The Top Five: Breaking down the Fontana race

I normally post five thoughts in this space after each race. However, this week I only have one thought…

Never Trust A Test.

If there’s one thing this letdown of an opening month has taught us, it’s that just because you see drivers and cars act a certain way during a test session — or practice or qualifying, for that matter — doesn’t mean the race will actually look the same way.

Some of you are reading this right now going, “DUH! Racing is always different once a trophy and money are on the line.”

OK, well…I knew that on some level. I just didn’t expect it to be this far off.

But yeah. Never. Trust. A. Test.

This false sense of optimism started with a tire test — at Fontana, no less! — where three cars in early January hit the track with a variety of different tire combinations and ran laps together.

Remarkably, they mostly stayed together. The leader couldn’t get away. A normally-boring test session was suddenly intriguing enough to stand on the roof of the infield suites and watch the trio turn 10 or 15 laps at a time.

When I asked Martin Truex Jr., one of the drivers at the test, whether they were running hard enough to simulate race conditions, he said, “Absolutely.” And I’m pretty sure that was the truth.

Then came the organizational test at Las Vegas, where NASCAR had a dozen teams simulate 25-lap races. The mini races were quite interesting, with the field mostly staying together and drivers trying three- and four-wide moves in the pack. 

WHOA! Maybe this new package was going to work. Perhaps all of its promise to race like a combination of the Truck Series and the All-Star Race would be fulfilled. There seemed to be enough evidence to believe it would. (Here’s a recap, but it’s a bit cringe-worthy to read now.)

If only I’d known what I know now: Never. Trust. A. Test.

As it turned out, the partial debut of the new package at Atlanta looked like a typical Atlanta race. Then Vegas looked like Vegas (except without any cautions). Then Phoenix was plagued by a lack of passing. And Sunday, Fontana was below average by its own standards of the last five years or so.

Whatever NASCAR thought or hoped was going to happen with the new package, there’s no question it has not achieved the goals so far.

On the plus side, restarts have been more exciting. There are a few laps at a time during the race which are noticeably better than before.

But then that’s about it. Drivers fall into their positions and can’t really do much, hamstrung by dirty air and a lack of horsepower to overcome it.

No one wrecks (the cars are more stable now) and the racing largely looks like it always did. Just…slower.

That can’t possibly be what NASCAR had in mind when it implemented this. And although many people are still preaching patience, it seems at this point — after two 1.5-mile tracks, a 1-mile track and a 2-mile track with different degrees of pavement wear — that the package isn’t going to be some magic fix.

No, this package was NEVER going to produce pack racing. And NASCAR never said it would.

But it was definitely expected to keep the racing tighter and make it more entertaining, which hasn’t happened.

So what gives? Why didn’t Fontana, for example, look like it did in the test?

“We never ran that long (at the test),” said Joey Logano, who was one of the drivers who attended. “Nothing surprising there. I knew (Sunday) was going to be 10 laps of really aggressive, tight racing — and then handling was going to come into play.”

But wait. What about the hopes of creating a race where the cars mostly ran as a group?

“You’re never going to keep us all together,” Truex said. “There are going to be good cars; there are going to be bad cars. The equalizer is the slow speeds and new tires at the beginning of a run. Once the tires get worn out, we get separated. It’s just the way it is.

“Unless we go 60 miles an hour, that’s what’s going to happen.”

Well…damn. In other words, my personal preseason optimism appears to have been overplayed, false hope.

Maybe the package isn’t a failure yet — it’s far too early to call it a total loss — but it certainly has not achieved what a lot of us expected it would. And the immense expectations have played a massive role in making the package feel like a disappointment.

After all, this was a Faustian bargain on the soul of NASCAR racing — a theoretical sacrifice of all-out speed and elite driver skill in exchange for increased excitement that would lead to better TV ratings and attendance.

But that hasn’t happened to this point. If the package is going to deliver, it must be stuck in transit.

And honestly, here’s where I feel for NASCAR. Yell at officials all you want for going down this road in the first place, but at least they had good intentions at heart — making the product more entertaining for fans.

The early returns, though, aren’t good. We’re assured NASCAR will keep working on it, so let’s hope that’s the case sooner than later if this trend continues.

It seems all the testing or simulation or iRacing in the world can’t reproduce true race conditions, so the only way to find out if a package works is to try it in an actual event.

Two or three months from now, if the package still hasn’t done what was expected? Let’s hope those in power are willing to try some science experiments in real races this summer, lest this turn into a lost season at a critical juncture in the sport’s history.

After all, we might not be able to trust a test. But there’s a decent chance we can trust a race.

Post-Fontana Podcast with Jim Peltz

Jim Peltz from the Los Angeles Times joins me to help break down everything that happened at Sunday’s Auto Club 400 in Fontana, including thoughts on what would have happened if Kevin Harvick hadn’t crashed and whether the race has lost some buzz.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Auto Club 400

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race in Fontana…

1. We were robbed

Nothing against Martin Truex Jr.’s dominating win, but Sunday sure could have been a lot more interesting had Kevin Harvick not wrecked with Kyle Larson during the first stage.

What would have happened? Would Harvick have won his fourth straight race? Would Truex have thumped the field anyway?

“We’ll never know,” Truex said.

