For much of the afternoon, Joe Nemechek had the car to beat. Nemechek looked as if he was going to win his second race in two seasons with the MB2’s U.S. Army team, but the Chevrolet engine made by Hendrick Motorsports broke on Lap 178 and put him out of the race. He finished 39th.
Curiously, Nemechek’s teammate, Scott Riggs, dropped out of the race on Lap 229, also with a broken valve, and finished 33rd.
At least four Hendrick engines encountered problems in the race. Still, Nemechek wasn’t too discouraged.
“We’re going in the right direction,” said Nemechek, who started fourth and led a race-high 63 laps in a car built specifically for this race. “We got the car driving good in practice, we qualified well and we raced well. That’s all I can ask for. Very seldom do we have engine trouble.
“We were running extremely fast laps out there, I don’t know if that has anything to do with it. We’ll diagnose it, fix it, and be back in [next Sunday in Las Vegas] and I guarantee you we’ll be there to win.”
Not commonly regarded among the favorites for the championship, over the last 10 races of 2004, Nemechek was the seventh-highest points scorer. He finished 13th at Daytona last week despite overshooting the pits three times.
“You can’t say you should’ve won anything, but we had a chance to swing the bat at it,” said crew chief Ryan Pemberton. “The car was great, the crew was great, Joe was great. That’s racing. That’s why it’s never over until it’s over.”
MB2 is on the rise. Riggs took fourth at Daytona, and had been in the top 10 before encountering engine problems.
“I feel like we had an opportunity to put an exclamation point on our season last year, when we ran good but people didn’t want to sign off on us as a team that could win at any moment,” Pemberton said.
Magic Johnson, the Laker legend who is serving as co-chairman of NASCAR’s diversity program, was grand marshal of Sunday’s race and issued the traditional command, “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
“We have 200 kids coming from the inner cities of Los Angeles to be part of the race today,” Johnson said. “They will come back and look at the cars, as well as sit in the stands and enjoy the race. This is part of what we always wanted to do when I came on to NASCAR.
“To have these young people experience what I experienced last year. As those engines start up, boy, a rush went through my whole body, and I knew that I was in store for something special.”
As part of the diversity program, Nextel was host to 90 young minority men and women. Participants were guided around the track by minority crew members.
The Automobile Club of Southern California signed a three-year extension as title sponsor of the Auto Club 500, continuing a relationship that dates to the opening of California Speedway in 1997.
After sponsoring Winston West and Busch series races, ACSC became title sponsor of the 500 in 2003. The new deal runs through 2008.