5 Questions After ... Auto Club 400

Victory for Kevin Harvick and our 5th different winner this year.
Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR

Sunday’s race came down to the final corner of the last lap, and Kevin Harvick became the fifth different winner in as many races in 2011, the first time we’ve had such variety in winners since the beginning of the 2005 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.

Sure, Sunday’s Auto Club 400 was mostly a snooze-fest, but it ended with a bang and an unexpected winner. Be honest, did you really think anyone was going to beat Kyle Busch?

I didn’t think so. And if you said yes, you’re lying.

Here are some questions on my mind after Fontana …  

When will Kyle Busch snap? … I keep waiting and waiting and waiting for Busch to wind up ticked off after a race, punching the air, and storming away from reporters after the race. At the very least, I’ve expected some rude and crude remarks after a frustrating day.

It hasn’t happened yet.

Of all the circumstances Busch has been in this year, this was the one time I not only expected him to show some emotion, but I also wouldn’t have faulted him for it. Busch set a blazing fast pace at Fontana, leading 151 of the 200 laps in the race. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin led the second-highest number of laps at 15.

Fifteen laps. No driver other than Busch led more than 15 laps. That’s how good he was.

Yet he didn’t win. A late race restart proved to be Busch’s demise, which is surprising because Busch himself has claimed to be the “king of the restarts.” Five-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson and Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick both managed to get around Busch with just a few laps remaining. Harvick wound up shoving Johnson down the backstretch and pulled a dazzling move in turns 3 and 4 to pull ahead of Johnson and win the race. Harvick’s only lap led was when he crossed the start/finish line first.

Surely, I thought, Busch would be rather PO’ed. He’s not always been a very gracious loser, and this was a particularly tough loss. Do I smell smoke because I think he’s gonna blow!

“It’s just we give it up, you know. We gave the race away today, unfortunately. We seem to be losing the handle a little bit two runs from the end and especially that last set of tires. We just didn’t quite have what it took in order to keep the front end under the car and then the back end under the car on the exits of the corner. I just couldn’t get the right speed that I needed. The guys did a great job this weekend. The Interstate Batteries Camry was good from when we unloaded the second one Friday. I can’t say enough about the guys on pit road and the guys back at the shop. They did a great job for us and got us in position and just unfortunately I couldn’t get the job done today. I didn’t have what it took there at the end.”

Did he actually sound … apologetic? Heck, he even apologized to his crew on the cool down lap after the race!

Someone file a missing person report! Kyle Busch is officially MIA.
Kyle Busch led almost the entire race: 151 of 200 laps
Credit: Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR

What has happened to Mark Martin? … Speaking of MIA, where is Mark Martin? All three of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates have had some success in some form or another this season, yet Martin has very quietly seemingly ceased to exist.

The fact Martin has yet to lead a lap this season probably has something to do with it, the only of the four HMS drivers to not have spent at least some time up front.

Here are Martin’s finishes in the first five races of the season: 10th, 13th, 18th, 12th, and 20th. That’s right, Martin has only finished in the top 10 once this season.

To be fair, Martin’s teammate Jeff Gordon only has one top-10 finish this year too, but at least his was a win!

Martin is in his final contract with HMS, and the organization will be making room for Kasey Kahne once the 2011 season is out. Martin’s last win came in the 2009 Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a season in which he earned five victories and a second-place finish in points to teammate Jimmie Johnson.

Lance McGrew replaced Alan Gustafson on top of the pit box over the off-season, but so far the changes don’t seem to be working as well for Martin as they have for his teammates. However, we’re only five races in and maybe Martin will wind up being a late bloomer.

What’s up with Joe Gibbs Racing? … Denny Hamlin was just another in a long line of engine failures for JGR this season, retiring from Sunday’s race just past halfway due to some engine issues.

While Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota sat lonely in the garage area, Hamlin spoke with reporters and said the issues look to be a problem with the valve train. Now, I don’t know much about the technical aspects of the racing world, but I know that this is a problem they need to address quickly. All three JGR cars have had at least one engine problem since the start of the season, and Joey Logano wound up having to start at the rear of the field in Sunday’s race because of an engine change.

Hamlin came into this season as the title favorite after finishing a heartbreaking second in what was a career year for the Virginia native in 2010. Kyle Busch has already had a strong start to the year in both series, and both drivers need reliable engines if they are going to be solid championship contenders once the Chase starts in September.

Does Fontana deserve its bad reputation? … I definitely don’t think the track is as drastically bad as people make it out to be. After all, both races had some good racing and exciting finishes that kept fans talking well after the checkered flag had fallen.

While Saturday’s Nationwide Series race was competitive throughout, thanks to several strong cars that put on a show for most of the race, Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race remained a snoozer for a majority of the race. There were only four cautions of the day, two of which were for debris. The first caution involving an actual spin/crash was on lap 172 when Andy Lally spun off of turn 4. The rest of the race was rather competitive, with tire strategy playing a part and some competitive cars getting a chance to show their stuff for the first time all day.

Auto Club Speedway made the right move when they cut 100 laps off of the race distance, making it a 400 (instead of 500) mile race. Saturday’s race, though, felt like the perfect distance and kept the drivers racing all the way through. Maybe to cut down on some of the parade racing that was seen in Sunday’s race, cutting off another 100 miles might generate some added excitement. Make the Nationwide Series race 200 miles instead of 300 and maybe race fans will start getting more enjoyment out of the Fontana race weekend.

Who is the favorite to win the title? … Five races in, we really haven’t seen one dominant driver. Some big names have struggled, while others have continued success from last season. Even then, there has been such a variety in winners and competitors it’s hard to tell who is a contender and who is a pretender.

So far, Carl Edwards is leading the standings, the driver with arguably the most momentum right now. Edwards hasn’t slowed down since winning Phoenix and Homestead last season, not even letting a crash at Phoenix International Raceway earlier this season slow him down.

Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch have also been strong this year, and Kevin Harvick’s name is now being tossed around for the championship. Sure, it’s early in the season to start speculation on the title race, but with a new points system you never really know what to expect.  

Bonus questions: Does Kevin Harvick now have a golden horseshoe? … Is Kasey Kahne beginning to fit in at Red Bull Racing? … Is Juan Pablo Montoya getting closer to winning on an oval?
5 Questions After ... Auto Club 400 5 Questions After ... Auto Club 400 Reviewed by Summer Dreyer on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 Rating: 5