Track Talk: A Preview of the Auto Club 400 at Fontana

It’s been a three week road trip for a majority of the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams that began at Las Vegas Motor Speedway long before the clocks moved forward an hour.  The last bouts of winter were moving along and Major League Baseball teams weren’t reporting to their preseason bases at Florida or Arizona.

In short, a lot has happened since NASCAR went to the West Coast and the long trip will come to a close with today’s Auto Club 400 at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA.  Although she’s compared to her sister facility at Brooklyn, MI, this track is quite treacherous and throws drivers and teams into fits with balancing their cars for a high speed but abrasive racing surface.

Restarts at this track are exhilarating as drivers will go three to five wide to gain as many positions as possible before fanning out to single or double file racing packs.  Those moments in the 400-mile race will still be there but perhaps more pronounced with the low downforce package.  If yesterday’s XFINITY race was any indication, a late race restart could produce a surprise winner after all is said and done.

Sure, fuel mileage will also be a factor for today’s race.  Long green flag runs are not uncommon at this track so expect to see teams pitting during these periods of the race.  Minimizing any additional time spent on pit road on adjustments to the car as well as any mistakes during pit stops will be absolutely critical, but that’s also the case in any race.

Today’s winner will get the distinction of enjoying a trip to the winner’s circle for two weeks.  Say what they will about the victory being in the back of their mind after they arrive at the shop on Monday or Tuesday – to win a race heading into an off-weekend is quite a statement to make in this young Sprint Cup season.

Before the race and thoughts of heading back to the East Coast can happen, let’s talk about the Trending Topics here on Track Talk with our TPF team of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley Hull, Cody Shoppe, Jessica TowKathleen Cassidy, Katie Copple, Sean Fesko and Stephen Conley!

Trending Topics
Question 1
We assure you this wasn't done on a NASCAR video game for the XBox One...oh wait.

We assure you this wasn’t done on a NASCAR video game for the XBox One…oh wait.

For the second time in 2016, we had a photo finish which took place last Sunday at Phoenix International Speedway.  Much like Denny Hamlin squeezed a Daytona 500 win over Martin Truex Jr, Kevin Harvick narrowly bested Carl Edwards to win the Good Sam 500 at Phoenix.  Is this a byproduct of the rules package or just simply these races coming down to very determined and savvy racers in the final lap?

Fesko :  It’s a byproduct of green-white-checkered finishes. Both finishes were fantastic, and the one at Phoenix was the first non-plate photo finish since 2007, but it was only because a late caution bunched up the whole field. And if Harvick had taken tires the race wouldn’t have finished the way it did – he would have driven away from the rest of the field over the last two laps rather than struggle to hold off Edwards. I’m not complaining, however; I loved the finishes and would love to see more of them – but I’m not going to say it has anything to do with the package.

Hobbs :  Can we say it’s a mixture of everything, including short runs to the finish? Because I think all those aspects come into play here. Fontana is our net visit and yet another fast, intermediate track. The 2 previous intermediate races this season did not give us a close finish, so will this race fall into the same category? I am leaning towards yes.

Cassidy :  I think that it is safe to say this new rule package has done a lot for the start of the 2016 season already. Over the last couple years NASCAR has struggled to put together a package that drivers liked, and gave fans racing they wanted to see. I do not want to speak too soon, but so far this package is pleasing both fans and drivers.

Shoppe :  It’s a combination of both. I think the rules package is helping a lot. The way cars can get up behind someone else like Carl Edwards could do with Kevin Harvick may not have been able to happen in the past. Instead of being stuck in dirty air from the car ahead, you can make some more moves to pass which helps with exciting finishes.

Tow :  While drivers are certainly giving 110%, undoubtedly these great finishes are a byproduct of the new low downforce rules package that was brought forth this year. Think about it: we have had close finishes in the past but never this often and within a short four race span. It has taken NASCAR some time and many processes to reach this point but I, for one, am pleasantly happy to be a NASCAR fan right now as the racing has never been better!

Hull :  I think it’s both honestly, and the new rules package may be creating these savvier racers! Either way, it is making for some great racing this season, and I am seeing a lot of good comments about that. Also, with the Chase format, it is creating these more determined drivers, because one win and you’re in! I would say that ALL of these elements put together has made for some great finishes.

Copple :  I think this package is a big part of these finished. The photo finish at Daytona, well that’s Daytona! But Kevin Harvick have Carl Edwards’ finish was unbelievable. I definitely don’t think this will be the last close finish we will see this season. The question now is…who will wreck for the win?

Question 2
The photography studio couldn't quite afford the lighting...but Aric Almirola's having a bright start to 2016.

