Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: The Black Cat Auto Club Mystery That’s NASCAR’s Latest Animal Encounter

Did You Notice? …. There appeared to be a black cat busy cursing the final laps of Auto Club Speedway?

Frontstretch was first alerted to the cat by multiple fans inquiring about its existence; we’ve since confirmed through multiple sources a cat sauntered onto the racetrack midway through Sunday’s (Feb. 26) Pala Casino 400.

Where did it come from? No one has any earthly idea. Unfortunately, the cat was not spotted by NASCAR officials in time, who would have obviously thrown a caution to ensure it got off the track safely. No one we talked to knows for sure what happened to it — there’s no photographic evidence of its demise, anyway, people are willing to share — but the cat appeared to disappear after trying to cross a road cars were zipping past at almost 200 mph.

That usually doesn’t mean a good outcome. We also know, shortly after the cat was spotted, Bubba Wallace wound up suffering through an overheating problem, leading to engine failure. Team members attempted to look over the No. 23 Toyota for something it might have run over.

Could Wallace have hit it? At the speeds these cars run, um, even if the answer is yes, it might have been hard for them to know for sure (There’s no official comment from 23XI Racing on the matter).

As a cat owner and animal lover myself, I don’t want to know more … although the superstitious among us might say its death could leave a curse over the potential renovation of this two-mile oval as NASCAR prepares to reconfigure it into a short track.

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How rare is an incident like this one? Well, let’s just say it’s not the first time an animal has jumped onto the track and had an effect on the outcome of a NASCAR race. Here’s a few other famous instances of fowl play. …

1991 Daytona 500. On lap 2 of the race, Dale Earnhardt was running full speed down the backstretch when a seagull wasn’t paying close attention. It didn’t end well. (Viewer discretion advised.)

Earnhardt trudged on at full speed, his car seemingly unaffected by the incident. But in the closing laps of the race, the handling mysteriously went sour on his No. 3 Chevrolet after dominating all of Daytona Speedweeks. He wound up wrecking with Davey Allison while battling for his first 500 win, allowing Ernie Irvan to pull off the upset. So perhaps the seagull got the last laugh?

It was arguably the second straight year a bird cost Earnhardt the Great American Race; a piece of chicken bone was rumored to be what caused his flat tire while leading the final lap of the 1990 Daytona 500 (Derrike Cope won that one).

Pocono Raceway. Pocono is located in Long Pond, Pa., one of the most rural areas of any NASCAR track (Population: 4,156). Add in its wooden surroundings, and it’s no surprise wildlife pop up more often here than anywhere else.

Back in 1991, the first caution of the June Pocono race was thrown for a turkey that made its way onto turn 1, causing a wild goose chase among track officials (They safely removed it). In 2012, Stephen Leicht ran over a groundhog during practice (Again: Viewer discretion advised).

Neil Bonnett got it much worse, running over a deer during practice in 1984 and totaling his car. Bonnett’s lucky he didn’t wind up hurt himself.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, honestly. There have been so many animals causing chaos at Pocono, Frontstretch wrote a whole column years ago ranking their top-five disruptions.

The Atlanta Black Cat. Sunday wasn’t the first time a black cat’s been spotted on track. Kevin Harvick narrowly avoided one during a summer 2014 race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, clearly one of the weirder drives into turn 3 of his racing career. That cat survived but left a curse in its wake; Harvick finished a disappointing 19th after earning the pole. At least it only lasted one weekend, as he ended that 2014 season Cup Series champion.

The Auto Club Owl. Sadly, this cat didn’t even earn the distinction of first animal to step foot on Auto Club Speedway. An owl caused a red flag during practice in 2017, forcing track officials to give chase before deciding to fly away on its own (Jeff Gordon thought the whole thing was a hoot. … Let’s just say I didn’t come up with this bad joke.)

Plenty more examples exist, including this three-minute gem from NASCAR running through some of the funnier on-track animal moments. Let’s hope that cat is the only wildlife these drivers have to avoid all season.

