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Boring, then thrilling at the Nationwide Series in Fontana

Pit action at the Nationwide Series in Auto Club Speedway (Gabriela Moya)
Pit action at the Nationwide Series in Auto Club Speedway (Gabriela Moya)
By Brian Kennedy


The next time you’re wishing to become more patient, watch a NASCAR Nationwide Series race. If it’s anything like the TreatMyClot.com 300 on Saturday, you’ll get what you hope for, because you’re going to learn to wait for the good stuff.

To be frank, this race was really boring through 130 of 150 scheduled laps.But that was all erased by an amazing last 20. Choose any cliché you want—nail biting, hair raising, goosebump-causing. They’d all be right. Here’s what happened.

Forty cars took the green flag, but before long, it was clear some were there simply to fill the field. Four dropped out early, leaving three dozen, of which maybe half were competitive. That’s not to say that there wasn’t some good battling going on in the 20-30 spots, but wait a moment for that.

To back up to the green flag, Elliott Sadler was on pole. His career in this series now stretches to 235 races, and he’s been on point in 16 of those. It was his third top-ten start this year, and it came in a two-mile lap of 176.991mph. That’s about 40.68 seconds around the oval. On lap one, he lost his top spot to Kevin Harvick, but behind them, a car hit the wall and brought out a caution. That car was Jamie Dick, who would fight on valiantly all day and end up in 34th place. Sadler would be fifth at the end.

The restart saw Matt Kenseth up front to challenge, but Joey Logano took the lead. Ty Dillon was also there, but he started sliding back almost immediately. As the next few early laps went by, it was Logano, Kenseth, and Harvick. Meanwhile, way behind them but charging was Kyle Busch, who had failed tech and been forced to start at the end of the field. By lap 17, he was fourth. By twenty, third.

So where’s the boring part? Well, after this early bit of intrigue, the race went caution-free for about 60 laps (until lap 68), and the cars got strung out in a long line. The drama of whether Busch could overcome his poor starting spot was over, and the only battle was the back in the pack one between Dakoda Armstrong and Kevin LePage for 24th. That went away around lap 40, when Armstrong reached his high of 17th place and LePage faded to a steady 30th, where he ended the race long later.

The top teams pitted around lap 40, and this gave Busch a chance to grab the lead, but the real race was for third behind him, with Harvick and Kenseth challenging each other for that.

The restart at lap 71 did produce some excitement, with Harvick pushing Logano outside and Busch hanging inside. They got past Busch but the caution waved again because Dylan Kwasniewski got into Chase Elliott and knocked him off-kilter enough that he hit the outside wall. More like scraped it. It was more blessing than curse, as he said after the race ended, “It actually fixed what we were fighting. Flattening out the right side actually helps things sometimes.” He was sixth at the end of the afternoon.

So after this third caution, things once again returned to riding around, nobody even all that close to each other. Like I said above—boring. Sure, Elliott was moving steadily up, surprising everyone. Sure, Kenseth was chasing Busch for second. Sure, the top five were separated by just 2.5 seconds. But after about lap 90, things spread out further. There were only 16 cars on the lead lap. The top ten were 8.6 seconds front to tail, and if that doesn’t sound like a long time, consider this: the track takes about 40 seconds to circumnavigate. It’s two miles long. That means that eight seconds translates to about .4 miles. That’s a long way when you’re wishing cars were bumper-to-bumper racing.

So things rolled on, and on, and on. But then there was another caution, for Josh Wise putting fluid on the track in the front straight. (So no, conspiracy theorists, not another NASCAR debris caution for dust that even a Hoover salesman couldn’t see.)

And that’s when the game was on. At 130, it was Logano, Larson, Harvick, Elliott, and Busch. You already know the result, so it doesn’t hurt to cite the familiar stat right now: Larson had been runner-up in this series five prior times. He’s from California. Nobody from here has ever won this race. Still boring, right?

Okay, so get this: Harvick was outside, Larson inside. He jumped in front of Harvick, and right then, Kyle Busch jumped down inside going past the start-finish line and came out of turn four second the next lap. So it was Larson, Busch, Harvick, Logano.

On lap 136, Busch dove low on Larson in turn two. On 137, he went way low into turn four. And Larson took the challenge and went inside and held the lead past the line. The next lap, it was Larson with Harvick challenging and Busch low through four.

