Who’s in the headline – Brad Keselowski may get credit for the win, but Kurt Busch is in the spotlight for how close he came to taking the checkered flag in his second race back from suspension. Busch was leading when a caution flag flew with less than two laps to go, one that resulted in a green-white-checkered ending. As the field took the white flag, Greg Biffle wrecked on the frontstretch but the caution flag did not fly. Keselowski was then able to pass Busch in the middle of turns 1 and 2, driving away for the win.
What happened – Kevin Harvick looked to be on his way to a sweep of the three west coast races at the start of the season until a caution with 47 laps to go. When the field came down pit lane, Matt Kenseth‘s crew got him out ahead of everyone else. Then, when the green came back out, Kenseth was clear of the field and poised to take the win. A caution flew with 15 to go for supposed debris in turns 1 and 2, although it was never shown on TV. Kenseth pitted for two tires but his rear axle broke as he attempted to exit the pits.
That put Busch and Harvick on the front row, and Busch was able to wrest the point away from Harvick on the restart. He was headed to the win when another caution for a small piece of debris, located outside of the groove at the exit of turn 4 flew with less than two laps to go. Busch and most of the other leaders came to the pits for tires while Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Biffle stayed out. The green flew and the mad scramble saw Busch shoot the gap between Gordon and Stewart to grab the point. Kyle Larson bounced his car off the wall as the field spilled onto the back straight and the rear bumper cover flew off his car. NASCAR had to throw the caution again and set up one more green-white-checkered finish. Busch led the field to green and was leading as the field passed the white flag. Biffle wrecked at the start/finish line before Busch led Keselowski into turn 1; however, NASCAR chose not to throw the caution (unlike at Daytona, where they threw it when cars wrecked more than a mile from the start/finish line). Keselowski passed Busch in the middle of turns 1 and 2, then held him off as they raced back to the finish. Busch hit the wall on the exit of turn 4 and ultimately lost second place to Harvick.
Why you should care – Keselowski has put his name firmly into the mix for the 2015 Chase. While he hasn’t officially qualified yet, Kes is in great shape to be included in the 16 who run for the title. Busch has himself in a position where, with a consistent run of races like he had today, he will be able to lay claim to a top-16 points position even without a win and missing three races. Harvick, in the meantime, thanks to Busch bouncing off the turn 4 wall and slowing down, passed his way to the runner-up slot and notched his eighth straight top-two finish. Ryan Newman has turned in three straight top-five runs after a 38th at Daytona and a 10th at Atlanta.
What your friends are talking about – We frequently talk in this column about the credibility and consistency problem that NASCAR has. They threw the caution in the 500 for the wreck on the back straight and claimed it was due to the safety concern for the drivers who wrecked, even though they all drove away well before the field was anywhere near the finish line. Well, Biffle wrecked directly below the flagstand and yet NASCAR left the green in the air and allowed the race to continue to the checkered flag. That is the way it should be, but you cannot make the call at Daytona for safety and then make the call at Fontana for whatever reason you make the call. If they had thrown the caution then, there would be no debate; without it, the box for doubt is flung wide open once again.
Brian Vickers is out of a racecar again. He climbed back into a car at Las Vegas after missing the first two races of the season due to heart surgery. Now, after two races, he has been diagnosed with a blood clot, meaning he’ll have to go back on blood thinners. Vickers obviously cannot race while on that medicine so he will once again have to turn his seat over to another driver while he recovers from the latest bout. Ironically, March is blood clot awareness month and Vickers was scheduled to do multiple appearances in support of one of his sponsors, who provides clot-related products. This is the third time that blood clots have taken Vickers out of his seat. With the amount of money and time that are involved in marketing and sponsorship activation for Cup Series drivers, you have to wonder if Vickers is still of interest to race teams. The real question is, with the track record of clot recurrence for Vickers, is it a safety risk for him to continue racing cars at all?
The purses for the Xfinity and Truck series have gone up this season. Why? Well, while it hasn’t been trumpeted by the sanctioning body, some of the purse money that used to go to the Cup series has been redirected to the Xfinity and Truck series. Cup purses have dropped for the three races since Daytona, albeit by less than $100,000 per race. The NXS races have been up anywhere from $60,000 to $155,000. The Daytona Truck race was up 16% and the field was 32 trucks instead of 36. Atlanta did not have a truck race in 2014 but compared to the 2012 edition, the purse is up over $100,000. The purses for the two series have been ridiculously low for teams that have to travel the country and compete so it is a great step in the right direction. Let’s hope it continues for years to come so that new owners are encouraged to come into both series.
If you build it, they will come… at least if you only have one race date and the asphalt wears out. Auto Club Speedway put on some of the worst races of the year for several years, and the crowds were uninspiring – just like the racing. As a result, the track lost a date and was in danger of losing NASCAR altogether. Fortunately, the asphalt aged and Goodyear finally brought a tire that wore out. What happened next was fantastic competition. The last few years, the track has hosted some of the best races each year and the fans have come out to support it. For the second straight year, Auto Club Speedway sold out for the Cup race. The seating capacity is 68,000, down from 92,000 at its peak. Still, the capacity doesn’t include luxury box or infield seating, meaning this crowd is one most tracks would beg to have these days. Obviously, the trend in attendance for the sport is downward but for a track that was in danger of losing their presence completely, it is a positive sign.
