Alex Bowman Wins Auto Club 400, Main Takeaways

FONTANA, Calif — The Auto Club Speedway has rewarded all out speed lately. In 2017 Kyle Larson led 110 laps in his Fontana win. In 2018, Martin Truex Jr. led 125 laps en route to his victory. Last year, Kyle Busch paced the field for 134 laps in his Auto Club 400 win. If we followed that trend in practice on Friday, we would have known who the favorites for Sunday’s race would have been. 

Alex Bowman was quickest in both practice sessions on single lap speed. He was also fastest on five lap and 10 lap averages in both practices too.

Ryan Blaney was second fastest in final practice, third in both sessions on five lap averages, second on 10 laps, and quickest on 15 and 20 lap charts.

Kurt Busch was fourth overall in both sessions, second on five lap runs, eighth on 10 laps, fifth on 15 laps and second on 20 lap averages.

Brad Keselowski was fourth on 5, 15 and 20 lap averages.

Kyle Busch was second and third respectively on 15 lap and 20 lap averages.

Bowman, led 110 of 200 laps en route to the dominating victory on Sunday. Not shocking right? Blaney, led the next most laps in leading 54 circuits around the 2-mile track. Again, not shocking in that he had the second quickest car on Friday.

Combined, the duo led 164 of 200 laps. Blaney, would have finished second if not for his tires cording with three laps-to-go which forced an unscheduled pit stop. He’d finish 19th, one lap down as a result.

Kyle Busch slid up to second while Kurt was third. Keselowski, finished fifth.

The top cars on Friday were the top cars on Sunday. Its been that way the last several years.

Heading into this weekend though, Bowman wasn’t supposed to be a factor in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at the Auto Club Speedway. In four prior starts on the 2-mile track, the Arizona native had yet to finish in the top 20 here, let alone led a lap.

On practice on Friday, he erased those doubts and turned into a favorite. He’d qualify third on Saturday.

That paid off in a big way for his No. 88 Chevrolet en route to his second career NASCAR Cup Series victory. The other came on June 30 of last year at the Chicagoland Speedway. Now, the Hendrick Motorsports driver has stamped his name into the 2020 postseason joining Denny Hamlin (Daytona) and Joey Logano (Vegas) as winners this season.

Bowman, was leaps and bounds the best race car out there as he bested Busch by 8.904-seconds. Busch, earned his seventh top three finish in his last nine Fontana starts in his No. 18 Toyota. This was the second straight week that he failed to lead a race this season but he does earn his first top 10 of 2020 though.

Kyle’s older brother Kurt rebounds from a pit road miscue after the first stage ended to bring his No. 1 Chevrolet home third while Chase Elliott rounded out the top five in bringing his No. 9 Chevrolet at the end in fourth.

The race on Sunday had just three cautions, two of which for stage breaks.

Busch Finally Gets Top 10 Finish, Never A Factor Though

Kyle Busch needed this finish. He crossed the finish line second in his No. 18 Toyota. But, that runner-up was never really all that close for him. Busch, was 8.904-seconds behind race winner Alex Bowman. He feels like he was actually further back than that though.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Busch said after the race. “Guys did a great job here though just trying to work on it and trying to make everything we could out of it all day long, all weekend long. Interstate Batteries Camry wasn’t a second place car, but thankfully we got a good finish out of here and try to get some points. Guys are doing all they can, I know along with everybody at TRD (Toyota Racing Development). I appreciate all the hard work, we just have to get a little bit better. We finished the end of last year so strong, I don’t know what we’re missing here. Obviously, it’s a little bit of something here and maybe a little bit of something in a few different areas, but overall good car today.”

Busch, struggled to find speed all weekend and luckily had a good long run car. He was second on 15 lap averages and third on 20 lap averages in practice on Friday. He had to use that speed on long green flag runs to move through the field. Busch, finished 10th in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2. Then, with no cautions of the final stage, it allowed Busch to climb further.

