Surprising and Not Surprising: Fontana Auto Club 400By Mary Jo Buchanan
From three-wide racing to the splitter-challenging bumps, here is what else was surprising and not surprising from the 17th annual Auto Club 400 in Fontana, California.
Surprising: While the Busch brothers are more often than not in the spotlight for disagreements on and off the track, this past weekend the younger Busch sailed past the trouble right into victory lane while the older brother also snagged a top-five finish.
This was Kyle Busch’s first victory of the year, his 25th Cup win, and the first victory for Joe Gibbs Racing at Auto Club Speedway. He is now tied with Matt Kenseth, Jim Paschal and Joe Weatherly for 24th in all-time victories.
“What a great day,” Kyle Busch said. “It’s been three years in the making.”
“Being right here in California, we finally get the win for Toyota and Joe Gibbs at a track where he has never won at,” Busch continued. “Coach, I drove my butt off for you.”
Brother Kurt Busch overcame an incident of slipping in oil early in the race and a pit road speeding penalty to score a fifth place finish, the first time ever that Furniture Row Racing has scored back to back top-five finishes.
“Just real ecstatic,” Kurt Busch said. “Persevering, digging hard, and bringing it right back up to the front when it counts, that is what it’s all about.”
Not Surprising: Crew chief Steve Letarte continued to live up to his moniker as ‘Magic Man’ and his driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. continued to be ‘Mr. Consistent’, overcoming their own pit road struggles to finish second. This was Junior’s sixth top-10 finish at Auto Club and his fifth top-10 finish in 2013.
And much to the delight of NASCAR Junior nation, their driver now also leads the point standings.
“We just stick together,” Junior said. “We were pretty good at closing races, something I never really was good at for years, and now we’re doing it as good as anybody.”
“Just riding the wave,” Dale Junior continued. “Just real happy with how things are going for our team.”
Surprising: For a two-mile oval track, Auto Club Speedway generated just as much, if not more, drama than its short-track counterparts, from the Logano versus Hamlin feud to the Logano versus Stewart post race tussle.
Unfortunately, the short-track racing on the final laps led to not only heated tempers but also a significant injury to Denny Hamlin, who ended up with a fractured back after a hard hit into the wall.
“He shouldn’t have done what he did last week,” Logano said of his incident with Hamlin after the race. “So, that’s what he gets.”
“I had to throw the block there,” Logano said of his tussle with Tony Stewart that led to a confrontation, some punches and some expletive-laced comments from Smoke after the race. “That was a race for the lead.”
“So I was just trying to protect the spot I had.”
Logano finished the race in the third position after adjustments were made to the finishing order. Stewart finished in 22nd and Hamlin finished 25th.
Not Surprising: It seems, unfortunately, that these race cars just find those non-SAFER barrier protected walls at so many different tracks on the circuit. It happened previously at Watkins Glen to Jeff Gordon, resulting in a back injury, and again this weekend at Auto Club Speedway for Denny Hamlin, resulting in another back injury.
As soon as he hit the non-SAFER barrier wall, Hamlin knew he was ‘in trouble.’
“The position I was in, I couldn’t breathe at all,” Hamlin said. “Literally, when I felt a pop, I couldn’t move at all.”
“That’s why I rushed out and just laid flat on the ground to start breathing again.”
Surprising: Brad Keselowski, who had been riding a streak of consecutive top-five finishes, looked to be in the position to continue it, however, fell victim to a pit road speeding penalty and then to overheating issues late in the race.
The reigning champ had to drive from the back of the field several times, including at the beginning of the race due to an engine change and on lap 92 after the speeding violation. He finished a disappointing 23rd and fell to second in the point standings.
“I think we went from the back to the front three times today, which really showed the speed we had in the Miller Lite Ford,” Keselowski said. “We’re still good in points position after a tough day though.”
Not Surprising: Roush Fenway Racing had a pretty good day in California, with both Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards finishing in the top-five in the race and in the point standings. Even rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. logged all of the laps and had his fifth finish of 20th or better for the season.
“Man that was just an unbelievable race,” Edwards said. “It was a really good show.”
“We were pretty good at the end,” Biffle said. “Overall, a top-five finish for us is a great day.”
This was Edwards’ third top-five finish and Biffle’s second top-10 finish in five starts in 2013.
Surprising: Although both were able to rebound, it was a bit surprising to see how mightily California natives and teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson struggled on their home turf. Both were mired back in the pack for much of the race but managed in the end to finish 11th and 12th respectively.
The bright spot for four-time champion Jeff Gordon is that it was the first time in the 2013 season that he finished higher than his starting spot.
Not Surprising: At a track where she had never been in a Cup car before, Danica Patrick remained in learning mode, struggling in qualifying and for most of the weekend but completing all the laps for a 26th place finish.
“We just had a tough Friday and Saturday and we regrouped for Sunday and put a new setup on the Go Daddy Chevrolet and stayed optimistic,” Patrick said. “The car started off a bit loose, but once we dialed that in, it was decent.”
“So I felt better at the end of the race than I did in qualifying,” Patrick continued. “We all want better than 26th and that’s what we had today and it will be better next time.”
Surprising: After team owner Tony Stewart’s incident with Joey Logano in the waning laps, Stewart Haas racer Ryan Newman became the star of the team, finishing with a top-ten at Auto Club Speedway. But he too had to overcome some adversity in the form of a pit road violation to score that 10th place finish.
“The guys on this WIX Filters team did a great job today,” Newman said. “They kept making the adjustments we needed.”
“I put us in a bad spot at the end with the speeding penalty,” Newman continued. “But fortunately we were able to rally back from that to finish 10th.”
“I can’t say enough about everyone on this team.”
This was Newman’s third top-10 finish, much to the delight of all Outback Bloomin’ Onion fans.
Not Surprising: The ‘quiet man’ Paul Menard continued his stealth moves on the track, finishing eighth in his No. 27 Menards/Certainteed Chevrolet.
Menard is also in the eighth place in the point standings, again quietly representing Richard Childress Racing as the lone ranger in the top twelve at present.