By Pete Pistone
Unless you tuned in for the final ten laps of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 you were most likely not impressed. Truth be told the first 190 circuits of Sunday’s fifth race of the Sprint Cup Series season won’t exactly be remembered for scintillating action.
As has been the case at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway for much of its existence, cars tend to get string out around the track and a single file parade is more the norm than side-by-side racing.
Except last October, when the Sprint Cup Series put on what many believe was the nest NASCAR race at ACS since the sanctioning body first started coming to the Southern California facility in 1997.
That race, shortened from the traditional 500 to 400 miles, carried an intensity level from start to finish that saw four and sometimes five wide racing all around the speedway and a sense of urgency like never seen before at the track.
So with that as a backdrop, most expected Sunday’s return engagement to be more of the same.
It was not.
There really wasn’t any racing for the bulk of the 400-mile affair until all hell broke loose at the end and Kevin Harvick was able to pull of a thrilling win over Jimmie Johnson at the checkered flag.
That finish thankfully erased at least somewhat the boredom that preceded it.
That will help Auto Club Speedway have something to build on for another year since with only a single date now on the NASCAR calendar officials have twelve months to generate interest – and ticket sales – before the series returns in March of 2012.
After last week’s glaring sight of empty seats in Bristol, it was a bit of a relief to see ACS about three-quarters filled on Sunday, which is not a bad turnout for the track that hasn’t had an easy time of selling tickets.
The hope was one date and a later spot on the calendar in March would generate better interest – and weather – for ACS. Mother Nature didn’t quite cooperate with gloomy skies and cool temperatures most of the weekend but overall turnout was respectable.
Now if fans can forget about the three hours of dull that came before the stirring finish perhaps next spring will see even more grandstand population.
Has had to overcome adversity in the early part of the season and come back to just to score decent finishes. Didn’t need to hurdle any challenges on Sunday except Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson and did so in convincing fashion with a very fast race car and a stirring closing rush to take the checkered flag. Proved he’s not someone you want in your rear view mirror when the laps are winding down.
Has set the bar so high he’s sometimes forgotten. Although Johnson does not have a win in the first five races of the season he’s been every bit as consistent as in his five championship seasons. After knocking down a couple of third place finishes he came back to almost win for the sixth time at ACS Sunday but still comes out of his home track with a very respectable second place.
Definitely a confidence-building Top 10 run on Sunday and perhaps a bit of a statement to those who questioned whether Vickers had lost anything while away tending to his medical condition last year. He along with Team Red Bull teammate Kasey Kahne were pretty stout Sunday, which bodes well for the team’s intermediate track program as the season progresses.
Another week and another disappointing outing for Hamlin, who this time was the victim of an electrical problem that plagued last year’s championship runner-up and ended with a 39th place finish, not the run he was looking for after coming home 33rd last week in Bristol. The bigger issue may be the ongoing engine woes at Joe Gibbs Racing, which has plagued the team since the start of the season and shows no signs of letting up.
Things have not gone very smoothly for the young Daytona 500 winner since his glorious day to start the season. Hit the wall several times on Sunday and continues to struggle getting his arms around the Sprint Cup Series side of the equation especially at mid-sized tracks like Fontana and Las Vegas.
Last year’s big time winner hasn’t gotten off to the best of starts. More often than not has had a middle of the pack kind of car and that was again the case on Sunday when McMurray finished 23rd. Needs to find that magic from 2010.
(Choice comments and communications from drivers and crew chiefs)
“It seemed like a 500-mile race.” – Jimmie Johnson
"Guys, I've got no brakes, so you're going to have to come catch this thing." – Kevin Harvick after taking the checkered flag.
"I just couldn't get any more out of the car. That was it. That was all we had.” – Kyle Busch
"Our engine department definitely has to go to work.” - Denny Hamlin
On a scale of one to five "Pistone Pistons" I’ll give Sunday’s Auto Club 400 a three – and believe me it was all for the ending. The rest of the race was duller than dull. Coming off last October’s rip roaring Auto Club Speedway event I was especially surprised with just how strung out and boring things turned out to be. But I can’t ignore the finish, which not only saved the race for the most part but also might be enough to get NASCAR a little jolt of publicity heading to race number six of the season.
DOWN THE ROAD
The Sprint Cup Series goes back short track racing next Sunday to the Wrigley Field of NASCAR and Martinsville Speedway. The bumping and banging that many fans felt was missing from the series last half-mile race at Bristol two weeks ago will be in full supply on the tight paper clip-shaped Virginia track.
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