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NASCAR Auto Club 258 postscript

by Dave Grayson
Wednesday, March 28, 2012

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Stewart leads
Getty Images for NASCAR
In 1972 a British pop singer named Albert Hammond had a smash hit with his song "It Never Rains In Southern California." Of course it rains in So Cal. It just wasn't supposed to rain during the NASCAR Sprint Cup weekend at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. That's how the Auto Club 400 became the Auto Club 258.

But during the course of this rain shortened event we did learn a few things. In the case of Tony Stewart, we learned that not even the rain could dissipate the "Smoke." In the case of Jimmie Johnson, we learned that sometimes oil and water can be a good mix. In the case of the condition of the track's racing surface, we learned that asphalt, like a fine wine, gets better with age. With those thoughts in mind, let's begin with:

Crews run to cover their cars as the heavens open
Getty Images for NASCAR
WHAT'S-UP with Mother Nature for raining on our NASCAR parade? Traditionally the southern California rainy season is observed from late February to mid March. The queen of all things environmental was far away from her normal schedule and that's why a scheduled 200 lap race was called after 129 laps.

THUMBS-UP to the fans for turning out despite week long warnings that said weather was going to be a huge factor. According to NASCAR's official post race report, an estimated 90,000 turned out for the Sunday's Sprint Cup race while an estimated 40,000 turned out for Saturday's Nationwide Series event. In this time of harsh economics, which has hit California harder than most states, getting that many people to turn out for literally anything is quite remarkable. God bless the fans and their loyalty.

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THUMBS-UP to the Auto Club Speedway staff who went above and beyond the call to provide the fans with a wide variety of special events in addition to the racing schedule. Some of the special programs that stood out involved activities for the kids. "Lefty", the speedway's official mascot, debuted his Fun Zone that featured educational and interactive activities and, most of all, a lot of fun. "Lefty" had some help with this project from NASCAR driver Trevor Bayne, actress Nancy Cartwright, the voice of TV's Bart Simpson, and Tillman, the skateboarding bulldog from the "Animal Planet" Network. Let's not overlook the fact that programs like this tends to develop a speedway's future fan base.

THUMBS-UP to Steve Boyer. The Director of Engineering for Michael Waltrip Racing joined the Auto Club Speedway's annual Math and Science Day and explained the relationship of math, science and NASCAR racing to approximately 600 middle school students from the Fontana area.

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Okay, let's go racing. THUMBS-UP to Tony Stewart and his team for a job well done that led to his 46th career Sprint Cup win, his second win at the Auto Club and his second win within the last five series races. Dating back to the end of the 2011 season, Stewart has now won seven of the last 15 Sprint Cup races.

WHAT'S-UP with some post race critics who basically said Stewart won a "rain race?" The fact of the matter is: not even the rain could stop the "Smoke" from rising to the top. If this race had gone the full distance, under the best weather conditions, it's still likely that the same driver would have won. The driver, the team and the car were that good.

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Johnson's car smokes from sour engine. The rains saved his day.
Getty Images for NASCAR
THUMBS-UP to Jimmie Johnson for relocating that seemingly missing golden horseshoe. In the midst of winning his fifth NASCAR championship, back in 2010, driver Kevin Harvick at the time suggested that Johnson may have a golden horseshoe placed in his interior compartment located in the back of his front: (for those of you who shun the concept of the politically correct, that means someone placed a horseshoe in Johnson's butt. Does NASCAR have a template for that?)

The magic of that horseshoe hit huge for team #48 last week. First there was that stunning reversal of fortune when the NASCAR appellate process overturned the penalties from the Daytona race. It was only natural that this would be a hot topic at Fontana. A THUMBS-UP goes out to the interviewed Sprint Cup drivers who diplomatically side stepped the question. This is especially true of Carl Edwards who basically said "I really haven't been following that very much, I've been keeping my focus on my car and my team."

The magic of Johnson's horseshoe worked overtime at the end of the Auto Club 400. In the final moments of the race, an oil leak developed during the one and only yellow flag of the race that turned into a red flag. Johnson wisely kept the car on the bottom of the track's apron while making sure he maintained minimum caution speed. Moments later the race was called due to rain. A sure fire pit road disaster became a tenth place finish as well as an elevation to ninth in the points standings. It now appears that "Jimmie Five Time's" campaign to become "Jimmie Six Pack" is on again. Oh yeah, the horseshoe is back. It was also one of those rare moments when oil and water do mix. 

WHAT'S-UP with crew chief Chad Knaus not immediately noticing the white smoke coming from the back of his race car? A transmission, between spotter Earl Barber and Knaus, went something like this: (EB)," something's wrong, we've got an oil leak." (CK) "what makes you think so?" (EB) "the 17, (Matt Kenseth's spotter) told us and we're smoking."

