Story by Brian Kennedy
Three vignettes from the starting grid of the Auto Club 400 in Fontana on Sunday. The time, around 12:06, about ten minutes before the drivers took the green flag.
One: Carl Edwards is sitting on pit wall playing with his
phone. Perhaps he was Tweeting.
Two: Jimmie Johnson is surrounded by fawning admirers, and
like the pro he is, he’s standing in the circle, answering their questions,
seemingly oblivious to the fact that he’s about to go 208 miles an hour into
turn one, two hundred times in a row.
Three: Brad Keselowski, who has been racing in the big
leagues for seven years and is a past season champ (2102), is “close talking,”
to borrow a phrase from a Seinfeld episode,
with his crew chief. They’re within a foot of each other, and both look
concerned, Keselowskimoreso than Paul Wolfe. Then again, it’s up to Keselowski
to win or lose, crash or bring the car home in one piece.
Meanwhile, down pit road, a young girl asks Danica Patrick’s
PR person, “Does she have an Instagram?” only to get a rude-ish, “I really have
no idea” answer. The kid looked confused, and her mother swept her away.
At the same time, Sam Hornish is strapping into a seat he’s
never driven from before, because half an hour prior, Denny Hamlin had been
given a medical excuse not to drive for the day. His handicap? A sinus
infection was making it difficult for him to see. So he was allowed a relief
driver and to take the points that that person might yield. That driver was Hornish,
who was around the track after standing by for someone else yesterday in the
Nationwide series race.
What do the latter two have to do with one another? It
seemed to me that aside from following the progress of Hornish, who would be in
a car he had no practice in and had not had any chance to set up to his liking,
either in terms of suspension or in terms of the interior fitment (which is not
as simple as in your street-driven Toyota, where the memory seat might be programmed
for two—the seat, for one thing, is a highly custom piece, including a
form-fitting insert and various safety arms that go our beside the head but
which are configured according to a driver’s preference in terms of his or her
vision), it would be interesting to see the comparison with Danica. She, after
all, has the advantage of all the press attention and all the best equipment in
the world, but so far, she hasn’t really done anything with it.
As the race went on, my story was what I thought it would
be, as the disadvantaged Hornish turned his problems into opportunities and the
privileged Patrick once again rode around in the middle of the pack. That’s not
what ended up happening, and you can read about that in “The Princess and the
But that’s a back-in-the-pack battle, or non-battle, and
what most fans watch (not necessarily the most interesting thing all the time)
is what goes on up front. So here are a few things that dominated the front of
the pack. Jeff Gordon, starting sixth, appeared like he would contest for the
win with Jimmie Johnson, his teammate, who began third. This became a real
intrigue for the Gordon watchers when he got a penalty for going too fast in
the pit lane between laps 20-23. He was dropped to the back of the pack and
forced to work his way back up, which he did steadily.
While that was going on, Keselowski and Bowyer were leading,
with the former, who would eventually drop to 26th, a lap down,
being on point for 38 total laps, second to Johnson’s 104. With Bowyer and
Keselowski was Gordon, who fell into second behind the big K and gapped Bowyer
just before lap 20. Then came that penalty. Once the green flew, the leaders
were Johnson andKeselowski, and they were out ahead by about 2.5 seconds by lap
34, when the green had allowed about ten clear laps.
Gordon, meantime was climbing back, 15th on lap
40 and 13th on 41, but then another caution flew. He came out tenth.
On the restart ahead of him, Johnson and Allmendinger were up front. By lap 50,
the guy who had been third, Brian Vickers, was second behind Johnson, with Kyle
Busch making his first show alongside Clint Bowyer, literally, for third and
fourth. Busch started going backwards almost immediately, sliding to sixth, and
Gordon had made it to eighth.
Caution again, the third of what would be nine by the time
the day would end. Gordon exited this one at the back of the pack once more,
showing 35th at lap 60 behind leader Johnson with Keselowski and
Vickers trailing him.
