By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
The last leg of the “NASCAR Goes West” tour at Auto Club Speedway proved to have mixed results for Roush Fenway Racing and it’s three drivers. Trevor Bayne was the star of qualifying for Roush Fenway in the Auto Club 400, posting a seventh place starting spot. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. qualified 18th, with Greg Biffle 22nd.
The weekend quickly started going downhill for Biffle in Saturday’s final practice, where he slammed into Kyle Larson’s Chevrolet off of turn four with just 24 minutes left in the session. This left Biffle’s No.16 Ford EcoBoost crew scrambling to repair his damaged car.
Bayne quickly slipped out of the top 10, dropping to 14th by lap 10. Bayne hovered just outside the top 10 for the first 30 laps. Meanwhile Stenhouse quickly jumped up to 11th. Biffle on the other hand, slowly climbed up and into the top 20, before he and several others had unscheduled pit stops for flat tires.
On the ensuing run, both Bayne and Stenhouse slipped outside of the top 15 as Biffle tried to break into the top 15. The green flag run came to an abrupt end on lap 49 however, as Larson crashed hard into the inside wall, restacking the field.
Over the next 50 laps, Stenhouse and Bayne ran virtually nose to tail with Stenhouse leading the way as the duo slowly worked themselves back up to 11th and 12th respectively. Biffle lagged behind, running in and around the 19th position for much of the next run.
It looked as if both Stenhouse and Bayne were going to have a good day as the halfway point of the race was reached. Stenhouse, Bayne, and Biffle were all running in the top 15 in 12th, 14th, and 13th respectively. Bayne’s luck ran out on lap 109 as he cut a tire and bounced along the outside wall in turn one, bringing out the third caution of the race. The incident dropped Bayne down to the 32nd position, one lap behind.
The race restarted on lap 114 with Stenhouse finally cracking the top 10 as Biffle started to slip back once again. Pit strategy under the next caution just eight laps later dropped Stenhouse back to 17th and Biffle to 31st as Bayne struggled to recover, although he was able to get back onto the lead lap.
The race restarted once more with Stenhouse once again working his way back up towards the front. Unforunately for Biffle, his engine expired on lap 146, relegating him to a DNF and a 37th place finish.
Over the next 50 laps, Stenhouse continued his march to the front. By lap 180, Stenhouse had finally worked his way back into the top 10. By lap 200, the scheduled race distance, Stenhouse was sixth. After the overtime race finish, Stenhouse edged out rookie Chase Elliott in a photo finish for the fifth position. Bayne managed to salvage his day with a 20th place finish on the lead lap.
After the race, Stenhouse spoke to the media about his top five finish.
“We had a really good Fastenal Ford on the long run, that was where we excelled. We were struggling on the short run; I thought we had a 10th place car. Then the last caution came out, and my crew made a great call on pit road. They made some good adjustments. We restarted on the outside lane, which was really good for us. Starting on the bottom was not good for us all day. I was able to run the line that I preferred. I think we were three or four wide going into turn three on that last lap. That was a lot of fun. This racetrack has always been a lot of fun to race at.”
“I feel really confident in my team and the cars that we’re building,” Stenhouse said when asked about his confidence in the organization.
“We still have a long ways to go as a race team. As the 17 team, we are limiting our mistakes. They’re helping us improve, bringing us faster racecars. We put a lot of effort into a mile and a half and our speedway cars. Like those at California, Atlanta, and Vegas. You can tell a big improvement, and I’m really happy about that. We still have to go to work on our short track program, but I’m really happy at the progress that we’ve made over the offseason. Hopefully we can continue the progress the rest of the year so that we can restart these last final restarts in the top five and have a shot at the win.”
Heading into the Easter break, and looking beyond towards Martinsville, Stenhouse and the rest of the Roush Fenway Racing team looks to find consistency. Stenhouse will also be looking to build on his momentum from Fontana, while both Bayne and Biffle continue to look for success.
Image: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images