The 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule marks the first time that the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA features a race in the Chase for the Championship.
Whether or not having a race in the Chase race this year will be enough to give the Auto Club Speedway the attendance boost it is looking for has yet to be seen.
But having a race in the Chase is not the only factor that drivers had on their minds when asked about the change and its ramifications.
When asked about what they thought about this now being a Chase race, most drivers were pleased in general, but became very specific about one particular point—the weather.
Almost to a man each driver stated how much nicer it is (and will be) for drivers, teams, and fans to be at the track in October when the temperature is in the low to mid-80s rather than in late August when the mercury tops out at over 100 degrees.
Whether those two new factors alone are enough to drive ticket sales to reach or exceed expectations, already there is hope that this year's Fall race in Fontana will not only be more comfortable, but also more exciting for the fans as well.
Not only will they have the chance to experience a Chase race first-hand (and a cooler one at that), but the Pepsi 500 on Sunday will mark the first time that double-file restarts shootout-style will be used at the Auto Club Speedway.
There has been criticism in the past that the speedway—with its wide track and relatively flat corners—has made the racing less "exciting" than that at other tracks. In fact, following the Auto Club 500 earlier this year, third place finisher Kyle Busch discussed the race finish and the fans in his post-race interview.
He commented that although his team didn't have what it took to keep up with the eventual top-two finishers (Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon), he found that he had a great view of the last 20-30 laps of the battle between the two champions.
He added in his own inimitable way that it was good to finally see an exciting finish here, especially for the fans.
One need only look back to the Fall race weekend last year and the Nationwide race earlier this year to see what he meant. In both the Fall 2008 race and in the Spring 2009 race, Busch clearly dominated in the Nationwide Series. And last year in the Fall Cup Series race, Jimmie Johnson dominated pretty much from start to finish as well.
When asked about how double-file restarts might affect the racing on Sunday, most drivers agreed on the main points:
Having double-file restarts is not the be-all-and-end-all one might hope as we have seen in previous races this year at other tracks—particularly if they don't come into play all that often and even more so if they don't come into play toward the end of the race.
If the race runs relatively caution-free, as it has often done in the past, we are likely to once again see cars become spread apart quickly and stay that way for long portions of the race.
"I think that it's going to be a huge plus for this race track and this race," answered four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "We've definitely seen the cars get spread out here pretty quick."
"It's a big, fast race track and I think a double-file restart is going to keep us bunched up together, it's going to raise the intensity level, and it's going to cause a little bit more excitement. I think it's been a big positive everywhere we've gone and I think this is a track where it will continue to be a big positive."
Kurt Busch, the first Cup champion under the Chase format, agreed with Gordon and others about how the track lends itself to becoming more spread out, "This race track, being it's a little flatter and doesn't have the banking, spreads cars out because you need that aerodynamic balance in the car."
"Double-file restarts have definitely changed the game in NASCAR," he added. "You're not able to rely on lapped cars to use as picks later in the day."
"You have to be up on the steering wheel at the end and you're side-by-side racing guys for position. It will definitely add excitement to the Auto Club Speedway."
When pole-sitter Denny Hamlin was asked about them, he answered that he thought the double-file restarts would not affect the racing much as a whole, "I think it will change it at the end of the race, probably the last two to three restarts will be very, very exciting."
"What happens when you get the cars all bunched up like that, they tend to side-draft off of each other do things to kind of bog each other down, and I think you'll see three- or four-wide racing right at the end of this race, if we have a late race caution which we've tended to have."
"We just have to be prepared for that," he continued. "It's going to get exciting for sure, especially on a big track like this. I think the double-file restarts you can either lose a whole bunch of spots or you're going to gain a bunch. Hopefully you are on the good end of that when it finally does go green."
To sum up, fans in Southern California and across the country have the following new elements to look forward to at this year's Pepsi 500:
1) It is the Inaugural Chase for the Championship race being held at ACS;
2) The weather should be much more kind to drivers, teams, and fans; and
3) Double-file restarts shootout-style, particularly toward the end of the race, should produce much more exciting and intense racing.
Photo Credit: M Brian Ladner