The bad boys of NASCAR are coming to California this weekend at the Auto Club 400 in Fontana. No, not Benny Parsons (sadly no longer with us) nor Junior Johnson (living in comfortable retirement in the south), but people like Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, and others.
Why bad? Well, if you had to ask, that means that you
weren’t at Autoclub Speedway last year for the NASCAR race, which produced a
nasty wreck in the last corner as the laps wound to zero and a fight in the
pits after. That wreck put Denny Hamlin out for a good part of the season, and
it prompted Stewart to go after Keselowski and slap at him. Not quite a fight,
but there was some bad language used, too, which if you were there for the
exciting action, you observed on TV later on. Such is the cost of being an
Nobody can promise that kind of action this weekend, but
there are three features that might make it worth your while turning up in
Fontana on any of the three days of action—Friday through Sunday. Qualifying,
for one, has changed from years past. Instead of their being a one-lap shootout
with each car going out on its own, they’ve adopted a CART-style format, where
multiple cars are on track at once and times count from the start of the
session to the end. The slower cars are gradually eliminated over three rounds
of 25, then 10, then 5 minutes, with only the fastest of the cars advancing
through from one round to the next.
There are also breaks between rounds of five minutes,
allowing teams to make whatever adjustments they can squeeze in over that time.
And if you know anything about NASCAR and the swiftness with which these guys
can adjust on these cars, you can imagine that they could do a heck of a lot to
alter the driving conditions of the cars in that 300 seconds.
Well, that’s actually a little optimistic. In fact, the
following are the changes allowed: to wedge, the track bar, use of tape for
aerodynamic purposes, and tire pressure. Only one set of tires is allowed
through the whole of the three rounds, should a car make it through all three.But
think about it—25 minutes to go in and out, adjust on the car, measure what the
other drivers are doing, avoid traffic, dodge the slower guys, and try to make
it work to advance. Not bad, and that’s going to happen later in the afternoon
A second reason you might consider making the pilgrimage
to Fontucky this weekend is that the cars themselves have been given a little
more freedom in what they can drive like, in the form of a no-ride-height green
light. That means, as drivers have been saying, that the cars can be right down
on the track. Now, one thing this does is makes it more obvious than before
that this is not really “stock” car racing at all. The illusion fostered by
body shape and stickers is more or less completely broken when you see the car
stuck right down to the asphalt. But the increase in handling and the ability
to adjust much more and more creatively make for an anything-goes atmosphere.
That may, however, lessen as the year goes on and more
engineers figure out the best way to capitalize. For now, though, it’s
smartest-guy-first, and that could do some crazy things for results.
Finally, you might find it worth your while to turn up
for the racing Sunday because this year, the chase format has been, as the
young might say “majorly tweaked,” such that essentially any driver who wins
one race will make the “playoffs.” What happens then is a knockout format
somewhat reminiscent of qualifying, but that’s not the point here. What is,is
that the drivers are going a bit crazy to win because of the fact that it
totally relieves them of pressure for the rest of the year. Not that they’re
not trying after that. In fact, winning once lets those drivers take any kinds
of risks they want to in the races to follow.
That means that this year’s winners to date—Earnhardt, Harvick,
Keselowski, and Edwards—have a pretty good shot, some would say a sure thing,
to make the dust-offs in the fall, the last ten races of the year, and that
they can go insane on the two miles of California.
There is, however, a caveat to that. If 26 different
drivers win over the course of the pre-chase races, then it’s not going to be
26 in the chase. In fact, then, winning more than once will be the key, as Carl
Edwards stated after he won in Bristol last weekend. So that’s even more
incentive for those who have won to win again, and once a few have won twice or
more, they further shut out others.
A little note to this point must be made—it’s just not
that likely that 26 people will win. Nor even 20, if the history of the sport
is any indication. That would mean that far too many good drivers would not win
twice, which is statistically improbable. The chase, by the way, has 16 spots,
so the assumption is that there won’t be more than 16 different winners. If
there are, then some pretty unlikely teams are going to be kissing Miss Sprint
Cup, or whatever she’s called nowadays.
So what looked like kind of a dumb idea at the start of the season—the chase as they’ve redefined it—is already, proving once again that anything NASCAR does, they’ve probably figured out the value of long before it is introduced to you and me. And that’s why, in short, if you’ve got any interest in motor racing, you might want to turn up to watch what happens this next three days.
If that’s not enough of a convincer, then the first time you hear more than thirty thousand collective horsepower roaring by you into turn one, you’ll be thanking golly goodness that you spent whatever it is they’re charging for a ticket.