ARGH! That stinks. Even Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser sounded a little disappointed about it.

“After the beginning of the season there, watching Harvick run away with everything, I wasn’t sure where we were at,” Visser said. “I wish he would have not had the problems he had today and we could have run him again. I think we had something for him today.”

Now everyone has to wait for three weeks — until Texas Motor Speedway — to find out who will win a head-to-head battle on an intermediate track (Martinsville is next week, followed by an off week).

Still, the lack of evidence didn’t stop drivers from guessing what would have happened.

“Just the little bit I was around Kevin, I felt like he still had the best car,” Larson said. “Who’s to say, though?”

Truex said he left pit road after the first stop and drove away from Harvick — which leads him to believe the No. 78 car might have won anyway. It was pretty damn fast, after all.

But there’s no way to know for sure.

Sigh. Oh well.

“I’m sure we’ll have plenty of chances to race each other throughout the rest of the season,” Truex said.

2. What was that?

So what exactly happened in the Larson/Harvick incident?

Though it initially seemed Harvick was somehow retaliating against Larson for hard racing (a theory floated by the FOX broadcast), that turned out not to be the case.

Harvick said he went down to side-draft Larson when they came off the corner, and he was “trying to get a little too much right there.”

“That’s my fault for coming down the racetrack and trying to side draft,” he said. “… That was just a dumb mistake on my part.”

Larson had a more detailed explanation when asked if he was surprised Harvick was racing him so hard. Harvick had pitted one lap earlier than Larson, so the Chip Ganassi Racing driver was coming with slightly fresher tires.

“I think he knew he was better than I was overall, so he was just trying to hold me off, race me hard to maybe burn my stuff up, and then he could stay in front of me and not have to worry about me 10, 15 laps later when he would be better than me,” Larson said.

Makes sense, right? At that point, Harvick just made a mistake rather than acting out of malice.

“I was actually having a lot of fun racing like that because this place is really cool and you can just kind of go wherever,” Larson said. “I respect Kevin a lot. I think he respects me a lot, too.  You never want to see anything like that happen.”

3. Harvick, and…

After five races, it’s not much of a mystery which team is the one to beat. And it’s not the one that ended up in victory lane.

“I don’t think anything changes with the 4 car being the fastest car in the field right now,” Brad Keselowski said.

“He’ll be good every weekend,” Larson said.

If that’s the case, Truex — now the points leader — is probably second-best, with Kyle Busch also right there.

But who else is good?

Larson, for one. Keselowski and Joey Logano, too. The thing is, they’re all a half-step away from being able to run up front regularly like Harvick, Truex or Busch.

“I’ve been happy to see how we’ve started so far,” Larson said. “But we still have a little ways to go to win.”

Keselowski said he’s been about a fifth-to-10th place car most weeks and noted the team hasn’t seriously contended for a win. And Logano, who missed the playoffs last year after his infamous encumbered penalty at Richmond, said his team is “getting closer” but isn’t there yet.

“Today we had some decent speed and it’s progress in the right direction,” Logano said. “We still have a ways to go, but we’re getting closer to where we can have solid runs, score stage points, score good finishes and keep ourselves up there for points.”

There are really no surprises in the top half of the playoff standings. Truex and Busch are 1-2, followed by the Team Penske trio of Logano-Keselowski-Ryan Blaney. Then it’s Denny Hamlin and Larson.

4. Standings surprises

Speaking of the point standings, there are still a few unexpected trends after five races.

— Despite winning three of the first five races, Harvick is only eighth in the standings. That’s because of Daytona and Fontana, where he got only two points.

— All four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers are in the top 11 of the standings. In fact, they are 8-9-10-11 (Harvick-Clint Bowyer-Aric Almirola-Kurt Busch).

— Chase Elliott is the lowest-running Hendrick driver (21st) after Jimmie Johnson moved up to 18th in the last couple weeks. The lead Hendrick driver is Alex Bowman, who is 16th.

— Jamie McMurray, who has pointed his way into the playoffs, is only 26th in the standings — behind Michael McDowell and both JTG Daugherty Racing drivers.

— Daniel Suarez is 23rd in the standings while all of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates are 13th or higher.

5. The clock says Bubba Time

As Bubba Wallace walked off pit road following a 20th-place finish at Fontana, he was already looking toward next week — his first visit to Martinsville Speedway since winning the Truck Series race there four years ago.

“Man, I’m so pumped up and so excited to get there,” he said. “I want to win this fucker. … We’ll have to be ready there.”

Unlike recent weeks — such as Phoenix, where two loose wheels turned a possible top-15 day into a 28th-place finish — the No. 43 team might be rolling into the next race with some positive mojo.

There wasn’t anything particularly special about Fontana, except nothing went wrong.

“Smooth on pit road all day, didn’t make any dumb moves on the racetrack and came home 20th,” Wallace said. “We can improve from that.”

Wallace and his team are still figuring each other out, and the team is transitioning to Chevrolet and its alliance with Richard Childress Racing at the same time. But in only nine career Cup starts, Wallace now has top-20 finishes in five of them — all with a mid-level team — and has a three-point lead in the Rookie of the Year battle with William Byron.

“We came back here (after the Phoenix disappointment), regrouped, took a deep breath and can use this as a little bit of momentum going into Martinsville,” he said.