Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Auto Club 400 at Fontana

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered each week with the answers to six race day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H … the Big Six.

Who … gets my shoutout of the race?

This is a tough call this week. Although it was easy to focus on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s third-place run that propelled him to third in driver points, Earnhardt wasn’t the only choice and, in the end, wasn’t even the best choice. Although his finish was six spots below Earnhardt’s, Kurt Busch did it a car that never finished better than 12th all year in 2011.

When Busch joined Phoenix Racing in the offseason, he knew it wouldn’t be easy. Face it, Busch focused on the “fun” of his decision because there wasn’t a whole lot more to focus on. Taking a car that hadn’t had a top-10 finish in two years (that only has a dozen of them, ever) to that level isn’t easy, and that Busch has done it in five races speaks volumes.

And if you want to crank up the volume on the volumes, how about this: Phoenix Racing finished 2011 30th in owner points. So far in 2012, they’re 23rd. If they can improve just a little and steal a win along the way, which is a real possibility at Talladega or Daytona, this could be a darkhorse for the Chase come fall.

What … was THAT?

NASCAR may be at Auto Club Speedway this week, but everyone was still talking about Bristol Motor Speedway. BMS owner Bruton Smith announced plans late last week to reconfigure and resurface the track for the second time in five years, using old blueprints to recreate the old single-groove style of racing. Many fans are in favor of the move, but hold on a minute before jumping for joy. Will redoing the racetrack really bring back the old beating and banging of yore?

See also
MPM2Nite: Bristol - Everything Old is New Again

That’s where the jury is still out to lunch. It’s possible that making the track the way it used to be will cure all its ills, but many people are overlooking two other major changes in the sport: racecars and tires. The current racecar only raced on the “old” Bristol once, in the 2007 spring race. The current tire is much harder and wears out slower than once upon a time, and that’s a big part of the old one-groove racing.

If the tires don’t wear out, drivers may very well have enough grip to create a second groove. Aric Almirola told NASCAR’s wire service that the current tire takes a chunk out of the race strategy. “I think if we show up at Bristol with a tire that lays rubber down and is really soft, and it wears out … we need to get it back to where tires mean something,” said Almirola.

“Nobody really ever comes in and takes four tires and blows the field anymore.”

One thing is for sure, though. If Smith does go ahead and change the track and the fans don’t return, he and NASCAR are both out of excuses.

Where … did the polesitter wind up?

The Joe Gibbs Racing stable had ACS figured out this weekend. Joey Logano rode roughshod on the Nationwide Series field on Saturday (March 24). Denny Hamlin beat out Kyle Busch for Sunday’s pole and Busch dominated early. For Hamlin, though, the pole was his best performance of the weekend, as the weather wreaked havoc on his team’s strategy and his chances of a win.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2012 Royal Purple 300 at Fontana

Hamlin led just two laps on Sunday, while Busch led a race-high 80 and winner Tony Stewart led 42 circuits. Hamlin was still looking like a lock for at least a top-five finish when the rains came, but his team’s decision to pit from second place when the yellow came out sealed Hamlin’s fate. The race never got back underway, trapping Number 11 in 11th place.

If the race had continued, Hamlin’s strategy may have been a winner, but when the rains just kept coming, it ended up being the wrong move.

When … will I be loved?

There was just one caution during the 126 laps of action at ACS and Mother Nature caused it, marking the second time in the first five races that rain has caused a major headache for NASCAR, race teams and fans. Weather delayed the Daytona 500 for more than 24 hours last month, and Sunday’s race was 74 laps short of the advertised distance.

But is there anything to be done? There aren’t a lot of places to go this time of year where rain isn’t a regular part of the forecast. As it is, that’s why the early schedule heavily favors the West Coast at this time of year: it’s dryer and warmer than most of the venues NASCAR visits.

Atlanta, Texas and Homestead are warm enough, but spring rains often make an appearance. It’s still too cold in most of the country for fans to spend hours outside. It makes for one ugly schedule, but there simply aren’t many other options.

Why … can’t NASCAR be more flexible with start times?

As great as it would be for the viewers at home if NASCAR could move the start of a race ahead a couple of hours when rain is in the forecast, the reason that can’t happen is simple: NASCAR’s obligation is, first and foremost, to the folks who bought tickets to the race. People make travel plans for races far in advance, and NASCAR owes it to them to do everything possible to run the race as advertised.

It’s no different than if you bought tickets to a concert and were en route when word came that the show was starting a couple of hours early, whether you were there or not. Would you be angry about the money wasted? So would the fans who paid for a seat at the race.

But that said, could there be some exceptions? Sure, but not on race day. If it’s a near 100% certainty that rain is coming at least 24 hours in advance, giving the track ample time to advertise the new start time, it might be a possibility. But with the rain on Sunday predicted to hold off until at least halfway? NASCAR and ACS made the right call. The paying customers come first.

How … come the Nationwide race was so much better than the Cup action?

Although the Cup race had some moments, all in all, it was typical ACS: little racing for position at the front while a few cars dominate. At least NASCAR didn’t find any phantom debris to throw a pseudo-caution for; but other than Stewart’s charge to the front, there wasn’t a whole lot of action.

Saturday afternoon told a different story. While the race for the lead was Fontana’s normal fare (i.e. pretty much nonexistent), what went on behind it rivaled the action at much racier tracks. The second half of the race featured several drivers hotly contesting top-10 real estate, often taking matters three-, four- and even five-wide in order to settle the issue.

While Kyle Busch’s former ride was running away with the win for the bajillionth time in a row, Busch was mixing it up with the likes of Brian Scott, Kenny Wallace, Sam Hornish Jr., Brad Sweet, Elliott Sadler and Austin Dillon to name a few. Those closing laps provided some of the best racing of the year; the Nationwide regulars showed their skills, they and the Cup guys respected one another, and the end result was one hell of a show. At Fontana. Who’d ‘a thunk it?

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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