Just three words can describe last week’s Food City 500: It’s Bristol, Baby!! After an early wreck that took out race favorites Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, and five-time Bristol champ Kyle Busch, it was anyone’s race. So when the checkered flag waved after a relatively caution-free race (very uncharacteristic of Bristol), Brad Keselowski hit the stripe first after leading over 200 laps, putting to rest any early speculation that Keselowski, who had won last August’s Bristol Night Race, had only been victorious because he took advantage of the timing lines on Pit Road.
The fifth race of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) season takes place this weekend at Auto Club Speedway (ACS) in Fontana, California. This two-mile, D-shaped oval hosts the Auto Club 400, with 200 laps of high-speed hi-jinx. Coverage for this week’s NSC race begins Sunday with NASCAR Raceday on @SPEED at 12:30pm EST. Fox NASCAR SUNDAY is at 2:30pm EST, with the race itself at 3pm EST. The Green Flag will be waved at approximately 3:16 pm by actress Kristy Swanson (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “The Chase”) following the National Anthem performed by 80’s rock band Night Ranger. The Three Stooges, making a return to the Big Screen, will be Grand Marshalls and give the Command to Fire engines. Only question will be, is whether we’ll have only three stooges at the track, or will the mayhem start early and put forty-three stooges out there?
I purposely mention this is the fifth race, since there is a significance to the NASCAR drivers and teams. After the fifth race of the season, the top thirty-five teams in NSC points are automatically in the race, and the “go or go homers” of the teams who either start and park, or have had significant bad luck, will need to qualify to make each week’s race.
One notable mention of a team that is concerned with this: the #10 team of Tommy Baldwin racing. Currently driven by David Reutimann, this is also the ride that Danica Patrick will be using for the remainder of the NSC races she’ll be driving for Tony Stewart. For those following Danica Mania, this is a VERY important race. That is, whenever the race is actually run.
Pit road speed this weekend is 55mph, and with 44 pit stalls, there should be plenty of room for the teams to stay safe. Pit Stall selection can be found here. As of this writing, there were no drivers who will have to start at the rear of the field. There’s an almost certainty that ACS will experience rain, and possibly thunderstorms throughout the weekend, to include Sunday’s race. It will probably be a good idea to be prepared for race delays, and maybe even a washout to Monday. But NASCAR will have eight Montoya-proof Jet Dryers on the track to ensure the track is ready for racing (it would take about two hours to dry the track). So as ACS’s website says, “It’s GO TIME”.
Best Bets: Got two Chevys as this week’s BBs, since six of the last nine races at ACS have been won by a Chevy.
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s/Jimmie Johnson Foundation Chevrolet)- Unfortunately, JJ had some rough luck last week at Bristol, having been caught up in the early wreck. However, he’s had a lot of good luck here at ACS, with five wins, twelve top-fives, and thirteen top-tens. Johnson’s finished no worse than third the last four races, and was no worse than third in three of the last four races on 2-mile tracks (ACS and her sister Michigan (MIS) track). “Five Time” has averaged a 5.1 finishing position, starts tenth, and was sixth-fastest in final practice. With the resolution of crew chief Chad Knaus’ penalties, expect to see him get back on the horse and possibly into Victory Lane.
Kevin Harvick (#29 Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches Chevrolet)- The Closer is the defending champion of this race, and has finished no worse than tenth the last four ACS outings. Along with that win, Harvick has three top-fives and eight top-tens, although his average finish is only 16.2. He hasn’t had the same luck between ACS and MIS as Johnson has, but I doubt that will slow him down much. “Happy” Harvick should be happy with his chances, since he’ll start seventh, and was seventh-fastest in Happy Hour final practice.
Probables: Fords have taken the other three of the last nine wins at Fontana, and although I only have one Ford in my Probable column this week, don’t be surprised if you see the other “Roushketeers” running well Sunday.
Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Express Toyota)- Denny has had a very up and down year for 2012. Out of four races, he’s got a win and two top-five finishes, but has also found himself in the back of the field. Hamlin’s only got a top-five and four top-tens here at Fontana, but I’m betting he’s trying to turn that one around in a hurry. He won the Coors Light Pole Award for the fastest qualifying time, and was fastest in practice all weekend long. Now we just have to find out if Denny has enough in the tank (and under the hood) to stay up front from start to finish. Tied for fifth in the NSC points standings with Dale Earnhardt Jr, only Hamlin can determine if this weekend is “Denny Time.”
Greg Biffle (#16 3M Ford)- Greg stumbled last week at Bristol, finishing a disappointing P16. But he managed to stay atop the NSC points standings in the #1 position, having posted three top-fives in four races. As I mentioned above, in the last nine races at Fontana, it’s either been a Chevy or a Ford that’s found its way to Victory Lane. The Bif has a win, four top-fives, and five top-tens, with an average finish of 17.9, and hasn’t finished worse than eleventh in the last two spring races run at Fontana. Biffle will start fourth on the grid, but was a disappointing twentieth in final practice. Remember, though, that just because a driver may not run well in final practice doesn’t mean he wasn’t interested in being the fastest…some drivers work to just fine-tune their vehicles before the race.
