NASCAR's California Weekend

John DoeCorrespondent IFebruary 20, 2009

After all that goes into Speedweeks, California is a big letdown. Not only is the track 3,000 miles and three time zones away from home, but the racing is not what I would call the best NASCAR has to offer.

Plus, the locals seem to have soured on the track, once again proving that the greater Los Angeles area has too many other things going on to care about professional sports. When you factor in the economy, I'm sure there will be plenty of empty seats on Sunday afternoon.

It is rumored that Robin Miller said only 21,000 tickets had been sold for the Auto Club 500, and while that number is probably being lowballed by an open wheel writer bitter at the fact some IRL races have trouble drawing that many people, I wouldn't be surprised if the stands are only half full (or half empty, however you look at it).

Tapping into my Schadenfreudic side here, I would love nothing more than to see a bunch of empty seats on Sunday. This is still Rockingham's date in my book.

It's obvious that the fans don't like this track, and it does not draw enough people to support two Sprint Cup weekends. We can only hope Brian France realizes this, and when it comes time for Kansas to get a second date as is rumored, he moves a race from California and not Martinsville or some other track that, you know, actually provides good racing.

Visiting southern California after a taxing 10-day extravaganza in Daytona is no picnic. If I am a team member or driver, the last thing I want to do after pouring my heart and soul into trying to win the Great American Race is traveling all the way across the country for an event that is not well supported by the people who make it possible, the fans.

Granted, there aren't too many places close to North Carolina that have suitable racing weather in late February, but Rockingham never posed too many problems (in fact, the average high on Feb. 22, which would be the date of the race if it were still held there, is 60). Of course, NASCAR hastily left that once prized facility.

They could risk running Atlanta after Daytona, but knowing the past history of March events at AMS, it would probably rain. Phoenix and Vegas aren't that much closer than California, so going there for race two shouldn't be an option.

I've been saying for a couple years that NASCAR should head from Daytona to Texas, and then move on to a mini-west coast swing through Vegas, Phoenix, and maybe California, assuming it still has two dates.

Then, they would come back and run through the southeast in late March and April, once any chance of cold weather had seemingly evaporated. Just give the fans and teams something less boring and depressing than California following the 500.

We all want to keep the momentum and excitement from Speedweeks going to the second race of the season, but there is virtually nothing about Auto Club Speedway and southern California making this a possibility.

I'm sure TV ratings will suffer this week, based on the track and the fact many people were upset that NASCAR turned the Daytona 500 into the Daytona 380. Plus, the race will be going up against the Academy Awards in prime time.

But you know what: us REAL fans will watch. It may be far from perfect, but NASCAR racing is still the greatest in the world.

I guess you know you've got it bad when you are willing to watch 500 miles of less than exciting racing on a Sunday afternoon and are actually looking forward to doing so.

I admit to not liking California, and typically would not get excited for this race other than due to the fact it signals the start of the "real" season, but the testing ban throws a curve into this weekend's festivities.

Who has done their homework over the past three months? Who hasn't? How will the start-up teams perform against the Big Four and other large operations?

It's obvious that Hendrick, Roush-Fenway, JGR, and RCR will come out and assert the upper hand as usual, but I am interested to see how strong Kasey Kahne and the RPM cars will be, if Kurt Busch and Penske are on the track to regaining their form, where Stewart-Haas stands on their intermediate track package, and what Team Red Bull has in store for the new year.

These "second-level" teams all have many unanswered questions entering the season, and with the series running a large portion of its events on intermediate/downforce tracks, this weekend will be somewhat of a litmus test. Vickers is already off to a strong start, winning the pole for Sunday.

Just a word of warning: the race time is 6:15 p.m.. Ah, NASCAR never failing us with their late green flag times.

I'd understand 4 p.m. since this is a race on the left coast, but this 500 miler won't get going until 3:15 California time. And it probably won't finish until 10 back east.

If this does one thing, it will make the crew chiefs be on top of their game as the track transitions from day to night.

The transition won't be as drastic as it would be in the October heat, but I believe the fall California race is going to be run completely in the daytime, so that won't be a factor when the Chase race in Fontana rolls around.

Auto Club 500 Starting Lineup