Track Talk: Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway

Each weekend, our panel on The Podium Finish provide their thoughts on the latest stories in the world of NASCAR. Additionally, we make predictions on who may win the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway!

This weekend, our panel consisting of Amanda ParmeleeAshley Hobbs, Ashley Hull, Cody Shoppe, Kathleen CassidyKatie CoppleKyle MagdaSean Fesko, and Stephen Conley analyze Ryan Newman’s triumph at Phoenix, the late race shenanigans between Austin Dillon and Cole Custer, shortening group qualifying rounds, and the future faces of NASCAR!

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Question 1
Ryan Newman can feel the Coca Cola at Phoenix.

Ryan Newman can feel the Coca Cola at Phoenix.

Ryan Newman snapped a nearly three year winless drought with a surprising victory at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday.  Securing a playoff spot and Richard Childress Racing’s first victory since (ironically) the fall Phoenix International Raceway race with Kevin Harvick (also in 2013), is this the beginning of more good things for the No. 31 team?

Hobbs :  I think this was just a killer call not to pit with only three laps (hopefully) to race.  Sure, tires mean a lot, but at a short track, track position is also vital.  I would not say this race indicates the turning of the tides for the No. 31 crew; at least, not yet.

Copple :  As much as I hate to say it, I’m not getting my hopes up for the No. 31 team or Ryan Newman this season. One good race doesn’t mean a good season.  Now, if he continues to perform well in the coming weeks, then maybe we can revisit this question.

Newman has struggled since leaving Stewart-Haas Racing.  Now, that’s not saying that moving away from SHR was a bad move but it wasn’t the immediate success that drivers like Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch saw when switching teams.  I hope Newman does well this season.  A win this early in the season gives him and his team a little leeway to play around with different ideas and car set ups before the playoffs.

Hull :  We shall see if this is the start of good things for the No. 31 team.  Getting that win out of the way, and securing a playoff spot doesn’t hurt though.  It could boost their morale, since they had a rough year last year, and didn’t make the playoffs.  So they are already starting the year off well.  We shall see what the rest of the season has in store for Ryan Newman and the No. 31 team!

Cassidy :  Ryan Newman and the No. 31 team needed this victory.  A drought often leads to a lack of confidence all around the team and organization.  I think we will see RCR taking this momentum and pushing hard this season to get those good finishes.

Magda :  Don’t overlook this No. 31 team and not because of the fact Newman won the race on pit strategy but the 2014 series runner-up slowly climbed his way into the top-10 before the final caution flew.  RCR hasn’t posted a win since Harvick’s days at RCR as all three current drivers have made the Chase at least once the past three seasons.  I’m not sold on Newman yet but this win is a step in the right direction.

Parmelee :  I absolutely love Ryan Newman, so seeing him win the race on Sunday afternoon at Phoenix was awesome.  Although he doesn’t necessarily seem like a Jimmie Johnson who has gotten better with age, I think that Ryan Newman has shown that he can remain competitive in the Cup Series.  Maybe he’s not going to get a top-10 every week or be in Victory Lane as much as Kyle Busch or Joey Logano, but he’s shown, and continues to show, that he deserves to wave that checkered flag just as much as anyone else out there.

Conley :  I certainly think it could be more so for RCR as a whole.  Newman was solid all day at Phoenix, Menard ran in the top-15, and Austin Dillon showed signs of being right there, ready to win. It  seems with the departure of Stewart-Haas Racing, the money that Chevy was spending has certainly made its way into the hands of RCR and maybe more so with Ganassi.  A lot of solid performances are coming from those teams and that may have been a little under the “check writing table” if you know what I mean.

Shoppe :  That long awaited win is exactly what Ryan Newman and the No. 31 team needed!  With Luke Lambert earning his first win a a crew chief, RCR snapping their winless streak, and Newman punching his ticket to the playoffs after missing out last year, I expect more surprise success out of this group.

Question 2
Ultimately, Austin Dillon did enjoy some Coca Cola in Phoenix.

Ultimately, Austin Dillon did enjoy some Coca Cola in Phoenix.

