The Frontstretch: Losing 100 Miles Changes Nothing at Fontana by Bryan Davis Keith -- Monday March 28, 2011

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Losing 100 Miles Changes Nothing at Fontana

Monday Morning Tear-Down · Bryan Davis Keith · Monday March 28, 2011


After Kevin Harvick crossed the finish line Sunday with a monster last-lap charge – one that sent his No. 29 Chevrolet soaring past Jimmie Johnson to score the win in his home state – FOX’s broadcast booth was quick to praise Auto Club Speedway’s new, 400-mile format. It was the shorter distance track officials chose for the spring race (read: only one) of 2011 after trying it during the Chase last season, one that ended this event in a speedy two hours, thirty-nine minutes. FOX went so far as to note that the move provided the best race this speedway ever had, showering praise on a decision they claimed was “nothing short of magical.”

Kevin Harvick’s victory in Sunday’s Fontana 400-miler was great for him and the RCR organization. But would his strategy and speed have differed any if the race was 100 miles longer?

Sure, there were elements of this race that excelled, combating the negative stereotypes that circle around a much-maligned circuit which will forever be reviled for replacing the Labor Day Southern 500. The track reported a 22% increase in attendance this Sunday, a far cry from the drastic downturn seen last weekend at Bristol. The margin of victory was a scant .144 seconds, with the race decided on a last-lap pass after a late-race, three-car fight between Harvick, Johnson and the day’s dominant car, Kyle Busch’s No. 18. This event, coupled with a highly competitive 300-miler on Saturday, created a weekend that saw the two-mile oval in Fontana the raciest the facility has been since it started hosting stock cars in 1997.

It’s all a solid foundation to build on for a place that’s looking for any slice of positive history. But none of these facts – absolutely, positively, none of them – can be traced back to the fact that NASCAR and ISC (correction, NASCAR) shaved 100 miles off the race distance. In fact, there was only one thing from this Sunday that a change to 400 miles could be conclusively linked to… that the race was over before the sun went down on the east coast.

Such a small consolation, really is the only reason that this idea of shortening races is being floated around in the first place, to stuff NASCAR’s premier events into neat little boxes that can be televised in clean timeframes. Just like the NFL, the strategy is to hone the product to fit in three-hour windows; as a result, top executives believe the product on-track will just naturally improve. After all, they say, 500 miles of racing forces the drivers out there to stroke it for hundreds of circuits, biding their time until the final run to the checkers where they actually get down to business.

In one sense, those track philosophers got their wish; Sunday’s race was shorter. But that had nothing to do with producing what truly was a hell of a finish, one that saw tires actually a factor in a race, a race won after three of the best in the business left it all on the track battling for the trophy. For whether it’s 400 miles or 500 miles, a late-race caution that bunches up the field and opens up pit strategy is going to produce crazy charges through the pack… especially on an oval that, after over a decade of snoozers has weathered to the point that grip, and thus tires and handling, are at a premium.

The flurry of Fontana activity on restarts Sunday was no different than when the races were 500 miles here. Drivers know the first few laps are critical for passing at a racetrack where the asphalt gets slippery in a hurry.

Now I know we’re not in the 1970s anymore, where NASCAR truly was a test of machine as much as man. With the amount of money and durability that goes into today’s Sprint Cup cars, be it 400 or 500 miles, the mechanical side of the equation is largely taken care of, no matter what venue the Cup Series is visiting. But 500 miles is still far more of a test for a driver than 400. Longer races mean more opportunities to screw up. There’s more pit stops, requiring the crew chiefs and teams to keep their act together, to make the right call. You’ve got more race runs, where a car has to stay dialed in. In comparison, basketball would probably be more exciting if quarters were cut to five minutes, baseball if it were cut to five innings. At the same time… NASCAR isn’t a stick and ball sport. Long races aren’t ever going to capture the urgency of a sprint at the local bullring.

Clearly, there’s arguments over correcting the distance on both sides; but, be it 400 miles or 500 miles, this race played out like any other at Fontana. For the third time in the last four spring races at Auto Club, or since the Cup Series went to the CoT full-time, the race featured a green flag run of longer than 50 laps within the first 200 miles of competition. There were long stretches where the driver out front drove off and hid from the rest of field, which strung itself out behind him and led to some lulls in the action. Engine failures were down compared to the past two spring races, but higher than seen in 2008, where despite a 500-mile distance not a single car in the field retired with a blown motor.

The nature of how to race the track didn’t change, either. Rhythm still proved tremendously important, as setting up passes took both patience through the sweeping corners and, most often, multiple laps.

In reality, Auto Club Speedway is a huge race track. It’s long, it’s wide, and from a driving standpoint it’s about as technical as the Sprint Cup circuit has to offer short of a road course. 400 miles on it didn’t change the on-track product that was on display when drivers spent 500 miles on it – it simply reduced the amount.

The crowd didn’t get bigger because of a sense of urgency to the event that wasn’t there. In fact, the crowd didn’t get bigger. The only way there were actually 88,000 fans in the grandstands is if ISC started counting seats covered by large advertising banners towards attendance.