For the next bunch of laps, it was a parade, with some
intrigue coming when Busch found his way to the front again and watched Johnson
dive bombing first Vickers and then him to regain the lead. That he surrendered
to Matt Kenseth, who was on his way to a fourth-place finish in a car that let
him basically just ride in the top five all day. Another caution, and then at the halfway
point, it was the Jimmie and Jeff show, basically until near the end. Hold on
Meanwhile, another favorite, Kevin Harvick, was knocked out
of contention at around lap 135. He first blew a tire just before lap 20, when
his debris caused a yellow. He worked his way back from 43rd to 5th
by lap 80, then was felled again late, dropping back and ending the day 36th,
two laps down.
This was a problem that ended up costing Johnson, too,
though that didn’t happen until the very end. In fact, at lap 180 and 190, it
was Gordon and Johnson, having fought and exchanged the lead a couple of times,
nearly three seconds clear of the field. Then Johnson disappeared at lap 193.
At lap 200, Gordon was first. The race was 200 laps long.
Therefore, even a math major could say that Gordon won, right? Problem, Houston.
The race went long due to a yellow flag coming out on lap 199 which meant that
the race would be more than the scheduled distance. It was yellow until 204,
when the green flew, the white next lap, and the checkered at 206. So what
happened to Gordon?
He had led lap 143. Johnson led 145-67. Gordon led 168, then
Johnson 169-93. All the time with Gordon right behind and the gap being as
large as three seconds to third. At that
point, the tire let go, and Johnson came into the pits. Gordon was on point
from 194-200, but he lost that lead in the pits and would end up 13th
on the lead lap. Johnson was the last lead-lap car, 24th.
The reason they were so fast was that they were running low
air pressure in their rear tires, something that the crew chief of what would
end up being the winning car, Kyle Busch’s head man Dave Rogers, would refuse
In Rogers’ own words, “Goodyear does release data to the
race teams . . . and the data showed that lower air pressure is more grip, but
it’s risk versus reward. I think we lacked some speed on the stopwatch, and I
was pretty confident that I could drop left side air pressure and pick some of
that speed up . . . but it just wasn’t
worth it. It wasn’t worth putting the car in jeopardy, putting Kyle in jeopardy,
so we played it conservative.”
And so on the restart, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart were out
front, with Gordon and Kurt Busch below on the wide racing surface. Gordon got
shuffled back, and Kyle Busch went way low out of turn two. He came up in front
of his brother and Stewart to win. Meanwhile, kid Kyle Larson somehow appeared
out of fourth to take second, and Kurt Busch, Kenseth, and Stewart trailed him.
And since we’re talking about the winner, Busch was
reprising his first victory, at this track in 2005, when they were running
Labor Day in Fontana. That race is now gone, but Busch has won here again
anyway, last year. 2014’s victory was his 29th career win. He has
been in 334 NASCAR races at the Cup level.
Behind Busch was Kyle Larson, the Nationwide winner from
Saturday, and brother Kurt Busch, who wasn’t all that close and was perhaps
only up there because he took only two tires on that last caution.
After the race, winner Busch said, “I had to restart fifth
and I had to fend off a lot of things. When we took the green, I was fifth, and
I wanted to go to the middle, but Kenseth knew that, so he plugged the middle
and blocked me there. So then I tried to block the middle and I saw Jeff. Jeff
was behind me. He was looking low on me and Tony started coming down and
blocking me so then I tried to go back to the middle and that was all before
He said that he tried to get some separation on the drivers
behind him, and then “I exited turn two with Kurt and Tony side by side in
front of me. And then I was kind of on an island and it seemed like everybody
behind me was racing too.” He was going to go up the middle between Stewart and
Kenseth, but Stewart slid up, so he cut low and accelerated, “got a good enough
run off turn two” and outran Larson. In true racer fashion, he said he didn’t
know how far behind Larson was. “I was just focused on forward, and luckily we
made it back, and we took the checkered.”
The writer is Editor-at-Large for LA Car. To view more scenes and coverage from the Auto Club 400, go to LACar.com.