While Justin Allgaier broke through to Victory Lane in last Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race, Cole Custer and Austin Dillon tangled in turn one late in the going.  Dillon, who wound up making contact with the wall between turns 1 and 2, expressed his displeasure with Custer by pinning him into the backstretch wall under caution.  Was this incident crossing the line of “Boys, have at it,” and should NASCAR drop the hammer on Dillon?

Hobbs :  A lot of people compared this to what Kyle Busch did to Ron Hornaday. What Busch did was a bit more impactful as it had Chase implications; what Austin Dillon did was just dirty and stupid.  He is a Monster Energy Cup regular getting seat time in the Xfinity Series where “kids” are learning the ropes.  Cole Custer admitted he made a mistake; he is a rookie and things happen.  Dillon should know better; he intentionally took out an Xfinity regular because he lost his cool, and that is not cool.

NASCAR said they would not tolerate payback; maybe that was only directed towards Joey Logano and Kyle Busch, but that was a series wide announcement to me.  NASCAR has failed already by not doing something to Austin Dillon.  If a Monster Energy Cup driver wants to dabble in the Xfinity Series, and they take someone out like that, they should lose their ability to race in the Xfinity Series for the rest of the year.  It is a childish move and Dillon should be ashamed of his actions (plus his attitude during the interview).

Copple :  Let me start off by saying this… Austin Dillon is not racing for an Xfinity Series championship!  Okay, now that we have gotten that out of the way, I get the whole “retaliation” thing when someone screws up your race but when you get these new guys tangling with the vets, it gets tricky.  And yes, Dillon is a veteran when it comes to the Xfinity Series.  Dillon should be reprimanded for his on-track scuffle with Custer.  It was uncalled for. 

Hull :  That was a very unnecessary thing that Austin Dillon did.  I understand him being upset with Cole Custer. However, using your car as a tool for revenge is NEVER a good idea.  What if he had severely injured Cole Custer acting that way?  He should have saved it for after the race. I think that they should punish him for this, and not allow him back into the Xfinity Series.

Cassidy :  Already this year, I think we have seen a few situations where NASCAR should have “dropped the hammer” on drivers, yet refrains from getting involved.  From a fan perspective, situations like this make the sport exciting, as that is how NASCAR became popular.  However, I feel like in the real world, precautions would be taken for actions like some of these, and NASCAR needs to think about this.  An example needs to be set, and clear lines need to be put into place, so fans know what is acceptable and what is not.

Magda :  Cole Custer made a mistake at Phoenix.  It wasn’t necessary for Austin Dillon to retaliate like he did on track.  It’s a Cup driver participating in a lower-series race, there should be no tolerance for those things.  What came to mind was Kyle Busch’s egregious move at the Texas Truck race a few years back.  He paid the price for wrecking a championship contender in another series.  Dillon needs to cool his jets before making a move on Custer like that. Both are racing the Xfinity Series for different reasons.

Parmelee :  Although I agreed with NASCAR’s ruling on the fight between Joey Logano and Kyle Busch after last week’s Cup race, I think that Austin Dillon’s maneuver to put Cole Custer in the wall does cross the line for two reasons: one, it happened under caution, and two, these cars are for racing, not as a vehicle (no pun intended) for voicing displeasure with another competitor.

In situations like this, I believe that no matter how angry a driver gets, the time and place for discussing any issues is after the race off the track.  This incident immediate reminded me of the 2011 truck race at Texas when Kyle Busch wrecked Ron Hornaday into the wall under caution after the two made contact while racing for the lead.  Busch was not only fined $50K, he was parked for both the then-Nationwide Series race and the then-Sprint Cup race.

Now, before anyone thinks I’m crazy — yes, the Busch/Hornaday incident was drastically more egregious than what we saw on Saturday, and no, I don’t think that either of those penalties should even remotely come close to applying to Dillon.  However, there are two important things to think about.  One, Cole Custer is racing for Xfinity points, Austin Dillon isn’t; and two, I think it’s important to stop this behavior, period.  You don’t want to give the impression that something like this is acceptable, especially to impressionable kids who may be racing late models at local tracks and dreaming about becoming one of these guys one day.  If it was me, I would levy a $5K-$10K fine on Dillon and be done with it.  But let him know that next time, there won’t be a next time.

Conley :  As I write this, NASCAR just announced its penalties.  Austin Dillon was not be penalized.

