The Daytona 500 has often been a hard race to follow for Auto Club Speedway since assuming the Sprint Cup tour’s second race date of the season in 2005. Extended green flag runs on the track’s flat, lengthy surface caused race leaders to push their leads to unexciting amounts and the rest of the field to build nice cushions between each position. Combine the poor racing with sometimes unfavorable weather conditions and a fan environment that is, shall we say, not so crazy about NASCAR and embarrassingly low attendance numbers at the track and it is easy to see why ACS can’t hold a candle to the 500.
The California contingency was not even the fanbase most disenchanted with Fontana. A majority of NASCAR fans had ACS on their bad list after NASCAR took the Southern 500 race date away from Darlington and awarded the Labor Day weekend staple to California in 2004. This turned a negative wave into a tsunami that has eroded away at any remaining popularity the track had managed to hold on to. And with everyone still buzzing off of the intensity of the racing in last Sunday’s Daytona 500, many felt that Sunday’s race would give a punch in the gut to a suddenly rejuvenated fanbase. As things turn out, this did not come close to happening.
The Auto Club 500 proved to be an exciting race: 13 leaders swapped the lead 26 times; Kevin Harvick nearly caught race winner Jimmie Johnson for the win; Harvick and teammate Jeff Burton drag raced to a photo finish for second place; the late restarts were absolute mayhem mid-pack; fuel mileage was a factor, but did not decide the race; teams raced the rain, but rain didn’t stop (except for one brief caution period) or postpone the race; multiple manufacturers and organizations ran well; the leader never pulled away to an abominable advantage. The race seemed to pass by efficiently. It was not a test in stamina to watch. It was a solid, exciting event with several folds in its plot.
Sunday’s race almost did not unfold that way. At one point, there was a chance that the race would be delayed by rain, decided by fuel mileage, and won by Johnson after the four-time champ led the most laps and regained the lead after managing to pit under green and beat the pace car off of pit road when the caution came out. And while Johnson won his 48th career Cup race in the No. 48, the Auto Club 500 will be remembered by the close finish and the surprisingly competitive two- and three-wide racing through the pack. It was a shot in the arm to the management and proponents of ACS’s viability as a NASCAR track.
In truth, much of the same issues with the Fontana track remain, despite the great race. It still holds two race dates, though the second one has been moved from the Labor Day date to a more temperate October setting. And, despite track president Gillian Zucker’s numerous appearances on NASCAR programming and the Hollywood-littered commercials during races, the California grandstands Sunday were at significantly less than capacity. ACS has caught so much bad press that just the mention of California sparks the gnashing of teeth amongst new school NASCAR fans and traditionalists alike.
And this is why Sunday’s good race is not good in the long run. NASCAR needs to scale back its commitment to keeping the circus in California twice a year when race fans are demanding and pining for more races at tracks like Darlington and Rockingham. With this weekend’s event stepping in line with the “2010 Breath of Fresh Air NASCAR Rebirth,” people will start forgetting why they abhorred the track so much. Track proponents will tout the loop statistics and blame the impending weather that day on the poor number of fans in the seats and the television spinsters will enforce that effort. With the good comes the bad.
As an analogy, think about what would have happened to the opposing forces of George W. Bush two years ago had Bush and his allies suddenly instituted a few policies that Democrats would have wanted. What if Barack Obama suddenly reneged on some of his and his allies ambitions? What would that do to the “Tea Party Movement” and the Republicans’ potential resurgence in Washington? It would slow. Feelings would taper from the opposing sides and propagandists on the suddenly benevolent side would swoon over their own understanding.
As much as NASCAR needs good races and good racing at all of its tracks, this sudden short-term success at ACS throws a sheet over the elephant in the press box (or wherever it stands) at the track. NASCAR instituted several changes in the last couple of months in response to a fan uprising and many media outbursts. If these same reverberations quiet to murmurs about NASCAR’s presence in California, the much coveted moving of one of its race dates to a racier track with a more appreciative fanbase may never happen. Maybe we should pray for rain and an untraceable, enlarged motor for the No. 48 team at Fontana in October.
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Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts the “Chase Elliott Podcast” and the “Bill Elliott Racing Podcast” on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.