Editorial

NASCAR’s West Coast Opener – California Preview
 

by Dave Yaeck
February 22, 2006

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Matt Kenseth won last February in Fontana
Bob Heathcote

The almost two week juggernaut known as ‘Speedweeks at Daytona’ has come to an end. Now it’s time to take that trip out west to California Speedway as NASCAR’s elite invade Fontana for a full weekend of racing with all three top NASCAR series in action, culminating with the Auto Club 500 on Sunday afternoon.

This two-mile D-shaped oval opened in 1997 has been the site of many different events over the last 10 years including NASCAR, Champ Car, IRL, and AMA Superbike series. While the infield has not changed since its inception the outer midway had a facelift last year as the ‘California Fan Zone’ opened and they welcomed Wolfgang Puck’s Apex Restaurant as well as many different fan friendly events to make their race weekends exciting.

For the competition, the racing has come into its own, as at the Sony HD500 last Labor Day weekend there was much more two and three wide racing throughout the event prompting positive feedback from many of NASCAR’s elite. “The good thing is that the racing has become two-and three- wide and you can run on different spots on the race track,” two-time NASCAR Champion Tony Stewart said.


A large crowd was on hand last February
Bob Heathcote

“What you do at California is solely based on what you and your team can do with your race car, not what drafting line you’re in or how the car behind you is going to affect your next move. Once we get away from Daytona everything kind of settles into a groove. We’re back in the weekly grind. I enjoy going to California because I really feel that’s where our season starts. That’s a track where you don’t really worry about what everybody else’s car is doing. You worry about what your car is doing. You’re racing the race track. You’re not racing everybody else. It’s a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things. Once you leave California, you feel like the season has officially started.”

Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, who finished 43rd at the Daytona 500 hopes to rebound at California, but knows that there is a long way to go in the season, after all in 2002 he finished 43rd in the Great American Race but went on at the end of the year to collect his first NASCAR Nextel Cup Championship.

Along with Stewart, there are three other past Champions who have begun their 2007 season in the bottom half. Last year's Nextel Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, and California native, 2004 Champion Kurt Busch, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, and 2003 Champion Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 DeWalt Tools Ford are all in unfamiliar territory as they are all outside of the top 25.

Joining them is a handful of drivers who have vied for championships in the past, as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Stewart’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin are also 25th or worse in the championship standings.

This will also be the first race on the two-mile oval for the new Toyota Camrys. Dale Jarrett, driver of the #44 UPS Toyota is eager to put the new manufacturer to the test. “It’s a great track for racing and we’re obviously anxious to get there and see where we are with our downforce program,” Jarrett said. “We feel like we learned some things at the Las Vegas test that will help us at California.”

Jarrett is one of a handful of drivers that have competed in all 13 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series races at California Speedway since its inception. His career best at Fontana is a fifth place in 1999.

When NASCAR comes to California Speedway twice a year (they also host the NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series races Labor Day weekend), the stars come out to shine. This weekend will be no exception as Sammy Hagar will bring his high energy rock n roll to the stage for the West Coast Premiere of NASCAR on FOX on Sunday. Hagar will also serve as the Grand Marshal for the Busch Series Stater Bros 300 Race on Saturday. Acclaimed actor, Kevin Costner, known for his roles in Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and Dances with Wolves will serve as the Grand Marshal of the Auto Club 500.

All of the weekend’s festivities kick off Thursday with a free concert by Hagar at the ‘Fontana Racefest’.

The author can be contacted at nascar@autoracing1.com

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