Did You Notice? … Kyle Busch set a NASCAR record with his 19th consecutive season with at least one Cup Series win? Taking care of it early in 2023 through his victory at Auto Club Speedway, Busch broke the longtime record held by Richard Petty from 1960-77.

“There’s not very many records that you can beat that Richard Petty has,” Busch said about the achievement Sunday. “Certainly, that was one that I set early on a long, long time ago that I always wanted to achieve and get, so I’m just so thankful for the opportunity to set that bar and would love to continue to keep raising it.”

Expect him to do so. Busch could easily raise that bar, extending the mark for a few more years in his new ride with Richard Childress Racing. And if he does it? While Petty’s 200 victories appears to be the most unbreakable record left out there, especially in the modern era of just 36 races per season, Busch’s new mark of 19 straight Cup years with a victory may wind up a close second.

Right now, there’s just one driver, Joey Logano, nursing a streak of 10+ consecutive seasons with a win (he’s at 11). As we saw with Martin Truex Jr. last year, it’s hard for even the championship-caliber drivers to go a decade without just one small bump in the road.

Most drivers these days also don’t have the type of longevity previous generations had. Richard Petty and Dave Marcis, for example, ran 35 years at the Cup level before retiring. Compare that to Harvick, retiring this year after 23 full-time seasons running Cup. Jimmie Johnson ran just 19 years full time before hanging up the helmet, Matt Kenseth 22 … you get the picture.

So let’s say Busch extends this record out a few more years: 22 straight years with a win seems feasible, maybe more as Busch is just 37 years old. Keep in mind Earnhardt won his final championship at age 43; there’s plenty of racing left in Busch, who ideally wants to compete until his son Brexton enters the top tiers of NASCAR competition (some 8-10 years away).

Busch said at Richmond Raceway last fall that he’d like to share a ride in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series with Brexton when he’s 16/17 years old.

Let’s go with 22 straight for this example. That means a driver like rookie Noah Gragson would need to win every season of his Cup career to have a shot at tying the record. One bad year would be all it took to lose a shot at it; and did I mention that, to go 22 straight seasons with a victory, he’d need to race at the sport’s top level past age 45? That’s something people are doing less and less of these days.

So kudos to Busch for setting the type of longevity mark that may not be broken for at least a generation, maybe more. It showcases his uncanny ability to stay at or near the top of his game no matter the circumstances, be it a title-contending season or a chaotic one like his departure season from Joe Gibbs Racing in 2022.

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Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…

  • We have less than a full field already for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend? After On Point Motorsports withdrew its No. 30 truck, there’s just 35 entries running for 36 spots on the grid. Only three races last year out of 23 had a short field in Trucks, none this early on; not a single event in 2021 had a short field. Considering a quarter of this week’s entries come from just two teams (TRICON Garage, ThorSport Racing) it feels like NASCAR should be sounding some alarm bells about potential new ownership. There’s been a lot of talk about how difficult it will be for others to get in the game before the new TV contract kicks in during the 2025 season; NASCAR may need to provide some incentives or risk a shrinking pool of rides in both 2023 and 2024.
  • It’s hard to talk points two races into the season. But could you imagine a worse start for Tyler Reddick? Among the drivers who have more points than him: Jimmie Johnson, JJ Yeley and Travis Pastrana (all of whom have one fewer start). He’s failed to finish a points-paying race in his new ride with 23XI Racing, tallying just four points, and saw his old car (and crew chief) waltz into victory lane with Busch on Sunday. That’s before he then went out and made contact with three different JR Motorsports drivers in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race right afterward. If I’m Reddick, I stay away from the slot machines in Vegas…

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About the author

Tom Bowles
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The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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Bill B

Animal deaths via car impact. There’s a subject that no one wants to think about. I’ll remember that if I ever want to kill the fun at a party. LOL

Kicks

There were a couple of camera shots from either a roof cam or a bumper cam that looked like something had been splattered. The booth even mentioned that it could have been a bird but never followed up on it.

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