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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: A Surprisingly Solid Western That Nobody Witnessed

ONE: Is NASCAR sending a message to Prism Motorsports and their fellow S&P brigadiers?

Lee Spencer of FOX Sports reported that as soon as Dave Blaney pulled his No. 66 car into the garage at Fontana – after running 43 laps and leading for five of them – to having a sudden engine failure, NASCAR confiscated his car… and may not return the machine in time for the team to race it at Las Vegas.

Immediately, everyone’s jumping on a potential storyline that maybe, just maybe, NASCAR is finally stepping up and sending a message to these freeloaders carpet-bagging millions out of racing for no other reason than cold, hard business. And maybe they have a point. Fellow Frontstretch writer S.D. Grady was quick to note how, surprisingly, both Joe Nemechek and Boris Said parked their cars early… only to return to the track to run some more before parking for good (and this after Said publicly said his team would start-and-park if the budget made them do it… as well as skipping out on practice sessions at Daytona and at Fontana).

But personally, I think everyone’s reading way too much into this. NASCAR has actively ignored this issue for years, and even encouraged it in their lower-level series. Why all of a sudden would they change their tune, especially considering it’s with a team that influential Phil Parsons continues to have a significant interest in? Let’s not forget this is the same sanctioning body that last March at Atlanta claimed that they had a responsibility to make sure teams were on the up and up, only to watch Mike Bliss and the same Blaney take spots in the field away from fully-sponsored entries of Jeremy Mayfield and Scott Riggs, and to say nothing when these respective cars came in early to their pits well short of the tires and equipment needed to actually run 500 miles.

If anything, what’s happening here is that NASCAR is checking their cars, not their intent as a race team. As Frontstretch reported last fall, Prism Motorsports’ previous partners on the Nationwide Series circuit, MSRP Motorsports, had built their cars so far into a qualifying setup that it would not be possible for their entries to last a full race distance, even if a sponsor came calling.

Chances are that’s the issue here. Blaney scoring a top-five qualifying run in an unsponsored car turned heads in the broadcast booth on Friday, and likely in the garage. NASCAR’s going to check the car, find that while it can’t run a race distance that it is legal, and will soon return it to Prism with a request that maybe they try to run 50 laps a race instead of the 20 they’ve made a habit of. If you want to learn about the present, look to the past… and the past says that Prism Motorsports is still going to do their start-and-park thing all year long, make a fortune doing it, and face no repercussions from NASCAR.

TWO: Did Goodyear finally put a good tire on the track?

While Greg Engle and others may disagree with me, I found the racing at Auto Club Speedway in both the Cup and Nationwide races to be markedly improved from what fans have become accustomed to seeing (until they fell asleep anyway) at one of the circuit’s cookie-cutter racetracks. Maybe that was the result of better TV coverage, I can’t say for sure. But I feel pretty confident saying that softer tires had something to do with it.

Seriously, when was the last time that Goodyear managed to balance having tires that actually went away as a run progressed with a tire that didn’t blow out near the end of a tank of gas? The tires obviously didn’t pose a problem for the drivers, as a mid-race battle between Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick or a later duel between Harvick and Jeff Burton produced continual side-by-side racing later in a run that was both uncharacteristic of ACS… and of the rock-hard tires that Goodyear has been putting on the track of late.

Goodyear got one right, and the product on track improved as a result. This isn’t rocket science, Goodyear. Keep it up.

THREE: Maybe Furniture Row Racing wasn’t so crazy about going full-time racing again…

Regan Smith and his No. 78 team nearly pulled out a top-five finish thanks to rain strategy, but watched with the rest of the teams and the 20 people in the grandstands as the big precipitation just missed the speedway. Smith then restarted in the top 10… and actually stayed there for a while. Though Smith eventually got shuffled back into the middle of the lead-lap pack, he eventually posted a 19th-place finish. The result was the first lead-lap finish for the No. 78 team since Daytona last July.

What’s more, it served as early notice that the team’s decision to return to full-time Cup racing may not have been such a reach after all. While Smith ran well in a number of races during the team’s limited 2009 campaign, the season before that saw the Colorado-based race team completely overwhelmed by season’s end, despite having veteran Nemechek behind the wheel and Hendrick horses under the hood. Obviously, it’s too early to tell whether a full 36-race slate will do the same thing to this organization again, but Smith ran very well on Sunday. And with Smith behind the wheel, the chances go up that the team’s limited equipment will not fall victim to the rash of wrecks it endured with Nemechek behind the wheel.

It’s only been two races. But after a strong Speedweeks at Daytona before an early wreck and a legitimate top 20 at Fontana, this just might work out for the No. 78 team yet.

FOUR: Improved racing or not, a poor crowd at Fontana is a good thing

Despite a race weekend far better than last year’s absolute debacle that saw maybe 15,000 show up for the Truck and Nationwide series races combined, only to be followed by a crowd that was maybe two thirds full on Sunday, this year’s Cup race drew what has been estimated as a generous 55,000. Martinsville draws more fans than that. The last Nationwide race run in Mexico City drew a comparable crowd.

Kansas Speedway and its similar brand of cookie-cutter racing is going to be getting a second Cup race in the near future. And the priceless, ageless relic that is the Martinsville Speedway for a while seemed to be the track in the crosshairs to lose a date in the ISC stable. Fortunately, the fans (or lack thereof) that showed up this past Sunday less than en masse to ACS may have done the sport a huge service… they may well have put Auto Club in the target to lose a date.

This is good for two reasons. First of all, as much as the racing we saw was improved on Sunday, it still couldn’t hold a candle to 500 laps on the circuit’s shortest bullring. Second, it provided NASCAR with a golden opportunity to follow through on its commitment to bringing the sport back to its roots. What better way to do this than to finally strip a race date away from the track that has been a symbol for fans to rage against over the loss of the Southern 500? Fortunately, thanks to Sunday, some of the pressure to strip a date from Martinsville disappeared.

And it’s not like Fontana would lose under that scenario. Just look at what happened to Darlington when they went to one race date… they’ve been selling out ever since.

FIVE: The Drive for Five is alive and kicking…

See that guy in victory lane? Yeah, that Lowe’s dude that has hoisted the Sprint Cup the last four seasons? He won again on Sunday. It only took the No. 48 team two tries to win in 2010. Anyone else out there still think their luck just has to run out this season?

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