The photography studio couldn’t quite afford the lighting…but Aric Almirola’s having a bright start to 2016.

Aric Almirola had a steady race at Phoenix, running inside the top-10 before coming home in 14th spot.  Are there more days like this for the 43 team that led to 16th and 17th place points finishes in the points standings over the past two years or a flash of brilliance?

Fesko :  Most people wouldn’t think this, but Almirola is actually a pretty good racer. He just hasn’t had the opportunities that the big-name drivers had. His introduction to Cup came with the failed Dale Earnhardt, Inc. team and he bounced back to XFINITY before taking the Cup ride at Richard Petty Motorsports in 2012. And from then on he’s been steady, finishing 20th, 18th, 16th and 17th in the final point standings. He even won a (rain-shortened) race at Daytona. He’ll continue the pace and keep RPM in the conversation in the future.

Hobbs :  Flash of brilliance where things are coming together perhaps? Also, no offense to the rest of the field, but the removal of A+ drivers of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart from the field gives drivers like Almirola a chance to get some better finishes. One can only hope this team can keep things going strong.

Cassidy :  The 43 team often has some consistency to their races. As long as they are able to stay out of trouble and continue producing reliable equipment I believe we can see more good days for this team!

Shoppe :  Aric Almirola will be contending for a final spot in the Chase once again this year. I don’t see them have much of an outright chance to win their way in but if they can be consistent like the last few years, the famous 43 will make another chase appearance.

Tow :  Aric Almirola and his No. 43 team have shown that they are consistent on a weekly basis. Sure, they aren’t a team that contends for wins on a regular basis but Almirola sure finds ways to sneak up into the Top 10 more often than not. I think the No. 43 team has good momentum going for them and as they continue to become more dialed in they could very well be a force to be reckoned with in the near future.

Hull :  It’s still too early to tell, but in the last two seasons, they have shown that they could very well make the Chase. Races can be variant, and there are many factors (i.e. wrecks, pit penalties, other act of God things) that could play into finishes. So again, let’s see how this season rolls out first before deciding whether or not this happens. They do have the possibility of winning Daytona in July as well, so that could be a factor as well!

Copple :  Almirola is what I like to call a quiet driver. He can sneak up in to the top-10 or top-15 and no one seems to notice. The No. 43 team has some great tracks ahead that they can excel at and I can see more top-15 finishes in their future. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them make a run for the Chase…but will it be this year?   

Question 3
Come back to the track, race fans!

Come back to the track, race fans!

NASCAR has dealt with a decline in attendance and TV ratings over the past several years.  What can the sport do to remedy both and attract itself to new fans?

Fesko :  NASCAR needs a multi-pronged approach to this problem. It needs to continue pushing its diversity program, shorten races and find ways to be more technological and eco-friendly in order to gain younger fans. It needs to return to tradition in order to recapture the old fans that have felt shunned over the past 16 years. And it needs to go to new venues and other regions of the country in order to get brand-new fans. This will mean perhaps going to smaller venues and will be an awkward and seemingly hurtful transition for the sport, but in the long run the payoff will be great.

Hobbs :  This answer is coming from the business that I work in – live TV is no longer the go to thing, including live sports. Many people are now tuning into other sources to obtain their TV shows, and this does include sports. With apps like Fox Sports Go and NBC’s Live app, I bet if those figures were available, you would see a solid growth over the past years in those viewers. To get even better results, you would have to look into the demographics to see who is watching. In that aspect, NASCAR cannot do anything but embrace the new viewing patterns of today.

What CAN they do? They can stop being so inconsistent with their rules and programming. Fans like consistency and when rules for the season are changing every year, that will drive people away. NASCAR needs to stick to something for several years and see how it plays out before jumping the gun. No one likes to get a handle on their sport and then have to re-learn things; that can get very confusing.

Cassidy :  In regards to decline of attendance and TV ratings I think NASCAR has a few problems.

First, and likely the most obvious, is they were not giving fans racing they wanted to see. It is no fun for a fan to sit in the stands or at home and watch one car dominate a race with a 6 second lead. I believe NASCAR has taken the correct steps to change this problem. Like I said earlier, this new rule package with the low down-force, brings back the old days of racing many fans know and love.
Next, as a Canadian, I feel like I need to point out these problem. In regards to TV ratings, it is hard for NASCAR to get them when many Canadians do not get the channels the races are shown on. Although the issue is getting better, but most of the time we do not get Truck or XFINITY races to watch. Even worse, not always getting the Cup race on basic cable, as no Canadian broadcasters pick it up. I am not saying this is the only problem in relation to lower attendance rates, but it could play into effect.
Now, the decline in attendance, from my perspective, is due to the low Canadian dollar. Myself, I have cut back many races a year because it is just too expensive. As everything else goes up in our economy, it is hard to justify paying almost double for a NASCAR weekend then I should be. I cannot speak for Americans and their lack of attendance and TV ratings for NASCAR, but I know these are Canadian race fans’ main concerns.

