Leaving Bristol the Richard Childress Racing Teams were still scratching their heads trying to figure where last years consistently strong runs had gone. RCR newcomer Paul Menard found the most success in early season races, fifth in overall point standings after Bristol. RCR veterans Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, and Clint Bowyer were all out of the top 12 following the fourth race of the season; people were starting to wonder what had went wrong in the Childress stables.
First practice at Fontana did not show any improvement for the Childress Teams. Clint Bowyer posted the best times of RCR drivers during the session with just the 15th fastest speed on the board. Jeff Burton could find speed for 19th place, Paul Menard posted the 19th quickest speed of the session, and Kevin Harvick was back in the 28th spot.
Jeff Burton began forward progress for RCR when he posted the fastest qualifying speeds among RCR drivers for Sunday's Auto Club 400 earning a 7th position starting spot. Struggles for the rest of the RCR team were still in attendance as Paul Menard qualified in the 15th position, Bowyer would start the race in 17th position, and Harvick in 24th.
Someplace between qualifications and second practice Kevin Harvick's team found something in the garage to turn them around; the #29 car posted the fastest speed of all drivers during the second session. Jeff Burton held steady after qualifications the day before and found himself 8th fastest during second practice. The third and final session found Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard, running a very similar setup 7th and 8th quickest while Burton and Harvick ran 10th and 21st.
The 27 car of Paul Menard had handling issues early on Sunday and lost track position almost from the green flag. Fighting a tight race car the Menard's Pit Crew made adjustments during each stop, consistently improving driving conditions for Paul. Menard took just two tires on lap 75 and had moved into the top 10 by lap 120.
Paul stayed within the top ten until he was shuffled back in traffic during the lap 175 restart. Back in traffic the car tightened up again on Menard and he fought the car on every turn. After coming in for four fresh tires during the last caution of the day, Paul restarted in the 21st position with just nine laps to go.
With new rubber under the car he was able to fight his way back up to a personal best finish at the Auto Club Speedway of 16th place. Paul Menard lost two spots in Championship points standings, falling to seventh place.
Starting 7th on Sunday Jeff Burton held his own through lap 69 pit stops, never dropping below his starting spot. During the first green-flag stops Jeff was caught speeding on pit road and dropped back to the 26th position after serving his penalty. Burton won the right to the lucky dog pass when the caution came out just seven laps later and over the next 15 laps made his way back to the top ten.
Throughout the mid-section of the race Burton stayed between 10th and 15th positions. Jeff and his #31 Caterpillar Team looked to be on their way to a much-needed top ten finish until a call for two tires during the last caution proved to be the wrong one.
A lack of handling caused Burton to lose five positions over the last nine laps of the race; Jeff crossed the finish line in the 15th spot. As Burton said post-race “We took two tires on that last stop and the car just didn't like two tires.” Jeff did gain four places in the points this week and now shows in 25th position.
In the opening 25 laps during Sunday's race, Clint Bowyer moved from his 17th starting position to the 5th spot and stayed out during the first green-flag pit stops to lead a lap for an important bonus point toward Championship standings. Losing grip on long runs, the crew made adjustments to tighten the car on stops and helped Bowyer stay within the top 10 for most of the race.
With no changes to the car during Clint's last stop on lap 176, the #33 Chevrolet was able to navigate through traffic and as high as fourth position before the last caution of the race. Car handling fell off during the last nine laps and Bowyer found himself battling loose conditions in the car.
Fighting to hang onto track position Clint blocked those he could and stayed out of the way of those who he could not keep from passing him. Finishing in 7th position on the day Bowyer improved seven spots in standings and now shows in the 17th place in the Championship race.
With the fastest speed in the second of three practices, Team Harvick knew they had something to offer the rest of the field on Sunday. In the opening run Kevin moved the car from 24th to 16th before his first pit stop on lap 32. Four tires, an air pressure adjustment, and 25 laps later Harvick was in the top 10.
On fresh tires Kevin told the his crew he was loose but after just a few laps the car just kept improving. Restarts hurt track position for the #29 Jimmy John's Chevy as he fought the car on the beginning of the run but improvements with handling during long runs helped Harvick find the top five by the lap 102 restart.
Harvick made a stop for fuel and tires just one lap before the caution came out on lap 170; the team opted to stay out and dropped to 5th position through the next green flag run. When the last caution came on lap 186 Kevin and Crew Chief Gil Martin chose to stay on the track.
With two laps to go Harvick was in the runner-up spot and had leader Jimmie Johnson in his sights. On the last turn of the final lap Kevin made his move to pass Johnson and win Sunday's Auto Club 400.
After the race, Kevin said “We knew our cars were fast enough to win races. We just haven't had the circumstances go right. We had a fast car and the circumstance played in our favor." Harvick moved up six spots in Championship points standings and is now in 9th place in the standings.
Looking Ahead...to Martinsville
The Martinsville paperclip hosts this weekend's festivities and RCR drivers have high hopes. Paul Menard comes in with a career best 13th place finish at this track. Regarding Martinsville, Menard said “These guys work really hard, and I have the utmost confidence in them. We all know what we are capable of and set high expectations for ourselves."
Still looking for his first win at Martinsville Speedway Kevin Harvick has shown he has some prowess making his way around the track. One-third of Harvick's starts here have offered up top 10 finishes at the end of the day. Coming off of last week's win, a pole start at last fall's Martinsville race, and a 3rd place finish at the spring race here last year Kevin will come out with confidence and a plan to win.
Jeff Burton won at Martinsville in 1997. He has 10 top five finishes and another five finishes within the top 10 at this track. Looking to continue moving up in the standings Burton will be looking for his first top ten of the year. Only one of Jeff's last five starts at Martinsville has paid off with a top 10 finish; Burton will have to dig deep to tame this track on Sunday.
Clint Bowyer has five top 10 finishes and one top five finish in his ten Cup starts at Martinsville. With a 7th place finish here last spring Bowyer knows he has what it takes to finish strong here. He'll be searching for his first win at this track; he will need a fast car and a flawless day in the pits to make his way to the Winner's Circle.
Can Richard Childress Racing produce a week with all four drivers posting top ten finishes? Find out this weekend as drivers roll into Martinsville Virginia for two practice sessions on Friday, qualifying Saturday at noon, and short-track racing at the .526 mile Martinsville Speedway on Sunday afternoon.