“Slow, we were slow. Just didn’t have the speed overall today for some reason. Then, there at the end felt like the tires were worn out at the last bit of the race.  Just frustrating day for us with our Interstate Batteries Camry. Give it up to my guys and everybody at the shop, they’re certainly working hard. I just feel like we’re kind of missing it a little bit – here, here, here and here and those things kind of add up and drag you down a little bit. Overall, great day I guess coming home with second and getting good points out of here.”

This was his first top 10 of the season but continued his strong recent trend at Fontana though. The runner-up was Busch’s seventh top three finish in his last nine starts on the 2-mile track. He was third in 2018, first in 2019 and now second in 2020. Where he is a bit concerned is that he’s not leading laps like he used to.

Busch, led 14 laps in Daytona but none since. In Fontana, he led 125 laps in 2013, 62 in 2018 and 134 last year. On Sunday, he failed to lead a single lap for the second consecutive race.

Ganassi Cars Were Sleepers, But Issues In 1st 60 Laps Hurt Them

The usual suspects entered as favorites for Sunday’s Auto Club 400, but the Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch were notable sleepers.

Larson, won this race back in 2017 while scoring two top two finishes in his last three Fontana starts as well. In practice on Friday, he was second and eighth on single laps, but 10th (10 lap), ninth (15 lap) and sixth (20 lap) on the practice report.

Busch, had five top 10 finishes in his last eight Fontana starts including a sixth place run last year. He was fourth in both practice sessions on Friday on single lap speed, second on five lap averages, second and eighth on 10 laps, fifth on 15 and second on 20 lap averages.

They both started in the top 10 on Sunday too.

But, Larson was accidentally punted into the Turn 1 wall on Lap 34 by Denny Hamlin as he had to make an unscheduled stop as a result. Due to that, Larson fell two laps down and had to spend all day making up for it. The California native, was 32nd in Stage 1 and 27th in Stage 2.

But, the second stage, he got the free pass and was back in the game again. He’d finish 21st though for his first finish outside of the top 10 in three starts this season.

Busch, was fifth in the first stage but when pitting at the end of it (Lap 60), he missed his pit box and had to come back around and pit again. That put him towards the end of the lead lap as he’d come home 14th during the second 60 lap run.

He didn’t give up though. Busch, said that his car felt the best all day during the final 80 lap sprint to the end and would climb back into the top 10. The Las Vegas native scored a third place finish for his fifth top six finish in his last eight starts at Fontana.

We did really good to balance our Monster Energy Chevy on short run speed, and long run speed. Being able to maneuver on re-starts is something that I’ve been harping on. Making sure we get better when we’re in dirty air. And to come away with a third place finish, that gains a lot of points back for us and I feel really good about the way the car handled this weekend. So, whatever we can do to baseline this, is what we’ve got to do moving forward.

Testy Truex Has Pit Road Issues Again

Martin Truex Jr. was heated all day. Truex, was likely mad from having to start in the back following his No. 19 Toyota failing pre qualifying inspection three times on Saturday. As a result, he didn’t get to take a lap for a starting spot. Due to other penalties, Truex would roll off 32nd on Sunday.

He didn’t stay in the back for long.

Within seven laps, Truex had already found the top 15. He’d remain up front for most of the way and while he was doing so, he got real testy.

Truex, was mad at everyone including two of his teammates. He was mad early that Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones were racing side-by-side in front of him as he had an explosive, cussing laced tirade directed their way on his radio.

Then, in the second stage, Truex was furious at Joey Logano and told his spotter to let Logano’s spotter know that he should have wrecked him just then and if Logano did that move again then he’d have no problem wrecking him.

Still, his climb to the top continued. Truex, finished 13th in Stage 1, fifth in Stage 2 and then took the lead for the first time on Lap 130. He’d only lead three laps though as he had to let Alex Bowman back by so he could clear some trash from his grille.

On his final pit stop, he got testy again.

