The Good, The Bad and The Ugly From Auto Club Speedway: California Dreamin’

Column By: JOHN DOUGLAS / RPW – FONTANA, CA – NASCAR’s final stop on the Western swing had a similar result to the others, but with a new face in victory lane.

Martin Truex’s dominant performance on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway was a refreshing change from the Kevin Harvick show, however we saw yet another trouncing by the fastest car on track.

So did the AAA 400 live up to the glitz and glam of Hollywood? Or did NASCAR put on their version of a Disneyland parade? We’ll only know by diving into the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of NASCAR’s first trip to Auto Club Speedway in 2018.

The Good

Martin Truex Jr’s No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team found victory lane in California, marking Toyota’s return to victory lane for the first time in 2018. With all three manufacturer’s gracing the winner’s circle just five races into the season, it seems all three brands do have strong points to their programs this year. For parity’s sake that’s always a good thing for NASCAR.

Truex’s dominant performance in taking all three stage wins on Sunday was Harvick-like in execution. The No. 78 team never faltered all day-long and with a long green flag run to end the race, Truex managed to lap all but the top 10.

For fans of last year’s series champion, or anyone tired of the three week-long Kevin Harvick show, Sunday’s race was a time to take a step back and evaluate the competition’s strong and weak points.

The Bad

As mentioned above, Martin Truex’s dominant performance on Sunday lapped all but the top 10 cars in the field. Though green flag runs seem more prevalent this year than in years past, the real concern is the lack of competition during those green flag runs.

At Phoenix, fans were treated to a long run that saw four cars battling for the top spot. All three manufacturers were involved in that battle and it seemed that going to the rough old surface of California’s Auto Club Speedway would lend itself to more of the same. It didn’t.

Martin Truex Jr.’s team only had to worry about the restarts on Sunday. Once the cars were up to speed, Truex clearly had the fastest machine on track after Harvick’s early troubles ended any chance at four victories in a row.

The concern? Those cars weren’t going to find the speed they needed on a couple pit stop adjustments.

Just as was the case with Harvick’s Atlanta and Las Vegas wins, it was clear that the speed others lacked versus the leaders car wasn’t something to be gained back in tire pressures or wedge adjustments.

There is something more fundamental with either the aerodynamics, or the preparation back at the shops that seems to be setting one team above the others. At the intermediate tracks it seems no one can actually compete with the leader. That’s a problem since NASCAR has essentially built a series over the last 20 years that looks at the intermediate 1.5 mile track as the core of it’s competition and existence.

The Ugly

Four races in a row. That’s what Kevin Harvick was going for on Sunday and it’s something that hasn’t been done in a long time. Unfortunately for Harvick the rise to hero can become the fall to zero in the blink of an eye.

Coming off turn two early on in the Auto Club 400 Harvick battled with Kyle Larson and made a critical mistake. Attempting to side draft, Harvick pulled his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford toward the middle lane of the track. A lane already occupied by Larson.

Harvick’s car careened into the outside wall mid-way down the backstretch, damaging it and ending his hopes to sweep the western swing.

Harvick took full blame for the accident in interviews after the race, yet one has to wonder how it became so hard to make a pass at a track that has been considered one of the raciest surfaces on the schedule over the past couple seasons.

Which raises the question. Is passing so hard now that drivers literally have to side draft aggressively to complete passes? Are the days of just out-powering competition off a corner and carrying that natural momentum by (without having to rub, or worse in a straight line) gone? I, for one, hope not because if teams are going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars getting these cars perfectly massaged for high speed, it seems pretty counter productive if the only passing you can do requires contact which will no doubt damage the car’s aerodynamics.

Something about NASCAR’s rule package needs to change or a majority of the 1.5 and 2 mile tracks are going to be great opportunities for fans to find something else to do for most of the season. As a sanctioning body NASCAR needs to reevaluate what they want out of these events and get to work creating it. The current equation just doesn’t add up.