FONTANA, Calif. — We know that Tony Stewart won Sunday’s Auto Club 400. We know that Greg Biffle kept the Sprint Cup points lead for the third straight week.
But there’s still a lot we don’t know as we leave Fontana on the transcontinental trip to Martinsville. Here are six questions to contemplate as we move from a wide two-mile track to a tight half-mile:
1. What happened to Mr. October? No, not Reggie Jackson. We’re talking about Tony Stewart, a perennial late bloomer. Never before Sunday had Stewart won two Cup races in a season before the end of March. Never before had Stewart won two Cup races in a season before May 5, for that matter. New crew chief? No problem. The win at Fontana was an engraved announcement that Smoke will be a contender again this year.
2. Is Michael Waltrip Racing for real? It certainly looks that way. A week after running 3-4-5 at Bristol, all three MWR entries finished top 13 at Fontana. Martin Truex Jr. is fifth in points, and Clint Bowyer is eighth. Mark Martin is 17th only because he took the week off at Bristol. Chad Johnston, Truex’s crew chief, told me Sunday morning that the ability to compare notes from three A-list drivers has made a real difference in the overall performance of the team.
3. Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. ever win again? He’s been close, he’s led laps early (as in Las Vegas), and he finished third Sunday on the strength of a good pit call. But Junior hasn’t had the speed to run with the strongest cars at the end of a race since last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, where he ran out of fuel within sight of the checkered flag. Don’t forget that Earnhardt also had a great run in the spring race at Martinsville last year, so maybe his winless streak will end where it stands right now — at 134 races.
4. Will crew chief Chad Knaus bring his infamous “C” posts to Talladega? Driver Jimmie Johnson says the rescission of most of his team’s Daytona penalties proves the body modifications to his car were legal. NASCAR president Mike Helton says the upholding of a $100,000 fine to Knaus proves that a violation occurred. Who’s right? And will Knaus test Johnson’s assertion by bringing the “C” posts to the next superspeedway race? If he does, Helton expects them to be confiscated again.
5. Could NASCAR’s appeal process benefit from greater transparency? The question above is a case in point. After the National Stock Car Racing Commission unanimously upheld the penalties to the No. 48 team, only to see most of them struck down a week later by chief appellate officer John Middlebrook, there’s more confusion than ever. Why? Because Middlebrook adjusts penalties without comment as to the nature and depth of the alleged violations that caused NASCAR to act. An explanation would help.
6. Is the future of Dodge in NASCAR racing suddenly much brighter? Team owner Roger Penske wasn’t at Fontana — he was 2,500 miles away at the IndyCar Series race in St. Petersburg, Fla. — but his words on Saturday resounded in the Cup garage. Despite a switch from Dodge to Ford next year, Penske says he’ll continue to run his engine shop and is open to building Dodge engines for the trade. With the engine piece of the puzzle solved, a team contemplating a manufacturer change could do so much more easily. Dodge needs NASCAR teams to showcase its 2013 racecar. Dodge also has plenty of potential suitors willing to listen to what the car maker has to offer. So the Dodge fleet in Sprint Cup racing — currently the two full-time Penske cars of Brad Keselowski and AJ Allmendinger — could actually grow next season, not disappear.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.