I’m on the fence here. I personally think that if a Cup series driver intentionally wrecks an Xfinity Series regular or a Camping World Truck Series regular, that Cup driver should be parked from any remaining races on those series. Listening to Wayne Auton, Director of the Xfinity Series, saying that it doesn’t matter what series the driver is from. On Saturday, they are an Xfinity driver and they look at each incident as such.  I understand their reasoning but he did take a driver out.  As far as I’m concerned, he’s laughing it up that he got away with it.

Shoppe :  Austin Dillon’s immature antics in last weekend’s Xfinity race crossed the line of acceptable retaliation. NASCAR absolutely should have some sort of penalty to hand down to him.  It is one thing to give a bump under yellow to say, “Hey, I didn’t appreciate what you just did, you better watch out,” and blatantly waiting on the apron for the guy to come around and run him into the wall.  Whether you think it’s deserved or not, Austin Dillon is seen by a group of people as a “spoiled rich kid” and actions like this are certainly not helping him escape that. 

Question 3
Round one of group qualifying at Auto Club Speedway: talking about Jimmie's magnificent beard for 15 minutes.

Round one of group qualifying at Auto Club Speedway: talking about Jimmie’s magnificent beard for 15 minutes.

Since 2014, group qualifying has been a staple of NASCAR. In the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, since 2015, round one has been 20 minutes long, round two has been 10 minutes long, and round three has been five minutes long.  After scores of competitors sat out the first half of round one, should NASCAR look into shortening the duration of each qualifying round?

Hobbs :  Absolutely!  These drivers know how to play the game; wait for the opportune time to get in your two laps and hope for the best.  With the length of these rounds, it is almost the same time as single car qualifying.  Things need to pick up speed a bit for qualifying.  I understand that TV time and the commercials are valuable, but the 35 minutes is too much right now, especially with drivers just sitting around and waiting.  Cut the first round to 10 minutes and let’s see what strategy they come up with.

Copple :  I still hate group qualifying.  Have since day 1.  It doesn’t make sense.  It still takes as long as single-car qualifying.  Just get rid of it entirely!  But that wasn’t the question, was it?  There have been too many changes to qualifying the last few years that it has been nearly impossible to keep up with it all as a viewer.  If teams want to sit out for qualifying, let them.  The only ones they are potentially hurting are themselves. 

Hull :  I personally don’t think so.  I think that these race teams all have different race strategies, and could use that entire 20 minutes to do a second qualifying run if needed.  I know that this is annoying to some fans, but I think that they should keep it the way it is, unless it becomes a problem.

Cassidy :  I do believe the duration of each qualifying round is a little overdone.  Speaking from experiences at the track, the process is boring, due to the fact it is so long.  Until the final round, we don’t see incentive for the drivers to go out multiple times in reach of gaining that top spot, they just need to be high enough to make it into the next round.  Targeting this issue could be beneficial to NASCAR.

Magda :  I was never a fan of drivers sitting around to make their lap.  Yes, there is a strategy aspect to it but it shouldn’t last 20 minutes for the first round.  It’s the teams that have to pass inspection as we’ve seen going through multiple times.  Cars pass the first time won’t have this issue.

There’s always the gray area for drivers to gain an advantage on track but kudos to NASCAR for making some qualifying tweaks since the group qualifying format began.  I’d like to see the first round at 10 minutes, the second at eight, and keep the final round the same with five minutes.  They’re not teams playing games like in Xfinity and Trucks when they’d all draft together to get the quickest.

I’m glad that was stopped with single-vehicle qualifying and it’s also another format NASCAR can look into if the group qualifying format ever goes away.  I was always a fan of the multi-vehicle qualifying in the sense when it was debuted at Pocono with the Trucks in 2010.  Right now, qualifying takes way too long.

Parmelee :  The idea of qualifying has confused me for a while now, and this is no different, but I’m going to offer my opinion because I can.  There’s really no way to make the playing field 100% equal.  You can’t qualify every car at the same time, and fans apparently thought that one-by-one qualifying was too long and boring.  If teams are sitting out for part of a round to let the track cool down to try and gain some advantage, then to me, the rounds should just be shortened to reduce that from happening.