His left rear tire changer had an issue as well as an injury on the stop which caused a lengthy delay on pit road. He went from second to outside of the top 10. He’d finish 14th in the end, the worst among the four JGR drivers.

Last weekend, Truex was furious about a bad pit stop which put him in dirty air midpack which was a byproduct of him crashing shortly thereafter.

During the pit stops following the second stage, Truex’s pit crew didn’t get his tires all the way tightened and he’d have to come back down pit lane to do so. That cost him a top row restart spot to now at the end of the lead lap. In turn, that pretty much ended his day.

Now, Truex was having to race in dirty air and with guys he was better than. Unfortunately, another car was blocking him which resulted in Truex getting into the outside SAFER Barrier on Lap 177, bringing out the fifth caution of the day.

He (Kurt Busch) kept blocking until I hit the fence,” Truex said last Sunday. “Then it was tire rub, blew the tire and hit the fence. That was it.”

When asked last week how things are in the first real test with new crew chief James Small, Truex said everything was fine. “We just need to quit having mistakes on pit road.”

Truex, was happy with how fast of a race car that he did have early on. It’s just that incident with Busch to what hampered what should have been a solid day.

“Just unfortunate this early in the season. It’s nice to have a fast race car. Our Bass Pro Shops Toyota was really good. We were top two or three early in the first half and then the pit stop issue. We got back in traffic. I had a role on the 1 (Kurt Busch) car and he just moving up until I hit the fence on the front stretch. I thought we were going to be okay after that. Then just cut our right front tire down and pretty much ended our day. It is what it is, but luckily we got some good stage points the first two stages. We have a fast race car we can move forward with. The guys did a good job, just have to clean up pit road.”

He had a fast race car again on Sunday but had to come from the back and a pit road issue cost him a potential win.

Rough Start To 2020 For Bell

A lot of people picked Christopher Bell as their pick to win Sunoco Rookie of the Year Honors for the NASCAR Cup Series this season. Bell, was driving for Leavine Family Racing but that No. 95 Toyota was essentially a fifth Joe Gibbs Racing car.

JGR had won 19 of the 36 races a year ago and put three of their four drivers into the Championship 4. So, for Bell, a driver that won 16 of his 74 career NASCAR Xfinity Series starts including half of that total a year ago, the start to his rookie campaign has gone anything but.

After three races, Bell has yet to finish in the top 20 so far. The Oklahoma native finished 21st in the season opening Daytona 500, 33rd last weekend in Las Vegas and now last (38th) on Sunday in Fontana.

This weekend’s problem was an engine letting go as a jack bolt went through the radiator causing his motor to blow.

Joe Gibbs Racing Finally Gets Top 10 Finishes

Following a rough go of it last weekend in Vegas, everyone was wondering if the Toyota camp had somehow lost speed from last year. In Vegas, the finished 15-17-20-23. They never were a factor all weekend.

Then, in practice and qualifying this weekend in Fontana, they weren’t a factor yet again. Yes, they had long run pace, but short run speed wasn’t there.

They’d make up for it in putting three cars in the top 10 and if not for a pit road issue on Martin Truex Jr’s final stop, all four JGR cars would have walked away from Fontana with a top 10 finish.

Still, they went 2-6-10-14 as Kyle Busch earns his first top 10 of the season, Denny Hamlin his second top six in three starts and Erik Jones his first top 15 all year.

Their problem is, if you take away Daytona, they’re not leading laps. They led one combined lap in each of the last two weeks.

While they went 19-for-36 last year in wins, they’re 0-for-3 in 2020.

Chevrolet Improvement

Chevy spent a lot of money this offseason updating their Camaro. It was money that some questioned how worth it that it was. A new car is coming out in 2021, so why update a car that’s going away in nine months?

Well, Chevy isn’t okay with being down. They’ve been embarrassed the last three years. Since Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 championship, a Chevy driver hasn’t been in the Championship 4 in the Cup Series over the last three years. They were going to go for broke in 2020 to end that drought.

