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NASCAR Fontana weekend postscript

by Dave Grayson
Tuesday, October 12, 2010

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During the course of the previous NASCAR weekend at the Auto Club Speedway, in Fontana-California, we watched "Smoke" elevate his championship status and we watched the status of other championship efforts go up in smoke. We watched another milestone from the Joe Gibbs Racing Series-er excuse me Nationwide Series, and, oh yeah, Danica was there. With those thoughts in mind let's begin with:

Tony Stewart
THUMBS-UP to Tony Stewart and his #14 Stewart-Haas team for winning Sunday's Pepsi Max 400.. "Smoke" clearly proved that his focus on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship is firmly intact. Sunday's win moved the team from tenth in the standings to fifth and only 107 points out of first.

Stewart scored his second win of the season, his 39th career win and he removed the Auto Club Speedway off of the list of tracks he hasn't won on. Stewart led the Pepsi Max 400 three times during the day for a total of 27 laps including the final 11 circuits around the raceway's mammoth two mile oval. Stewart shared the front row with Jimmie Johnson during a green-white-checker finish and won the race by a mere margin of 0.466 seconds.

For Stewart the Pepsi Max 400 was a resurgence from the first Chase race at New Hampshire when his car, on the way to the win, ran out of gas with less than two laps remaining. Had this incident never occurred Stewart would now be second in the Chase standings and only 13 points away from first.

Stewart gets another THUMBS-UP for spraying that large Pepsi Max can with Coca Cola during the victory lane ceremony. The Pepsi can was part of the beautiful winner's trophy. Stewart has an endorsement deal with the "other" soft drink company and is a member of the Coca Cola Racing Family.

A THUMBS-UP goes out to Darien Grubb, the race winning crew chief, who was treated to a nice birthday present. Grubb turned 35 last Saturday.

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While Tony "Smoke" Stewart was burning up the competition at the Auto Club Speedway, there were other Chase contenders who spent the day helplessly watching their championship runs going up in smoke. Reluctant WHAT'S-UPS goes to the following:

Roush Fenway Racing. Despite three cars in the Chase that were considered pre race favorites to win the race, Jack "The Cat In The Hat" Roush had absolutely no reason to smile during his California weekend.


The California Carnage began on lap 41 when Greg Biffle's engine blew up. After winning the Kansas race the weekend before, Biffle arrived in California eighth in the standings and 85 points out. He left the "left coast" with a 41st place finish along with tenth in the standings and 241 points out.

The next blow came on lap 58 when the Roush Ford of Carl Edwards dramatically stalled on the track and had to be escorted to the garage via a wrecker. A faulty distributor turned out to be the culprit and that led to a 34th place finish. Edwards fell from fourth in the standings, 53 points out, and plummeted to seventh and minus 162.

The hits just kept on coming for Roush Fenway when Matt Kenseth's engine began smoking during the waning laps of the race. The driver started going backwards through the field and the 30th place finish landed him 11th in the Chase standings at minus 241.

But wait there's more. The fourth Roush Fenway Ford, driven by David Ragan, found himself in the middle of a hard crash with only seven laps remaining in the race. The other car involved in this crash belonged to Chase contender Kurt Busch who remains in sixth in the standings but falls from minus 70 to minus 140.

The news wasn't any better for the other Busch brother. With 45 laps to go Kyle Busch's engine blew up with the result being a 35th place finish. The team slipped from seventh to ninth in the standings and are 187 points out. Busch came over the radio saying "anyone who wasn't sure that this championship is over, it's certainly over now."

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A rarely issued THUMBS-UP-WHAT'S-UP-THUMBS-UP combo package goes to Jeff Gordon and his #24 Hendrick Motorsports team. First off the team pulled off a four tire stop in an amazing 11.8 seconds. Sub 12 second stops are a very rare sight these days.

Unfortunately it turned sour, with 44 laps to go, when Gordon had to serve a penalty for speeding on pit road during another pit stop. Despite the huge loss of track position, Gordon climbed up on the wheel and drove to a ninth place finish. The effort elevates him one position in the Chase standings. He's now fourth at minus 85.

THUMBS-UP to Jimmie Johnson, and the #48 Hendrick Motorsports team, for again turning up the heat during Chase fever. Their third place finish kept them on top of standings while increasing their points lead to 36 points over Denny Hamlin.

