Despite valiant efforts, Toyota teams fail to finish in the top 10 at ACS.
FONTANA, Calif. – Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth entered the weekend with high expectations.
With Toyota Racing Development located just down the road in Costa Mesa, California, Auto Club Speedway is the manufacturer’s home track.
In the early stages of the both the Nos. 11 and 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Camrys were able to run at the front of the pack and compete with Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, the Stewart-Haas Racing duo who led 99 laps between them.
But after Kenseth and Hamlin started third and sixth, respectively, and battled at the point, both efforts went south in the final stages of the Auto Club 400.
A phantom caution?
Kenseth took the lead from on Lap 26. The veteran racer was enjoying his third trip to the front when a caution came out for debris on Lap 185. Upon letting out the clutch while exiting his pit, the axle broke on the No. 20 Toyota. Kenseth quickly diagnosed the situation and the team was able to fix the problem.
Kenseth conceded that Harvick and Busch “were the class of the field”, but after leading the race – and 43 laps – Kenseth was admittedly “disappointed” with 31st.
More so than the axle breaking, I'm just disappointed we're leading and we know them guys are a couple laps short and we got ourselves in position really nicely and there's a debris caution and you can't find debris anywhere.
“I thought we had a top-five car all day and then I just had the best pit crew and they kept getting me out with the lead and giving me a shot, so it's disappointing,” Kenseth said. “More so than the axle breaking, I'm just disappointed we're leading and we know them guys are a couple laps short and we got ourselves in position really nicely and there's a debris caution and you can't find debris anywhere – of course the leader always thinks that I guess, but I didn't see any that caution or the next one, so that's always disappointing.
“I'm sure I'll go watch it and I'll see something huge out there, but I just didn't see anything, so that was disappointing."
Hamlin led the second most laps in the race – 56. He took the point for the first time on Lap 31 and contended with the front pack for the majority of the race, but during the fifth caution – the same yellow the bit Kenseth – the No. 11 crew was penalized for having a tire outside of the pit box.
Although crew chief Dave Rogers reviewed the tape and insisted the call was wrong, Hamlin who entered the pits sixth and exited third was sent to the tail end of the lead lap cars.
“This better not be two weeks in a row, I’m telling you,” said a dejected Hamlin, who restarted 30th for what would have been the final 11 laps of the race before the two additional cautions.
Hamlin gained just two positions before his engine failed at the end.
There ain't nobody in the field with a fast enough car to come back from any penalties.
“We were good at the beginning and got off a little bit, but we had a bad restart,” Hamlin said of when the race went green on Lap 105. “I got shuffled back beyond the top-10 and worked our way back to the top-five and then the top-three and then had a penalty.
“You just can't come back from that. There ain't nobody in the field with a fast enough car to come back from any penalties. We had one at the inopportune time and it just led to a bad finish and we blew up at the end. That topped everything off."
Strikes and balls
After the race, Rogers said he would look over the film again. After NASCAR initiated the electronic officiating for the 2015 season, the margin for error has been eliminated on pit road. Still, Rogers disagreed with the call.
"I saw it on TV and certainly the right-front (tire) rolled away and out of our box a little bit,” Rogers said. “In years past, that would be a common sense rule and the tie goes to the runner. That's what NASCAR emphasized this off-season when we expressed our concerns over this system – black or white, ball or strike type of a deal.
“NASCAR assured us that they would use common sense and things wouldn't change and I can certainly tell you that last year that wouldn't have been called so that's a frustration. I don't know if it's me getting used to a new system or NASCAR pushing harder for the ball or strike and the tie is not going to go to the runner. I don't know, it's frustrating.”
Sprint Cup Series director Richard Buck said the new officiating system is a success. He told Motorsport.com prior to Sunday’s Auto Club 400 that “the teams have fully embraced it”.
“They come to us now more often than not after the race – with a violation – and want the clip, the video to be able to use it for a training tool to help their folks understand where they might have misjudged,” Buck said. “It very accurate. They really enjoy it.”