So far, it’s working.

Chevy won in Fontana with Alex Bowman and put four cars in the top seven. Last year, they had just two cars in the top 10 for the entire race as they finished sixth and 10th.

In Vegas last week, Chevy had six cars finish in the top 10 including four in the top six (all from different organizations). In 2019, Chevy only had two cars in the top 10 too.

Right now, it’s clear that Chevy is far ahead of pace in 2020 from where they were at this time in 2019.

Another End Of Race Heartbreak For Ryan Blaney

99-percent of the 2020 season has been fantastic for Ryan Blaney. It’s just the closing laps of all three races that have given the Team Penske driver heartbreak.

Blaney, unintentionally got into Ryan Newman when trying to push him to the win on the final lap of the season opening Daytona 500. The crash sent Newman to the hospital and Blaney to a near record breaking runner-up result. Instead of celebrating, Blaney was worried for his friend.

While Newman would walk out of the hospital two days later, it had a big impact on Blaney. He spoke about that on Friday.

Then, last weekend in Vegas, Blaney was leading the race before a late yellow changed everything. His crew chief Todd Gordon called him down pit road in the end despite being in command. Not many others followed. Instead of a for sure top two finish, Blaney wound up 11th.

Then, Sunday in Fontana, Blaney finished second in Stage 1 but won Stage 2. He’d lead 54 of 200 laps run. He was second in the final laps. Unfortunately, his tires were cording on his No. 12 Ford as he had to hit pit lane with three laps remaining.

Blaney, would finish 19th, one lap down, as a result.

If things at the end of races went differently, Blaney would have three straight runner-up finishes to start 2020. Instead, he’s been 2nd, 11th and 19th.

Fontana Sees Another Domination

In 2017 Kyle Larson led 110 laps in his Fontana win. In 2018, Martin Truex Jr. led 125 laps en route to his victory. Last year, Kyle Busch paced the field for 134 laps in his Auto Club 400 win. On Sunday, Bowman led 110 of the 200 laps.

Long Green Flag Runs

We knew that the race will feature long green flag runs. That proved true. There’s been just 12 combined caution flags now to fly in the last three years in Fontana. Take out the stage breaks and you get six cautions the last three years for incidents. But, if you take a deeper look, two of those were for debris and three others for single car incidents.

Starting Position Still Matters

Two of the last four ‘400’s have seen the pole sitter win the race. Five of the last six years now have seen the winner come from the top 4 Rows.

2018 saw the same top three starters finish there. 2019 saw five of the top six starting drivers in the lineup finish there too. 2020 saw third place starter Alex Bowman win.

Auto Club 400 Results

  1. 88 Bowman
  2. 18 KyBusch
  3.  1 KuBusch
  4.  9 Elliott
  5.  2 Keselowski
  6. 11 Hamlin
  7. 48 Johnson
  8. 10 Almirola
  9.  4 Harvick
  10. 20 Jones
  11.  8 Reddick R
  12. 22 Logano
  13. 21 DiBenedetto
  14. 19 Truex Jr.
  15. 24 Byron
  16. 17 Buescher
  17.  6 Chastain
  18. 41 Custer R -1
  19. 12 Blaney -1
  20. 47 Stenhouse Jr. -1
  21. 42 Larson -1
  22. 34 McDowell -1
  23. 14 Bowyer -1
  24.  3 ADillon -1
  25. 38 Nemechek R -1
  26. 13 TDillon -1
  27. 43 Wallace Jr. -2
  28. 96 Suarez -2
  29. 32 LaJoie -3
  30. 37 Preece -3
  31. 52 Yeley -3
  32. 15 Poole R -5
  33. 53 Gase -7
  34. 51 Smithley -7
  35. 00 Houff R -8
  36. 77 Sorenson -9
  37. 66 Hill -16
  38. 95 Bell R OUT

 

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