On 141, Harvick went way low, almost to the apron through three and four, and tried to scoot past Buschinto second, but he didn’t get it. Again on the next lap, he did it, but Busch did a crossover move and got him back at the line. On 144, Busch brushed the wall on turn four, and he, Larson, and Harvick were within inches of each other.

On lap 145, Busch got Larson for the lead, but the youngster, at 21, got it back into turn two. That allowed Harvick to sneak by for second, though. Through turns 3-4 of that lap, Harvick was low again to no avail, but then Busch did a slingshot move on him for second at the line. So with three to go, it was Larson, Busch, and Harvick, and any of the three might have won it.

The same banzai moves by Harvick were repeated in the next two laps, and he almost cleared the others for the lead on lap 148, but it didn’t stick. The pass did work on the last lap, however, and so in the end it was Larson, Harvick, and Busch. Next Logano, and then Elliott Sadler and Chase Elliott.

To repeat, the first 130 laps were a parade. A very fast and noisy one, granted, but a strung-out lizard of a pack, and the fans were sitting listening to the scanner and sipping the Buds but not showing a lot of interest in the race.

Around the time that Baby Busch got invigorated, people were on their feet, and the last ten or so laps were about the closest, most thrilling, and most dangerous ones you’ll ever see. In the end, then, a classic was had. Good thing race fans aren’t like some hockey fans I’ve observed, leaving before the end of the game to beat the traffic. This was one of those that the large crowd will remember for a long, long time.

After, the youngster Larson, who will drive his NASCAR Cup car Sunday to reprise the win, had a lot to say about what he felt.

“I’m probably more excited than I thought I would feel because we’ve gotten close five other times to winning a Nationwide race, but the way we got it done beating Kyle and Kevin and Joey was awesome. I was surprised that we got the jump on that last restart. Starting on the bottom, I thought the #22 [Logano] would try to sneak underneath me. I thought the #54 [Busch] was behind the #5, and I thought that would put us close to four wide coming off two, but I was able to get ahead enough to clear them guys. From there, I just made sure I hit my marks.”

But then he kind of contradicted that. “I had to change my line up a little bit. I was a bit too loose to run the line that I had been running, that I’d been really fast in. Kyle was making a lot of ground up against the wall, and I probably slowed him down a little bit there, which helps.”

It got better. He talked about his victory celebration, where he takes the steering wheel off and does donuts. The history is that the Outlaw drivers do them when they win. But nobody was doing it in stock cars, so he did a couple of them—when he won the K&N championship, and when he won a truck race at Rockingham. “Then NASCAR did have a talk with me about not doing it, but I was like, ‘I just won my first Nationwide race, I’ll do whatever I want.’ If I win the Cup race, I’ll probably do the same thing.” Sassy.

Asked about his thoughts as he went through the final few laps, thinking about having been second so many times before. “That last caution, I never noticed a TV screen [prior] in the middle of [turns] one and two, and I saw my face, and next to it it said, ‘Five second-place finishes in the Nationwide series,’ and I said, ‘I am not getting another one.’”

But he wasn’t all that sure about that, either. “Those guys were running really hard with me, and I was like, ‘Enh, we’re going to get second again,’ but luckily, it all worked out and we were able to stop that streak and get a win, finally.”

He was later asked about the intimidation factor when being attacked by Harvick and Busch, two of the most aggressive guys in the Cup garage, and he said, “I think it’s good that I gained the experience that I needed in the first five or so races that I’ve been close to winning, to keep my nerves down late in the race. I’m just as aggressive as they are, maybe not as much I guess, but I was definitely a bit nervous when I saw the #54 behind me, and then when I saw Kevin coming into the picture, I thought it was going to be really interesting.” He was running a lane that put him in danger of hitting the wall, he said, though he didn’t indicate that that would have wrecked him, just slowed him down. “They ran me so hard, but they left me an inch or so each time they got close to my door.”

He also said that his car-owner, Chip Ganassi, was not there, and that that perhaps, brought some luck, so that, “Maybe we can talk Chip into staying at the hotel tomorrow,” for the Cup race that Larson also will compete in.  But of course, he quickly retracted that one, too.

So Saturday in Fontana provided a lot of late thrills, no spills, and a good tune-up for what’s to come on Sunday, when the Sprint Cup goes at noon. The tickets for that race are sold out, according to a late-day press release, but they have standing room space if you’re interested in being a part of something big.

The writer is the Editor-at-Large for LA Car. To view more photos from the event, go to LACar.com or Facebook.com/lacarcom.

 





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