Surprising and Not Surprising: Auto Club Speedway’s Pepsi Max 400

In spite of California’s Auto Club Speedway being admittedly hard hit by the economy, high unemployment, and by NASCAR, losing its second race for the 2011 season, the track put on a surprisingly good show, with the stands being fairly full and the racing on the track being unexpectedly exciting.

Here is what else was surprising and not surprising from the fourth race in the Chase competition, with just six races remaining in the 2010 season.

Surprising: On a track of only three where he has never claimed a Cup victory, Tony Stewart battled Clint Bowyer to claim the checkered flag by a mere .466 of a second. Smoke also catapulted himself out of tenth place in the Chase standings all the way up to fifth, breathing new life into his championship hopes and possibilities. In addition to Stewart’s win, the race team that bears his name shone with teammate Ryan Newman bringing his No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet to the finish line in fifth, a great coup for the Stewart-Haas Racing in front of their sponsor’s and team co-owner’s hometown crowd.

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Not Surprising: Clint Bowyer, who was in his own words “in search of redemption” after his points penalty and suspension of his crew chief was upheld by NASCAR’S Commissioner, did indeed find saving grace in the runner up position. Substitute crew chief Scott Miller even kept his driver calm during his debris caution fit late in the race which did indeed impact the outcome, costing Bowyer the perfect redemption of a race win.

Surprising: In a race that was purposefully shortened from 500 to 400 miles to build excitement but also to save wear and tear on the cars, there were a surprising number of blown engines and engine malfunction, particularly for the Roush Fenway drivers. First to fall out was last week’s race winner Greg Biffle, whose engine gave up the ghost around lap 40 of the race. Next up was Carl Edwards, who had an engine failure, a rotor in the distributor, that cause a nightmare for his team throughout the race. In the waning laps of the race, Matt Kenseth’s car began to emit that tell-tale smoke, although he was able to nurse it to the finish line. Biffle finished 41st, dropping two places in the Chase standings to tenth, while Edwards and Kenseth finished 34th and 30th respectively, dropping Edwards to seventh in the points while Kenseth held firm in the 11th position.

Not Surprising: With six laps to go in the race, David Ragan in the No. 6 UPS Ford caused the only wreck of the day, damaging his car significantly but also collecting Chase competitor Kurt Busch as part of his collateral damage. Busch’s ‘Blue Deuce’ was relegated to a 21st place finish, leaving him in the sixth position, 140 points back in the Chase point standings.

Surprising: Two veteran drivers in the thick of Chase contention got tagged for speeding penalties. Jeff Gordon saying “It was my fault on pit road” was tagged for speeding into the pits while Kevin Harvick was penalized for being too fast on exit. Gordon salvaged a ninth place finish with a gutsy call by crew chief Steve Letarte to take two tires during the last race caution. Gordon was also rewarded for his hard charge to the front with an advancement of one position, up to fourth, in the Chase standings. Harvick also redeemed himself from his pit road issues to finish seventh in the race, maintaining his third place position in the point standings.

Not Surprising: Jimmie Johnson, at a track that always feels very much like home to the California native, continued his good Chase running with a third place race finish. Sporting the colors of the Jimmie Johnson Foundation and fresh off another successful charity event, Johnson also strengthened his lead in the championship standings, now 36 points ahead of second place Denny Hamlin.

Surprising: After an incredibly strong run and win in the Nationwide car at Fontana, Kyle Busch had a surprisingly dismal day at the track in his Cup car. He too had engine difficulties, with a ventilation hose vibrating off and then a total engine failure with just 46 laps to go in the race. Busch, completely frustrated, pulled into his pit stall and pronounced his “championship now over”. The driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota finished 35th and lost two positions, falling to ninth, in the championship point standings.

Not Surprising: After having some private words and some more supervised words in the NASCAR hauler with Kyle Busch following their Kansas altercation, David Reutimann clicked off another top-10 run, bringing his No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine to the checkered flag in the tenth position.

Surprising: In a most pleasant surprise, the driver of the No. 5 Carquest/Go Chevrolet Mark Martin had a great run at Cali, dicing his way through the field and leading laps. Saying “God, it’s been a long time,” after become the seventh race leader, Martin went on to secure a top-10 finish, coming to the checkered flag in the sixth position.

Not Surprising: Although Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wowed the crowd with a top-10 qualifying effort at Fontana and even led some laps by not pitting with the rest of the crowd, the performance of his car fell off as it habitually does throughout a race run, leaving him with a 16th place finish at Fontana.

The Cup Series will return for a weekend of racing in the heart of NASCAR at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The fifth race of the Chase, the Bank of America 500, will run under the lights on Saturday, October 16th at 7:30 PM EDT, with live coverage on ABC.

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