Dark Horses- A stable-full of Toyotas this week, with a couple of other drivers also having an outside chance at a good finish.
Joey Logano (#20 Dollar General Toyota)- JoLo, Hamlin and Kyle Busch’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, has struggled to find his place in NSC competition, and ACS will be no exception. He won the Deep Purple 300 Nationwide race here Saturday, and qualified eighth for the Auto Club 400. Yet Logano only has an average finish of 16.2 with a top five finish. I’ll give him a nod since he’s already won here once this weekend; may be a decent pick on a fantasy team if you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive singleton to round out your team.
Clint Bowyer (#15 5-Hour Energy Toyota)- Another driver from the Toyota stables, Bowyer has been trying to make some noise this season. Sitting eighth currently in the NSC points standings, he’s posted a top-five and two top-tens, with an average finish of 12.8 through four races. Clint’s finished no worse than ninth the last four ACS races, including a runner-up finish in 2010′s second race, and no worse than eighth in the last four ACS/MIS outings. He’ll start eleventh, and was third-fastest in final practice.
Look for Mark Martin (#55 Aarons Dream Machine Toyota) to run well, as he qualified third and was eleventh in final practice. Tony Stewart (#14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy) has won the last three races on intermediate tracks, and will run to get back on top. Matt Kenseth (#17 Ford Ecoboost Ford) is another of the Roushketeers who is working their way up the standings, and his three wins here show he’s got what it takes. Then I’ll throw in some love for Kasey Kahne’s #5 Quaker State Chevy, starting fifth, in the hopes he manages to shake the dark cloud that has been hanging over him ever since he started at Hendrick Motorsports; he has won here and has posted four top-fives and nine top-tens.
Rumor Mill: If the racing wasn’t enough, there’s this…
Knaus back in the House: Well, apparently the NASCAR gods were smiling on Chad Knaus, crew chief for the #48 Lowe’s Chevy. He made a final appeal with officials this week, and his suspension was overturned, the 25 series points were re-awarded to Jimmie Johnson, but the $100,000 fine was maintained. Lots of talk this week about whether this was fair, justified, and if it has set the sport back concerning issues. But the bottom line is that he’ll be back on the pit box calling the shots for Sunday’s race.
Keeping it in the family: Jeff Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr had a bit of a rough time last week at Bristol, where Jr’s exhaust pipe managed to accidentally cut down Gordon’s left rear tire, causing SuperG to spin and crash into the wall. Dale Jr immediately apologized, and remarked that at least fans would have put the previous week’s confrontation between him and Mark Martin behind them. When asked for comment, Jeff Gordon remarked, “You know, he reached out to me. It was just a strange situation that happened where we were racing hard, racing for position after a restart and he definitely got into me, but you could do that 100 times and go on about your business, but in this particular case the tailpipe just lined up perfectly on the left rear. Really to me that is the much bigger issue than the contact between me and Junior.” (Team Chevy via Jayski.com)
Tech Talk: Track Smack–Many fans on many media sources (Twitter, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, and in print) complained last week about the type of racing at Bristol, where more than one groove exists and there are fewer wrecks like the pre-2007 Bristol configuration, not to mention the lack of fans in the stands. Early in the week, Speedway Motorsports Incorporated (SMI) owner Bruton Smith commented that he might change the racing surface back to that pre-2007 track, in an effort to get better racing and more fans in attendance (many, including this humble reporter, were disappointed in the lack of fans in attendance last week). While I applaud Smith’s intent to be responsive to fan comments and recommendations, I think redesigning Bristol (even if it’s only a matter of shaving some of the banking off of the track surface), is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. Drivers’ opinions were split, but Dale Earnhardt Jr offered a very good suggestion: talk to the drivers or Goodyear for input on changing Bristol’s configuration; there may be a far less-expensive alternative of just changing the types of tires run (NASCAR Wire Service). I think Jr might be right.
Final Thoughts: As has occurred with a number of races in the last year, attendance has flagged at many a NASCAR venue, especially last weeks’ VERY disappointing fan showing. Whether it’s the racing surface or more likely the economy, enjoying a race for many is increasingly becoming a matter of settling down in front of the TV at home, when fuel prices and ticket costs have slowly risen to the point where attending a race weekend can be prohibitively expensive. I applaud track owners in trying to make the races more affordable, and I hope our nation finds a way to decrease fuel prices. This is not just so we NASCAR fans can make it to the track to enjoy our favorite driver’s racing, but to overall decrease the cost of everything we use that relies upon fuel to transport them to market. I’m trying to remain optimistic that we can all enjoy our nation’s most popular spectator sport.
But in the meanwhile, have your snacks and favorite Sports-Glutton.com-approved beverages at the ready, to take in all the high speeds and racing action, whether Green Flag runs or Wreck-fest, and prepare yourselves today on FOX, your local Motor Racing Network affiliate, or on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch 90) for all the excitement in the Inland Empire, (particularly if the action ends up delayed due to Mother Nature). But either way, I’ll have my normal race updates, analysis, and occasional rant on Twitter (@speedglutton).
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