So whatever “magic” FOX was talking about, looks like they’re the only ones who got tricked. Truth be told, the race didn’t end in a thrilling finish with a thin margin of victory because 43 drivers woke up on Sunday morning to realize “oh crap, this race is over on lap 200 now.” It ended in a thrilling manner because of pit strategy, late caution flags and asphalt that’s gained character with age.

The Auto Club 400 was the Auto Club 500. It just ended earlier.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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Bill B
03/28/2011 07:35 AM

Fox broadcasters are tools. You can’t believe anything they say. They embellish everything. They can sell it cheap but most fans aren’t buying.

03/28/2011 10:37 AM

It’s alot nicer when a boring race lasts about three hours. Now if Nascar would just give race leaders something more to encourage more race lead changes, that would increase interest, I think>

Kevin in SoCal
03/28/2011 10:48 AM

The “Who cares, Fontana’s bad…” choice is exactly the kind of crap that doesnt belong. No other track would get such a choice to click on, yet you go out of your way to bash the track.

03/28/2011 11:34 AM

I’m sorry Kevin in SoCal, but you’re dead wrong. I understand you want to defend your home track, but the race is awful and attendance is worse. NASCAR needs to look into another track in that area, i.e. Irwindale, to bring the Cali crowds back in it. But people pick on Fontana for a reason, it’s awful and always will be awful.

03/28/2011 11:50 AM

I’m with Kevin in SoCal. Cali’s racing suffers from the same thing most tracks do: embarrassingly bad television coverage. Unfortunately, the track also suffers from the self-fulfilling prophecy thing: if you think the race will be a bad one, then… it probably will be. (Last year’s Johnson vs. Harvick part I was a good finish too, but part II was way more satisfying.)

It’s certainly a lot better than the contrived “we’re only side by side because the track was engineered specifically for cars to drive side by side” racing at Bristol. This was a race where cars could pass for the lead (unlike Vegas), where the guys with better cars moved up through the field and the ones who couldn’t keep up fell back. The side-by-side racing wasn’t because of the track’s phony “every line is equal now!” design or a plate to give everyone identical horsepower, it was because drivers and teams set up their cars to run the way they liked, and the driver who wanted it the most won. That, in my mind, is racin’.

Heck, give this track a second date! Take it from Vegas.

03/28/2011 11:57 AM

Now Bristol looks pretty good doesn’t it! Bristol was 500 laps side by side, many smaller position races within the race, Fontana, maybe 25 laps side by side. Cut out an entire race and the grandstands still were covered with billboards. Give up on this one, put it back in the Carolinas.

03/28/2011 04:04 PM

Bryan, I think the fans like the short races because it reduces the “riding around” factor that most drivers like to do in the middle part of the race. Its boring and doesn’t add anything to the entertainment value of the race. 100 less miles of that is a good thing.

If they were forced to race hard all 500 miles (more points anyone) I would have a different opinion altogether on this but as it is right now, I think 400 miles is a good thing

The Mad Man
03/28/2011 04:24 PM

Sitting through 195 laps of ho hum for 5 laps of genuine excitement makes me wonder if maybe they should shorten it to a 10 lap shootout.

While attendance may have been up, it was hard to tell because of Fox’s not wanting to show the grandstands. One section near Turn 1 was obviously empty because it was covered by a tarp and one blimp shot did show that there weren’t as many people there as Fox was wanting us to believe.

Once again this year, lots of tickets were given away just like in the past and a lot of tickets were sold at half price to various groups like teacher’s unions and others. Very little real advertising was done around the area.

It could be the only reason the track is being kept open is because it’s one heck of a tax write-off for both NASCAR and ISC.

People in southern California didn’t support Riverside or Ontario so both of those closed. Fontana is suffering the same fate and could eventually follow the other tracks into oblivion.

03/28/2011 04:48 PM

Bryan, Please explain what tires had to do with anything you wrote about? the 18, 29 and 48 all had tires from the previous pit stop not the final one. It’s not liek the 17, 4, or any of the other cars that pitted raced right up there and stole the win. I thyink a couple of the guys had four fresh tires and still improved only a few spots.
Still trying to figure out what happended to the 14. No real explanations have been given. 3rd /4th to 13th?

Tom Dalfonzo
03/28/2011 10:43 PM

Five laps of thrills does not offset 195 laps of boredom.

The only thing that NASCAR should say to Fontana is this: Reconfigure the track or we’ll close it down and plow it up!!!

Also, give Toyota Speedway at Irwindale a call and tell them that they have been awarded a Cup race, and to have them get to work renovating the track for next year.

I have also posted this on the Thinkin’ Out Loud: Auto Club 400 page.

03/28/2011 11:05 PM

The only reason this track is still open and not bulldozed, is because it’s the L.A. market. Five good laps at the end does not make a great race.

I lived in Cali in the 70’s and went to many races at Riverside and Ontario. I never worried about getting a ticket ahead of time. Because I could always just walk up and get a ticket on race day. Southern Calif has never really supported Nascar and never will. Sorry to say it. But as long as BZF is running things this track will not close. It’s his baby.