After being the fastest Ford driver in the first practice session at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, I had high hopes for how AJ’s weekend would go. Qualifying didn’t pan out quite as well as practice though, and when I watched my recording after the fact it looked to me like AJ’s car was pushing up the hill and killing his time through the corners.
With a new tire combination to try and figure out, the #43 Best Buy team fought throughout the two Saturday practice sessions to find some front grip. Rain off and on during the weekend and widely varying track conditions only increased the challenge for the team. And when the race started with AJ in 29th position, the car not only was tight in the front, but also had no rear grip.
The pushing condition made it tough to get through the corners, and when AJ tried to take advantage of that Ford horsepower coming out of the corner, the tires just wouldn’t hook up. He radioed in that the car was the worst it had been all weekend, and was forced to just hang on with what he had until the team could make adjustments.
Unfortunately, the first stop was made under green flag conditions, and the team didn’t have a lot of time on pit road to make any big swings. A track bar adjustment helped the rear grip, but it seemed to hurt the front. AJ searched for different lines to run that might help the car, but didn’t have much luck. With the leader looming in his mirror, there wasn’t much AJ could do but watch him drive by.
Thankfully there was a caution for debris before the race leader could lap any more drivers, and AJ was the lucky dog recipient. Since they had to start at the back of the field anyway, Mike Shiplett called for some major adjustments to try and improve balance. Tire falloff was a big problem, but AJ radioed in that the car was more in the track.
After receiving the lucky dog he took the green flag in 29th place and with the right adjustments he started working his way through the field. By the next caution on lap 92, AJ had moved up to within striking distance of the top 20. Speeding violations sent three cars to the back of the field, and after a wedge adjustment on a solid stop for the 43 team, AJ restarted in the 19th position.
The wedge adjustment seemed to help the front just a bit, but really hurt the rear grip on the next run. AJ was back to having to hang on and try not to wreck while the faster cars that had been sent to the back with speeding penalties drove back by him. More adjustments on the next green stop helped, but then a problem on pit road during the next yellow cost AJ some positions.
Running most of the middle part of the race in 20th to 25th place, the team struggled with finding a good balance on the car. In trying to help the front grip, they would hurt the rear grip and vice versa. They kept plugging away at it though, and AJ did the best he could by experimenting with different lines on the race track.
By lap 180, all the teams were watching the sky and trying to decide on a revised weather strategy. Black clouds loomed over turn 3, and sprinkles were reported as cars started coming in for green flag pit stops. Mike immediately called for AJ to start saving fuel, which are words that absolutely make my stomach clench up with dread. I don’t think AJ has ever come out on top when his crew chief gambles with fuel mileage.
This time was no different, either. Even as the rain started coming a bit harder, NASCAR left the green flag out and almost the entire rest of the field pitted. AJ was in fourth position when he radioed in that the rain was starting to die off. Knowing that he wasn’t going to get the caution he was hoping for, Mike called out to pit next time by. But it was too late. AJ ran out of gas on the back stretch and had to slowly coast to pit lane, costing him valuable time on the track.
With AJ now nearly two laps down, the caution fell for rain just a couple laps later. Frustrated on the radio, AJ told Mike that they couldn’t risk those kinds of chances right now. Mike agreed and the two strategized on how to try and get the lap back that they had lost. With other cars having similar bad luck and mechanical problems, AJ restarted the race in 26th position once the track was dried off.
AJ was in the lucky dog spot several times throughout the last 50 laps of the race, but someone else would go a lap down right before the caution flew. The Best Buy team would never manage to get that lap back, but did make big gains in their adjustments over that final stretch. By the time the race ended, AJ was running times that would have easily put him in the top 15 if it wasn’t for being a lap down. When the checkers flew, he was in 25th place.
While it certainly wasn’t the finish that they were looking for, there were still some positives to be taken out of Fontana. For one thing, the team kept at it and finally hit on some changes that improved the handling of the car. That will be helpful throughout the next couple of races at Vegas and Atlanta. Another positive is that the RPM organization as a whole seems to have better cars than at this time last year. They really don’t have the results to show it, but the merger so far seems to be working in their favor.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I was not happy with how things went at Auto Club Speedway. I am not down about how the season is going so far, though. It is just two races, and there is a long ways left to go. The cars have been fast, the driver is excellent, the sponsor is a match made in heaven for AJ, and the future still looks very bright.
So now it is on to Las Vegas where AJ just has one race under his belt, and a not so great race at that. Handling will be key there, and track position more important than ever. Hopefully the #43 pit crew has all the bugs shaken out and they don’t cost him any spots on pit road. Mike needs to make good adjustment, and AJ has to take care of his equipment on the track and not make any mistakes. Not just this weekend, but every one after this, too. It’s time to show the results, boys.