Auto Club Rear-View Mirror

NASCAR

Jimmie Johnson rings the bell again at Auto Club Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images)

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There’s sometimes a risk when a particular race or track rolls around on the schedule with high expectations. But that’s exactly what the scenario was for Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

The worn out Auto Club Speedway surface, which has provided thrilling racing in recent years, combined with the new Sprint Cup Series lower downforce rules package has the ingredients to create memorable racing. Thus anticipation was high for the final race of the western swing.

The good news is for the most part those high aspirations were met with flying colors.

Sunday’s race had a compelling mix of side-by-side racing, tire management, strategy and even some high emotions to make for an entertaining afternoon in southern California.

Once again as was the case at Atlanta Motor Speedway and to a degree at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, drivers were forced to slip and slide their cars around the track while figuring out how to manage their tires. It created an element of expertise that has been missing in recent years and one drivers, even the ones who didn’t have particularly good finishes, embrace.

The season has started with a pair of photo finishes and another overtime on Sunday, this time with Jimmie Johnson pulling off the late race theatrics to pass Kevin Harvick on the final lap for the victory.

It’s reminiscent of the 2014 start to the season when the the series got off to a rousing start with weekly drama and competition that captured the attention of fans.

So far so good in 2016.

  • The 2016 edition of NASCAR’s West Coast swing has to be considered a success. Weather was solid with the possible exception of the windy and sandstorm that hit the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. All three tracks – Vegas, Phoenix and Auto Club Speedway – had nice crowds filling the grandstands. But most importantly the racing was outstanding with memorable moments aplenty, photo finishes and generally entertaining competition. There’s no reason to believe NASCAR won’t continue to keep the three races on the left coast together on the early schedule for years to come.
  • Several drivers experienced tire issues during Sunday’s race but it did not seem to be an issue with the product Goodyear brought to the track as much as potential challenges with lower than recommended air pressures, set-up choices and heat. There weren’t signs of any such problems during the weekend’s practice and qualifying sessions, however that wasn’t the case for a number of drivers on Sunday. But overall it appears the testing work the tire manufacturer has done to match compounds with the new aero package is providing the results most hoped for coming into the year.
  • Danica Patrick and Kasey Kahne won’t be exchanging Christmas cards anytime soon after their skirmish on Sunday. Kahne made contact with Patrick’s car after swerving down from the high groove and the impact sent her hard into the outside wall. While Patrick was uninjured in the crash, she didn’t mince words with her view that Kahne’s move was purposefully. Kahne, who was called to the NASCAR hauler after the race, denied any wrongdoing but with Martinsville next up on the schedule perhaps keeping a close eye on the 5 and 10 cars in two weeks would be advisable.
  • Saturday’s wild XFINITY Series race finish triggered a great deal of controversy around Kyle Busch’s decision to not address the media after the race ended and he wound up second. NASCAR officials said they would look further into the situation and Busch not meeting the obligation runner-up finishers have in going to the media center. My view is always one of wanting to hear the side of an athlete when they face adversity as much as when success is enjoyed. The sanctioning body may also penalize Busch for his in-car communication comments when he accused NASCAR of “fixing races,” which would be a violation of the behavioral rules policy laid out at the beginning of the year. But the question remains if what a driver says on a team’s personal radio frequency considered “public” comments and should they be held accountable?

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.

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