Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Monday, March 28, 2011

Has Auto Club Speedway Found Its Niche?

The Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. has had an interesting 15 years.

The 2-mile oval originally built by Roger Penske was designed to give NASCAR a presence in the Los Angeles market -- the second-largest media market in the country -- and the annual trip was met with a mix of anticipation and dread; sure, NASCAR in Hollywood was a spectacle, but the racing on the wide, relatively flat surface wasn't the greatest in the world.

Still, no one begrudged the fact that NASCAR wanted a presence in southern California -- that is, until NASCAR gave the track a second Cup date. As if that weren't blasphemous enough, NASCAR took the date away from Darlington.

Not just any Darlington date, either; NASCAR took away the Southern 500 -- a NASCAR tradition revered almost as much as The Masters in golf -- and gave it to Fontana.

The outrage, while justified, was predictable.

NASCAR's had to change over the years, and in many ways, it's done so for the better. The sport is far safer than it was even five years ago -- and despite what naysayers may tell you, the competition in the sport has never been greater. But a lot of changes have rankled the traditional fan -- none more so than leaving Darlington in favor of a market that, in recent years, has shown little interest in stock car racing.

Attendance at Auto Club Speedway in recent years has been about as dull as the racing. Empty seats have been easily visible on television; while it's true that empty seats have been a problem almost everywhere in recent years, Fontana had attendance issues long before the economy tanked.

Maybe Fontana didn't deserve that second Cup date after all.

So NASCAR announced that, starting this season, it would take Fontana's second Cup date and give it to Kansas Speedway. On top of that, the track shaved 100 miles off the race distance -- it actually did this with the fall race last season, and the results were tremendous.

Now that the pavement has worn over the last 15 years, Fontana has the potential to produce great side-by-side racing. The groove has widened over the years, and the speeds they run at Auto Club Speedway are some of the fastest on the circuit.

Restarts are frantic at Fontana, and it's not uncommon to see cars going four- or even five-wide along the back straightaway. Fontana's not a track that will crumple a lot of sheet metal -- and if most fans are honest with themselves, that's what they want to see -- but anyone pining for close, side-by-side racing, Fontana has the potential to fit that bill.

Especially now that the race is 100 miles shorter.

Sunday's Auto Club 400 -- which Kevin Harvick won with a thrilling pass of Jimmie Johnson coming off Turn 4 on the last lap -- clocked in at two hours and 39 minutes (by far the shortest Cup race in recent years). The lack of cautions certainly helped, but so did taking away those last 100 miles.

Shortening races gives the drivers more urgency; there isn't enough time to simply ride around and wait for the adjustments to be made. That's why the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series sometimes put on a better show; with shorter races, drivers have to get up on the wheel and get what they can when they can.

There's no waiting.

I've long been a critic of Auto Club Speedway; for a time, it was the only track on the circuit I could've done without. But the last two races have been competitive and compelling. Maybe the track has found its place in the sport after 15 years; a one-time stop every year where we're treated to 400 miles of high speeds, side-by-side racing and four- and five-wide competition.

As much as the traditionalists would love NASCAR to ditch places like Fontana and return to Darlington and Rockingham and North Wilkesboro, it's not happening. Such is the price of growth and change. But Fontana seems to have finally found itself, and that can only mean good news for NASCAR and its fans.

Besides, we've got Martinsville this week. What's not to like there?

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