Auto Club Speedway is an interesting racetrack. A roval, it has two personalities and if you want to win there, you need to have a drafting partner. Short of that, you can partner up with whoever is around you and hope it works out for you in the end.
Justin Crickenberger tried to work with Ryan Pond in Saturday’s race, and even though they tried to work together, they didn’t get the order of operations right. Crickenberger’s 1999 Miata has the torque and horsepower to push Pond’s 1.6 car on the high banks, but Crickenberger was ahead, so the two tried to change places to take better advantage. It didn’t work, and the two found themselves fighting other drivers for position late in the race.
“We decided to make the change without realizing how close and how quickly everyone else was coming up to us, so that ended up hurting both of us,” Crickenberger said. “Luckily, I was able to recover at the end and salvage a second place, which is never bad.”
Pond went from first to third. He had the advantage under braking into Turn 3 into the infield, but a yellow flag was out in that corner throughout most of the race, so he couldn’t pass there. Changing places with Crickenberger midrace, Pond held on to bring home third place.
“I made some moves,” Pond said. “I regret some because they put me back because I was fighting for first and then in trying to test some things in the infield, I got pulled back into third.”
In that reshuffle, Hannah Grisham was able to take the lead and hold it till the finish, even after being shuffled back to fifth place in Turn 1 on lap one.
“I’m just so glad to win this with my sponsor, The City of Hope, here to see it,” Grisham said. “The strategy was just to work with someone, so Ryan and I started working and pulled away from Justin a little bit and that was about it for a few laps. But then, Ryan, I think he was going to let up a bit to go back to Justin so they could work together. It just so happened to be that it was the white-flag lap, and I had a little gap on them and I was like, ‘Oh, no. I’ve just got to keep this gap,’ because now they were now working together.”
Sunday’s qualifying race affected the grid for the main race. Crickenberger had pole as he often does, but Blake Minasian had earned a second-place start, with first-year Teen Mazda Challenge competitor Eric Slivkoff in third, Pond in fourth and Grisham in third.
Heading into Turn 3 into the infield after the start, Pond got bumped from behind my Mike Haddad and lost several spots. Up front, Crickenberger had established the lead, with Grisham in second, Minasian in third and Slivkoff fourth.
About halfway into the race, Grisham got to the inside of Crickenberger in Turn 5. The two ended up way inside, losing a lot of momentum and allowing Minasian and Slivkoff to get right up on them. As Crickenberger and Grisham rounded Turn 5, there was contact, and the two went off the track at corner exit, as did Minasian, who was trying to get around the outside of them, which didn’t work.
That put Slivkoff in the lead with Steven Champlin behind him and Haddad in third. But there was still a fair amount of time left on the clock, and Pond had worked his way back up to fourth and was running the fastest lap times in the field. Champlin passed Slivkoff for the lead. Pond got behind Haddad and used him for the draft, then passed Haddad and Slivkoff in Turn 3 to take second place. Setting his sights on Champlin in the lead, Pond caught him at the last complex of turns in the infield and by the time they exited onto the oval, the two were side by side. Pond pulled ahead just before Start/Finish to take the win.
“I got bumped a little bit in Turn 1 the first lap, and I don’t know how far I dropped back, but I was just a man on a mission,” Pond said afterward. “The two front runners crashed, which set the group back and let me catch them, and it was fortunate for me. Oh, that was an emotional one.”
Champlin picked up his first podium finish of the 2019 season.
“The last lap we were side by side through like every corner, and he just barely got me at the finish,” Champlin said. “I’m not exactly sure how he pulled it off to be honest with you. I didn’t lift for the last corner and I’ve got a ’99, so I don’t know how a 1.6 should be able to drag me, but he sure did.”
Slivkoff held on to take his first podium in Spec Miata in his first season as a Teen Mazda Challenge driver.
“It’s a big drafting and teamwork track, so you have to stay patient, get someone to work with you and hang in and wait for everybody else to make mistakes, and that’s kind of what we did,” he said.