Well, we had a lot of exciting action this past weekend at Auto Club Speedway and I’ll get to that in a little bit. Unfortunately, I have to start things off on a sad note. It’s been a rough week in our NASCAR community. Tuesday afternoon brought word that Lynda Petty, matriarch of the Petty family had passed away. Richard’s wife was a special breed of a woman and she had fought a brave fight with cancer for the last four years.
Lynda experienced both the highs and lows throughout the years in our sport. She was one of the nicest and kindest people our sport has ever had. Stevie and I send our deepest sympathies to Richard, Kyle and the entire Petty clan.
Unfortunately, the sadness also struck much closer to home as Sunday evening following the Fontana race my family was notified that my brother, Bobby Waltrip had passed away. Some may not know but there were five of us Waltrip kids — myself, sister Carolyn, Bobby, Connie and Michael.
Bobby worked for me for a time when I had my race team. He also worked for Michael for a period at Michael Waltrip Racing. Where my brother really made his mark was in the sport of go-kart racing. He was a racer, promoter and a race announcer in the World Karting Association (WKA) and the American Karting Association (AKRA).
Bobby had just turned 60 on March 4. The news on the loss of Bobby was totally unexpected and has shocked our family. I want to take a moment and thank all the fans who have taken the time to send their condolences. Race fans always continue to amaze me with their outpouring of support when a family in our NASCAR community takes a heavy blow like this. It’s simply a tough time for us. My heart is heavy and I just don’t have the right words to express how deeply I love and miss my brother.
I know it seems insignificant at this point to talk about racing right now, but Bobby loved this sport and if nothing else, it will help take my mind off things for a little while.
The folks that run and maintain Auto Club Speedway in California must be absolutely thrilled. For a longest time, folks inside the garage, in the grandstands and folks at home watching on television complained about the kind of racing we saw there. Remember this was a place that at one time had two race dates on the schedule every year only to have it cut back to a single yearly event.
One thing that is crystal clear after last year and this year, the racing is nothing short of awesome at Auto Club Speedway now. Seriously, the racing there last year and now this past weekend has been off the chart. Saturday’s race brought us an incredible battle between two championship- winning Nationwide drivers in Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick versus this young man Kyle Larson, who has burst upon the NASCAR scene in a incredibly short period of time.
That kid drove like a veteran Saturday. He is wise beyond his years, which at 21 years old, isn’t actually that many. I mean let’s face it, I have race cars in my museum much older than that young man is. Watching him handle his car Saturday and hold both Kevin and Kyle off to take his first Nationwide victory was pretty darn impressive. He then served notice Sunday that he had even loftier goals.
I thought it spoke volumes Saturday that Kyle Busch went to Victory Lane and gave Kyle Larson a hug. We all know how much Kyle Busch hates to lose, so for him to go there to congratulate Kyle Larson on this win told me how much respect Kyle Busch had for this 21-year-old kid that beat him to the checkered flag.
I know all the talk from Sunday is about the tire issues. You have to understand that in racing there is always going to be tire issues in various forms. A driver might run over something that punctures a tire. Two cars might get together rubbing on one another and a fender of one car might cut a tire down of another car. You also have teams with aggressive setups that push the durability window of a tire and find they have crossed a line.
While there were some tire issues leading up to the race Sunday, we saw it was really contained to certain race organizations. Penske Racing, for example, had their hands full with multiple tire issues before Sunday even rolled around. It wasn’t because of a faulty tire, though. It was because of what they were asking the tire to endure.
Goodyear builds great tires. They have for decades in our sport. Drivers depend on them. Let’s face it, their lives depend on them. Like I say all the time, they aren’t going to build a bad tire especially when the name on the sidewall says GOODyear. Our sport, our teams and more specifically our drivers have the utmost belief in their tires.
When these drivers sail off into those corners, especially at some places at 200+ mph, that right- side tire is over there taking all the abuse this 3,300-pound car can give it, the drivers have the belief and confidence in their Goodyear tires.
When something happens to a tire on a race car in most cases it was self-inflicted. It was something we did. Like I mentioned previously, you can run over some type of debris on the track — a piece of this or a piece of that — and it can cut down a tire. We’ve seen it everywhere we race since our sport started.
This race car is creating an enormous amount of downforce these days in our sport. You combine that with the low air pressures they are starting the tires off at, add in the amount of camber these teams are attempting to put in these cars to make the cars handle better and different track surfaces every week, well it’s just inevitable that something has to give. That something is going to be the tires.
