5 Questions Before ... Auto Club 400

Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images for NASCAR

From the east coast to the west, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads from the Tennessee mountains to the sandy beaches of California. Even if it’s not the most popular track on the circuit - more than likely you’ll hear plenty of whining about how the track doesn’t deserve a race before a car even makes its way onto the track - the race is still important in that it will be the last race in which the 2010 owner points are used. Plus the bonus points that count towards wins, once the Chase starts, will be crucial as well. No race is unimportant.

Here are a few questions on my mind heading into the weekend…

Will any big names fall out of the top 35? … Jeff Burton and Joey Logano are both 23 points ahead of the cut-off for the top-35 in owner points, while Brian Vickers is only 18 points ahead.

Each year for the first five races of the season, the previous year’s final owner points are used. Fontana will be the fifth race of 2011 and the last race for any driver to ensure themselves a starting position in Martinsville (the top-35 in owner points are locked into every race).

More than likely, all three drivers will find a way to keep themselves ahead of those that struggle to make it in on time in the first place. Even if something goes terribly wrong in the race for either Burton, Logano or Vickers, all three have enough speed to make it in on time if need be.

The issue brings up the need for a top-35 in owner points. Ask around and you’ll find that it’s not one of the most popular rules, with the thinking that the fastest 43 should be in the race - regardless of a driver or owner’s position in the standings. In all honesty, it can be confusing to watch qualifying and see that one driver had a better time than the other but still missed out on the race because of the lack of a provisional.

I didn’t use to be a big fan of dumping the top-35 rule but really it just makes sense. Rather than having to work around a complicated system that will take new fans a while to learn, just put the fastest drivers in the race! If a big name driver misses the race because of a crash or the simple fact they were just slow, so be it. Make them sweat it out a little bit.  

How much attention will start-and-park drivers receive? … Following the Jennifer Jo Cobb/Rick Russell/2nd Chance Motorsports debacle that has brought the ethics of starting-and-parking front and center, I can’t imagine there won’t be some added focus on who starts-and-parks in either the Nationwide or Sprint Cup Series. Though the TV commentators do usually mention when a car heads to the garage and parks for the day, several NASCAR TV personalities have been very defensive of the concept of starting-and-parking this week.

In fact, I’m totally expecting that when the commentators take a look at who is still in the race and who has parked it, it will generate a five minute or so long discussion of why starting-and-parking is ok.

Now hear me out, I understand that some team owners and drivers feel that they have no other option and are simply trying to survive in the sport. I’m not one that is openly critical of those that truly put heart and soul into their operation week in/week out; they run as much of the race as their equipment and funds will allow.

I don’t like when week in/week out the teams are only running 1-3 laps and they never make any effort to make it any further than that. While some car owners are trying to make enough money to get to the next track so that eventually they can try and run the full race, others are simply just taking advantage of NASCAR’s system. It’s a delicate balance, but there are those who truly want to be a part of the sport and do what they have to do, and more than likely you’ll hear about that this week. Whether or not NASCAR itself will address the issue has yet to be seen, but more than likely there will be some added focus on some of the teams that survive on running a few laps and then heading home early.

Does Kyle Busch continue the “change”? … So far this year we’ve had a glaring disappearance from the sport: Kyle Busch’s temper.

Busch has maintained a level head anytime something has gone wrong while giving a well-spoken interview to any media that comes his way - thanking his sponsors and somehow always saying the right thing. Busch has attributed the reasons to his offseason marriage to wife Samantha, some influence from team owners Joe and J.D. Gibbs and just an overall attitude adjustment.

If Busch was to show any change, it was expected to come at a short track like Bristol where racing room is limited. Instead, he swept the weekend winning both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races. He remained calm throughout both races.

Sure it’s still early in the season, but is this for real? Time will only tell.

Will the loss of an event help attendance at Fontana? … Ever since 2004, Auto Club Speedway has held two races a season. However, a change in the schedule resulted in the two-mile racetrack losing a date to Kansas Speedway and moving its race-date from February to March.

ACS has a listed grandstand capacity of 90,988 but has struggled to sell even 70,000 seats in the past few seasons. NASCAR’s estimates - usually thought to be exaggerated - put the attendance right around 70,000-72,000 since 2008 (which includes fans in the grandstand and the infield).

Los Angeles isn’t necessarily the strongest market for NASCAR in the first place but maybe by decreasing the quantity ACS will in turn increase the demand.

Can Kurt Busch continue with his streak? … Busch is currently the only driver that has managed to finish in the top-10 in all four races this season and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him continue with that streak this weekend at Fontana.

Busch has an average finish of 13th at this track with three of his last four finishes at the track coming inside the top-10 and a victory back in 2003. Even with his share of finishes outside of the top-20, Busch has never failed to finish a race at ACS and has completed all but four laps run there.

Bonus questions: Will last year’s championship contenders show some 2010 strength? … Will some of the dark horses remain in the top-12 in points? … Will TV ratings be any higher?
5 Questions Before ... Auto Club 400 5 Questions Before ... Auto Club 400 Reviewed by Summer Dreyer on Thursday, March 24, 2011 Rating: 5