Want an alternative?  Though I’m not sure how well it would work [or let’s be real, whether it’s been tried before or not because I’m still fairly new to this whole thing], I would advocate for a numbered lottery where a driver draws a number and that indicates when the car must be on the track for qualifying.  I understand the teams’ desires to use the time to their advantage as much as possible, but at the end of the day, I believe that there should be as equal a playing field as possible without trying to use loopholes in rules to gain a better track position.

Conley :  Absolutely, especially at the shorter tracks.  They know they are only going to run a handful of laps.  With the limited things that you can do as far as adjustments, why waste the car and risk the potential for chaos?  Shorten the time, or open up the changes that teams can make on the car during their qualifying run.  Or if you really want to mix it up, roll them all out behind a pace car at the same time, wave the green flag, and say “Race for your spot!”  It’s what they were hoping for when they instituted this style of qualifying anyways.

Shoppe :  I don’t think NASCAR needs to make any more changes to qualifying.  Whether you are bored waiting for cars to go out to qualify or not, it adds to the strategy.  Waiting too long to make you run can lead to self inflicted consequences, like a yellow ruining your lap or running out of time.

Question 4
Young guns of all kinds, points leader style or mullet style.

Young guns of all kinds, points leader style or mullet style.

NASCAR has seen the emergence of the young gun racers in the first four races of the season.  As the sport continues to look for its next wave of household name superstars to grab the torch from the likes of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Carl Edwards, who should the sport look into embracing as the new faces and icons to appeal to the fans?

Hobbs :  NASCAR should look right to the Xfinity Series and the younger kids there!  That is where the names are made and that is where the next younger kids will come from.  I am still keeping my eye on Bubba Wallace.  I anticipate big things for him moving forward.

But we also see some shining stars in the Monster Energy field right now with Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones as rookie contenders and blossoming super stars in Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and Ryan Blaney.  I feel like this is the year of the younger blood up front more often.

Copple :  I think names like Austin and Ty Dillon, Kyle Larson, and Chase Elliott are obvious names here.  These are guys with a long history in racing and have already made a name for themselves, whether it being with their on-track performance or by their name alone.  There are also a handful of young guys in the Xfinity and Truck Series that will be major contenders in the next few years.  Guys like Gray Gaulding and Darrell Wallace Jr. come to mind as do many others.  NASCAR has a great future ahead of them if they can keep the fan base interested. 

Hull :  I think that Chase Elliott should at least be considered.  He is extremely humble, mature, and classy.  Also, he is talented, and a win for him is in the horizon.  Also, I think people should also consider giving Daniel Suarez a try as well.  He has the same personality as Chase, and would contribute a lot to this sport.  He also brings diversity too. Ryan Blaney is another one that needs to be considered as well.  He is funny, mature, and classy.  He is an amazing driver, and he would also contribute a lot to this sport as well.

Cassidy :  NASCAR will never forget those “Hall of Fame” quality drivers each era has.  However, moving forward in the sport, these new drivers need to become the leading faces.  Fans are going to be drawn to current drivers and people they can cheer for.  Although it is important to never forget history, NASCAR needs to appeal to fans using the current drivers, conflicts, and sponsors the sport has to offer.

Magda :  Drivers to keep an eye on are Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott.  Larson’s the hottest driver in NASCAR right now, even if the wins don’t show for it.  Larson and Elliott are on the verge of adding to their NASCAR win totals with victories in the Cup Series.  Elliott will get his first Cup win this season – it’s only a matter of time.

A driver starting to get his bearings in Cup is Erik Jones.  The No. 77 team ran anywhere from fifth to 10th last week at Phoenix.  The more experience the 20-year-old gains, the closer he will get to Victory Lane.

Daniel Suarez also grabbed his first-ever Cup top-10 finish but I expected to see more growing pains with him than Jones.  Ultimately, both might end up as teammates once the elder Joe Gibbs Racing drivers either retire to move onto other rides.

Parmelee :  This may be my absolute favorite question, because I am ridiculously opinionated about this topic! In my opinion, the three drivers that I would love to see a bigger focus on are Daniel Suarez, Bubba Wallace, and — surprise! — Matt DiBenedetto.

