There’s no getting around it, Sunday evening’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the Auto Club Speedway in Southern California was for the most part not the most exciting race. There were just four brief caution periods, two for debris on the track, one when Andy Lally went on a wild spin and, on lap 187 Bobby Labonte crashed in turn two.
Labonte tried to drive the car back to pit road, despite the left front wheel being locked and sparks pouring out from under the car. As he reached the pitlane entrance he realised he had a fire in the engine compartment, slewed the car to a halt and let the safety crews sort the conflagration out.
Meanwhile the crew chiefs had to decide – pit for fresh tyres or not with just over ten laps to go? There was no chance of entering pitlane with the burning no.47 car across the entrance and as each lap passed the decision became tougher to make. When the pitlane opened the first seven cars chose to stay on track. Matt Kenseth led most of the rest on to pitlane.
When the green flag was eventually waved on lap 192 after Labonte’s car had been towed away it was for a nine lap dash to the flag with the leading group on part-worn tyres, the rest sat behind them on fresh rubber. And that was bound to be the recipe for guaranteed excitement.
Kyle Busch, who had easily led the most laps, got the jump on Jimmie Johnson and resumed his position at the head of the field. Johnson was not about to give up and started easing up towards the no. 18 Toyota. Meanwhile Kevin Harvick, who had restarted in fifth place was flying and closing in on the pair of them. On lap 198 Johnson went down low while Busch stayed on the favoured high side of the track. The no. 48 was alongside and before the lap was over had edged ahead just as Harvick homed in on Busch. The Toyota lightly brushed the wall and Harvick was through.
Lap 199 and Busch was back a car length or two from the two Chevrolets. Harvick was hunting down the reigning champion. Last year the Spring race at Fontana was between these two and Harvick had come off second best. Losing that race hurt him, but he said he learned where he had gone wrong. He was not going to repeat that mistake.
Lap 200 and with Busch having virtually lost his chance of winning Johnson was driving on the very edge around the top rim of the track. Harvick used the draft to pull up behind him and started nudging the 48 along pushing JJ into a turn a touch faster than Johnson would have liked. Realising Harvick wouldn’t hesitate to spin him out Johnson edged to the middle of the track to protect his position. That was all Happy Harvick needed – he drove round the outside of the leader, pulled a bare car’s length ahead and then dived straight down to the inside of the track. If Johnson wanted to win he was going to have to drive round the outside and with half a lap to go that was never going to happen. Harvick won by 0.144 seconds.
By leading just that one lap Harvick took his first win of the season and became the fifth different winner in the first five races of the year. Busch, who had led just over three-quarters of the race had to settle for third and apologised to his crew over the radio as he crossed the line. In his mind he had given the race up, letting first Johnson and then Harvick take it away from him after he had had the dominant for virtually all the race.
Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards chased Busch across the finishing line followed by Harvick’s teammate, Clint Bowyer who had found the much needed result to lift himself back into contention. Behind him were the two Red Bull Toyotas of Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne, Vickers disappointed not to be in a winning position but glad to get a good result and prove last year’s absence with his serious health problems hadn’t in any way dimmed his ability. Pole position man, Juan Pablo Montoya took the tenth spot.
Denny Hamlin had yet another race of misfortune spending one lap calling out the readings on his gauges to his crew as they tried to understand why his car had slowed. A trip to the garage, originally to change the ignition wiring believing that was at fault, showed that the valve train had broken and Hamlin’s race was over after just 105 laps, dropping four places in the championship table to twenty-first.
Carl Edwards’ sixth place gave him the points lead, with previous leader, Kurt Busch dropping to third behind Ryan Newman. Harvick and Kenseth climb into the top ten whilst Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin drop out of the Chase positions.
The crews face a 2,500 mile drive across the United States, from California to the tight Martinsville half-mile oval in Virginia, a track that Hamlin enjoys and where he has been particularly successful. He just needs a change of luck.