NASCAR And The Auto Club Speedway: Reflections And Projections

M Brian LadnerCorrespondent IOctober 12, 2010

Photo Credit: M Brian Ladner
Photo Credit: M Brian Ladner

Now that the NASCAR traveling roadshow has come and gone for the last time in the fall for the foreseeable future, it's a good time take a moment to reflect a bit on NASCAR's recent history at the Auto Club Speedway as well as delve into changes planned for the next year and see what, if anything, might be gleaned from it all.

The Loss of Camping World Truck Series Racing

The February races I knew always held something special in that there were going to be three races—the third, of course, being a Camping World Truck Series race.

This became especially entertaining when Kyle Busch would be running in all three, and even managed to win two races in the same day last year—a first in NASCAR history.

This is also where Busch came extremely close to doing what it would take him another year and a half to do at Bristol earlier this year—the weekend triple-sweep. After winning both the truck and Nationwide series races on Saturday in 2009, he came back Sunday and finished third in the Cup race—coming so close, yet so far.

This year, there were no truck races. I can't honestly tell you that I missed them at first when they didn't come this year, as I was so busy learning how to cover a race that it slipped my mind entirely.

But later in the year I began to wonder when they were going to be here, and if they had made the truck race a stand-alone event or combined it with a race from another series. Looking it up, I could find nothing.

I also can't honestly tell you what attendance was like specifically for the truck races at Fontana and if it was enough to be sustainable. Given the lead-in of practice and qualifying for the other series as is often the case at other tracks, one would think so, but I wouldn't know for sure.

But as I have traveled back to Las Vegas the past two yeas to watch the stand-alone truck events, I can say that the truck races there continue to draw large crowds who generally end up leaving happy, or at least all the people I go with do.

There are no Camping World Truck Series races scheduled here in 2011, so the thrill of seeing if someone can pull off a triple weekend sweep will not be a possibility once again.

And with the truck series quickly becoming one of the most competitive series on a race-by-race and championship basis, it is a shame that there will be no truck race here again next year.

The Introduction Of Double-File Restarts

Probably the biggest substantive change to affect the overall racing at Fontana in the past two years has been the change to double-file restarts.

This is true of many other tracks and the series as a whole, but like many of the larger, wider tracks known for long green-flag runs, this change made a large impact on the quality of the racing seen. And neither the last Nationwide nor the last Chase race proved to be any different.

I personally have been watching NASCAR religiously for about eight years. The last four I have attended at least one race at the Auto Club Speedway every time the Nationwide and Cup Series came to the area.

And I'll be the first to admit, coming from my first experiences with watching live races at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, I was not impressed.

Actually, it didn't really matter whether I was at the track or watching on television, the field usually spread out single file fairly quickly and whoever hit the setup right took off into the sunset and never looked back.

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If a caution did happen to come out, the single-file restarts led quickly back to the same old, same old very quickly.

Only within the past year have I realized that this wasn't a problem caused necessarily or solely by something inherent in the makeup of the speedway, but at least in part by the way restarts took place.

Other tracks on the circuit were equally "less than exciting" before double-file restarts became the norm. It just so happened that I lived closest to ACS and went to there to watch, so it seemed to hit home a little harder when a race here wasn't a thrill a minute.

But since last year's fall races, the quality and excitement level of the racing has increased dramatically.

True, there were still long green flag runs and Kyle Busch or someone from Joe Gibbs Racing dominated the Nationwide Series races and Jimmie Johnson or someone affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports still managed to run away with the Cup races.

But the fact that when a caution did fly meant that there would be some serious side-by-side racing going three- four- and sometimes five-wide—especially toward the end of races—that made watching truly exciting.

One can only wonder if having double-file restarts all along would have made any difference in getting more fans to the track and kept them coming back, or if it was just a matter of too little, too late.

Or of course, it could have had no effect whatsoever as there are many other reasons that have been offered as to why Fontana and Ontario before it were unable to stay filled to capacity in what everyone hoped would be a burgeoning market.

One thing is certain, however, with the increased intensity level seen from the teams now starting at the green flag at Daytona, the intensity level of every restart in the one race remaining at the Auto Club Speedway should provide for exciting racing to continue there next year and beyond. 

Race Weekend Reinvigoration

After watching the Pepsi Max 400, the first 400-mile Cup race to be run at ACS, one has to wonder what sorts of changes will be in store for future races at the track. Already the track is promoting the Auto Club 500 for next spring, so a shorter race is pretty much out of the question for next year.

But the format did seem to be fairly popular and added to the intensity of the race. Other suggestions I heard bandied about were to combine the efforts, energies and resources currently split between two race weekends in order to provide a bigger single event to attract more interest to the one remaining race weekend.

Again, here I plead ignorance as I don't know nor do I pretend to know how sponsorship dollars for race weekends work. But I'm betting that there won't be a pooling of money from Pepsi and the Auto Club to put on one big Cup race called the Auto Club Pepsi Max 900 next year. I'm pretty sure that's not how it works.