THUMBS-UP to Johnson for keeping his sense of humor under such stressful circumstances. After the race, he sent a "Twitter" message that read: "anyone have a few quarts of oil that I can borrow?"

THUMBS-UP to SPEED Channel analyst Kyle Petty's observation when he said: "isn't it amazing that NASCAR can make it rain so they can help out Jimmie Johnson's team? JOKING-I'M JOKING !"

THUMBS-UP to SPEED Channel's Jimmy Spencer who, commenting on Chad Knaus being seemingly unaware that his car was belching smoke, said "Chad must have left his glasses at the appeals hearing."

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Meanwhile pit road literally became THE PITS !

WHAT'S-UP with nine pit road penalties during this race? Under normal circumstances that number might not be considered to be that high. But nine penalties in 129 laps is a little steep.

WHAT'S-UP with Jeff Gordon receiving two of those penalties? The first came on lap 107 for a seemingly routine gas and tire stop. When Gordon sped away, the gas can was still attached to the car. Gas man Brad Pickens deserves a THUMBS-UP for doing everything he could, including a crash landing on pit road, to dislodge the can. Unfortunately, the man and the can fell outside of the pit box area and that's why a drive through penalty had to be assessed. The second penalty came towards the end of the race when, during a pit stop, an errant tire got away from the team. That placed Gordon at the tail end of the field for a restart that never happened due to the heavy rain. A strong top five finish turned into a 26th place finish.

Whether the decision by Denny Hamlin, and crew chief Darian Grubb, to come down pit road during the race's only yellow flag, with more rain coming, is a WHAT'S-UP or a THUMBS-UP probably depends on how you feel about the diverse opinions that followed this move.

For example: Larry McReynolds, from the Fox broadcast booth, first said he was shocked the race even started on Sunday with that much rain in the forecast. He was also quite surprised that Hamlin was called to pit road with a certain red flag coming. He compared the weather situation to a wall of rain that was like a scene from the movie "The Poseidon Adventure."

After the race Hamlin said "I didn't know that rain was really coming, I wasn't told to push, I thought we had a little more time. It was a move to win the race." Grubb said they were looking at two different radar models. One said extremely heavy rain was imminent. The other model said there was going to be a break in the weather that might have allowed the race to resume. This was a hero or zero moment. If the plan would have worked, it could have led to a race win instead of an 11th place finish.

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THUMBS-UP to Joey Logano for winning the Royal Purple 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race. Logano handed his boss, Joe Gibbs, his eighth consecutive Nationwide Series win at the Auto Club Speedway. He parked his Toyota in victory lane to accept what many are now calling the Joe Gibbs trophy.

WHAT'S-UP with the racing disaster experienced by the Kyle Busch Motorsports Nationwide Series team? The problems started before the race when Busch missed driver introductions which led to a penalty and having to start at the rear of the field.

However, the worst damage was yet to come. During the final caution flag, late in the race, Busch came in for fuel and two tires. There was a huge miscommunication regarding the tire change. The right sides went on and the jack was released from the car just as the rear tire changer ran to the left side and started removing lug nuts. It forced a last moment audible and all four tires were changed. The loss of track position was huge and Busch found himself restarting 17th with only 12 laps remaining in the race. After spending the majority of the race charging from the very back to the front of the pack, he had to settle for an eighth place finish.

How would you like to be a KBM team member and have to attend a Monday morning meeting after what happened at Fontana?

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The final  WHAT'S-UP goes to critics who truly believes that the Auto Club Speedway needs to be completely renovated? They're calling for new banking, similar to Talladega, and a new track surface. Did they not learn anything from watching the NASCAR weekend at Fontana? It appears that the track's surface, like a fine wine, is getting better with age. The drivers raved about the track condition. Kevin Harvick went so far to say that over time it has gone from "bland to fantastic."

The proof can be found in some of the video highlights of the races. Tony Stewart's slide jobs, while passing Harvick and Kyle Busch, were fantastic but it wasn't that many years ago when a move like that would have been extremely difficult at Fontana. Yet another example is the final restart of the Nationwide Series race when the cars fanned out five wide in an effort to improve their track position. Those cars had plenty of grip to make those moves work.

We simply do not need a "left coast" version of Talladega. The track is just fine. Auto Club Speedway President Gillian Zucker, during a media presentation, probably put it best when she said "there's not a driver in the entire garage that wants to see this track changed."

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The final THUMBS-UP goes to Greg Biffle for his response to a rather unique question during a Friday press conference. The question was: "describe the importance of your rear end to your job." Without hesitation, Biffle responded "it's very important, it's my computer center. It has lots of data and, thank God, it's connected to my brain."

What did we learn from that? All the modern technology in the world will never top a finely tuned butt. 

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