[media-credit name=”autoclubspeedway.com” align=”alignright” width=”200″][/media-credit]Back to the west coast we go this weekend for the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. It’s a place that I really can’t speak on the history of racing there, probably because its not a race that I can say I watch intently each year. Following the addition of a second NASCAR weekend in 2004, Auto Club Speedway has experienced some intense scrutiny amongst the racing community with the intense attendance problems the racetrack has experienced.
Attendance at the track has dropped by as much as 20,000 fans, nearly 1/4th of the facility’s capacity, since the 2004-2010 two-race stretch, and with the weather forecast for tomorrow, I’m not sure this year will be any better for the racetrack.
After catching some of yesterday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice and qualifying sessions, I’m starting to think Auto Club may actually be developing some character. Watching the drivers wrestle their buggies around the 2-mile D-shaped oval makes me think tomorrow’s (or Monday’s) Auto Club 400 may be a bit more exciting than usual. The aging racing surface at Auto Club Speedway has left teams searching for grip and lifting their cars off the asphalt to clear the roller-coaster of bumps though the corners at Fontana.
If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any at all after these first 5 races of the 2012 season. Bristol was fun for my first time as a member of the NASCAR media, but I am seeing why there are concerns about the racing in Thunder Valley . 200 caution-less laps at Bristol was unheard of prior to the track’s reconfiguration and addition of progressive banking in 2007. Last week’s Food City 500 produced a stretch of 220 laps without a caution, a stretch of racing facing scrutiny inside the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage:
“I feel like the old-style track brought what the fans want to see, and whether it’s what the car owners want to see or the drivers, and whether you’ve got to run into each other or you don’t, the old-style racing was more to the appeal of the fans.” said Kevin Harvick, “Any time you run 200 laps at Bristol with no cautions, it’s going to get boring fast in my opinion.”
I can remember a few of my first trips to Bristol Motor Speedway when there were 10,000 race fans in front of the backstretch grandstands looking for their ticket into the Last Great Coliseum. This year, I traveled to BMS with a group of fans that ended up buying tickets for $20 each for their Food City 500 seats. The NASCAR stat sheet said there was 102,000 fans in the grandstands last week, but to me, we were lucky if the bull ring in Thunder Valley was half-full.
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got a guy that might have a bit of a biased opinion of the racing surface in Thunder Valley, but no matter what, I tend to agree with his opinion. The final 20-25 laps last week at Bristol Motor Speedway were some of the most exciting laps I’ve had the privilege of seeing in-person. Each time Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth circled the .533-mile high-banks of the final stretch of the race last week, they traded paint, running positions, and created a show for the 80,000’ish fans in attendance.
“I’m very biased, I know,” Keselowski said. “But to me this was one of the best Bristol races I’ve ever seen. We ran side by side for 20 laps. There was some good beating and batting, some wrecking. … I don’t know what’s better than that, short of a 30-car wreck every week.”
It was great to watch if you can appreciate hard racing, and don’t care about the wrecks, but a forgetful race if you’re the ones that like to see multiple crashes each week. To me, a half-empty bull ring will be what we get each trip to Tennessee until the track is returned to its old configuration. With the gloves-off beating and banging racing style NASCAR is trying to return to, ruining the Mecca of all rough racetracks is a step in the opposite direction.
Oh, forgot to touch on my picks from last week;
Winner pick – Kyle Busch was caught up in the day’s only multi-car accident on lap 25. He returned to the race in his battered Wrigley Doublemint Toyota and finished 32nd.
Dark Horse Pick – Joey Logano, started 9th and never really made a surge towards the front. Finished two laps down in 16th.
Auto Club 400 Picks
I’m almost scared to pick anyone this week, but once I hit rock-bottom, there will be nowhere to go but up. Hopefully I hit rock-bottom last week at Bristol, and I can get back into the habit of looking like I know what I’m talking about.
The Ford FR9 engines have been unbelievably strong thus far this season, and Fontana is a track that having a strong engine will put you in Gatorade Victory Lane. A history of winning at Auto Club Speedway also helps my Winner Pick’s case this week having 3 wins already at the 2-mile oval.
Matt Kenseth has been on fire thus far this year, setting the high mark after winning his second Daytona 500 a month ago. He was just short of winning last week at Bristol Motor Speedway last week, and is a 7 to 1 favorite for the win this week. He will start 15th when the green-flag files at Fontana (whenever that may be) but was second in yesterday’s practice session and is currently shown in 8th in Happy Hour.
The FR9’s have been great this season, and Kenseth has the car he needs to bring it home this week.
Dark Horse Pick
Toyota Racing Development’s headquarters happen to be located in Southern California, nearby Fontana, CA in Costa Mesa. TRD wants nothing other than a win at its home track and with one shot to do it in 2012, rest asured the Toyota teams will be pulling out all the stops this weekend.
A guy that has been on a role in a way that flies a bit under-the-radar is Martin Truex Jr. In his last 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Starts (dating back to Talladega last October), Truex has scored 6 top-10’s, including a third-place finish last week at Bristol. He’s lead the charge along with Clint Bowyer for Michael Waltrip Racing, sitting 4th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Standings.
Truex will start 13th, but was 9th fastest in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Final Practice and the top 3 starters for the Auto Club 400 will be making the start in Toyota Camrys.
An FR9 and a TRD Camry are my picks for this week, and be sure to stop back next week for my Martinsville picks. Until next week… you stay classy NASCAR NATION!