Commentary

Auto Club Speedway a better barometer of success than Daytona

Going to Victory Lane at intermediate tracks like Auto Club Speedway sends a clear message: You're a legitimate threat to win it all in 2008, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: February 23, 2008, 6:29 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FONTANA, Calif. -- The newly named Auto Club Speedway deserves a break. Rain is predicted again for Sunday.

And is it too much to ask for a race weekend where the temperature falls somewhere between 60 and 110 degrees?

It was cold, cloudy and wet in the Inland Empire when the track activities started Friday, a giant contrast to the race here on Labor Day weekend last year when it was a scorching 115 degrees.

In either case, it's not exactly what NASCAR teams expect for a race in Southern California. But you make do with what you've got.

And the dreaded "track seepage" issue caused problems in Turns 3 and 4 Friday when water crawled up through the asphalt.

Regardless of the challenges, this race, not the Daytona 500, gives a glimpse of how things could go for the 2008 season.

"Nothing at Daytona relates to here," said Matt Kenseth, who has won the last two February events at Fontana.

Daytona is an anomaly, rarely indicative of any trends for the Cup teams. But the 2-mile Fontana oval is where the season begins for learning your place in 2008.

To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere."

Take a glance at the 2007 Auto Club 500. Eight of the top nine finishers went on to rank among the top eight in the 2007 Chase.

The top three finishers -- Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson -- ranked in the top four at the end of the year.

Need more proof? The top four finishers in the September sweatfest, and six of the top seven, all made the Chase.

Doing well on the big Cali oval usually means a team is headed toward a successful season.

The Dodge teams are riding high after placing six cars in the top eight in the Daytona 500, including Ryan Newman's surprising victory. But hold off on those championship predictions.

Seven of the top nine finishers in the 2007 Daytona 500 failed to make the Chase. The Dodge boys may be on the upswing, but Sunday's race at Fontana is the place to prove it.

The intermediate ovals are where Cup title contenders shine. So what exactly are the intermediate ovals, you ask?

There are 14 races on intermediate ovals: the 2-mile low-banked tracks at Fontana and Michigan Speedway; the 1.5-mile tracks at Texas, Atlanta, Lowe's, Chicagoland, Las Vegas and Kansas; and the 1.3-mile egg-shaped oval at Darlington.

"The bulk of the season is built around tracks like California and Las Vegas," said Jimmie Johnson, who won at Fontana last September. "That's why it's good we all tested at both tracks last month."

If a team struggles on these tracks, competing for the title isn't an option. Most championship teams are good at every type of track, but a team can be so-so at plate racing or road courses and still have a strong season.

Not true on the intermediate ovals. If you're a tick slow or miss the setup on the intermediate tracks, expect to miss the Chase.

But success on these tracks last year doesn't mean much now. Teams threw out those notes. That car is long gone.

The Auto Club 500 is the first time the new car (formerly the Car of Tomorrow) will race at Fontana. The same is true for every intermediate oval except Darlington. Jeff Gordon won the Darlington race last year.

It's a new world for this car on the other eight intermediate tracks, starting with Auto Club Speedway.

"I still think the racing here will be similar to how it was in the past," Greg Biffle said. "We talk about how wide this track is and the multiple grooves, but it's still hard to pass."

The hope is these cars change things up front and produce more passing at Fontana, a track where that hasn't happened much in the past.

All the Cup teams tested at Fontana and Las Vegas last month. Toyotas were strong at both tracks. And Newman's No. 12 Dodge posted the second fastest lap at Fontana.

That could indicate that the new cars won't change as much as the old one did from track-to-track.

One thing that hasn't changed is the engines. Old cars or new, the motors are pushed to the limit at Fontana because of consistently high RPM levels. Durability is a bigger issue here than most tracks.

"With the new gear rule, we run a little lower RPMs here now, about 9,200 to 9,400," said Kyle Busch. "We also slow down a little more in the corners with these cars, so we should be OK. But brakes might be an issue in trying to get the cars to roll through the corners."

Basically, a team has to hit on everything just right, which favors the big teams at intermediate tracks like Fontana. Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing have won 11 of the 15 Cup events at Auto Club Speedway.

Going to Victory Lane in this one sends a clear message: You're a contender in 2008.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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