It was an aggressive start to the Auto Club 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Series in Fontana on Sunday. It quickly became clear that the outstanding performance we saw from Xfinity drivers on Saturday would act as a tasty entree for the race that was about to ensue on this unpredictable track.
Within seconds of the green flag, hard racing and an aggressive start saw Brad Keselowski get into the back of Denny Hamlin after he span his tyres. This set off a chain reaction of events, as Ryan Newman – last week’s Phoenix race winner – got into the back of Keselowski. That was only the beginning of the early chaos though, because on lap 3, the no.48 of Jimmie Johnson also made contact with Keselowski. This acted as the straw that broke the camel’s back for Keselowski, because despite surviving previous contact, he span out onto the front stretch of grass. NASCAR brought out the first caution of the day. At the front, a confident Kyle Larson in the no.42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing was retaining the lead position after starting on pole. This was sign number one that luck, skill and a fast car were all working in favour of the young driver in this final stretch of the West Coast races.
After a quick pit stop to change qualifier tyres for fresh ones, the race restarted again at lap 8. We saw Logano make substantial gains as he got up 12th after starting at the back – a skill he’d been showing throughout the whole weekend in Fontana. Meanwhile, at the front, Larson was leading ahead of Truex by well over a second. That was until lap 55 when Harvick headed to pit road with a flat right rear tyre. Deciding on a plan of action, many other drivers used this opportunity to pit as well. Following a quick pit stop, it was Truex who ended up leading, with the hope of continuing the success and strength he’s been showing all season so far. Although it wasn’t Truex’s time to shine just yet, because it was Larson who would end up taking the lead with only 13 laps left of Stage 1. From there, he held onto that crucial first position right up until the green checkered flag that would signal the end of the first Stage. Truex was close behind.
After speeding down pit road, Austin Dillon faced a penalty that sent him to the rear for the Stage 2 start on lap 68 of 200. Aside from that and a mid-Stage pit stop for the drivers on lap 90, it looked to be a bit of a “snoozefest.” Evidently, fans were lulled into a false sense of security because once Truex crossed the line with an 8 second lead over Larson, all hell was about to break loose as the tension started to build in Stage 3.
There was lots of hustling and bustling upon the restart for the third stage and plenty of battles could be seen for various positions. At the top, Kyle Larson once again ran away with the lead. With 50 laps to go in the race, drivers took to the pits in a staggered fashion. During this, there was a little bit of drama for Johnson whose luck was down when he span sideways into his box and had a higgledy-piggledy pit stop.
Once underway again, Larson continued to lead by over a second when the caution came out for Ryan Gaulding who had gotten into the wall on lap 179. This was the first caution in an unbelievable timeline of events that were set to follow. The cars took this opportunity to make a trip down pit road. It would be a shootout upon the restart, or so we thought. In reality, it just ended up being chaotic as Kenseth span out when Truex made contact with him. 5 laps later and the green flag was up in the air once again, but not for long. Drivers had only been around the track 3 times when Lajoie – who has had consistent issues with wrecking throughout the season – span off in turn two.
Everyone decided to pit once again, minus Truex, Hamlin and McMurray who looked to be trying out Ryan Newman’s tactic that had won him the race last week in Phoenix. Unfortunately, they didn’t bank on there being any more cautions. When the race kicked off once more with only 5 laps to go, NASCAR showed fans in true NASCAR style that it really isn’t over until it’s definitely over. There were 3 meagre laps left when Trevor Bayne got into Stenhouse Jr, spinning him out. This left drivers with only 1 lap of overtime once the green flag was due to wave for the final time of the day. Finally with the last green flag waving, and despite the series of events not making it an easy victory for him, Kyle Larson was first over the finish line.
Speaking after the race, Larson said.
“I was staying as calm as I could be, but also frustrated at the same time.” In reference to the stops and starts that we saw across the whole weekend in the final Stage, he continued: “It seems like every time I get to the lead at the end of one of these things, the caution comes out and I’ve got to fight people off on restarts.”
– Kyle Larson
Over the weeks, we have seen Larson continue to end up in 2nd. However, this victory in Fontana would undoubtedly be his favourite “second,” due to it being his second ever career win and second win of the weekend.
Next weekend, NASCAR will head back over to Martinsville Speedway – the shortest track in the NASCAR series. So far in the Monster Energy Cup Series, we have seen five different winners from five different teams. It’ll be interesting to see how drivers fare in the 0.526 mile track, and whether it will produce another different winner from a different team. Especially as it’s a track that’s well known for the enthralling and extremely close racing that drivers display.