Shoppe :  There are a few ideas that would help some. I think shorter races would help with excitement. Adding some short tracks to the schedule are always a popular idea with the fans too. I believe that NASCAR is doing a lot of good things to help with this issue. The on-track product isn’t suffering too much the way I see it.

Tow :  This certainly ties in to Question 1 – I think the sport has done its homework with the changing times and desire for close, nail-biting racing. The new rules package has proved its worth over the last four races with two of the four finishes making the Top 10 list of closest finishes in series/NASCAR history. In addition, NASCAR has ramped up their social and digital presence over the last few years, catering to the likes of the millennial generation and younger fans. NASCAR may have been a questionable sport to some in the past but I can safely say that now is really no better time to be a NASCAR fan. The racing is great, the sport itself is great, and everything is where it needs to be.

Hull :  It’s way too early for Festivus, and as Frank Constanza says, “I’ve got a lot of problems with you NASCAR, and you’re gonna hear about it!”  Just kidding! Anyway, one thing that NASCAR needs to start doing is stop changing things too much, and start being consistent. A lot of fans I have heard from are tired of them changing things, and confusing them even more. A place they need be really consistent about is how they lay down penalties.

For example, they to dole our their punishments more fairly, instead of giving one team preferential treatment, and being harsh on another team. That is a major grievance that a lot of fans have. And lastly, they need to keep politics out of the sport. It’s totally fine for them to have their own personal opinions about things. But when that involves including NASCAR as a whole into one single opinion, that is bound to get people angry, regardless of who NASCAR is supporting. Everyone has their different views. Also, NASCAR should be an escape from the cruddy things of the world, so it doesn’t belong in the sport whatsoever.

 

Copple :  It’s. So. Expensive!!! The last race weekend I went to as a spectator, it cost well over $600 for myself and a family member just to see the XFINITY and Sprint Cup races. And that is just for two people sitting is mediocre seats. Put that money on top of the price of hotel rooms, food and souvenirs, you’re looking at a very expensive weekend. Dropping prices, offering better and more ticket deals and lowering hotel prices (which I know aren’t set by tracks) would help bring in more families and viewers. NASCAR is one of the most fan and family friendly sports and they need to utilize that and make attending races more family friendly and affordable. As far as the TV viewing, people live busy lives. I don’t know if there is much to be done on the TV side.

Question 4
Yes! You must bow down to me on Saturdays!

Yes! You must bow down to me on Saturdays!

Along the lines of Question 3, Kyle Busch has essentially dominated the XFINITY Series in his four starts with three wins.  It’s nothing new to see Sprint Cup drivers dominate in the XFINITY Series but does NASCAR need to step in and help the full-time XFINITY teams and drivers with this situation and if so, how can they attenuate to this situation’s predicament?

Fesko :  Yes, but it’s so much more than just cutting Cuppers out. The NXS needs its own identity and that means removing itself from the Cup schedule for all but a dozen or so races. If the series heads to smaller tracks that serve as a stepping stone between Cup and Trucks and does it while the Cup Series is on other tracks, that would immediately curb Cup interloping and allow tracks to sell tickets as a “see the stars of tomorrow show” kind of deal.

As for something NASCAR can do now, limit each driver running for Cup points to three starts in the XFINITY Series. Limit the amount of Cup drivers in each field to two. Run knockout qualifying to see which two make it – one round only, one lap only. Have them start at the back of the field. Will it eliminate Cup winners? Not altogether, but it will make it easier for NXS guys if they only have to gun for two Cup drivers.

Hobbs :  100% yes! NASCAR already hurt the XFINITY Series by putting in a Chase format; the only good thing they did with it is not allow Cup Chase drivers to enter the Homestead race. It is time for NASCAR to pull the focus to the XFINITY drivers once and for all. It will be virtually impossible to eliminate the Cup field entirely, but they need to be limited to X-starts per driver. To make it even more imperative that the focus is on the regulars, no owners points should be accumulated on an entry by a Cup driver. The XFINITY Series needs to be solely about the XFINITY Series once and for all.

Cassidy :  I am very on the fence when I think about NASCAR getting involved with the XFINITY series. On one hand, I think that it would be good to regulate how many races a Cup driver could run. But on the other hand, I can see the argument of younger drivers being able to learn from the Sprint Cup drivers.

