Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions in Fontana: Feuds, Cautions, and Single File Parades

Auto Club Speedway, located in the not-so-picturesque Inland Empire town of Fontana, CA, is the site of Round 5 of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season. Infamous for being a popular symbol of NASCAR’s plight of the mid-2000s post-boom era, the track once known for it’s boring on-track product has come to life a bit in recent years due to an aging surface pavement that will give drivers and teams fits all weekend long. But lets not get ahead of ourselves here, a good race at Auto Club is still tantamount to an average race anywhere else. Nonetheless, the big teams have usually thrived here, so one of the main questions heading into the weekend will certainly be whether or not the powerhouse squads will blow away the field like they have in the past at Auto Club. Meanwhile, in the garage area, we have a Twitter rivalry brewing, a points leader putting up insane numbers, and all sorts of craziness after a barnburner of a race at Bristol. There’s an awful lot to cover this week, so without further ado, let’s get started!

Will the rough track surface eating up tires be enough to generate excitement at Auto Club Speedway, a massive track that is not known for producing close racing?

1. Will the Auto Club 400 be a dud… again?

Outside of perhaps only New Hampshire Motor Speedway, there is not a single track on the Sprint Cup schedule that is more ill-suited for stock cars than Auto Club Speedway. Built in 1997 during NASCAR’s golden age of growth, the track (once known as California Speedway) was built by Mr. Roger Penske with the intention that both open-wheel and stock cars would be able to safely race around the track. In order for this to work, the track was only given a paltry 14 degrees of banking, perfect for Indy cars, but not nearly enough for stock cars. The ensuing result was a track that staged parade like affairs where the field simply spread out over the sprawling 2 miles of track space. No matter what incarnation of NASCAR stock car machines has taken to the track over the years, not a single one has been able to put on consistently good racing. Not the early-Gen 4 car, not the late-Gen 4 car, not the old Nationwide car, not the new Nationwide car, and certainly not the Gen 5 COT.

Thus, there usually isn’t a whole lot of hope for thrilling action when it comes to racing at Auto Club, as the track’s dry and conservative shape simply doesn’t allow for it in anything outside of an Indy car. But there may be one element of this year’s version of the race that, while perhaps not making the race any more exciting than usual, it may at least give the fans something to watch that is different from what they see at most tracks. As you may remember, this track has not received a fresh repave since it was first built in 1997. That means that the current track surface is extremely abrasive and bumpy. Abrasive and bumpy race tracks chew up and wear out tires. With this in mind, the Auto Club 400 will likely be the first race this season where tire wear and tire conservation play a true role in the outcome of the race. This is an important element that distinguishes Auto Club from other race tracks on the circuit. Outside of Atlanta and perhaps maybe Texas, most tracks on the schedule are so smooth today (and the tires are rock hard to boot) that the skill of tire conservation is hardly even a factor anymore. That will not be the case this Sunday, as drivers will be fighting tire wear all race, and the ones skilled enough to manage their tires will be rewarded handsomely.

This notion of tire conservation may not sound very exciting, and it probably won’t improve the racing much outside of the first few laps of a restart, but it will at least add an interesting element to the race that we very rarely see in the sport anymore. Will the race be a dud? Probably, but at least fans will be treated to a form of racing that is not often seen in the sport of NASCAR racing these days where rock hard tires and butter smooth race tracks rule the day.

2. Will the Denny Hamlin/Joey Logano feud spill over into Auto Club?

Ah Bristol, you never fail to create controversy do you? Many a great driver has been suckered into conflict because of the Smoky Mountains’ half-mile bullring, and the track’s latest two victims are Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. In case you missed it, Logano, who was punted earlier in the race by Hamlin, stormed over to Hamlin’s car after the race demanding an explanation for Hamlin’s on-track shenanigans. Like any good crew member would, multiple men in FedEx suits blocked Logano’s attempts at getting to his former teammate, and thus the two drivers did what any sensible 21st century person would do in this situation: they rushed to their keyboards and had a slap-fight over Twitter.

