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OBSERVATIONS: Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway

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If you look at the box score, the Auto Club 400 could be envisioned as one of the most boring races, with Martin Truex Jr. winning by over six seconds with only nine cars on the lead lap. But in all honesty, it wasn’t the worst intermediate track race of 2018.

Track position became critical at times for drivers as you didn’t see a lot of shuffling on the leaderboard, but that didn’t mean you weren’t left entertained. Competitors were able to battle hard side-by-side, sometimes three-, four-wide for positions. A combination of aging pavement and the seams allowed for restarts to be chaotic, with everyone fanning out in every direction imaginable. Once you got a couple of laps into a run, it also wasn’t like the whole field went single-file either, with battles for spots at times, including a challenge between Truex and Kyle Busch for the lead midway.

The event also had a bit of everything we’ve been used to seeing this season as the usual drivers were upfront – Truex, Busch, Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick. The last of those, unfortunately, saw his chance at a fourth straight win end early following contact on Lap 23. Kudos to the Stewart-Haas Racing driver, though, for taking the blame in his post-race interview.

“I went down to side draft, and he was coming up, and we touched, and it just knocked the thing to the right and spun out,” Harvick said. “I don’t know that it’s his fault.  I think that’s my fault for coming down the race track right there and trying to side draft and then as we touch it just came back up the race track.  I was just trying to get a little too much right there.  I knew the stage was coming in.  I’ve just got to thank all of my guys.  They did a great job on our Busch Beer Ford, and it was just my fault back there.”

A lot has been made about the lack of performance for Hendrick Motorsports, dating back to last season with questionable finishes to close the year, followed by the debut of the new Camaro. On top of that, they certainly haven’t helped their problems by having all four drivers fail pre-qualifying technical inspection on Friday or the penalty for Chase Elliott following Las Vegas.

However, progress is being felt as Jimmie Johnson ran in the top-five for much of the event, before placing ninth for his first top-10 of 2018. Yes, it took the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion five races to score a top-10 this year. 

The performance comes at a significant time as questions have been raised about his future. Despite having a multi-year contract in place, his longtime sponsor Lowe’s announced they will not return in 2018, leaving lots to wonder if Hendrick can fill the void, and by whom. Proving that he hasn’t lost his touch will help the search, and that becomes paramount now considering his last win came last June at Dover International Speedway.

If there’s a time for Johnson to have momentum, then this is the week as he knows how to get the job done at Martinsville Speedway. In case it has slipped your memory, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has visited victory lane there nine previous times. 

Side Note…. NASCAR on FOX isn’t new to facing criticism from the fans, with constant questions to them on whether Michael and Darrell Waltrip should be in the booth. I mean, comments like “they see Harvick behind them, and they don’t want to hold him up, so they just let him go” are a little ridiculous. But being honest, if you’re in disagreement, it’s easy to look over at times because you ignore the comments and focus on the rest of the broadcast. However, it’s getting harder to do.

Trying to find the next big thing to improve the perspective of the broadcast is undoubtedly essential for an engagement sense. Can’t say that the latest gimmick – the pit road camera – is going to fly as it seemed to provide a useless perspective of the field under green. What’s the point of looking at grass and small dots going by quickly? 

Secondly, they have commonly missed big moments this year. On top of focusing on the new pit crew rules to start the year, they’ve now transitioned to not showing crucial points of the race. Who goes to break when the leaders are side-by-side? 

Rather than focus on the next joke, or great pre-race feature, maybe it’s time to get back to basics or else the numbers are going to continue to hit the fan. 

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement

Ashley McCubbin

Currently the Executive Editor for Popular Speed, Ashley McCubbin also runs Short Track Musings, while handling media relations for OSCAAR. Currently living in Bradford, Ontario, she spends her weekend at the local short tracks in the area taking photos.