As you’ve likely read plenty of places over the past 48 hours, the Auto Club Speedway is a much maligned venue – arguably the least popular of the 22 tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit. Interest is sparse, attendance is — to put it politely — “not the best,” and in general fans breathe a sigh of relief when the haulers pull out of the West Coast circuit and head for the dubious delights of Sin City.
There are many miles to be run and many races to scratch off the slate (thankfully) before we return to Fontana; but like it or not, the Auto Club Speedway is going to matter much more than ever before in 2009. Like it or not, the track is moving up in the NASCAR hierarchy — and slap bang into the 10-race Chase to decide the sport’s 2009 Sprint Cup champion. The switcheroo of race dates with Atlanta and Talladega from the ’08 schedule means that the next time Cup cars fire up at Fontana, the stakes will now be significantly higher, with its second 500-miler shifting to a brand new race date in mid-October. Yes, it’s completely correct to say Labor Day Weekend had been an important race for Chase hopefuls in the last five years — but there’s a huge difference between two races before and four races into the “hallowed” Chase format. As a result, the race will, by necessity, take on a far greater importance in the context of the wider season as a whole. The question is whether the fans will react to the elevated status of the Los Angeles media market’s primary motorsports venue and finally cause a sellout. But with the best opportunity yet in Auto Club’s 12 years as a NASCAR track on her plate, you can be sure Speedway President Gillian Zucker will be doing everything she possibly can to hype this thing Hollywood-style and pack the stands.
The trouble is, though, that the racing at Fontana is inherently less exciting than at many of the other Cup tracks (apologies to one of Frontstretch‘s most dedicated posters, Kevin in SoCal, for bashing the venue again — but it’s true). That means despite the geographic proximity to millions of “potential fans,” Fontana remains a tough sell – especially in this economy.
So, how to you fix the race track without spending millions of dollars on repairs? I’m with Michael Waltrip, who mentioned what was then deemed a radical idea at the start of the 2008 season. His plan would be to turn the Auto Club Speedway into a Restrictor Plate track, evening up the racing at a two-mile oval which has qualifying speeds fast approaching 190 miles an hour.
After enduring yet another snoozefest at Auto Club this weekend, I think Waltrip’s plan is an idea that has merit. The change would provide an instant one-two punch to the start of the season, with two almost guaranteed to be exciting “picture perfect” finishes. The change would up the proportion of plate tracks on the slate from four to six; but given the relative positions of the plate races in the schedule, it would work out well. In fact, teams and crews could now concentrate on the restrictor plate program for two straight races at the outset of the season, rather than going from one extreme to the other in racing terms (along with the hassle of traveling 3,000 miles out west following NASCAR’s Super Bowl).
So, would the change in racing style resonate and “fill in” some of those gaps in the grandstands in October? Well, you’d figure the fans would respond to the more “primal” nature of restrictor plate races rather than rain-addled hours of strung-out, sleep-inducing racing. At this point, any idea packaged in the context of livening up the racing is worth trying for a track struggling to bring in more fans.
The change would also give us two plate races in the Chase – something the rank and file traditionalists might blanch at. But let’s be fair here; when NASCAR implemented the new system, they gave up all pretense at crowning the best driver over the course of an entire season — so why not two wild card events in the final 10? It would up the ephemeral “excitement” quotient, that’s for sure.
For now, though, restrictor plates out West remain just a pipe dream and are very unlikely to happen. So, in the absence of snarling 30-strong packs tearing around the two-mile circuit, we’ll likely see a similar style of racing to that we’ve seen in the past 18 events — which, as I stated earlier, isn’t really the best.
In other news… four thoughts on the nascent season to date:
Jimmie’s back at “The Track Too Tough to Watch”
By his own very high standards, a ninth place finish is a “ho hum” effort for Jimmie Johnson at Auto Club Speedway – despite the 74 laps led and a second place qualification effort. The back-to-back-to-back Cup champ won his first race he ever attempted in his home state back in April 2002; since then, in 13 tries, he has a lowest finish of 16th. His last seven attempts indicate his crushing dominance in California: second, 11th, third, first, second, first, and ninth place yesterday. It’s highly appropriate, some might argue, that the corporate-bearded drone is at his most relentlessly efficient at the “Track Too Tough to Watch.” But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the road to the 2009 Sprint Cup crown goes through Jimmie J. Drivers finishing above him should be in very good shape — even this early in the season.
Someone, somewhere please sponsor A.J. Allmendinger
How can you not love this guy? His appearance on Trackside Live (my favorite NASCAR show: you really should check it out if you don’t watch it) was an instant classic. His response to Darrell Waltrip’s question “What happened that turned you into a real racing driver?” (meant much more innocently than it’s phrased) was brilliant. “I always was a real race car driver,” said A.J., full of fire and brimstone, “I just had to prove it to you lots.” Well said.
Sunday represented the 46th time A.J.’s strapped into a Sprint Cup car, and the signs are clear to see that the more he runs, the better he gets (the ‘Dinger is a career-high 14th in Sprint Cup points just two races into the year). I fervently hope some sponsor somewhere will step up and fund the Los Gatos, California native — because NASCAR needs more kids like Allmendinger.
Michael McDowell loves to make headlines for the wrong reason
After last year’s barrel roll extraordinaire in qualifying at Texas, McDowell made headlines again this past weekend with a fiery crash in Saturday’s Nationwide race. The driver of the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Racing entry tagged the wall in turn two (via contact) and the back of his car quickly erupted into flames.
To his credit, the wry McDowell noted on his radio scanner, without an ounce of fear in his voice: “It’s completely exploded.” Undeterred by the flaming wreck his car had become, he then drove his vehicle off the track, pulled up next to the fire safety truck, and exited the car like he’d just completed a relaxing Sunday drive. I’d like to pretend I’d be that nonchalant — but I highly doubt it.
The KB Factor
What a performance from Kyle Busch this past weekend, doing something no other driver in history has done by winning both the Truck and the Nationwide races on the same day before finishing third in the Big Show. Yet in a sure sign that fans pick their favorite drivers through blinkered emotion rather than reflective rationality, KB is still lustily booed everywhere — and Auto Club Speedway proved no exception to this rule. I get that he has a touch of the “movie bad guy” about him… but this kid can flat out wheel a car. As with A.J., NASCAR needs characters like “Busch Junior” in a bad way. I hope that as time goes on, Kyle’s fan base grows; he’s the real deal and a future Series champion, no question.
And finally… congratulations to Hugh Laurie, aka FOX’s Dr. (Gregory) House, on being the first Englishman I can remember to give the command to start engines. Hearing those most famous words in motorsport spoken by a fellow countryman made this NASCAR columnist very happy — and not just a little nostalgic for family and friends on the other side of the pond.