a long line, with Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. fighting for 11th.
Then came the game-changer. Reddick blew his right rear tire, and the ensuing action saw Byron get collected up with him. Wait! That’s what I first thought happened. I later realized that it was the opposite. Byron was out of control. He came forward and swiped Reddick and blew his tire. The problems would compound for Reddick, who pitted with the toe link all askew and his hopes of a win gone, too. This after winning the two first stages of the race. On lap 156 the green flew, and Reddick was last car on the lead lap, in 28th.
The leaders were Logano, Jones, Larson, and Bowman, and Suarez in sixth. Cindric was 11th. Then Keselowski spun on lap 159. Cindric was right behind, hugging up tight to the outside wall. He would drop to 17th after the pit stops. Then later 25th. Not sure what happened there. There were 26 cars on the lead lap at that point. Reddick was the first car a lap down - actually two. He was 27th, and had led the most laps to that point. He would win that category on the day eventually, leading ten times for 90 total laps. Behind him was Larson, who led 28, including the only one that pays the big bucks, and Briscoe. In the end, nine drivers would lead, including Kevin Harvick, who paced the field for one circuit.
Things were getting down to the wire. They restarted from caution #10 on lap 165, Logano jumping out front, with Larson low behind him, then high. On lap 166, Larson dove inside of Logano and took the lead into turn one. By the next lap, the front-running cars were lined up. It wouldn’t last. Chastain spun coming through turn four. Notable on this caution: Kevin Harvick had worked his way up to a top ten position for the first time. Twenty-five cars were on the lead lap. This was caution 11 of 12.
On lap 178, Elliott went inside of Larson, who pushed him into the wall. This happened going into turn 1, in my sight lines. My first thought, “That Larson is an aggressive little bugger, and he’ll do anything to win.” A day later, I’m sure I was right. But after the race, Larson claimed not to have seen Elliott, and the spotter took the blame for the incident. The next lap, Larson pushed Logano down under the white line as they went past me.
It was Larson-Logano-Dillon on lap 180. Elliott was slowing, and he eventually spun. Cindric was moving up by lap 185, and a caution flew on lap 193. Fans who had attended the whole weekend no doubt thought this might turn into the Xfinity race of Saturday, which had three overtime restarts and ended with darkness falling and the track lights illuminated. That didn’t quite happen. Rather, the restart (lap 196) was the last, and yet it wasn’t over. Suarez and Larson battled, Larson outside of Suarez and then Suarez low going into turn one. With a lap to go, Suarez faded, and Larson was using the low line into turn one. Cindric was 12th.
The race went to Larson on the strength of leading twice for about ten laps at a time in the latter 21 or so laps. In all, he led four times, mostly in the last 33 laps of the day (he earlier led one lap).
So the faves and the guys who seemed primed to win: Reddick, Logano, Byron, Jones, and Briscoe didn’t do it. Instead, it was last year’s champ, opportunistic to the end.
After the race, he said, “Cliff [Daniels, Crew Chief] and everybody made some good adjustments overnight, and the car handled a lot better. There was definitely some guys that were quicker than us, but they had their misfortunes. Just kept our heads in it all day. Long race. Just restarts were crazy. The whole runs were crazy.”
That was on the front stretch in victory lane. He would later add, “Honestly I enjoyed it more than I thought I was going to. I thought dirty air was going to be really bad behind people, and it didn't seem way worse or different than normal. So that was encouraging. I thought the runs were equally as big if not bigger down the front stretch. Restarts were still crazy.”
He also explained the approach that teams have to take with this new car, which is as of yet an entirely unknown entity: “We'll just keep working on the car and we'll get it better ourselves, even without having to make rule package changes I'm sure. Just every team is trying to learn quickly, and I've got Cliff leading our team, and we have all the confidence in the world in him and Adam and everybody at the shop and here at the racetrack to keep building on what we have.”
“The race was more than fun. The cars jump and hop over the seams in this glorious old speedway, and the two-mile length makes for some spectacular movement of lanes, lines, and position. 192 mph into turn one is never going to get boring, for sure.”
Sunday was rather hot - hotter than forecast - and not windy until later in the day. Saturday had been gust after gust from all directions. Thirty-two times, nine different drivers swapped the lead, and what was fun, aside from seeing the crazy ways they attacked turn one, was wondering who was going to win. If some people aren’t crazy about Larson, so be it. You can’t deny his resolve as he hung around all day, surged late, and pounced when the mouse was in view.
This guy is a warrior. Now he and the rest head to Las Vegas for the second of three West Coast races.
About The Author
Brian Kennedy always wanted a ’66 Mustang. 10 years ago, he bought one – and he’s been restoring it ever since. Brian extended his passion for cars by covering events for magazines like Grassroots Motorsports, Sportscar, and Victory Lane – e.g., events in Cart, Pro Rally, Formula Atlantic, the SCCA Runoffs, Trans Am, SVRA, VSCDA, and VARA. He’s also profiled a number of cars and interviewed a number of personalities – among them: Gene Felton (IMSA), Hurley Haywood, Jerry Seinfeld, and Nigel Olsson.