Sprint Cup Series: Inhospitable Home State — Jimmie Johnson looked to be cruising towards the checkered flag to add another victory to his already impressive stats at Auto Club Speedway, only to be felled by a blown tire. Tires turned out to be the story of the day, but Johnson had avoided issues and had stayed in the top 5 since the first green flag waved. The Californian wound up 24th due to those problems.
Another Golden State native endured the same issue, though much earlier in the race. Kevin Harvick fought a blown left-rear that, amazingly, didn’t hurt his car as much as one might think. “Happy” Harvick was able to race his way back into the top 10 until the same problem came around again and left him in 36th to end the race.
But no Californian faced the frustrations that Jeff Gordon did – and he never had tire issues. First, Gordon was caught speeding on pit road during the race’s first caution. No matter, he raced his way back into the top 10. Later, Gordon was involved with a pit road mix-up when he, Brad Keselowski, and Clint Bowyer all said that the pit road light flashed red and did not pit. Again, Gordon raced into the top 10. Having put the No. 24 into the top spot, in the final laps he was settling in to earn his first victory of the year when the caution lights came on with two to go for Bowyer blowing a tire. The resulting pit stop and green-white-checkered finish left him sitting 13th, a run that hardly indicates how good his car was on the day.
As for other California homers, Kyle Larson finished second, and Casey Mears fifteenth. – Huston Ladner
Nationwide: Kyle’s Day – the other Kyle — Saturday afternoon was – finally – the official coronation of Kyle Larson. The California kid not only won for the first time, right in his own backyard, but did so by beating the best in the business. The last 16 laps after a restart were the finest in recent Fontana history. Sideways, slide ways and side-by-side the three leaders went, Larson unwilling to let another checkered flag slip from his grasp — especially to that other Kyle. Kyle Busch, who he finished second to at Bristol, both last year and last weekend was leaving a sting that had yet to go away.
As Larson went round for round with Busch and Kevin Harvick, a television screen next to the track highlighted those close calls. It drove Larson to drive harder. He didn’t lead the most laps, but he flexed his muscle when it mattered most, and in doing so was unbeatable.
That was the 21-year-old, who’s been hailed the next natural talent to come along, that many have been waiting to see in Victory Lane. Late Saturday, Larson proved not only his worth but killer instinct. And for those who missed it, just wait – the floodgate has only just been opened. – Kelly Crandall
INDYCAR: Changes to Its Points System — Change is afoot in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Just one week after announcing that the series had a new title sponsor (Verizon), the sport’s leaders announced that two major new wrinkles had been added to the sport’s points system. And without question, these wrinkles have the potential to make a serious impact on this season’s championship.
So what exactly are these “new wrinkles?” The first big change is the inclusion of “double-points” for the series’ three 500-mile events (Indianapolis, Pocono, and Auto Club). Instead of earning 50 points for a victory, a driver will earn 100 points for a victory in a Triple Crown race, with second earning 80, 3rd earning 70, and so on. The second change is the inclusion of bonus points for both qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 and reaching the Indy 500 Qualifying Fast Nine Shootout.
In all, the changes are a breath of fresh air for a sport that has remained rather conservative in the updates to its championship system. The changes undoubtedly represent a continuing push to add prestige, importance, and most of all, excitement to the three biggest INDYCAR events on the series calendar.
More announcements are still expected to come as we edge closer to the green flag at St. Petersburg, but as it stands, it already looks like the 2014 season is off to an intriguing start. – Matt Stallknecht
Short Tracks: Against the Norm & A Sad Mention — Some people are claiming that the economy is killing racing, that there isn’t enough incentive for racers to invest money in race cars and tow to the track. If that is true, then the influx of new racing series in 2014 is an exercise in futility by the people and companies that are taking the chance to unveil new series across the country. From the NDRL Kings of Dirt to the new KOMA Modified series, there are some exciting new offerings hitting the local short tracks around the country.
The new KOMA series debuted at Hickory Motor Speedway Saturday night with some amazing competition. There was side-by-side racing, all over the track and numerous lead changes. Tim Brown, in the end pocketed the winner’s check amid some confusion on the rules. As with any new venture, there will be some growing pains but the racing was electric and the action is what will keep the fans coming back for more. Even though there was confusion, the opinions that have been posted by drivers seem to be mostly positive about the event and the potential. There are some bugs to be worked out over the rules and interpretation, but with racing like we saw on Saturday night, there will be a lot of fans interested in the new series.
In a somber note: Frontstretch sends condolences to the family of Niokoa Johnson, who passed away after injuries suffered in an accident at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, FL on Saturday night. Johnson was competing in her first ever 4-Cylinder race before getting involved in a savage wreck. She was revived on the track and taken to a local hospital where, unfortunately, she did not survive her injuries. Obviously, this news is in the very early stages of development, but Bubba Raceway Park is anticipating charitable efforts to remember Niokoa and her spirit for years to come. – Mike Neff
Sports Cars: TUSC Troubles with On-Track Product, Teams Potentially Leaving — We’re only two races into the season, and we’re already seeing teams waffling on whether they’re going to stick it out for the full Tudor United SportsCar Championship. Level 5 Motorsports failed to find funding for their P2 and PC programs, but fielded two Ferrari 458 Italias in the GT-Daytona class in the Rolex 24. The No. 555 won the class, then got stripped of the win for “avoidable contact,” despite no contact actually being made. Despite the win being restored four hours later, team owner Scott Tucker was instantly soured on the series in a clear transition year. So, in his anger he parked his Ferraris for the rest of the season, period. Meanwhile, AIM Autosport campaigned the Daytona-winning No. 555 to a second-place finish in class at Sebring with drivers Bill Sweedler, Jeff Segal and Townsend Bell from Daytona. They were joined by Maurizio Mediani, who had driven for SMP Racing. From Laguna Seca onwards, AIM Autosport will compete full-time, but use their own equipment from last season. It is unclear whether they would keep the No. 555, or revert to either Nos. 61 or 69, numbers that the team has used in the past.
Last week, IMSA released the official entry list for the Tequila Patron Sports Car Showcase, the first 100-minute sprint race of the season on the Streets of Long Beach, California on April 12. It is also the first class-restricted race weekend of the year, as only the Prototype and GT-Le Mans teams will contest the event. That means there are 23 cars on the entry list, easily a season low. Now, a couple of the 17 prototypes from Sebring were only partial-season entries, like Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 02. However, the DeltaWing appears to not be making the trip either. Neither is the No. 57 from Krohn Racing.
Just to add some fuel to the fire, Turner Motorsport is expected to announce this week that they will be contesting at least selected rounds of the Pirelli World Challenge. Readers may remember this series as the SPEED World Challenge from a few years back. The team has been granted an entry in the GT class for their BMW Z4 that finished seventh in class at Sebring, with a car that is currently being converted back to its original GT3-spec in order to compete in the season opener on the undercard of this weekend’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It is unclear whether the team is only going to do the season opener, or more events since the next GT-Daytona race isn’t until early May at Laguna Seca. It is also unclear who would drive this car at St. Petersburg. Unlike TUSC, Pirelli World Challenge races are roughly 50 minutes in length with no driver changes. Racer.com’s Marshall Pruett believes that either regular driver Dane Cameron, or Bill Auberlen would be tapped to fill the seat. – Phil Allaway