Saturday, February 23, 2008

What's up in California?

It seems to be human nature to pick things. We pick flowers, pick friends, pick partners, girlfriends, boyfriends, fruits, vegetables, noses and ears. We racing fans like to pick our drivers, teams, manufacturers and sponsors. Especially, before the drop of the green flag, we like to pick who we think will win the upcoming race.
We really want to pick our favorite driver to win, to go with our hearts, justifying that he can win, of course, because he is one of the best. However, a look at track records, team performance, and driving style often shows that going with the heart isn't always the wisest way to go.
Daytona's season-opening restricter-plate race, and all the pageantry and celebration that goes with it, is behind us now, and all the cars will be running at full horsepower at California Speedway, near Fontana, California.
Herein lies one of the problems in picking a winner for Sunday's AutoClub 500. With practice and qualifying both rained out this weekend, we have only last month's testing to tell us anything about how the cars might run in full racing configeration. The new spec car, which I call the Formula N car, has yet to run one lap of competition on an intermediate track, that is, a track with moderate banking and 1.5 to 2 miles long in circumference. Testing earlier this month gave us little to go on, except that teams were still finding ways to make the car racier.
Therefore, technically, everybody is a rookie starting Sunday's race. Setups discovered during testing may not translate well to competition, and there still may be tire issues. Rear-end gearing also comes into play as far as engine performance and stamina, and that is something else that can't be fathomed until after the race. The inexperience with this car on this track is what I think is going to make the race fun, as well as the heightened level of competition that has resulted from Jimmie Johnson's amazing run to the Championship last year.
The heart can therefore utilize the mind when making picks for the top five, and visa versa, because there is so much uncertainty involved. Since, unlike the Daytona 500, racing is in the hands of individual drivers. And since it is in the hands of the individual drivers, the crew chiefs and pit crews are even more important now. So we go for the teams that have the best record in the pits and in driver ability on this particular track.
Based on that, five drivers immediately come to mind. Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, and Jeff Gordon all have multiple wins at the California Speedway. Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch also have recent wins there, it being the site of the Schrub's first win.
There are other factors we need to throw in here to offset the unknowns of the spec car. Even though testing didn't tell us, the fans, a lot about how the car will be in competition, we did see some display of horsepower. When we are talking horsepower, Toyota comes to mind, although the Dodge teams claim, and actually showed last week, that they dynoed at nearly the same horsepower as the Toyotas. We can't, therefore, in making our picks, overlook the Dodges, especially the Penske teams that seem to have some momentum going for them. We could see both Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman in the top five, and maybe even a few other drivers from Everham and Ganassi in the top ten. However, California features wide open racing, and teaming up as these cars did at Daytona offers little, if any advantage.
The experts like Carl Edwards, who tested very well at the beginning of the month, and who has come close to victory before, so we must mention him when we talk about probable winners. Greg Biffle is also upwardly mobile, and the Fords traditionally have a good record at Fontana, so don't count him out, either.
As the reader may have noticed by now, I am trying to talk myself into a way of picking my favorite driver as the winner. California Speedway is one of only three venues at which Smoke has yet to win a race. Since this is a track that features open racing and a widely spread out field, it is closer to what we would call pure racing, pitting the driver against track conditions as well as against other drivers. In spite of his record at California, and the similarily configured Michigan International Speedway, this is the kind of racing for which Tony Stewart thrives. He is goal driven, and his goal here is to win at a venue where he has yet to do so.
I like to believe he can do it.
With qualifying rained out, he will start seventh on the grid, and from that position we have to believe he will quickly take the lead, as is his habit. There will be some exciting moments early in the race, as we get to watch Smoke race with the HMS Juggernaut of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, but for the main part, drivers will be trying to hold their positions while preserving tires and engines. If practice is rained out this afternoon, or if NASCAR officials decide that the cars need an opportunity to check tire wear and work on setup, there will probably be a competition caution on lap 20, and after that will be a new start to the race. This will tighten up the field once more, and we will see some more position jockeying.
It should be a joy to watch these guys run against each other, as they are all top quality drivers. The owners points starting position will give us a great opportunity to see some of the absolute best compete against each other.
Although a spread out field looks boring to some fans, the movement up through the field of Dale Earnhardt, Jr, and Kyle Busch, each a car control specialist in his own right and special way, should be enough to hold attention.
I still say, it's going to be a great season, and this should be a great race, as long as it isn't delayed by weather once it gets started. So pick yourself a good seat at the track or in your home, and enjoy the weekend!

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