The real question here, of course, is whether or not their little tiff will spill over onto the track this week. The answer? It will, but not in the conventional sense.

As I pointed out earlier, Auto Club Speedway is a massive track that allows for some butt-puckering corner entry speeds (think 208-210 with the Gen-6 car). I don’t care how much Logano’s jimmies were rustled by Hamlin’s antics, there is no way in hell that Logano will risk taking out Hamlin on such a fast and aero sensitive race track. Drivers have a code when it comes to pay back, and it is universally agreed upon that roughing somebody up on a track with 200 mph corner entry speeds is not kosher. Not only that, but even the tiniest bit of aero damage a driver assumes when issuing pay back at a track this large could ruin their own race.

Thus, instead of outright wrecking Hamlin, look for Logano to issue payback in subtle but irksome ways. If Hamlin gets anywhere near Logano on the track this Sunday, Logano is liable to block him, take his line away, box him in, and any number of other irritating non-contact forms of on track payback. But don’t expect Logano to lay the bumper to Mr. Hamlin. Not yet at least. He can do that two weeks from now at Martinsville, where aero is irrelevant and contact is encouaraged.

3. Could this be the first caution-free points race since 2002?

Let’s jump in our hypothetical time machines for the moment and turn back the clocks such that we are watching the 2012 edition of the Auto Club 400 (I know, not something I want to re-live either). In case you all forgot, that race went 129 laps caution free before rain halted and eventually ended the event. But what if the rain held off? The race had a very “green” look to it, and the field was incredibly spread out such that car-to-car contact was highly unlikely. That race very well could have gone caution-free, and there is a chance that that very thing could happen in this year’s edition of the event.

Now, I am sure many of you are already saying to yourself that NASCAR would never let such a thing happen in today’s day and age and would eventually throw a debris caution before the event reached its final laps, but given how close some races in 2012 (namely the spring Texas race which ran 234 green laps to the finish) came to going caution free, I think a caution-free race is very possible, and if it is going to happen, it will happen at Auto Club. Between the width of the track, the effects of tire wear, and the low corner speeds due to the lack of banking, races at Auto Club get very spread out very quickly, and when the field spreads out, the probability of a caution flag waving diminishes greatly. This is especially compounded as of late due to the sheer lack of competitive cars capable of effectively racing one another, as there are only really 20-24 competitive cars in the field as opposed to years past where there were upwards of 30-35 competitive and well-funded cars on the track. Thus, you have a recipe for long green flag runs.

We all know NASCAR loves it’s debris cautions, but given the fact that they too have been waving at a lesser rate as of late (not a single debris caution was called last week in Bristol, when was the last time that happened?), could we see our first caution free race since 2002? It’s certainly not likely, but if it’s going to happen anywhere, it will happen at Auto Club.

4. Can Brad Keselowski pad his points lead in Auto Club?

Right around the same time that his new teammate Joey Logano was tusseling with Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski was just doing what he normally does as of late: running up front. Many expected Keselowski to fade after his Cinderella-esque run to the title last year, but such a demise has not yet occurred. If anything, Keselowski looks better than he ever has, all this despite a move to a new manufacturer and a brand new style of race car. Keselowski has posted a ridiculous 3.5 average finish through 4 races this season and currently holds the points lead over former mentor Dale Earnhardt Jr. Is Keselowski simply on a hot streak, or is the young phenom actually getting better?

We ought to find out a great deal about Brad and his No. 2 team this weekend in Auto Club, as the track has a unique ability to challenge both driver and team simultaneously. The driver must manage tires here more so than any track outside of Atlanta, and the long length and bumpy nature of the track is a major car setup challenge for the teams. As such, The No. 2 team’s performance (as well as the performance of many other front running teams) in this weekend’s event will be a telling indictment of where they stand thus far in 2013. Keselowski has showed strength at four very different race tracks this season, and as such, if the No. 2 squad comes out of the box strong once again and posts another solid finish on yet another unique track type (the 2-mile configuration of Auto Club), we can reasonably peg them as the early favorite for the title.

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