NASCAR may be typecast as a blue collar sport; then again, based on the first five races of the 2016 season, its fans are part of the privileged class, with the latest race at Auto Club Speedway delivering another Hollywood ending. So far, so good.
Once maligned as perhaps the least exciting “cookie-cutter” circuit on the schedule, Auto Club Speedway continued its resurgence of sensational finishes over the past five years, with “superman” Jimmie Johnson, driver of the Lowe’s #48 Chevy, snatching an electrifying overtime victory from Kevin Harvick in the final restart.
At the start of 2016 Auto Club 400, anticipation was sky high that the worn, wide track with multiple grooves and long sweeping corners would deliver compelling theatre, and the race did not disappoint.
Jimmie Johnson soared to the front on the final restart with a power move, but he sowed his victory seeds much earlier in the race. Qualifying 19th, Johnson spent most of the day working up through the field, searching around the race track to uncover incremental speed.
Conversely, I studied Kevin Harvick’s line throughout the race, where he stuck to the high side near the wall, thereby carrying great momentum out of the turns while leading a race-high 142 of 200 laps. Harvick’s car was locked on rails and rock steady on long green flag runs, such that he did not have to vary his line much given the speed he was carrying.
On the final restart with the front contenders all sporting fresh rubber, Johnson restarted third — on the inside row — and pushed Kevin Harvick into the lead and then dove low to take the top spot and hold off Harvick in the high line once he completed the pass. Not surprisingly, Johnson last lap time was his fastest of the race.
Aside from the surprising finish, the supreme takeaway is that fans are discussing what happened on the track, rather than being relegated to discussing off-track drama (such as restart rules or post-race UFC sessions in the hauler lot).
Why was the day so good? Because auto racing enthusiasts, including those in the packed grandstands who were on their feet for a majority of the race, got most everything you could ask from a race:
- 26 lead changes among 8 different drivers. But that was only part of the story. Many cars raced side by side for several laps as drivers who were passed looked for opportunities to return the favor. We had comers and goers throughout the field, and FOX Sports actually put its split screens to use by showing simultaneous races for position during course of the TV broadcast.
- Despite immense effort, TV doesn’t always do justice to capturing all the action on the track as compared to being in the stands. Early in the race, one sequence I found fascinating was the back and forth battle between Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch for position within the top 10. Over the course of several laps, Busch would pass Almirola by drafting low off the front straight before the entry to Turn 1, while Almirola would return the favor by passing Busch with a sweeping arc out of Turn 4.
- As another illustration, with 38 laps to go and 3 laps into a restart, we had six top drivers (Harvick, Johnson, Logano, Edwards, Keselowski, and Hamlin) still fanning out with different lines through the middle of Turn 4 and within three car lengths of each other. Listening to the in-car audio, you could hear drivers gingerly feathering the throttle throughout the corners while fighting for grip, showing they had their hands full with the low downforce package.
- Many cars had a “Darlington” stripe on the right side from scraping the wall, except for the fact that they were running at Fontana. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. delivered a solid 5th place finish (his best finish since Bristol last spring), but his sponsors might request a credit given that he rubbed their logos off the right side of his car from working the fence.
- Danica Patrick and Kasey Kahne will likely no longer swap pleasantries after their scuffle during the race. Kahne made contact with the rear of Patrick’s car after swerving down from the high side of the front straight, sending her hard into the outside wall. Patrick questioned the authenticity of the move, given she was completing a pass and generally holding her line into the upcoming corner and the fact that Kayne was a lap down by position, while Kahne contended he had no illicit intent. Kayne, for what it’s worth, seems to have lost his way out on the track, and has become the opaque horse in the Hendrick team stable.
- Joey Logano, driver of the Team Penske #22 Ford, continues to not make any friends in the Toyota camp. Adding to his previous dust-ups with Toyota drivers’ Denny Hamlin at Auto Club Speedway in 2013 as well as the on-track theatrics with Matt Kenseth last year, Logano allegedly took the air off the rear bumper of Martin Truex Jr. on the rear straight on lap 151 while both were inside the top 10, loosening him up and sending him into the wall. It was unclear whether there was contact between the two, but each driver had their own viewpoint. Regardless, add Truex Jr. to the growing list of drivers stating their intent to race Logano “differently” from now on.
- Kyle Larson had a violent wreck on the backstretch on Sunday, reminding us of the ever present risk of this sport, with a straight-on impact that crushed the front end and lifted his #42 Chevy off all four wheels after a tire went down. While dramatic, the benefits of recently installed SAFER barriers along entire length of the Speedway’s front stretch & back stretch walls was evident as Larson walked away from the crash.
- Rookies showcased a bright future. Chase Elliott ran as high as 2nd prior to the final caution flag, while still managing to finish 6th after slipping during the final restart. Ryan Blaney also ran in the top 10 until a blown tire ruined his day.
Since hosting its first NASCAR race in 1997, Auto Club Speedway has not required a repave, having aged to be one of the gems of NASCAR’s Spring West Coast swing. One can only dream that track owner International Speedway Corporation never needs to repave Auto Club Speedway. With strong momentum, NASCAR now heads to the heart of several short tracks in April, resuming in Martinsville on April 3rd after the Easter break.
By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano