The NASCAR circuit swings westward this week to Fontana, California and the Auto Club Speedway, the much-maligned 2-mile oval that replaced the road course at Riverside as NASCAR’s southern California staple. The track has a reputation for acting as a narcotic, producing more snores than racing. In fact, this was the subject of our featured newsletter commentary on Thursday. And the fan responses poured in to defend the speedway. Okay, that’s kind of an exaggeration. A fan response poured in to defend the speedway.
Kevin in SoCal is a longtime and valued Frontstretch reader as well as frequent commentator on the site, and is a staunch supporter of ACS. His email takes exception to the poor treatment the track receives from the media. “California (Auto Club Speedway) does not deserve the bashing it gets from you, or anyone else for that matter,” Kevin writes. “The track was built by Roger Penske as a dual-use track for his Indy Cars and NASCAR, and he cloned Michigan because the races there were usually pretty good…
“Instead of rehashing the same old tired, worn out excuses for Fontana, why not challenge yourself to actually write some GOOD things about the track, the race, or the area?”
I’m going to try. Kevin, this one’s for you.
A cool fact about Fontana, California is that Foothill Boulevard is actually a part of the legendary Route 66, the Mother Road that represented the hopes and dreams of Americans when hopes and dreams were at a premium. The road and all it represented became romanticized and symbolic for better days ahead, just beyond the horizon. The San Gabriel Mountains loom in the background of the city, whose population is just shy of 200,000. Racing was cool in Fontana long before NASCAR came to town; Fontana Drag City hosted NHRA events half a century ago.
Southern California has contributed to today’s NASCAR quite admirably. Most notable of late, the area has given the sport five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who hails from El Cajon, a couple hours down I-15. If you stick to I-5, Bakersfield is just under three hours in the other direction, and from that city we get a two-fer: Kevin Harvick and Casey Mears both hail from Bakersfield. Southern California has also given us Robby Gordon and AJ Allmendinger. All of these are most definitely positives to come out of SoCal. Take heart, California fans, your state has indeed been good for NASCAR.
As for the racetrack, well, it’s true that Roger Penske did build it as a dual-purpose venue to accommodate both NASCAR and open wheel racing. And that’s where the problems start. While it’s nice to be able to host multiple series at a track from the owner’s standpoint, the reality is that one form of racing is generally going to suffer, and that’s what happened here. The stock car set suffers. But it can host two series, if you’re into that kind of thing. And the open wheel racing, when they ran there was actually good. Except for the death of Greg Moore, anyway. That kind of casts a wide shadow on the track.
It’s always great to see a driver win his first race, though, and Auto Club Speedway has given us…uh, well two first time winners. I guess that’s better than none. Thank you, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, for giving us that particular feel-good moment. They both even made it exciting by ACS standards, winning by just over half a second, or a few carlengths. Unfortunately, many fans were distracted by wondering who Jimmie Johnson was and by disliking Kyle Busch. Oh, well, it almost got good there for a minute.
The races…um, well, let’s see. It really depends on what one defines as an exciting race, I suppose, but to me a big part of that is the margin of victory. As in the smaller that is, the better the ending. The 12.871 second margin that Jeff Gordon enjoyed at ACS in 2004, for example, was not exciting. You could have taken a powernap before the second place car crossed the line. In 21 races, ACS has produced a few races with a margin under half a second-five, to be exact. The closest was in 2005, when Greg Biffle won by .231 seconds-which is still over a car length in reality. Side-by-side finishes? Well, there was that one…no there wasn’t.
Great races… If you’re a Jeff Gordon fan, that 12.8 second deal might have been exciting for the sheer domination…except it was largely due to fuel mileage. If you’re a Jimmie Johnson fan, he’s put on a few driving clinics…much to the chagrin of nearly everyone else. His wins look easy, and disgust people.
Uh, there were some great races at Riverside when…oops, never mind. Well, there was that time, no wait-that was Rockingham. Great races from Fontana. Let’s see. Did I mention Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch got their first wins there?
There was that open wheel race…darn.
So, it’s true that Southern California has given us, among others, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson. They have some pretty scenery and a great racetrack if you love open-wheel racing and can overlook the death of Greg Moore, as there have been some pretty exciting races at ACS in its day…in the open wheel divisions. We got the first Cup wins of the two guys who compete for the loudest boos every week, though. I guess that’s something.
One more positive: this is the only time the Cup Series will visit Fontana this year. It was the best racing move made since NASCAR gave the track a race.
So there you have it, Kevin. That’s the best I can do. Sorry, Fontana.
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