For the finale of NASCAR’s west coast swing, here is what was surprising and not surprising from Fontana’s 19th annual Auto Club 400.
Surprising: Never have debris cautions and uncontrolled tires combined to play such important roles in a Cup race, with a total of five and six respectively. The late debris caution was especially important to the race finish, allowing Brad Keselowski to power past Kurt Busch, who had led 65 laps of the race, until that last one.
“It looked like we were probably going to finish sixth or seventh,” the driver of the No. 2 Wurth Ford said. “That yellow came out. We came in and pitted and drove up a little bit, then caught another yellow.”
“So Paul (Wolfe, crew chief) made the call to come down pit road and put four tires on. We were able to find our way through the lanes and get to the front there, somehow end up in Victory Lane leading the last lap.”
“Kind of a racecar driver’s dream,” Keselowski said. “This is one we’re going to sit back and go ‘wow’ for a while.”
And while the race winner was wowed by his finish after the yellow flag for debris, Denny Hamlin, who had been running well in his No. 11 Sports Clip Toyota, was understandably devastated by his uncontrolled tire penalty, causing him a disappointing 28th place finish.
Hamlin was just one of five other drivers who were hit with the uncontrolled tire penalty.
“I got shuffled back beyond the top-10 and worked our way back to the top-five and then the top-three and then had a penalty,” Hamlin said. “You just can’t come back from that. There ain’t nobody in the field with a fast enough car to come back from any penalties.”
“We had one at the inopportune time and it just led to a bad finish.”
Not Surprising: Chevrolet drivers Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have a new bond, with both achieving five straight top 10 finishes in the 2015 season.
“Just really proud of everybody on my team,” Harvick said after finishing runner up in his No. 4 Jimmy John’s/Budweiser Chevrolet “A great race and fun to be part of it.”
“To come away with an eighth-place finish really says something about this team,” Truex Jr., driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row/Visser Precision Chevrolet said. “We never give up and believe in each other. It’s been a great start for our Furniture Row team with five straight top 10s. We just need to keep it going and try to improve each week.”
Surprising: For a team that was killing it in the pits most of the race, so much so that they got their driver to the lead, it was surprising that one mistake on pit road cost them a good finish. Matt Kenseth, behind the wheel of the No. Dewalt Toyota Camry, went from leading the race to a broken axle and a 31st place finish.
“We didn’t have the fastest car on the long run, but we were fast enough to go up there and battle with them and we had been making it better all day, which is all you can ask for,” Jason Ratcliff, Kenseth’s crew chief said. “I think we were one of the few that was good on fuel, so I would have liked to have seen it go green at that point to see if we could make it and maybe get us a victory here today, but even when the caution came out and we came in on pit road first I was very confident that our pit crew would get us out.”
“It’s just unfortunate that the axle broke like that. We rarely have any problems like that, but occasionally it happens. Unfortunately, it happens when you’re leading.”
Not Surprising: Although Dale Jr. did not win, he had a fun day nonetheless, getting his picture made with Dwight Yoakum and apparently even getting to sing together and shake hands according to his Twitter feed.
And yet even with all that excitement, the driver of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet managed to top it all off with a sixth place finish to boot.
“We had a great day, lot of fun, fun racetrack, awesome crowd we had here,” Earnhardt said. “We’re just glad to be able to rebound. Last week was very dismal, disappointing and frustrating. So, again, glad to be able to come here, run good, run strong.”
“Everything else was good.”
Surprising: Chris Buescher made the most of his first Cup start opportunity in the No. 34 Dockside Logistics Ford Fusion for Front Row Motorsports with a surprising 20th place finish.
“It was a lot of fun,” Buescher said. “I can’t thank Front Row Motorsports enough to give me this opportunity and for Roush Fenway Racing to allow me to go do it.”
“It’s the kind of race track I wanted to make my Cup debut at – some place that the pace falls off, the tires wear down and you’re able to really hustle it and race late into a run and this was just that.”
“We completed the race, finished on the lead lap and got a top 20 out of it. I’m ecstatic about that.”
Not Surprising: Although both members of Team Penske are now officially in the Chase, Joey Logano wants to see even more aggression from both himself and his teammate and victor Brad Keselowski.
“It’s nice that we’re both in the Chase,” Logano said. “We can both race aggressive now and obviously he raced aggressively anyway.”
“It’s nice for both of us to have a win already and it’s great to see Team Penske still having speed and we’re just racing hard and doing everything we can to keep up with these guys. The other cars are a little bit faster than us right now. We’ve got to find some more speed, but we’re racing really hard and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Surprising: At least one driver, who was the highest finishing Toyota driver, just wanted to get home to watch the replay of all those crazy restarts.
“Restarts were insane, this is one I’ll go home and watch the replay,” Carl Edwards said after finishing 23th in his No. 19 Subway Toyota Camry. “It was just crazy.”
“If they could take this pavement and map this and put this at every race track, it would be spectacular.”
Not Surprising: Greg Biffle’s words about his Roush Fenway team “dying a slow death” proved prophetic as he finished 32d. Biffle took the wave around later in the race to get back on the lead lap but contact with another car on the final lap sent him spinning to another poor finish in his No. 16 Clean Harbors Ford.
Surprising: Tony Stewart finished in the same position number as his car number, 14 that is. And surprisingly, that was the best finish to date for the driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet.
“Yeah I mean I’m happy, we are gaining on it,” Smoke said. “We were getting to where we were sniffing the edge of the top 10 anyway all day.”
“We are gaining on it a little chunk at a time. We didn’t need to get it all today, but this is a big gain for us.”
Not Surprising: With the exception of the Ford at the front, the rest of the top 5 finishers at Fontana were Chevrolets, including Paul Menard, who scored his best finish of the season, and Ryan Newman, who continued his string of good runs, finishing fifth.
“Oh, it was fun,” Menard said. “I really like this track. It’s all worn out and has a lot of grip and then it falls off in a hurry.” Really proud of my guys, they busted their tails this weekend and got a good finish to show for it.”
“Luke (Lambert, crew chief) did an awesome job and everybody, the guys especially in the pits,” Newman said. “A hard fought day today but good strategy there at the end, got a couple of breaks with a couple of restarts there.”
“Good day for us overall.”
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will finally leave the West and return to the East coast to race at Martinsville Speedway for the STP 500 next weekend.