Monday, February 23, 2009

Unlikely Season, Unlikely Winner And A Most Unlikely Place

By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange

It's almost fitting that a most unlikely winner of the first two Cup races of 2009 has kicked off what many expected would be a most unlikely season by most NASCAR standards.

By that measure, it's not really a surprise then that Matt Kenseth proved his rain-shortened win at Daytona last week was no fluke, coming back Sunday to win in thrilling fashion in the Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway.

No, that's not an oxymoron: Kenseth indeed won a hell of a race at a place that few people likely felt they would ever see such a finish at.

Yet after several years of being the butt of complaints about poor crowds, lackluster and boring racing, ACS on Sunday gave us the quintessential way a race should end up, a culmination of thrilling action and edge of your seat, nail-biting excitement.

Was it going to be Kenseth, Jeff Gordon or Kyle Busch who was going to win? We didn't know until the last lap. Sure, Busch may have faded slightly in the final laps, but he was still part of an incredible show.

Who would have thought it would have played out the way it did, at the place it did?

And that's what made Sunday's race all the more special. It wound up being a tale of three drivers who desperately wanted a win, but at the same time, were all tied together by something entirely different: a quest for redemption.

Kenseth is the type of driver who, while mild-mannered and fairly quiet compared to some of his peers, doesn't really care much about what other people think of him.

Still, there was some lingering questions and doubt by many cynics that Kenseth's win at Daytona was less than a full showing, as he took home the checkered flag 48 laps shy of what was supposed to be the scheduled finish.

The way Kenseth drove through the pack Sunday was reminiscent to the way he won last week at Daytona – and rain, which caused several cautions at Fontana, threatened to make it two consecutive races that were shortened by precipitation.

But once again, there was the No. 17 Ford at the front and at the end as Kenseth did for the second time in two races what he failed to do even once last year: to win.

The final laps of Sunday's race was also a bid for redemption by runner-up Gordon. He knows all too well what Kenseth went through last season, for he also was shut out of victory lane in 2008.

We saw a Jeff Gordon that we haven't seen in a long time, driving like the same guy in his prime of winning four Cup championships in eight seasons. As the final laps counted down, millions watching on TV likely wondered if maybe Gordon was so hungry for a win – after all, he hasn't been to victory lane since October 2007 – that he'd once again punt Kenseth for the win, like he did a few years back at Chicago.

Some might not even blame Gordon if he did, for he wants to get back to victory lane in the worst way. Sunday, he almost did, but he played it clean, fair and square and gave his millions of fans hope that the end of his confounding winless streak may very well be over – perhaps as early as this coming Sunday at Las Vegas.

And then there was the younger Busch brother, who was seeking to make NASCAR history for the second consecutive day. On Saturday, he became the first driver in NASCAR annals to ever win two races on the same day, capturing both the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series events at ACS.

Sunday, Busch sought to become the first driver to ever win races in all three major pro series on the same weekend. And while he may have fallen short, he managed to get his own sort of redemption as well.

For while Dale Earnhardt Jr. caused Busch to wreck and lose last Sunday what appeared to be his best chance ever to win the Daytona 500 to date, his rebound at Fontana showed Busch is not only back from last week, but he's also back from last year's tailspin in the Chase.

Unfortunately, there's a significant bit of sadness in all the redemption that unfolded and ultimately emerged in Sunday's closing laps. After all, this was still Auto Club Speedway – formerly California Speedway – a place where good races just aren't supposed to happen, at a place whose picture many feel should be put in a dictionary alongside the meaning of the word "boring."

As a result, the crowd on-hand was one of the smallest the Southern California facility has ever seen. Fox Sports seemed to intentionally keep the grandstands out of camera range so as not to show the glut of empty seats all the way around the 2-mile motorplex.

And, given how late the race began (6:15 pm ET) and how late it finished (after 10 pm ET), it's practically a given that when the TV ratings are released Monday, the numbers are going to be poor, indicating the overall small viewership that likely grew even smaller as the race went on as many viewers clicked off the telecast, expecting yet another boring race and even more boring outcome.