At the Cup level, I think there has been a buzz around Suarez and his championship win last season — especially considering the challenges that he overcame as a native Spanish speaker coming to the States to fulfill his dreams of racing. Despite a bit of a rocky start at Daytona [finishing 29th], Suarez has improved every time he’s been on the track since, ending the race at Phoenix in seventh.  I also think Suarez can really expand the viewing audience of NASCAR – whether some of the older fans agree with it or not.

I have similar feelings about Bubba Wallace. He’s a talented driver, incredibly personable and professional in interviews, and he represents another level of diversity that NASCAR needs to embrace moving forward. Though my first two choices are fairly well-known drivers already, my final choice is a bit more of a personal one.

One of my favorite drivers, hands down, is Matt DiBenedetto. If you watched his Taylor Swift dance with his wife or the emotion that he showed following his sixth place finish at Bristol last year it’s impossible not to love the guy. Other drivers respect him as well, with Dale Jr. calling him “one of the most underrated drivers in the series.”

But my appreciation of Matt is more than just the few moments fans have seen him highlighted the last few years. Matt was raised in Hickory after his family made the choice to move to North Carolina from California to pursue Matt’s dream of racing. I went to college in Hickory and lived there for a few years following graduation. I learned to love racing at Hickory Motor Speedway.

More than a few of my evenings were spent at HMS, plastic wine glass in hand, watching the cars race around the short track and breathing in the dusty, gas-filled air. I was lucky enough to see Matt race at HMS before he got his big break in NASCAR. Something about him struck me watching him race.  Everyone in NASCAR works hard. Everyone in NASCAR wants to be there.

But it’s more than evident that Matt and his family have given close to everything for him to be where he is right now, and that’s something that shows through in everything he does. As long as Matt is racing, he’ll have a fan in me.

Conley :  I’d have to say Kyle Larson is at the top of that list.  Chase Elliott is drawing a lot of the old school fans being the son of a Cup champion.  Plus you’ve got Ryan Blaney and if you look in the Xfinity and Truck series, that list is very long.  A couple of drivers that I think really connect with fans are Ryan Reed and Bubba Wallace with his fun loving personality.  William Byron is going to be a big name that’s around for a while as well as Daniel Hemric. And if they can get rides to further their careers after the Truck series, look out for Kaz Grala and Chase Briscoe.  I could go on but we don’t have that kind of time.  The future is bright for fans to latch on to a young driver.

Shoppe :  Well, there is no shortage of young talent to help transition the sport into a new generation.  We already have a great group of current young guns who will make great superstars for years to come such as Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, and Erik Jones.  Looking at the Xfinity Series, there are plenty of potential future Cup stars proving their worth like William Byron, Cole Custer, Darrell Wallace Jr, and Matt Tifft.

Solid four laps around Auto Club Speedway, and yes, this is NASCAR’s version of the Hollywood Bowl!  Before we go Gladys Knight and the Pips about LA, let’s look at how we all fared last Sunday at Phoenix!
Yours truly went with a consistent Kyle Larson...

Yours truly went with a consistent Kyle Larson…

...and it results in a healthy points lead!

…and it results in a healthy points lead!

No points lead is safe in NASCAR.  Without further ado, let’s reveal our race picks for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway!
Race picks always work out that way. Right, Kyle and Joey?

Race picks always work out that way. Right, Kyle and Joey?

Tiongson :  This driver is not aware of the sophomore jinx.  He might be oblivious of this because he and his No. 24 team are as competitive as ever.  Consider that this driver nearly won at a similar track in the Irish Hills of Michigan last year.  In the words of Mr. Spock, it’d be most logical to pick Chase Elliott to win at Fontana this weekend!

Magda : I’m going with Chase Elliott.

Conley :  The car number that occupied Victory Lane for the first time 20 years ago at Auto Club Speedway will make a return to the track’s most hallowed ground on Sunday – Chase Elliott and the No. 24 team.

Shoppe :  My pick is Chase Elliott.

Hobbs :  It is seriously time for Kyle Larson to win this season!

TPF Stats :  Projection is going with Kyle Larson as well.

Hull :  My pick is going to be Kyle Larson since he has been doing well, and tracks like Auto Club are his thing!

Parmelee :  I’m going Kyle Larson.

Copple :  It’s Kyle Busch‘s time!

Cassidy :  Joey Logano will score the big win!

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk!   We’re about ready for some racing.  How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team!  The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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