It was Jack Roush Day at California Speedway on Sunday as his Ford-powered entries finished first, third, fifth and seventh in the Auto Club 500 in front of a crowd estimated at 90,000.
Greg Biffle, a product of Roush’s ladder system, predicted before the race that he would win and then produced despite falling nearly a lap behind the leaders in mid-race.
“I know I have the fastest car, I’ll be in the lead by the fifth lap [after starting fifth] and I’ll be in front when it’s over,” he said Saturday. True to his word, he took the lead briefly on the fourth lap Sunday, and in the final laps held off Jimmie Johnson’s fast-closing Chevrolet to claim his fourth win since Roush promoted him to Nextel Cup racing three years ago.
Kurt Busch was third, Carl Edwards fifth and Mark Martin seventh in other Roush team cars. Breaking up the domination were Johnson, Jamie McMurray, fourth in a Dodge, and Kevin Harvick, sixth in a Chevrolet.
“I came from 30th twice, I had to pass every car and earned it,” said Biffle, 35, of Vancouver, Wash. “I got every ounce I could out of that car today. It was the toughest win I’ve ever had.”
The win turned on the Roush team’s decision to not have Biffle or Busch pit during the last yellow caution period. When the green light came out after oil was cleared from the track, there were 31 laps remaining.
“It wasn’t really a hard decision,” Biffle said. “We had seven laps on our Goodyear tires. They have a really good compound and it takes them about five laps to come in, so we would have only had a few laps’ advantage by pitting and we knew a lot of guys were doing two tires. Why put ourselves in that position?”
Biffle made another decision earlier in the race to “free up” his car and make it loose so he could work and weave his way through the field, but it almost backfired.
“I freed the car up and it worked because I was back racing in traffic, but I got to the front sooner than I thought and the car was so dang loose I couldn’t drive it. But we were able to hang on to it, and that’s a big credit to the guys in the garage and everyone that works on these race cars.”
Johnson, who also finished second last week in the Daytona 500 -- the first Nextel Cup race of the NASCAR season -- had a significant decision of his own to make and it may have hurt more than it helped. During a caution flag situation on Lap 162, Johnson pitted for fuel but took no tires. He came into the pits second behind Joe Nemechek, and came out in front. But almost immediately a number of cars on fresh tires passed him.
“I’ve got to take a lot of the responsibility for that,” Johnson said. “I thought it was going to be a great call. I wanted the track position, and I thought a lot of guys would take two tires. I gave Chad [Knaus, his crew chief] the idea and it backfired pretty bad.
“By the time we got stabilized, we fell back about 10 spots. At that point, I was thinking I might get up to fourth and then before I knew it, I had caught [Biffle] and [Busch] and if there was another lap, maybe even another corner, I might have gotten inside [Biffle]. But it was a great finish.
“I don’t know if you could see it, but Biffle was so sideways the last three laps he did a good job of keeping it together.”
Officially, there were 26 lead changes among 14 drivers, but most occurred when the lead car pitted. Biffle led 46 laps, including the final 22, but Nemechek led 63 and Matt Kenseth, another Roush driver, led 57.
During most of the 3-hour 34-minute race, cars were spread out all around the two-mile, D-shaped circuit, giving one another plenty of room.
Although Johnson finished second, it was a bad day for Hendrick Motorsports as engines expired in cars driven by Jeff Gordon, Scott Riggs and Nemechek, and front-row starter Brian Vickers finished 21st with a broken cylinder.
Nemechek and Gordon had impressive runs before slowing to a stop. Nemechek looked as if he had the strongest car in the chase, leading three times for 63 laps, and Gordon worked his way from the 28th starting position to second by Lap 200.
“We are certainly concerned, and it’s a bummer,” Gordon said. “We had a good car and Nemechek had a strong car as well, so we’ll try to get to the bottom of it and make sure it doesn’t happen again. If you’re going to break engines when you’re running that good then we’ve got a problem.”
Nemechek had the day’s fastest lap of 183.299 mph on Lap 152. Biffle averaged 139.697 mph; his speed was slowed by seven caution periods of 40 laps.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an even worse day. His Chevrolet kept having its front left tire go flat.
“I don’t know what caused the problem,” Earnhardt said. “I just know that the outside edge was 300 degrees on the corner and that makes it come apart fast. We didn’t see that at all during practice. It was weird, the way those tires were going flat.”
Earnhardt finished 32nd, 13 laps behind Biffle.
The win was Biffle’s third at California Speedway. He won both Busch races last year. For his win Sunday, he earned $288,650.
Since graduating from weekly races at Tri City Raceway in West Richland, Wash., in 1998, he moved up the NASCAR system as Craftsman Truck rookie of the year in 1998, champion in 2000, Busch series rookie of the year in 2001 and champion in 2002.
His Craftsman Truck championship was the first for Roush since he joined NASCAR in 1988, but he has the two most recent Nextel Cup champions in Kenseth and Busch.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
NASCAR at Fontana
Winners at California Speedway. Note: Last year Jeff Gordon won the Auto Club 500, and Elliott Sadler won the Pop Secret 500 in September:
*--* YEAR WINNER CAR 1997 JEFF GORDON Chevrolet 1998 MARK MARTIN Ford 1999 JEFF GORDON Chevrolet 2000 JEREMY MAYFIELD Ford 2001 RUSTY WALLACE Ford 2002 JIMMIE JOHNSON Chevrolet 2003 KURT BUSCH Ford 2004 JEFF GORDON Chevrolet 2004 ELLIOTT SADLER Ford 2005 GREG BIFFLE Ford