Just like those who left the track early to beat what little crowd there was to beat, it was the same for many viewers: they felt that because this was Auto Club Speedway, there just was no point to stick around and watch the finish.

Well, guess what, folks – you wound up being the biggest losers of all. You missed a hell of a finish at the most unlikeliest of places, and in a season that looks like it's going to continue to give us a lot more unlikely finishes, storylines and winners.

And isn't that exactly what race fans want in the first place?


  1. Jerry, you are right... that was a much better than anticipated ending, but let's not forget, 1 finish does not a heritage make!

    The reality is that if it wasn't for the last rain caution, we were coming up on 13 or 14 on the lead lap when mother nature smiled at Dale Jr. with a sprinkle that let him stay on the lead lap by the slightest of margins... without that sprinkle there were 3 or 4 more cars within a few laps of being put 1 down.

    Matt, Jeff, and Kyle had lots left for the end, but without the rain, they very well could have been 3 of less than 10 left on the lead lap if that last rain caution had never happened.

    Not taking anything away from those 3, but one thing that showed at California was that the first 5 to 10 laps after a "service master caution period" (Bring back the "yellow flag" please!) are the true 'good racing' before the field spreads out... with more D-shaped tracks on the schedule than not, maybe it's time for NASCAR to consider more racing like the All Star race and the Bud Shootout to generate more excitement and keep more drivers relevant longer in the race.

  2. If you want to have people come to a race in Los Angeles, you should not schedule it on the night they congratulate each other for achievement, the Oscars were on. TV was probably way down cuz people were watching that instead. I personally jumped back and forth between the NASCAR race and The Amazing Race. LOL.

  3. Good race, at an unlikely place. Kenseth looks to be on his game this year. I agree with Jerry, Gordon was driving like he did a few years back. Very good racing in the top 10 most of the night.
    Interesting the number of engine related problems, cool temps and high horsepower perhaps?

  4. Personally I enjoyed the race........though I only got started watching with 60 to go. :)

  5. Thanks for the unbiased review of the Auto Club 500. Most writers are ready with their prejudgments and prejudices before they even watch the race. Each track and race should be judged on the actual event. I have seen some pretty boring racing at almost all the current tracks, including Bristol, Martinsville and Lowes. I was there Sunday and thought the race was pretty entertaining. Somethings don't look the same on television. What I saw was Jimmie Johnson starting out as the class of the field. Then Jeff Gordon came on strong with Greg Biffle right there. Next you had Matt Kenseth coming out of nowhere to challenge Jeff. The racing between Gordon and Kenseth was really exciting over the last 30 laps. Biffle may have been right there too if not for his pit mistake. Kurt Busch also had a strong run. Also back in the field a lot of battles that may not have been shown on television were happening.

    The crowd seemed to be larger than the last two February races which I also attended. The weather is always so iffy in February, as was demonstrated last year and this year. The track president wants to switch with Phoenix for the April date. Couldn't hurt!.I also noticed that the Jeff Gordon fans seemed to be equal in number to the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans. Also, the number of Jimmie Johnson fans have increased.

    The problems with the racing at Fontana are similar to those at the other 1 1/2 and 2 mile tracks. That is as the laps tick off because of green flag racing, the fields tend to spread out. I'm not sure that easy fixes are available. Progressive banking might be the best option.

    Thanks Jerry for a honest report on some of what happened at Sunday's race.

  6. You people really need to get a grip! Sunday's race thought not great was pretty good racing overall. Yes, the field got spread out, but that happens in all forms of racing. What it showed was that though not everyone was totally equal there were groups of cars that were and they provided more that one pack. Just the way it was "back in the day" as we older race fans like to say. I for one liked that the race not run as one cluster of cars. This allows for a wreck or malfunction on a racecar to happen without taking out the major portion of the field. Look back at the history of NASCAR races were always strung out, especially in 500 mile events. Racers know that most races have cars that are superior to the rest of the field, that's the reality of racing. Too many rules ruin the racing and stifles creativity. NASCAR has forgotten what got them where they are today. Build in somemore ajustability in these cars. PLEASE!! Allow the crewchief's some way to make there cars handle better.


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