The Cup Series was in the shadow of the Hollywood sign on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway and the drivers put on a show that was Oscar-worthy of best picture of the young season. The biggest Oscar went to Kyle Busch as he made it back-to-back wins at the southern California track. However, it was anything but easy for Busch.
The word of the day at Auto Club Speedway was tires. In practice on Friday and Saturday several drivers and teams experience problems with tires, having the tires go flat on them, causing the teams worry for Sunday. That worry came true for several drivers including Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson’s tire problems came with seven laps to go, giving his Hendrick teammate, Jeff Gordon a shot at the win. Gordon looked like he would be able to hold on and win until Bowyer had tire troubles of his own. Bowyer’s tire issues caused him to spin out in turn four with two laps to go to set up a frantic green-white-checkered finish and left crew chiefs with an agonizing decision: stay out on old tires and hope they held up for two more laps, or come in for fresh rubber. Most teams came down for new tires but some took only two tires on the final stop.
Some of the drivers that took two tires were Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch. Stewart and Busch looked like they would finish 1-2 going into turn 1 on the last lap, but the younger Busch passed both of them off turn 2 on the last lap and beat rookie Kyle Larson back to the line to claim the win and a spot in the Chase for himself. Now it’s on to Martinsville, the second short-track race in the span of three weeks.
At .526 miles in length, Martinsville is the shortest track on the circuit. It’s been described as a paperclip, and as a flattened Bristol Motor Speedway. Despite its size, Martinsville doesn’t have two pit roads like Bristol. Drivers enter the pits in turn three and exit off turn two. Because of this, some pit boxes are located in the turns, which makes for tricky entering and exiting the box.
Martinsville is one of the tracks that have been on the NASCAR schedule since its inception in 1949. Martinsville’s racing surface is only 55 feet wide with straightaways being 800 feet in length and turns a mere 588 feet in length. This short amount of real estate can and often does lead to close racing that results in contact, wrinkled fenders and hot tempers. Its size also leads to brake, tire, and rear axle problems due to the constant braking and acceleration off the turns throughout the day. The question is which will be hotter after the race: car parts or tempers?
Most wins among active drivers: 8 (2 drivers: Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon)
Defending Winner: Jimmie Johnson won for the eighth time last spring on the Virginia bullring, beating Clint Bowyer and teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne.
Prediction: It would be easy to pick either Johnson or Gordon as they are tied for the most wins among active drivers and they both won here last year, Johnson in the spring and Gordon in the fall. However, one other driver that should be considered is Denny Hamlin. Hamlin was forced to miss this race last year with a back injury. Hamlin is from Virginia and considers this one of his home tracks. He would like nothing more than to make up for last year’s absence and win at one of his two home tracks. With his missing last week’s race at Auto Club Speedway due to a sinus infection, and last year’s race at Martinsville due to a back injury, Hamlin has a lot to prove, and there’s no better place to do that than at Martinsville, where Hamlin could take home his fifth grandfather clock on Sunday.