It’s the sum of all the parts. Its not any one thing that you can say is to blame. Collectively, they all combine to create a situation we had Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. That’s the long and short of the tire problem. It’s self-inflicted. Goodyear doesn’t make bad tires. We just do bad things to them.
When you do that you have to pay the price. Sunday a lot of teams paid that price. I think by the end of the race were getting close to something like 20 separate tire issues during the race. It was pretty much across the board with all the teams at one time or another.
Jimmie Johnson, for example, ran hard all day long and never had a tire failure. Then with just a few laps to go he had a left-front tire failure and it cost him the race. For the teams with the really aggressive setups for their race cars, we were noticing a pattern that they could only get anywhere from 20 to 25 laps in on their tires before problems would surface.
We specifically saw that there near the end of the race. The cars with 20 to 25 laps on their tires were having tire issues. They just came one right after another. So we ended up having a green-white-checkered finish.
The guy I feel the worse for Sunday was easily Jeff Gordon. He had the car to beat all day long. His car was just so incredibly stronger than all the others, particularly on the long runs. If the race had stayed green, then no one I believed was going to be able to touch Jeff. Conversely, I was worried that a late caution could be the worst thing he would have to deal with. When you have a car like his that was set up for those long green flag runs, the worst thing you need is a short sprint like you have with a green-white-checkered finish.
Jeff came in the pits following that last caution and yet at the end of the day he finished 13th. He had to be absolutely livid. To have that dominant of a race car all day long and to finish where he did is incredibly frustrating. It’s happened to all of us along the way.
The trend in our sport, with all these late-race cautions, is getting a great restart. I had a driver tell me that in today’s racing, if you can’t nail a restart these days, then you are never going to win a race. Who is one of the best in our sport at restarts? Kyle Busch. Who won the race Sunday? Kyle Busch.
Sunday brought us the Kyle and Kyle show there at the end. Young Mr. Larson, who I mentioned earlier that had won on Saturday, was up on the wheel and got his highest NASCAR Sprint Cup series finish in his ever-so-young career by finishing second. Who would have ever thought this early in the season and his career, that he would get a win and a second-place finish all in the same weekend?
With all the issues their team has had this early in the season, Kurt Busch needed that third-place finish desperately. It was a nice gamble they took by taking only two tires and they had a shot of winning, so this was a much-needed quality finish for them.
Pole-sitter Matt Kenseth finished fourth in his Toyota. Tony Stewart got his second consecutive top-five finish on Sunday. It jumped him six spots in the points. Both AJ Allmendinger and Paul Menard had great finishes. Rookie of the Year contender Austin Dillon finished 11th. Danica Patrick is working hard and got a 14th-place finish Sunday.
So congratulations to Kyle Busch for a big win in only our fifth race of the season. Yes, the streak continues of no repeat winner yet. Like I mentioned earlier, the folks at Auto Club Speedway have to be awfully proud of the racing they’ve been able to deliver these last two years.
So now we go from a big, wide two-mile racetrack to a short, narrow paperclip of a racetrack called Martinsville Speedway. I love this old racetrack and was blessed to have so much success there. This originally was built as a dirt track in 1947. Then it became an asphalt track. Then they put concrete in the turns, so this old joint has seen it all.
Just think of the contrast of coming from California and their big old modern track to the sleepy little community in Martinsville, Va. This place just exudes NASCAR history. To me, Martinsville Speedway is the perfect example of where the phrases “Old School” and “Back in the Day” originated.
I know one guy that has to be absolutely thrilled to get away from Auto Club Speedway and to Martinsville is Denny Hamlin. Two years in a row Denny has had problems in California. Last year he was in that last-lap crash with Joey Logano that ended up with him wrecked out and a major back injury that ruined his 2013 season. Then this year he was pulled from the race because of what Joe Gibbs Racing stated was a sinus infection that was causing blurred vision.
Martinsville is like a home track race to Denny, so assuming he gets medical clearance to race this weekend, expect him to be a major factor. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson run so extremely well there. So does Kevin Harvick. Honestly, though, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see, come Sunday afternoon, we have our sixth different winner in six races so far this season.
I love short-track racing and I love Martinsville Speedway. There will be beatin’ and bangin’ Sunday on the track and probably off the track after the race. Like I always say, the beauty of short track action is there is never a lack of action. It brings out the best in drivers and, oh yes, sometimes the worst.