AutoMatters: NASCAR in Southern California & “Divergent”

By Jan Wagner

The fast, wide, two-mile track at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana (just east of LA) recently hosted two thrilling NASCAR races: the Nationwide Series “ 300” and the sellout, standing room only Sprint Cup Series “Auto Club 400.”

In its 17 years the track has developed character as it has aged. There’s been talk of repaving it, but the drivers seem to like it just as it is. The backstretch is bumpy, which you can see as cars race. Frequent tire failures would be a factor this weekend, and even the most successful Cup drivers would not be immune. The varying heat of the day can do a number on the grip over the tar seams.

For the new Sprint Cup qualifying format, perhaps NASCAR learned from Formula One, which has exciting qualifying. In NASCAR’s version there are also three short qualifying sessions. After the first session, the 24 fastest contenders advanced to Qualifying Round Two, where their qualifying times were reset to zero. They had earned the right to compete against each other to see which 12 among them would advance to Qualifying Round Three and the ultimate race for Sunday’s pole.

The key to qualifying well was tire management – making sure that there was enough life left in the tires to get the job done at the end. That honor went to Matt Kenseth in the #20 Dollar General – Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry. This was the beginning of a very successful weekend for Toyota, which has their U.S. corporate offices and motorsports arm in Southern California.

The Nationwide Series race included several Cup drivers, but I had my eye on the #99 Rheem – RAB Racing Toyota, which was driven by James Buescher. As I learned in an interview in the team’s hauler, he races a competitive Kyle Busch Racing chassis powered by a Joe Gibbs Racing engine, and Chris Rice is his very experienced crew chief, but what caught my attention was one of the car’s sponsor decals: olloclip, the company whose convenient range of clip-on lenses for cell phones (and other mobile devices) I reviewed earlier this year.

Kyle Busch is dominant in this series but at the end another driver named Kyle – a talented, 21-year-old from California by the name of Kyle Larson, beat him, fair and square. The last ten laps were almost too nerve wracking to watch as drivers jockeyed for position. I can only imagine what they were going through. Behind Larson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick battled each other and attempted to get past Larson for the win, but he kept his cool, was not intimidated and crossed the start/finish line first to take the checkered flag in his #42 Cartwheel Chevrolet. He celebrated by doing donuts in the infield grass – while holding his steering wheel outside the window! Then he did more donuts in Victory Lane! I wonder what NASCAR thinks about that.

The marquee race of the weekend was the Sprint Cup “Auto Club 400.” Its Grand Marshal was none other than “The Great Gonzo,” a star of the new movie “Muppets Most Wanted” and a daredevil who proved his bravery by being shot out of a cannon during the drivers’ introductions (I think that my ears are still ringing from that one). After a flyover by the Blue Angels, we were treated to 206 laps of wild (with 35 lead changes and 15 leaders), yet safe, racing.

California driver Jimmie Johnson let 104 laps but shortly before the end, when it counted most, an exploding left front tire ended his hopes for a win. Then a caution with only two laps to go prompted the leaders to come in for fresh tires.

Unbelievably the race was decided in a surprise repeat showdown between Kyle Busch and rookie Kyle Larson – who had won on Saturday. This time Busch took the checkered flag in his #18 Interstate Batteries – Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. He was the fifth different winning driver in as many Cup races. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Before I go I’d like to give a strong recommendation for the movie “Divergent.” This is tense drama at its very best, combining deadly class rivalries and powerful performances by actors whose characters will really get to you as they make hard decisions and face situations with dangerous consequences. The set design will blow you away. Go see this movie.

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Copyright © 2014 by Jan Wagner – #325r1