The face sitting in victory lane on Sunday may have been a familiar one. Jimmie Johnson appeared as a giddy school kid while he studied his Auto Club 500 trophy. You have got to admit the Chevy Fleetmaster Woody Hot Rod with the surf board on top hauling a shiny new No. 48 to the track is a sweet prize, even more-so when you find out that Woody is a 1948 model. Still, if you only tuned in for the post-race celebration, you may have been hoodwinked into believing the 2009 season hadn’t ended and we were still being subjected to the latest Hendrick crown prince interview.
Not so! No! The Auto Club 500 was not a repeat of last year, in any little way. It really is a whole new season. Despite the irking similarities, I am ready to even enjoy the second half of the West Coast swing before we really get down to the nitty-gritty of the Sprint Cup season at Atlanta. Why?
There are a few different items that have sparked my interest thus far.
No. 1: The RCR resurgence. Hot damn! Those boys, all three of them, are looking like they should. If shedding the fourth team and reorganizing team members into more effective positions got Harvick running back up front, accompanied by fellow hard-charging Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, I can only say… FINALLY! Yes, I know, it is another Chevy team. But they aren’t Hendrick! I’ve had a feeling about Bowyer for a few years, only to be dashed annually by some odd and unexplained shuffling within the RCR organization. But this year, I am beginning to believe again. Even if none of the Childress machines take the Cup, look for at least one of the teams in the top five in November. And that is exciting.
No. 2: Brad Keselowski. I don’t know if he’ll have the luck again he found last April in Talladega, but he sure is making some noise while he looks for it. It’s all well and good for the sport to be filled with fans cheering for their favorites, but it’s a whole lot more fun when there’s somebody to boo, as well. I laughed when Brad was front and center in the Joey Logano/Greg Biffle sandwich at the end of the Nationwide race. Let the good times roll! I also want to cheer each time I listen to his interviews. This driver will be taking a lot of guff before he learns that little humility lesson Kyle Busch is still trying to memorize.
No. 3: Three- and four-wide racing! At California! I watched frontrunners fight back and forth for the lead on Sunday. I honestly can’t remember this happening during the past few years. I also can’t figure out what might have happened that generated closer competition… but I don’t care. Once again, you can point to a misleading one and a half second lead held over Harvick when Johnson took the checkered flag, but you’d be a fool to decide that was the entire story for the afternoon. I watched a good race.
I might dismiss this tight racing as a fluke if we hadn’t enjoyed even more breathtaking finishes at Daytona over Speedweeks. Something is in the air. Something good.
No. 4: All four manufactures are up front! Even Dodge, with its minimal presence in the sport. This provides hope for all racing fans. Maybe we only have two races under our belts, thus far, but it’s pretty apparent to me that Roush, Gibbs, Penske, Hendrick, Childress and Ganassi have brought their best to the table. I’m still not convinced we’ll see anything real out of the Petty stop, but I suppose it’s possible.
So, you see, all hope is not lost. Yes, too many recurring headlines are ticking across your favorite media outlets, but don’t lose heart. Just beneath the surface are bubbling all the ingredients for an outstanding season.
Here’s to the return of a championship stable, to new villains, and stronger competition between manufacturers at every venue! That’s what I call a year worth looking forward to.