Thoughts, observations and a few questions following the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway:
• Matt Kenseth shows that Robbie Reiser's team is an extremely well-run ship. Even without Reiser on race day, the team continues without missing a beat. However, until Kevin Harvick's tire went flat, Kenseth wasn't so sure about his chances.
"The 29 [Harvick] was better and had some misfortune there," Kenseth said. "We had to hold him off. I really thought we were going to lose when the 29 was running us down."
You've got to think that new co-team owner John Henry was quite pleased with the early results delivered by his new purchase.
• Did the new unleaded fuel, which will now be used at every NASCAR race, cause problems? It sure looks like it did. Unofficially, there were five engine failures: Martin Truex Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Dave Blaney and Ken Schrader. Engine builders say the switch from leaded to unleaded isn't a big deal as long as they address the lack of lead on the engine's valve train – which actually benefits from the presence of lead. The lead adds a level of lubricity to the valves of the engine, especially where they come in contact with other parts of the engine.
Most engine shops already had gone to a diamond-like coating (DLC) in many of their existing engines over the past several years because it made the valves more durable. The coating can help compensate for the lack of lead in the fuel. To make matters just a bit complicated, though, according to a source in the Nextel Cup garage, there is just one supplier whose DLC is deemed reliable by engine builders.
• For those who were wondering if Mark Martin was still the owner of the race-winning car, Jack Roush announced in the postrace press conference that John Henry is now the owner of record for the 17 car.
• He may not have won the Daytona 500, but as a consolation, Mark "I'm Just Happy To Be Here" Martin is leading the driver points by five over Jeff Burton. Can anyone remember the last time an MB2 or Ginn driver was leading the points? I can't.
• Speaking of driver points, here are a few noteworthy points placements after two races: Earnhardt Jr. is 41st, Kahne is 32nd and Tony Stewart is 21st. On the other side of the equation, David Ragan is fifth, Joe Nemechek is seventh, and, hold onto your hat, David Stremme is 10th!
• Brian Vickers' top-10 finish for Team Red Bull and Toyota is a positive sign that although this team isn't out of the woods yet, it has at least found the path that leads there.
• I'm not sure which left a stronger impression, Junior's save when his engine blew up or the ultra-cool Budweiser commercial that featured Junior in a take-off off the classic Mel Gibson move "Mad Max."
• Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. was just 18 laps from the finish of Saturday's Busch race when he wrecked his Dodge – again. That makes it three wrecks out of four races in his short Busch Series career. Ordinarily, there would already be talk about his replacement. But these are not normal circumstances, and team owner Roger Penske is willing to do what it takes to get Hornish up to speed in NASCAR.
By the way, Sam, have you figured out yet that you can't pass someone on the inside of a corner without losing the air from your rear spoiler, making you loose and spinning you out of control? It's an ideal place to make a pass in an Indy car, but not in stock cars.
• Based on his performances in the first two races this season, Jeff Burton (second in driver points) is picking up right where he left off last season.
• Jimmie Johnson placed the blame for his third-place finish on "a mysterious debris caution … and then we had some issues on pit road."
Jimmie, isn't nearly every debris caution a "mysterious" one?
• Jeff Gordon showed the poise of a four-time champion in dealing with an very tight car early in the race. I've lost track of how many times Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte have rebounded from a poor start to finish in the money. In the end, Gordon just didn't have anything for race winner Kenseth. Still, Gordon's second-place finish moves him third in driver points.
• David Ragan was the highest-finishing rookie in 16th. I don't know about you, but I'm still shaking my head.
• Without the safety changes implemented by NASCAR over the past five years, David Reutimann might not have been able to walk away from his race car following his extremely hard hit late in the race. The visual from the in-car camera shortly after the wreck showing a stunned Reutimann slumped forward onto his steering wheel looked very, very scary.
• Despite the allegedly strong marketing campaign in the L.A. area by track owner ISC, there were still many empty seats in the grandstands. The crowd was estimated (by non-track officials) to be around 70,000, approximately 10,000 more than last year's non-track estimate.
• Bobby Labonte looked like he had a sure top-10 in his pocket until he made a mistake and hit the wall. That put him in the back of the field and in harm's way when Reutimann had his wreck.
With another ho-hum California Speedway race in the books – this race was even more tedious to watch than the first 150 laps of this year's Daytona 500 – everyone's attention now turns to the two-day Car of Tomorrow test at Bristol on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The debut of the new car is just weeks away, and this week's test sessions are its final dress rehearsal.
Expect the reviews to be mixed as some teams (Childress, Hendrick and Petty among them) have the new car figured out, while most others do not.
Next weekend is not a weekend off for NASCAR. It's another round of Busch Series racing south of the border in Mexico City. It's always a competitive race and well worth watching.