I think it is more than fair to say that most of the races at Auto Club Speedway, a 1.5-mile facility in Fontana, Calf., have been categorized as anything from “routine” to “downright awful.”
Given its distance and configuration – and other things, of course – races at Auto Club Speedway were often ended as the dreaded “fuel mileage” variety- wherein one team manages to expertly save its gasoline and thus cruise to a victory – virtually unchallenged.
Hasn’t been much excitement in all of that. And frankly, when it came to a lack of drama, well, that was the norm at Auto Club Speedway.
Not this time.
The finish of the Auto Club 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race was perhaps the most dramatic and exciting in the speedway’s history. It was the type of finish that would delight any track that strives for a good show for its fans. It was the kind of finish about which people will talk – and for a long time.
It was fashioned after the race’s ninth and final caution flag, caused when Clint Bowyer spun in the third turn on lap 186 of 200.
At the time Joey Logano for Penske Racing and Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing were battling for the lead. Gibbs’ Kyle Busch, the race’s dominant driver, was in third place.
On the restart on lap 189, Hamlin and Logano constantly battled side-by side and made contact on the last lap. Hamlin slid hard off that track into an inside retaining wall.
As he did so, Busch took the high line around the track and, under caution, took the victory nearly everyone thought should have been his is in the first place.
Understand, Busch had been clearly dominant. After his victory in the Nationwide Series race at California, on March 23, the 54th of his career on the circuit, the buzz was he could make it a sweep at Auto Club. Make no mistake, he and Jimmie Johnson were the heavy pre-race favorites.
Indeed, Busch made it a sweep. He led led125 laps to bring Gibbs its first Fontana victory and the 25th of his Cup career. It was his first win since Richmond in the spring of 2012.
“We had to get by before Denny and Joey wrecked,” Busch said. “You know, when they both went to the bottom side of three and four – I’m like, ‘Oh man, this is golden. I got enough up here I can make this happen.’
“Lo and behold, I put my foot to it and drove around the outside of them before they started crashing or maybe as they were crashing, I’m not sure. Man, feels so good to finally win. We weren’t going to win if it wasn’t for those two battling. If they would have been single file and just racing, it would have gone down in order.”
With his victory, Busch has found some quick redemption for last season. In which he won only once and narrowly failed to make the Chase. He wound up 13th in points after four DNFs between races 13 and 21. It was only the second time he had missed the Chase since 2009.
“We worked so hard last year and we missed the Chase by three points,” Busch said. “And, then it sort of defines your season as missing the Chase. And, then we go off and rattle off great finishes throughout the Chase but we never win. That weighed on our shoulders and we didn’t know if we could do this or not.
“And, then again this year we started out the season and we had a little issue at Daytona, and then Phoenix we had to start in the back. I tried to carry the deal on my shoulders and I messed up.
“Then we go to Vegas and run up front, we lead some laps, we just didn’t have a good long run car. Then last week at Bristol we had a good car, we sped on pit road and got back in traffic, never really made our way back up to the front on good tires.
“Then here this weekend we had the best car, we led the most laps, and felt like it was our race to win, but in reality it was our race to lose when all those guys kept pitting behind us and putting on tires.
“We felt like track position was the best for us, although tires were worth a lot of speed. So we finally had a little bit of luck on our side that we didn’t have all last year and it seemed like we weren’t quite having this year.”
With his victory Busch solidified his position among the top 10 in points, rising from 10th to sixth. He now has three top-10 finishes in five races.
But, undoubtedly what will receive the most attention, by far is that after Auto Club, Dale Earnhardt Jr. assumed the top spot in points.
He and his Hendrick Motorsports team overcame a few obstacles in the Auto Club 400 to finish second, and thus earn a fifth top-10 finish in five races, tops among all competitors.
Earnhardt Jr. is12 points ahead of Brad Keselowski and 16 in front of Johnson, who was no factor at Auto Club with an ill-handling car and wound up 12th.
“We had a good car all day, and sort of just got off sequence and all screwed up on tire strategy there at the end with all the cautions and guys coming for four and two,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We were able to take advantage of that on that last caution, get four tires, and starting on the inside was terrible.
“I would lose five, six spots down there trying to get going on the inside, and finally that last restart we started 18th but we were on the outside and we were ninth by the time we come back around for the first lap under green. It was just really important to get that outside restart.
“Just happy we were able to finish. I thought the car was good enough to finish in the top five, so I’m glad we got a good finish up there.”
Among other things, the terrific finish at Auto Club should prompt many to learn that the track is not entirely devoid of competitive events.
And in this particular case, for at least a couple of drivers, it provided some very beneficial results.