Wednesday, March 21, 2012

2012 California Auto Club 400 Preview

By Micah Roberts

Bristol is no longer the toughest ticket in sports
It will be interesting to see what kind crowd shows up for this weekends NASCAR race at Auto Club (California) Speedway after witnessing the rapid attendance decline at Bristol Sunday. Once the hardest ticket to get in sports, it was disappointing to see a 160,000 seat beast like Bristol only have about 90,000 in attendance. The type of racing Bristol produces on their new surface may contribute to the demise, but there is something more to it.

Does NASCAR cost to much for a family to attend in this still depressed economic climate and is the sport in a decline after seeing monster growth at the end of the 1990’s? The answer to both is Yes.

California seats only 80,000, but because of declining attendance they had one of their two dates stripped from them before the start of the 2011 season. Last season with only one date, the Fontana, CA track was relatively full for the first time in nearly five years. But the problem with a track in Southern California is that there is so much to do on a weekend that always has perfect weather. NASCAR is low on the list that includes beaches, Hollywood and just the overall LA vibe. The people that attend the Fontana races usually aren’t from the area and require folks from elsewhere to fill the seats.

This weeks race is the fifth of the season, but yet west coast fans have already been treated to events in Las Vegas and Phoenix. Fontana will lose out to those two facilities on just about every traveling NASCAR fans' bucket-list. Not even Danica Patrick driving (which she isn’t this week) can change NASCAR’s appeal in SoCal.

Championship looks up for grabs in 2012 (Getty)
But even if we don’t want to go to the race there, we’ll still be watching it on television and betting it at the sports books. The first four races have been fantastic with four different winners, won by four different manufacturers, on four different tracks and not even a hint on who is going to be the driver beat during the Chase. The favorites of Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson both look like they’re still in the midst of working out some issues while longer shots like Greg Biffle and last weeks winner, Brad Keselowski, create some intrigue.

The driver that no one seems to be talking about that has quietly gone about his business is Kevin Harvick who is currently second in points, nine points behind Biffle. Harvick captured his first win at what is deemed his home track last year in this race. He fiished runner-up in this race in 2010. Just because of those two runs he has to be considered a candidate to win.

“I just enjoy how the track has really spread out and the groove you can run from the bottom to the top," said Harvick who will be using a brand new chassis this week. "It’s also fun to race in front of a lot of your fans and friends that get to come to the race track from close to where we used to live.”

With only four races run and not having any track that is similar to go off of, we have to use last seasons race as a barometer along with past history there. We can also use a little bit of the Las Vegas results because both require lots of horse power even though the tracks run completely different.

Having established Las Vegas as part of the equation, we have to include Tony Stewart into all talk about who might win this week. Stewart had never won at Fontana until taking the checkers in 2010. Since 2009, a span of five races, Stewart has finished 13th or better with two top-5 finishes.

Fontana’s all-time leader in wins is Jimmie Johnson with five, including his first Cup win in 2002 during his rookie season. He has a sick 5.1 average in 17 starts that includes five runner-up finishes. Last season was one of those occasions when Harvick passed him late for the win. To take Johnson’s amazing feat even further on a recent basis, he’s finished in the top-3 in eight of his last nine starts there. So what makes him so good there?

Johnson and Harvick have dueled last 2 years at Fontana
“I’ve been really successful at Auto Club Speedway," Johnson said earlier this week. "It’s my home track. We got our first Sprint Cup career win there in ’02, so it’s a special track to me. I definitely always see some friends and family while we are out there. I remember last year, we were very close to victory lane, about three-quarters of a mile away from the trophy, but Kevin Harvick found a way around the outside. So, I know we’ll go there and be very competitive this time."

Johnson should be very competitive, not only because of his past record, but also because of the car he's bringing this week. He'll be using the same chassis that led 197 laps en route to a win at Kansas last season.

Whenever Johnson isn’t winning there, it’s a good probability that Matt Kenseth is. Kenseth is a three-time winner with an average finish of 9.9. We also have some similarities this year from the last time he won in 2009. It was also the same season he won the Daytona 500. Not that the two tracks correlate, but it is unique nonetheless.

“Fontana has always has been a track that I really enjoy racing at but it has changed a lot the last few years," said Kenseth. "It seems like we used to have a better handle on it before it got really rough, the cracks got wide, it wore out and the groove moved up so much. It is a really fun track and really challenging because of the huge cracks in the corners you have to drive around combined with the seams in the pavement. In order to have a good car, you have to get through the corners faster than everybody else. Everyone thinks it is a big horsepower track because it is a two-mile track, but it gets so slick and there is not a lot of grip in the corners as the run goes on. You just need to really have your car balanced well and have that momentum through the corners.”

Kenseth will be driving the same chassis that finished fourth in the fall Texas race last season.

Drivers we can also expect to do well include Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Biffle and maybe Edwards. No one is more scared of how Edwards season has gone thus far than him, except for maybe a bettor who took him to win the championship.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #17 Matt Kenseth (10/1)
2) #14 Tony Stewart (8/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)
4) #16 Greg Biffle (12/1)
5) #29 Kevin Harvick (12/1)

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