Speaking of Hamlin, his Joe Gibbs Racing team gets the THUMBS-UP for making chicken salad out of chicken do do. A sudden need for a transmission change relocated the #11 Toyota to the rear of the starting field prior to the race. Then there were frequent struggles with the restarts following caution flags that hindered maintaining track position. Despite this Hamlin drove his way back to an eighth place finish and remains second in the standings.

THUMBS-UP to Mark Martin for once again looking like the Mark Martin of old during the Pepsi Max 500. After the season this team has endured, a sixth place finish had to seem like a win. Martin led the race twice for a season high 41 laps and the crowd went crazy.

WHAT'S-UP with Dale Earnhardt Jr for having to announce that he's not a "whacko" during the race? Sunday was NASCAR's most popular driver's 36th birthday and he was hoping to give himself a special present by generating a strong finish in the race. Unfortunately his afternoon in Fontana was another round of enduring an ill handling race car and a 16th place finish. That's something we've seen too many times this year. After several minutes of listening to his driver's frustration over the radio, crew chief Lance McGrew said "look, I know it's your birthday but you're freaking out of control." Earnhardt responded with "don't take it personal, I just want to do better, I'm not being a whacko or anything."

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THUMBS-UP to Kyle Busch for winning Saturday's Camping World 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at the Auto Club Speedway. The win was his unbelievable 12th of the season and his fourth at the Fontana track. Interestingly enough, it also marked the third time this season Busch won a Nationwide Series race after having to work his way back from a penalty for speeding on pit road.

You know that old saying that goes: "if you think you've got problems stop and look around'? Well, if you're feeling a little down then look on the bright side. What is the bright side? You're not a member of Kevin Harvick's Nationwide pit crew.

WHAT'S-UP with the pit road meltdown this crew experienced? One of their pit stops was a whopping 17.7 seconds and that level of performance consistently cost their driver valuable track position. The problem also caused Harvick to completely lose his temper. After the race Harvick said expect to see changes on pit road adding "this is not what we're about, it's terrible, if they can't stand the pressure then they're going to have to look for something different to do."

THUMBS-UP to Danica Patrick and the progress displayed during her ongoing transition from Indy car to NASCAR racing. This accolade is despite the disappointing finish. With ten laps left in the race, Patrick was hit by James Buescher and sent hard into the backstretch wall and her 30th place finish does not reflect how well she performed during this race.

Her goal was more educational seat time and a top 15 finish. Patrick raised more than a few eyebrows by her fourth place listing on the speed charts following the series' practice session. She qualified her car with a highly respectable 14th and she was on her way to obtaining that top 15 finish before the late race accident.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: this transition is being handled with a great deal of intelligence by both the driver and her team, JR Motorsports. I will again stand behind another observation from the past: if you're looking for instant gratification then call your local pizza delivery company.

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The final THUMBS-UP this week goes to the Auto Club Speedway. Both races during their NASCAR weekend were very exciting. The Pepsi Max 400 Cup event was aptly described as one of the speedway's best races ever. Driver and fan reaction to this race being shortened from 500 miles was very positive.

The speedway also deserves a THUMBS-UP for their promotional ideas that often demonstrates a willingness to think and work outside of the box. This was certainly true of the wedding opportunity they presented to their fans. On Sunday morning, marriage and commitment renewal vows were exchanged on the start-finish line. Speedway President Gillian Zucker, adorned in a judicial robe accented with a checkered flag collar, presided over the ceremonies for a reported 69 couples. NASCAR driver/team owner Michael Waltrip was the official best man while Miss Sprint Cup was the matron of honor. This is yet another reason why a NASCAR weekend at the Auto Club Speedway is so special.

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The final WHAT'S-UP of the week goes to Jim Hill, sports anchor for the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles. He's another one of these L A based sports authorities who have the stick and ball syndrome. In other words: if it doesn't have a stick and ball then it's probably not really a sport.

Hill was attempting to cover the Auto Club Speedway race, in the shortest amount of time possible, and it was clearly obvious that it was a struggle. During the broadcast he said "Stewart held off Clint Bowyer", (while totally mispronouncing Clint's name), and then added "Stewart moved up to fifth but still keeps the overall lead." WHAT???

I single out Jim Hill because I happened to be watching the Channel Two late news that night. He's typical of the stick and ball television sports anchors who often displays a lack of knowledge and interest in auto racing unless there's some death defying accident involved in the race. Anyone who watches a sports segment from a Los Angeles based television station knows exactly what I'm talking about.

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