Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – FONTANA, CA – Before the green flag waved Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, Jimmie Johnson took prime position behind the pace car as the rest of the NASCAR Cup Series field fanned out five-wide behind him in a respectful salute to the seven-time champion.
When the green flag waved to signal the beginning of the Auto Club 400, Johnson saw his wife Chandra and daughters Genevieve and Lydia doing the honors from his second-place starting position.
The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet responded with three stints in the lead for a total of 10 laps. He spent the afternoon near the front of the field and finished seventh in what could be his last start at Fontana, given that Johnson is retiring from full-time Cup racing at the end of the season.
“This team is going in the right direction,” Johnson asserted after the race. “I know in my heart what I’m capable of and what this team is capable of. It’s just taken a little bit to get the right people in the right places and rebuild and get this Ally Chevy exactly where it needs to be. We just couldn’t adjust this car on the pits stops quite enough to get the ‘tight’ out of it.
“It was really competitive and racy at the start of a run, and then we would fade at the end. At the end, I thought I was going to blow a tire. I think I had cords on the fronts, and I thought I wasn’t going to finish the race. So to salvage a top-10 out of it and two ‘thirds’ in the stages… so we are headed in the right direction. I want to thank the fans here in California. There have been some great vibes all weekend.”
CORDED TIRE KNOCKS RYAN BLANEY OUT OF RUNNER-UP SPOT AT FONTANA
Ryan Blaney had one of the fastest cars in Sunday’s Auto Club 400, but at the end of the day, he had very little to show for it.
Blaney finished second to eventual race winner Alex Bowman in the first stage. He turned the tables on Bowman in Stage 2, winning the segment by a wide margin. But Blaney got shuffled back after a restart on Lap 128 and found himself in fifth place when Bowman passed Martin Truex Jr. for the lead on Lap 133.
By the time Blaney reached second place, Bowman had built an insurmountable lead, and Blaney wore out his right rear tire trying to chase the leader. Three laps short of the finish, Blaney had to bring his No. 12 Team Penske Ford to pit road with a right rear tire on the verge of disintegrating.
The unplanned stop dropped Blaney to 19th at the finish, one lap down. It was a disappointing result for a driver who had led 54 of the 200 laps, second only to Bowman’s 110.
“Yeah, we led a little bit and ran pretty good,” Blaney said. “We just corded a right rear at the end. We lost the lead there at the beginning of the third stage and kind of got swallowed up, and the 88 (Bowman) got away and got gone.
“We needed to be in front of him. It is just the way it goes sometimes.”
KURT BUSCH RECOVERS FROM PIT ROAD MISCUE TO RUN THIRD ON SUNDAY
The pit stop during the break between the first and second stages of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 certainly didn’t go the way Kurt Busch or his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing team had planned it.
Under caution on Lap 63, Busch missed his pit stall, failed to get service and had to return to pit road to correct the mistake a lap later. From fifth at the end of the stage, Busch dropped to the back of the lead-lap cars for the subsequent restart on Lap 67.
The 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion spent the rest of the race working his way forward, and by the time Alex Bowman took the checkered flag at the end of Lap 200, Busch was third, behind only Bowman and brother Kyle Busch.
“Yeah, really happy,” Busch said of the result. “All weekend, the car just had a good vibe to it. The way it unloaded and the way we made small changes on our Monster Energy Chevy, I was really proud of this effort. To race and to do different things in the draft and to be able to gain speed with cars on the straightaway and then once you get all by yourself you actually lose speed, it’s a whole type of different racing, and I’m glad that I had a good car to do it all with, and just thanks to my guys.
“I messed up on a pit cue, but to have a third‑place run right here in (sponsor) Monster Energy’s back yard, this was a solid run for our Chevy.”