Auto Club Speedway has not been one of the kindest tracks to AJ since the California native moved to Richard Petty Motorsports. With finishes of 29th, 33rd, and 25th in the three outings prior to this weekend’s race, my expectations weren’t unrealistically high for him being able to extend his streak of top-10 finishes.
The #43 Valvoline Ford was fast in first practice on Friday, but a bad qualifying draw and a hot, slick race track put him way back in the field for Sunday’s race. The team worked on the handling of the car in both the Saturday practice sessions, but they were still struggling to find over-all grip when Happy Hour wrapped up.
When the green flag dropped for Sunday’s race, AJ gradually made his way forward. By the first green flag pit stop he had moved from 30th position to 19th. The #43 Ford Fusion was slow on new tires, but faster on long runs. After a quick caution for the blown up #16 car of Greg Biffle, AJ made some gutsy moves on a restart and moved from 21st place to 8th in the matter of five laps.
As the middle stretch of the race played out, wind started wreaking havoc on the competitors. Already battling a car that felt like it was being driven on ice, the crosswinds mad the #43 Ford want to come around in the corner. AJ slipped back through the field and then a slow pit stop where the driver slid in too close to the wall cost them some valuable track position.
AJ stayed in the top 15 for much for the remainder of the first half of the race, but continued to battle with no front or rear grip. After another bad pit stop, this time on the part of the crew, the team decided to make some big adjustments and risk the loss of a few spots on the track. The handling seemed to be better though, because after restarting in 20th position AJ managed to again crack the top 10 by lap 150.
The last quarter of the race was plagued with cautions, one coming right after AJ hit a piece of debris that did slight damage to the splitter of the car. Varying pit strategy and a car that had trouble on newer tires led to the team falling back through the field and then coming forward.
By the final Green-White-Checker, AJ was sitting in 11th place but unfortunately was one of the last cars without fresh tires. After being blocked by Regan Smith on the restart, AJ lost his momentum going into the corner and found himself in the middle of a five-wide gaggle of cars. Just trying to survive at this point, AJ drove his heart out for the final two laps to what would end up being a 19th place finish.
It was AJ’s best result at Auto Club Speedway since joining RPM, but it was still not indicative of where he ran for most of the day. The team had a solid top-15 car and unfortunately didn’t finish where they should have. It was still an improvement on a track that they have struggled with, and hopefully will give them some notes to take to the rest of the 1 ½ and 2 mile tracks.