Over the years, Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. hasn’t exactly seen the most thrilling races. Unlike its East Coast brethren such as Bristol, Darlington, Daytona, Dover, Martinsville, Pocono, Richmond or even Talladega, the Auto Club Speedway has ample room for passing, rarely do the racers get into the red, and therefore fighting mad, and really, the races have seemed to be rather uneventful.
That was, until Sunday’s race.
And really, most of the fireworks at ACS came late in the afternoon. If you were at the grocery store, or the wife had you mowing the lawn or you were busy watching them bounce the orange rubber ball on the hardwood while your brackets went up in flames, you didn’t miss much early.
The intensity was ratcheted up with 11 laps left. And, like last weekend at Bristol, Penske Championship driver Joey Logano was in the middle of the firestorm. On a restart, he got off to a bit of a slow start, and slammed the gate out of a charging Stewart-Haas Racing’s Tony Stewart. He dodged up and then down, forcing the No. 14 down to the apron and not allowing Stewart to pass. As such, Stewart ended up losing his momentum, tumbling back through the pack. He ended up 22nd when the dust cleared, and had plenty to say about Logano after the race, some of which were reviewed by the higher-ups at NASCAR. Often, we use a quote from the race winner, but Stewart’s post-race rant about Logano was too juicy to pass up. This is the clean version.
Quote of the day
“For a guy that’s been complaining about how everyone else is driving here, and him to do that, it’s a double standard. He makes the choice. He makes the decision to run us down there (to the apron), and when you run a driver down there, you take responsibility for what happens after that. He’s a tough guy on pit road, as soon as one of his crew guys gets in the middle of it. Until then, he’s a scared little kid.” – Tony Stewart on Joey Logano
The Logano-Stewart incident wasn’t even the most memorable event, either. Remember back to Bristol last week when Logano and Denny Hamlin had a post-race dust-up with pushing and shoving among the drivers and crew members? Well, as luck had it, the two former teammates were racing to the stripe for the victory on the final lap. Being so close to Hollywood, it seemed like a page right out of Days of Thunder. Hamlin was the trailer, and he attempted to put a move on Logano to the inside between the wall and the No. 22 machine. They exchanged paint, bumped and grinded, and eventually ended up wrecking. Logano recovered and limped to third place, while Kyle Busch took advantage and flew to the victory.
Sadly for Busch, the race won’t be remembered for his victory, but for the fireworks on the final lap and in the pits, the second straight week we’ve seen a fracas involving the youngster Logano.
Hamlin, unfortunately, wasn’t so lucky. His JGR No. 11 FedEx Toyota was sent on a beeline into an unprotected portion of the inner wall, which was not protected by the SAFER barrier he has been such a big proponent for over the years. He hit the wall head-on, causing his Toyota to lift off the ground with the entire front of the car crushed like an aluminum can. Eventually he tried to make his way from the car, but he collapsed to the track when met by medical staff. He was taken by stretcher from the scene, and eventually airlifted to a local-area hospital where it was determined he suffered an L1 compression fracture in his back.
There has not been any determination if Hamlin will be able to drive his car in two weeks at Martinsville, or if Joe Gibbs will elect to place a replacement driver behind the wheel of the No. 11 machine. All of that is academic at this point. We wish Hamlin well in his recovery, as we were once again reminded how dangerous our favorite sport can be. If you want to forward well wishes to Hamlin, hit him up on Twitter (@dennyhamlin).
Five things we learned on Sunday
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back on top: Somehow, some way, the most popular driver in the sport has had a “quiet” season. He steered his No. 88 Chevy to a runner-up finish at California, and in doing so vaulted himself to the top of the Sprint Cup Series standings.
Kyle Busch is good, like him or not: There are plenty who either love Kyle Busch, and there are many others who do not like the brash youngster. Love him or like him, you cannot deny he is a great driver. Often times on the track he appears to get loose, and he makes saves a lot of lesser drivers will not make. He ended up taking checkers at the Nationwide race, and the Sprint Cup Series race. It was the ninth weekend sweep for Busch. He now has two wins and 11 Top 10 finishes in 16 career starts at ACS. It’s hard to believe he had a 31-race win drought heading into this one.
Did you know there are two rookies?: All of the attention seems to be focused around hype machine and commercial star Danica Patrick, but there are two rookies racing this season. The talented Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was the highest finishing rookie at ACS, bringing it home in 19th place. He currently sits 12th overall in the Sprint Cup Series standings, but hardly anyone says a peep about the first-year driver’s outstanding performance so far.
Toyota finally in Victory Lane: It’s hard to believe, but Toyota has never been to Victory Lane at California until Sunday’s race. Chevrolet remains the top manufacturer with 12 victories at ACS, with Ford close behind with 10 wins. Dodge also has one win at the track, and that manufacturer left the Sprint Cup Series after last season.
Being on the pole is bad luck: Hamlin was the pole sitter in this one, and appeared poised to become only the second winner from the first position. However, we all know what happened on the final lap. Only two previous winners have come from the front row, with only nine of the previous 24 winners coming from the first five starting positions.
Looking ahead two weeks
It will be a special time for me, personally, as I take my soon-to-be five-year-old to his first race when the Sprint Cup Series boys resume racing April 7 at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.
For Fantasy purposes, you’ll want to keep an eye on Jimmie Johnson at the short track in Virginia. He has seven career wins, tying him with teammate Jeff Gordon for the lead among all active drivers. Johnson has an average-finish position of 5.55, with Gordon right on his heels at 7.08 in 40 career starts. Gordon has zero DNFs, and 37 Top 20 finishes, in his career at the paper clip.
Hamlin is third among all active drivers with an AFP of 8.20 in 15 career starts, winning checkers four times. Check back much later next week to see if the Chesterfield, Va. native will race, or if his back injury will force him from behind the wheel. He has led 1,139 career laps at Martinsville, fifth-most among all active drivers, and he has been on the pole twice.
Stewart has also visited Victory Lane three times, and SHR teammate Ryan Newman won the spring race at Martinsville last season after a late dust-up between Clint Bowyer and Gordon caused fireworks and tensions between the two teams.
There are also those who struggle at the Virginia short track, and Fantasy owners will want to avoid them. Kasey Kahne won on the short track at Bristol two weeks ago, but that doesn’t make him a good play at Martinsville. In 18 career races at the paper clip, Kahne has no wins, just two Top 5s, three Top 10s and four DNFs with an average-finish of 20.67. Martin Truex Jr. has been brutal there, too, posting an AFP of 21.50 in 14 career starts. Paul Menard has enjoyed some success early this season, but he has never finished better than 12th at Martinsville in 11 career starts. Aric Almirola might come on the cheap for Fantasy owners, but avoid him in salary-cap leagues. He has made eight starts at Martinsville, but he has three DNFs with an AFP of 27.00.