But I can see working to involve fans more in the spring race than has usually been done in the past. RaceFest, for example, has been a tradition before the summer/fall race weekend for six years now and is quite popular.

Nothing similar has been held for the spring race—a time when fans can come and have drivers sign autographs, check out the FanZone, be entertained by bands and extreme shows such as Metal Mulisha and purchase merchandise from the haulers without having to buy a ticket to get into the gate.

Anything else that can help Southern Californian fans already traffic-weary from the week get to and from the track more easily or give them more bang (or more options) for their buck might be a way to turn the loss of a second date from having two race weekends with lackluster attendance to one major weekend event.

Danica Patrick's Entry Into And Return To Nationwide Racing

In February, IndyCar driver Danica Patrick began her journey as a stock-car driver, first with an ARCA and Nationwide race at Daytona, and then her first non-restrictor plate race at the Auto Club Speedway.

Danica-mania was in full swing and her merchandise trailers were surrounded by fans while she and her car (and her garage and pit stalls) were constantly surrounded by media and onlookers in general.

Her first start at ACS was not auspicious, but it was not terrible. She qualified and started 36th, ran the full race and finished 31st, three laps down.

A fair amount was written about her return and whether or not she would do better or worse coming back and having some familiarity with a track for the first time in her short NASCAR career.

Many thought her time away running in her main series, the IRL, would have detracted from anything she might have learned the first time around.

Many added that obviously her "dabbling" in NASCAR had "obviously" hampered her Indy efforts given her relatively lackluster season—especially compared to 2009.

From the beginning of the weekend, however, it looked like she was more comfortable in the car and doing better overall.

Her fourth place standing in final practice seemed to show great improvement, although many dismissed that as her running in qualifying trim while most of the regulars never bothered to make qualifying runs.

Even her 14th place qualifying run was a huge improvement over February, but few people seemed to expect much.

The race began and Danica held her own somewhere between 15th and 20th much of the day, falling one lap down for a while before getting the free pass to bring her back up to 18th out of 19 on the lead lap.

From then until her last restart, she passed other drivers and moved up through some attrition to as far as 12th at one point.

On the next-to-last restart with 10 laps to go, she was shuffled back to 17th position before beginning a run forward, during which she supposedly made contact with James Buescher coming out of turn two one lap, squeezing him into the wall.

The next time around, opinions differ as to exactly what happened, but in the end, the No. 7 ended up making a hard right turn into the wall on the straightaway aided in some capacity by Buescher's No. 11, damaging or taking out Ricky Carmichael and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in the process.

Bewildered, she asked for directions on what to do next and was told to bring it to the garage. A top 15 to top 20 day that might have become as good as a top 10 day was done, and Danica ended up finishing 30th, bettering her last finishing position by only one spot.

From where I sat in the press box, I was amazed. Many of the press who undoubtedly had to endure more "Danica-mania" than a part-time journalist like myself had been at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile toward the idea of Danica in NASCAR back in February.

But on Saturday, people in the media center were cheering her on and keeping track of her progress more closely than that of the leaders, where it was quickly becoming evident that Kyle would win again.

And when she was involved in the wreck and turned hard into the wall, audible sighs of disbelief were heard and twitter traffic jumped incredibly.

I've read other articles where writers and those commenting argue that's part of racing and because the record books will show another 30th place finish, she needs to seriously reconsider her future in NASCAR.

Most of those people are generally shouted down in comments asking how blind and/or misogynistic the person must be to not be able to admit that she had improved considerably.

How she does over the next five or six races she's supposed to run will tell a lot about her ability to handle a stock car in general, but her experiences at ACS definitely showed she could not only take the scrutiny, but she could perform well under pressure on the track where it counted. 

Kyle Busch And Joe Gibbs Racing's Nationwide Domination

With Kyle Busch's win in the CampingWorld.com 300 this past weekend, Busch not only swept the track for both races this year, but helped Joe Gibbs Racing become the first team ever to win six races in a row at a track.

Of those six wins, Busch has four and might have a fifth were it not for an illness that forced him from the car last year leaving his teammate Joey Logano to carry on the Gibbs domination at the track and during this season.

That's just another record piled upon those he continues to rack up every time he gets into the Nationwide car. Every lap he led set him farther ahead of Mark Martin's all-time laps-led record—and he's only 25.

And then there's the obvious, he added a little more icing to the cake that is now his solely held record for most wins in a season at 12. And he not only didn't run in five of the races, but he's going to run in four of the five still to go.

Say Hello To The Nationwide COT

The CampingWorld.com 300 at ACS marked the last time the current Nationwide car will be run there. Beginning next year the Nationwide COT is slated to be run at all events, having by then run at four very different tracks throughout this year.

This opens up a whole new storyline that we'll surely be hearing and talking about for much of next year. Every time the car is taken to a new track where it has never run before, crew chiefs and drivers will be working extra hard to begin building up new notebooks.

This could either shake things up when it comes to Nationwide series races at ACS or prove the dominance of those teams that are finishing in the top five and top 10 week in and week out.

