California preview: The real season begins at Fontana

Updated: February 27, 2009, 11:37 AM ET

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Don't count out Jimmie Johnson, who's got two wins, a second and a third the past two seasons at Cali.

Start Your Engines

The Auto Club 500 is the anti-Daytona 500.

One week after the sold-out (with discounts) Super Bowl of NASCAR, the Sprint Cup Series crosses the country to Fontana, Calif., where let's just say fan interest isn't quite at a fever pitch.

One week after restrictor-plate racing where pack racing is the game, the plates are off and it's back to more conventional racing, where a 30th-place car will get lapped before it works to the front through a draft.

One week after the 2.5-mile, high-banked tri-oval, this is a relatively flat D-shaped 2-miler.

One week after you negotiated a free pass from the spouse to camp in the easy chair for the Daytona 500, maybe the Auto Club 500 isn't appointment television. But keep this in mind -- it will reveal far more about what's in store for this season.

"I enjoy going to California because I really feel that's where our season starts," two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart said. "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 racetrack. It's a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things."

At California, the true Chase contenders emerge. A year ago at Daytona, only Stewart and Kyle Busch finished in the top eight and made it to the Chase seven months later. Yet the entire top five and seven of the first eight finishers at Fontana ended up in the Chase. In 2007, two eventual Chasers finished in Daytona's top nine, while eight of nine were at the top in California.

No disrespect to A.J. Allmendinger, Elliott Sadler, Michael Waltrip and Reed Sorenson -- all top-nine finishers at rain-shortened Daytona -- because there was nothing fluky about their runs, such are the vagaries of plate racing. But those drivers and their second-tier teams aren't expected to duplicate those efforts consistently on a more standard Cup track.

"Daytona is a totally different race than Fontana, Atlanta, Bristol, any of these tracks that are really the bread and butter of the season," Roush Fenway Racing's Matt Kenseth said. "Those are the tracks you have to run at to be a serious championship contender."

Of course, Kenseth won the Daytona 500 and won't be giving that back anytime soon. But his standout career has been built on intermediate tracks like California, where he won the February races in 2006-07.

The rest of the Roush Fords have been equally good at California (and its near-twin Michigan International Speedway, which hosts two summer races), with Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards also winning in recent years. Edwards won this past year's Auto Club 500 and followed with another win the next week at Las Vegas, a very clear show of strength that mirrored his nine-win, runner-up season.

Only twice in the past 32 years has a team won the first two races of the season (in 2001, Dale Earnhardt Inc. drivers Waltrip and Steve Park started the year with wins at Daytona and Rockingham, N.C., respectively), but Roush is in a prime spot to do it with the higher-luck-factor race, Daytona, already conquered.

And with the offseason testing ban, this week may show that the rich will stay rich in 2009.

"Without testing, I think the teams that were successful on the intermediate tracks last year will probably be strong again," said Hendrick Motorsports' Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner at Fontana, including the inaugural 1997 race. "But that's a double-edged sword. When you're successful, you're afraid to change too much. Teams that weren't strong may roll the dice and look outside the box, and they may hit on something.

"We are one of those teams that haven't adapted to this new car as quickly as we would have liked, so we may have to change our thought process."

One thought process that won't change is that the season, for championship purposes, starts Sunday.

Front-running

Matt Kenseth: It was pretty remarkable how fast it happened at Daytona -- he wasn't out of the car for five seconds before choking up.

Oh yeah, not bad work in the race, either. Don't consider it as any less of a win just because he led one green-flag lap in the final stage. Leading Lap 146 in this Daytona 500 was no different than Harvick leading Lap 202 in 2007. Everyone on the track knew any lap could be the last with the impending storms.

"I'm not going to think any less of the victory. A lot of races get won and lost like this," the Roush Fenway Racing veteran said. "We were in the right place at the right time. Had our car as fast as it needed to be."

Winning a restrictor-plate opening race won't vault Kenseth into title-favorite status alongside Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, but remember he's one of only two drivers to make every Chase (along with Johnson). The No. 17 Ford has a knack for hanging around, just like Sunday.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.


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Standings

You Gotta See This

Drafting

Allmendinger

AJ Allmendinger: Not since Bill Davis Racing's Scott Wimmer in 2004 has there been a more improbable third-place run in the Daytona 500.

Allmendinger isn't guaranteed a full season's work yet at Richard Petty Motorsports, and nobody would call him the best stock-car driver in the stable (Kasey Kahne still has to get that respect, for now), but there he was, maybe a lap away from winning the race if it had continued and the right dominoes fell into place in the draft.

"For our team's sake, we would have loved to have had a chance to win the Daytona 500, but leaving there with a third-place finish isn't all that bad," Allmendinger said. "I'm not going to complain."

No way, not with a career-best finish to build on what people should have learned this past year based on several of his runs with Team Red Bull and Gillett Evernham -- that this guy deserves full-time work.

Off The Pace

Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Junior Nation can rationalize the crash however it wants, considering Brian Vickers' blocking and the No. 88 heeding close attention to the double-yellow line. Spin it hard enough and one can almost forgive Junior. OK, spin it really hard.

But maybe he's never in that spot if he doesn't make that first rookie mistake on pit road. Failing to locate the pit stall was inexcusable for a veteran driver and team. Where was the spotter counting down "5-4-3-2-1"? Was crew chief Tony Eury Jr. helping at all? The second pit miscue was something plenty of drivers will do this year, trying to get in the box and stopping on a boundary line, but can you picture any other Hendrick driver simply missing the box entirely and making another circuit on the track to re-enter pit lane?

And saying on television that all the pit board signs look alike might be the lamest excuse of the season, and there are 35 races left.

Inside The Numbers

Sadler

4 -- Rain-shortened Daytona 500s
2 -- Number of days needed to run 2008 Auto Club 500
156 -- Starts since Elliott Sadler's last win (California, September '04)
24 -- Laps Sadler led Sunday
21 -- Laps Sadler led in 2008
31st, 25th -- Matt Kenseth's starting positions in California wins
39th -- Kenseth's starting position at Daytona