Either way, I think the introduction of the Chase in this series does not make sense for this reason. XFINITY is not a “win and get in” series due to the fact Cup drivers dominate that series. I think it takes away what the Chase is trying to bring to the sport. At the end of most weeks, even leading into the Chase, XFINITY drivers will be reliant on points because of the lack of wins held by those drivers.

Shoppe :  I have always thought there should be a limit to a Cup driver running in XFINITY. Maybe somewhere around 10 races a year as a cap for someone declaring Cup as their series. The thing with Kyle Busch is he is already planning somewhere around 16 races as it is.

Tow :  I listen to Dave Moody on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on my way home from work each day. The other day I heard a conversation between him and a fan who called in to discuss the status and presence of Sprint Cup Series drivers in the XFINITY Series. There is no question that Sprint Cup Series drivers add an extra element of fun and excitement to XFINITY Series events.

It’s neat to see up-and-coming drivers race to prove their worth among the ranks of Sprint Cup glory. I think it’s great for the series as it gives their regular drivers who someday hope to make their way up to the Sprint Cup level a taste of what it’s like. However, I will admit that it gets kind of boring and redundant to see the likes of Kyle Busch and other Cup regulars in XFINITY Series Victory Lane on a weekly basis.

I think The Godfather had an excellent idea with this whole concept – NASCAR should maintain a standard and regulate how many XFINITY races that Sprint Cup drivers can run in during a given season. Kyle Busch, our reigning Sprint Cup Series Champion, has proved his credibility as a talented driver time and time again but now I don’t feel that he necessarily needs to be racing in the XFINITY Series. A few races won’t hurt here and there but as a lifelong racing fan I would much rather see more races with the XFINITY regulars having their chance to shine on their own.

That all said, one has to wonder about the ratio of fans who enjoy watching XFINITY series races for the action between up-and-comers and Cup drivers, and those fans who don’t. I’m a firm believer that there could be change (maybe for the better) in the area but for now I’m not horribly disappointed in the way things are right now because at the end of the day, I’m all just for watching a good race – whoever is participating.

Hull :  First, let me say that I love the heck out of Kyle Busch, and I think that he’s an amazing driver. But I think it’s time for the Cup drivers to stay out of the sport. I know that the only reason they are driving is for their sponsors, and that it gives these XFINITY guys satisfaction to compete with the Cup drivers, but the dominance of these Cup drivers is stealing the thunder away from these XFINITY drivers. Furthermore, it makes the racing really boring to see the same driver win all the time. This is another reason attendance at these races may be at an all-time low. I really hope that NASCAR does something about this soon. I want these XFINITY guys to win a race.

Copple :  It’s not fair to the XFINITY drivers to have to deal with the Cup drivers every weekend. The XFINITY series is to help younger drivers move up the ranks into the Cup series, not for the current Cup drivers to have a “practice run” before their race. I don’t mind having Cup drivers in the XFINITY race, but when the same drivers are racing there EVERY weekend and wining every weekend, it takes away from those developing drivers. Plus, the fans are there to watch the XFINITY drivers, not the Cup drivers trying to look good among the young guns.

Awesome opening practice session, y’all!  Not an easy feat to get around ACS so well done.  Before we get to our race picks for today’s Auto Club 400, let’s take a look at our race results from last Sunday’s Good Sam 500(k) at Phoenix and the points standings heading into Race 5 0f 2016!
Ashley Hull continues her winning ways...

Ashley Hull continues her winning ways…

...and thus has a great points lead after four races.

…and thus has a great points lead after four races.

It’s the moment of truth on TPF’s Track Talk!  Nothing so grandiose as a paternity test of Maury Povich but let’s reveal our picks to win today’s Auto Club 400 at Fontana, CA!
One of these six shall win today at Fontana!

One of these six shall win today at Fontana!

Hull :  My pick for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 is…Kyle Busch!

Cassidy :  Kyle Busch…I think!

Tow :  Kyle Busch because he is too consistent right now…haha!

Hobbs :  With a perfect season of top-5s thus far (averaging a finish of 3.5), this driver averages a finish of 7.6 at Fontana. Who is this driver you ask? Well, none other than Rowdy! Time for Rowdy Kyle Busch to grab his first victory of the season.

Fesko :  Auto Club was unkind to Kurt Busch last season. He redeems himself on a late-race restart to take the win.

Tiongson :  It’s a bird, no it’s a plane, no it’s…Jimmie Johnson who’ll win today!

Shoppe :  Going with Joey Logano!  

Copple :  I’ll go with Austin Dillon to get his first NASCAR Cup win!

Conley :  I’ll pick Carl Edwards.

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk! How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?

Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now! Thanks as always to the TPF team. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.  

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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