Melillo’s Mind: Auto Club 400
By Justin Melillo
March 23, 2018
The Champ is back! Martin Truex, Jr. dominated in his return to victory lane on Sunday in the Auto Club 400, starting on the pole and winning all three stages.
Truex, Jr. led 125 laps of 200, and out ran the likes of defending race winner Kyle Larson, who finished second, and the always dominant Kyle Busch, who finished third.
“I knew we really had a good racecar after the first adjustment of the race,” Truex, Jr. said. “The thing just came alive. From there it was just about managing my tires and being smart. We had a little trouble getting beat out of the pits and that was tough. At one run we fell back to fifth and then we needed to work our way back up. I really just needed to care of my front tires and once we got some clean air this thing was unbelievable.”
Larson, who came in second, did so after early contact with Kevin Harvick, who won the previous three races in a row leading into this past weekend. Harvick’s streak ended on Sunday, but Larson’s No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy rallied back for the runner up spot.
“I wasn’t surprised that we were racing that hard, or he (Harvick) was racing me as hard as he was to try to hold me off,” Larson said. “He had pitted a lap before me, so I had a lap fresher tires than him, was better than him at that point, in that little run we got in. 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, then he could stay in front of me, not have to worry about me 10, 15 laps later when he would be better than me.
“I was actually having a lot of fun racing like that because this place is really cool, you can just kind of go wherever. I was a lot better than him in three and four. One and two, he was a little bit better than me in those few laps. Yeah, just got to battling really, really hard.”
The younger Busch brother was in contention late to win the event, but his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team went the wrong way on a final adjustment, and relegated the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion to a third place finish.
“Just thought we were closer than that, but obviously not,” Busch said. “We were right on top of the 78 (Truex Jr.) yesterday. The first run I thought we were really good and showed some strength, but from there on out showed no strength.”
Truex, Jr. takes over the series point lead over Busch by nine points. Harvick, who was the previous leader, fell down to eighth.
The Harvick winning streak is over, and the defending champ is back on top. Who knows if this is the turning point for Ford and Toyota, but the results from this past weekend indicate that Toyota is back to their winning ways.
Harvick’s incident with Larson was interesting, to say the least. It looked like Harvick got loose off of the corner with Larson slightly pushing him up the track using the air. Harvick clearly saved it, but then just turned down into the No. 42 and ruined the rest of his day.
Harvick claimed he was trying to side draft and got too much, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he made the mistake without malice. However, I think it’s a little more likely that Harvick got fed up with racing Larson for so long and attempted to knock him out of the way, only to mess up his own day.
You win some (or three), you lose some (in spectacular fashion). Either way, the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was fast again, and had the contact not occured, we might be talking about four-in-a-row, or another victory at Auto Club by Larson.
In the XFINITY Series, it was a cup regular taking the checkers once again. Joey Logano brought Roger Penske his second win of 2018 in the No. 22 machine, while holding off series regular Justin Allgaier, who came in second again for the second straight race.
There has been plenty of parity in the XFINITY Series this season, as far as winners, and NONE of them have been Kyle Busch. Busch has raced twice, and I’m scratching my head as to why he hasn’t even been a factor in either race. Besides Busch being winless, now four of the five races have been won by Cup Series stars, and I hope that after the break, that changes to see the actual XFINITY stars step up and take some wins.
Martinsville is this weekend. I’ve always wanted to try one of the famous Hot Dogs, but alas I’ve never made the journey to the half mile paperclip. Brad Keselowski is the defending winner of the race, and could very well go back to back with the level of performance that Ford is producing.
My picks for this weekend are Chase Elliott (because Chevy needs to turn it around at some point, right?) and Denny Hamlin, as both look for redemption from October of last year.
Joshua A. Hill/TRE
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.