In fact, four of the top five finishers from Saturday's CampingWorld.com 300 (Busch, Keselowski, Edwards, Logano) finished in the same order they finished in the February Copart 300. The only difference was Biffle finishing second in the February race and Harvick finishing third in last Saturday's race.

In the three races with the Nationwide COT so far, the Joe Gibbs dominance of the series seems to be a question mark. Both the 18 and the 20 cars have run well and been up front, but have yet to win a race.

Could this new car be the great equalizer that finally brings the JGR juggernaut back to the rest of the pack? One indication may come from this week's upcoming race at Charlotte Motor Speedway—the fourth and final track the new car will be run on this year.

If the JGR cars, and in particular Kyle Busch and the No. 18 team, can put it all together and win on the intermediate track, it's a good bet that the JGR winning streak will continue at the Auto Club Speedway next March when they return. 

The Wing Is Gone, Bring On The Spoiler

The Pepsi Max 400 marked the first Cup race run with the COT in its most recently modified configuration—that of having a spoiler and "shark fin" rather than the wing originally included as part of the design of the COT back in 2007.

For the most part, it didn't seem to be a factor—or at least not one worth discussing. Many questions were asked about it before the race, but most answers focused on the fact that since the teams had been running with the wing for a while now, most of the major differences between it and the wing that needed to be worked out had been worked out.

Although this may seem like little now, this will most likely affect "double-duty" drivers returning next year. Already comparisons between the current cup car and the Nationwide COT (which also retains its spoiler) are being made and studied.

Although there will be obvious differences that will make the cars handle quite differently overall, the fact that they will be any closer to each other in any of the important characteristics that make up aerodynamics, drag, and handling in general is important.

In the long run, this change will probably help some teams who have "double-duty" drivers and hurt others, at least in the beginning. We will have to wait and see how they mesh at each track to see who it helps and who it hurts in terms of information transfer between the teams of "double-duty" drivers.

Three-In-A-Row for Jamie McMurray?

Jamie McMurray went back to Chip Ganassi this year when Roush Fenway had to cut one team from their stable. But no one could have seen the year he had coming. Before this year McMurray had three Cup wins (one each in 2002, 2007 and 2009) and three pole awards (one each in 2003, 2005 and 2007).

This year so far, McMurray has two major wins (Daytona and Indianapolis) and four pole awards (Darlington, Chicagoland and both races at Fontana). So he has won races on the high-banked restrictor-plate track at Daytona and the flat, almost square, super-speedway at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

With regards to the Auto Club Speedway, he won the pole position in February in the car with the wing, and came back and won it again in the car with the spoiler. It will be interesting to see if McMurray's winning ways continue on into next year and if he can win a third pole in a row at the Auto Club Speedway.

Can Roush Fenway Racing Rebound?

Leaving Southern California after the Pepsi Max 400, Jack Roush could not have been a happy man. Three of his four cars had engine or electrical problems, and the fourth was involved in an accident with a former driver of his (Kurt Busch) with seven laps to go that took him out of the race.

Thus, the best-finishing RFR car team was the No. 17, who finished 30th, the last car on the lead lap, after experiencing engine problems late in the race. The others finished 32nd (Ragan, DNF), 34th (Edwards, 13 laps down) and 41st, (Biffle, DNF).

I'm not sure, but I'm guessing that is most likely the worst average finish Roush Fenway Racing as a whole has ever had at the Auto Club Speedway. Between RFR and Hendrick Motorsports they have dominated that track pretty much since it opened in 1997.

The question now is, can the Cat in the Hat bring his teams back into contention—if not within what remains of the Chase this year, can he at least bring them back to their dominant ways at the Auto Club Speedway when they return next year?


The King Is Dead, Long Live the King

Jimmie Johnson did not win the Fall Sprint Cup race this year for the first time since 2006. Another Hendrick Motorsports-affiliated driver, Tony Stewart won (for the first time in his career), keeping the trophy and additional bonus points away from the Chase points leader.

Johnson did, however, do what he needed to do, and that was stay out of trouble (and there was plenty to get into), run well, and extend or at least maintain his points lead over most of the rest of the field. And that he did.

Only two drivers gained any points on him. Stewart gained 20 points and moved up five spots in the standings, but still sits over 100 points back, and Clint Bowyer gained 5 points but is sitting 12th in the standings and is no real threat for the championship.

So the king's crown may have slipped, but it hasn't fallen—at least not far enough away that anyone close by could grab hold of it. Denny Hamlin, who was eight points behind Johnson when the day began, ended up finishing eighth and now sits 36 points back.

And with the rest of the schedule full of tracks Jimmie has won at (except Homestead, where he hasn't needed to win), once again Johnson is sitting in the catbird's seat.

The "drive for five" is still definitely alive and thriving and it will now require any challengers to knock the No. 48 team off the top of the hill or a stumble on the their part for another team to overtake the lead.

Anything is possible, but those boys have become pretty used to the pressure by now.

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