Race Rewind: Looking back at the Auto Club 400

jutter@charlotteobserver.comMarch 23, 2014 

Larson’s weekend ends on high note

Rookie Kyle Larson completed the best weekend of his young NASCAR career, following a victory in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race with a runner-up in Sunday’s Cup race.

Larson was hampered early Sunday with speeding penalty on pit road but had worked his way back into the top 10 at end. After taking four new tires on his final pit stop, Larson tried desperately to run down leader Kyle Busch but came up just short.

“I guess you couldn’t ask for more, but was surprised to get up there late in the race,” Larson said. “We were probably a 12th-place car most of the race.

“It was a long race and definitely didn’t expect to run second, so I’ll take it and head back to North Carolina with a smile on my face.”

Notebook

Kurt Busch learned from mistake: Kurt Busch was among a number of drivers whose cars had experienced flat left-side tires during the final minutes of practice Saturday.

Busch said when it came to Sunday’s race, crew chief Daniel Knost elected to go more conservative, which helped in his third-place finish.

“Sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise, to blow a tire and to not pay a penalty by spinning and wrecking your primary car,” he said.

Stewart with another top-five: An early spin did not slow Tony Stewart, who rebounded to post his second consecutive top-five finish (he was fifth).

“We had some bad pit stops at the beginning, but at the end when we needed it the guys did a great job on pit road,” Stewart said. “We had some problems early in the day and then just kept battling back.

“About the last 50 laps we finally got the car pretty decent there. We just didn’t have the track position to go with it.”

Pit-road miscue: On the third caution of the race, the NASCAR official at the beginning of pit road waved the green flag signaling it was open. However, the lights that usually display at the same time remained red.

A couple of teams did not pit because they saw the red light. NASCAR repeatedly reminds drivers each week, however, that the flag is the controlling indicator.

After the race, NASCAR said an official at the entrance to pit road got his uniform stuck in the fence, which prevented him from activating the lights at the same time as the flag.


Observations

• It’s clear controversy sells, but too many times fans and media spend too much time looking for controversy instead of looking for legitimate explanations. A “tire problem” is the easy explanation for a rash of flat tires during Sunday’s race – and over the weekend. But the first clue something less sinister was afoot was the fact several teams had the same problem multiple times. Goodyear sets a recommended minimum and maximum tire pressure each weekend. If teams choose to exceed them, that is on them. You do so at your own risk. Kurt Busch, who finished third in the race, had a tire problem Friday. His team chose to try a more conservative approach on their race set-up. And guess what? He had no issues. His assessment? “It’s a team’s discretion on whether you have a problem.”

• Auto Club Speedway had solid crowds all weekend – a welcome change for the track. But Saturday track officials announced all of its 68,000 grandstands seats were sold out. Technically, I suppose that could be true, but there were thousands of empty seats not explained by people visiting the concession stand. If you expect a good crowd, why not just say so? Announcing sellouts with empty seats just invites skepticism.

• More and more tire management appears to be making its way back into the equation in NASCAR races – helped also this weekend by a worn surface. That will only be a positive for NASCAR going forward.

5 key moments

1 . About 30 minutes before Sunday’s race, driver Denny Hamlin was transported to a local hospital with vision problems related to a sinus infection. He missed the race.

2 . Kevin Harvick’s became the first of several cars to experience a flat left-side tire, which caused him to hit the wall on Lap 19.

3 . Jimmie Johnson took the lead for the first time on Lap 46 and led a race-high 104 laps before a flat tire derailed his run on Lap 194.

4 . Clint Bowyer’s car was one of several late in the race with a flat tire and his brought out a caution with two of the scheduled 200 laps remaining, which set up a wild dash to the finish.

5 . Landon Cassill was the only driver who did not pit and took over the lead, but Kyle Busch – the first car with four new tires – powered to the lead on the last lap for the win.

Next race

STP 500

Where: Martinsville (Va.) Speedway

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

TV: Fox

Radio: Motor Racing Network

Last year’s winner: Jimmie Johnson

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