The future of racing continues to look bright. Max McLaughlin, the son of “Magic Shoes” Mike McLaughlin, scored his first career dirt modified win at the Skyler Trull Memorial at Carolina Speedway in Gastonia, N.C., this weekend. The 15-year-old driver is progressing up the ranks just like his popular father did years ago. Check out this week’s edition of Pace Laps for some more information about McLaughlin and Timothy Peters going back to his roots to score a win at South Boston Speedway.
Who is mad – Busch did an outstanding job of biting his tongue at the end of the race and giving credit to Keselowski for the driving he did on the last restart. He had to feel like they would throw the yellow when Biffle was wrecking and dropping debris all over the front straight. Instead, Busch – who led the most laps and was the car to beat at the end of the event – was bit by that ending and an earlier caution for an almost microscopic piece of debris.
Joey Logano was set to make it to the end of the race on fuel with 15 laps to go when NASCAR threw a caution for debris that was not shown on television. He had rebounded to 13th from a pit-road penalty and had three laps in hand on fuel over most of his competitors. When the caution flew, it knocked all the fuel-mileage questions out of the way and kept Logano out of contention for the win.(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Kenseth‘s team told him he was good to go on fuel when the same caution flew that ruined Logano’s chances. As he tried to leave the pits, the left-rear axle snapped. Fox never showed the debris on track so we are left once again to wonder just how legitimate the debris was. Kenseth hasn’t won a race since 2013 and has to feel like the had one taken away from him on Sunday.
Who is happy – Keselowski is thrilled with the handling of the yellow flag over the final few laps of the race. The caution that cost Kenseth the win allowed him to come in and put on four tires. The subsequent caution with two to go allowed him to catch up to the front two and make the final run that put him out front for the win. Keselowski had never won at California before, so the win and the step closer to the Chase has to make the 2012 champion happy.
Martin Truex Jr. continues to set Furniture Row Racing records. Truex was sporty for most of the race and found himself near the front at the end. As a result, he has five consecutive top-10 finishes to start the season. This is the first time that Truex has had more than one top 10 to start a year.
Paul Menard has been knocking on the door of his first top 10 of the season since a 25th-place finish in the Daytona 500. He had three consecutive top-15 results since his Sunshine State February debut. Sunday’s finish of fourth is not only his first top five of the season, but also puts Menard ninth in points and, at this point of the year, on the inside looking out of the Chase.
When the checkered flag flew
Keselowski turned in his first career win in seven career runs at Fontana. This is Keselowski’s 17th career victory in 202 career Cup starts. Keselowski is tied with Kasey Kahne, Newman, Marvin Panch and Curtis Turner for 47th on the all-time wins list. Keselowski now has five straight years with a victory in the Cup Series.
Harvick chalked up his fifth top-two run of the season in five races. He has eight consecutive top twos, the most since Richard Petty accomplished the feat in 1975. Petty threw down 11 straight, so Harvick has three to go before he ties the King. Harvick’s runner-up was his third top-two run at Fontana in 22 career starts. Harvick has 34 career second-place finishes, which is 19th on the all-time list and fourth among active drivers behind Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Stewart.
Busch’s third-place run was his first of the season in two starts. It is Busch’s second consecutive podium run at the track and his fifth of his career in 22 starts at Auto Club Speedway. Busch’s top three is the 72nd of his career in 509 career starts.
Jeb Burton was the Rookie of the Race.
The race saw nine leaders who exchanged the lead 19 times. Busch led a race-high 65 laps.
There were seven cautions for 31 laps.
The margin of victory was .710 seconds.
David Ragan turned the fastest lap of the race.
Harvick is still the only driver with two wins in the books. Officially, he is the only driver who has punched his ticket to the 2015 Chase provided he is still able to climb behind the wheel in September and stays inside the top 30 in points.
Three drivers now have an inside track to the Chase by virtue of winning a race already this season. Logano, Johnson and Keselowski have wins and, assuming there aren’t more than 16 winners in the first 26 races, they will be in the playoffs provided they are in the top 30 and can still race.
The remaining 12 drivers who are eligible for the Chase based on their current point position are:
- Martin Truex Jr.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Ryan Newman
- Jimmie Johnson
- Kasey Kahne
- Paul Menard
- Aric Almirola
- AJ Allmendinger
- Casey Mears
- Matt Kenseth
- Denny Hamlin
- David Ragan
Takin’ it to the Bank
Cup winners this year have pocketed $2,970,040, while the last-place finishers have taken home $552,285. Lucky for this comparison that Sam Hornish Jr. was last instead of Matt DiBenedetto this week. That pulled almost $17,000 more in the last place coffers.
In the Xfinity Series, it has been $440,217 for the winners and $88,872 for last place.
After two Truck Series races, the winner has $137,089 and the last loser has banked $21,153.
What is in the cooler – After several years of fantastic races, this weekend’s event left fans wanting for most of the event. Thanks to the two garbage cautions at the end of the event and the failure to throw one that legitimately should have been thrown, the race is lucky to get two glasses for Torch Pilsner from Foothills Brewing Company. Restarts were wide open and cars were spread out everywhere on the track, which made the end of the race exciting. However, 90% of the race was a spread out parade with cars relatively equally spread out. There were multiple on-track passes for the lead, which is the reason the race didn’t receive just a single beer.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – The West Coast swing is in the books. The traveling circus heads back to its traditional roots as it heads to the half mile track outside of Martinsville, Va. Martinsville Speedway is one of two tracks still in existence from the first Cup season in 1949 and the only one that is still on the schedule. The action from the venerable track can be seen on FOX Sports 1, their first Cup Series event ever. It can also be heard on your local MRN affiliate and NASCAR SiriusXM radio channel 90. The racing begins at 1 p.m. ET.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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