From the moment Sugar Ray Leonard dropped the green flag for the pole and outside pole sitters, Juan Pablo Montoya in his fiery red No. 42 Target Chevrolet and Denny Hamlin in his No. 11 FedEx Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, expectations were high at the fourteen degree banked, wide open track in Fontana, California.
[media-credit name=”Credit: Victor Decolongon/Getty Images for NASCAR” align=”alignright” width=”273″][/media-credit]Here is what was surprising and not surprising in the purposely shorter Auto Club 400, down in length by 20% and 100 miles from last year:
Surprising: After an absolutely dominant performance by Kyle Busch, who led the most laps at 151 and ascended to 29th on the all-time laps led leader list surpassing Fireball Roberts, and a late race charge by Fontana favorite Jimmie Johnson, one driver led less than a lap and took the checkered flag.
Bakersfield, California native Kevin Harvick finally got that coveted first win at his home state track, Auto Club Speedway. Reminiscent of his racing idol the late, great Dale Earnhardt, Harvick sported his own brand of intimidation, bumping Jimmie Johnson just enough to rattle him so Harvick could slip by for the win on the last lap.
“Well we had them all beat last year and I gave it away,” Harvick said in a Budweiser-soaked Victory Lane. “What a great day.”
“All these guys did a great job on pit road,” Harvick continued. “Gil (Martin) made the right call. We held those guys off and our car just kept going.”
“Today we had a fast car and the circumstances played in our favor.”
This was Harvick’s 15th victory, putting him in a tie with Ernie Irvan for 48th on NASCAR’s all-time Cup Series win list. This was team owner Richard Childress’ 95th Cup Series win, but the team’s first ever win at Auto Club Speedway as well.
Not Surprising: It was not surprising to see five-time champ Jimmie Johnson, piloting the very familiar No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, finish in the runner up position. This was Johnson’s 10th top-two finish in 17 races at Auto Club Speedway.
“It reminded me of last year in the spring race,” Johnson said. “We just couldn’t hold him off.”
“I knew he was coming,” Johnson said of Harvick. “If I could have got by the 18 a lot sooner, it might have been enough, but I was way loose and driving my butt off.”
“Just glad it turned out to be a decent day.”
Surprising: In spite of losing the race after being so dominant, it was surprising to see this ‘new’ Kyle Busch take it all in stride. Busch stood calmly by his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, waiting to share his thoughts on his third place finish and his first top ten finish in the past four races at Auto Club Speedway.
“We gave the race away today unfortunately,” Busch said. “We seemed to be losing the handle on that last set of tires and couldn’t get the right speed I needed.”
“I can’t say enough about the guys on pit road and the guys back at the shop,” Busch continued. “They got us in position but unfortunately I couldn’t get the job done today.”
“I just didn’t have what it took there at the end.”
Not Surprising: After having a chance at the race win and falling back, it was not surprising to see Tony Stewart pitch his gloves off after the race and stalk out of his car to his hauler, waving off any media who dared approach him. Stewart, who had run in the top five most of the day, making daring pit calls with his crew chief to stay out when others pitted for tires, faded back to finish 13th.
With that finish, Stewart ended a four race streak of top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway. The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for the team that bears his name also fell three spots in the point standings to the sixth spot.
Surprising: Unfortunately, the engine woes that have been plaguing Joe Gibbs Racing continued this weekend. Young Joey Logano had to start at the back of the pack due to an engine change, clawing his way back up to a 25th place finish.
Even more devastating was the engine failure of Denny Hamlin, who had been the outside pole sitter and who looked to be a contender early in the race. After nursing his wounded car along and then going a lap down, Hamlin finally gave it up and headed to the garage.
“We’ve got to go to work and figure out how to get the reliability back,” Hamlin said. “Our engine department has got to go to work.”
“It was a slow death for our car today.”
Not Surprising: Sadly the curse of the first lap leader continued at Auto Club Speedway. In 21 races at the track, the first lap leader has never gone on to win the race.
This was the case for Juan Pablo Montoya, who started off in the pole position and led that first deadly lap. Montoya had his struggles but did manage to rally back for a top ten finish, keeping him solidly in eighth position in the point standings.
Surprising: Both Red Bull teams had amazingly good runs in Fontana this weekend. Brian Vickers, in the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota, finished eighth while teammate Kasey Kahne, in his No. 4 Red Bull Toyota, followed right behind in the ninth position.
“Well, we wanted to win,” Vickers said. “But this is just what the Red Bull 83 team needed.”
Not Surprising: Carl Edwards, who has been so dominant this season, finished sixth. With his good run, Edwards was able to assume his place on top of the points leader board, now officially the first repeat points leader in five races this season.