Back in California! A much bigger stage and a much faster pace and points were on the line for the Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway. The pre-season Clash at the LA Coliseum was a nice preview but the speed at Fontana with those “5 wide” grooves is something else.

Racing at Auto Club Speedway was wide open and track wide

Race day did not disappoint. Drivers put cars all over the track looking for advantage just a turn or two from the starts. It was a pit road showcase as the age of the pavement put this NextGen suspension package to the test. A dozen cautions put the crews in the spotlight with a pit stop routine that still may have a kink or two. Restarts were a scramble to grab a position or set up in a groove for a possible advantage move next lap around.

Brad Keselowsk #6i, Bubba Wallace #23 and Austin Cindric #2 scramble through a mash up at Fontana

This one was unpredictable. Just as it looked like Tyler Reddick was on the fast track with two stage wins, tire issues and contact with Byron in the #24 put him on pit road with heavy damage.

Defending Cup Champion Kyle Larson was able to put the HendrickCars.com #5 in the position to run for the win. He only had 28 laps with the field behind him and one of those was the one that really mattered. Austin Dillon, Eric Jones, Daniel Suárez and Joey Logano rounded out the top 5.

Hendrick Cars #5 Kyle Larson – Winner at Wise Power 400

The Daytona 500 was a good one but the race at Fontana gave us a variety of speed, action and strategy that we hope carries this season. Lead changes and pack tangles gave the drivers a real challenge and the fans had the benefit of seeing it all play out.

This race showed us that NASCAR has a show and it’s a good one! There are more races on big tracks before we get a real look at this NextGen package on the short tracks of Virginia and Tennessee. Vegas is up next with Phoenix to follow. We’ll even get a early road course in at Circuit Of The Americas.

Kyle Larson at Las Vegas. A bit of a surprise…? Yes and no…

Larson was suspended from NASCAR competition nearly a year ago following a slipped racial comment during an online racing event. He’s been through apologies, grief and structured sensitivity courses. The reinstatement to NASCAR came with an invitation to join one of the elite racing teams in the sport. With the exit of Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick had a seat to fill. The bet was on for Larson. Car numbers were shifted and the number 5 was put back on track with Larson at the wheel.

It was all but expected for Larson to make some waves. Not only did he have some catching up to do but there was an underline to prove to Hendrick that he was a good choice. Proving to himself, for Kyle Larson, was likely also an incentive. The mark on his reputation from online language, and an extra effort to show his personal growth from the aftermath, was also a possible weight in the #5 Chevy.

All of that on the table, grabbing a win at Las Vegas as only the fourth race of the season was still a bit of a surprise. It takes a bit of time to “settle in” with new teams, cars and structure. Kevin Harvick, a common Vegas favorite, was on the pole. A lack luster performance from the Harvick squad put the #4 down a lap as Larson seemed to find his pace with the #5 running well. The team executed and crew chief Cliff Daniels handled the race well.

Kyle Larson is the fourth winner in as many races. Following the ruckus of last year and the waves brought on by scrutiny, the expression of gratitude to Hendrick, the fans and NASCAR by Larson seemed to be on the level. He seems well ready to be on the road he is on to bring his name back to good standing with fans, with NASCAR, with motor sport and in open view of the general public.

Bubba Wallace, also on tap with a new team and a new focus, was there to congratulate Larson on the win. It’s a small gesture of racing camaraderie but the underlying statement of “welcome back” was noticed as it came from the man at the center of much of the discussion of race in racing in 2020. Kyle Larson has made his mark in the winner circle. 2021 is early on the season. There are plenty of surprises yet to come.

Saturday at Daytona the NASCAR Nationwide Series went green with the season opener DRIVE4COPD 300. A bunch of Cup drivers were in the field and a few went into the field…

Among the “Cups” that had their Nationwide day shortened early were Danica Patrick, Trevor Bayne and Kurt Busch.

However, the very real nature of the race, the day and the sport came in the run to the checkered flag. It started with an “out of the couch” moment at 5 laps to go wrecking the field and red lighting the rest.

The win under the sun and Florida heat went to Tony Stewart after a restart on the outside, getting taken over and chasing down inside the top 4 on a run to the finish. Regan Smith and Brad Keselowski touched and went loose out of the final turn and bunched up a melee of torn metal and battered fencing. The front of Kyle Larson’s #32 Chevy was left in the wall and fencing after going airborne in the mix, sending a wheel and brake assembly into the stands.

Stewart, in post race interviews, showed an almost complete disinterest in the win while almost tearful in concern for fans and other drivers. Other drivers showed real concern for fans as well through post race discussions. (more…)