FONTANA, Calif. – 5 things we learned this weekend
He's back - Reports of Jimmie Johnson's disappearance from atop the NASCAR mountain after a 35th-place finish at Daytona are wrong.
Yes, he needed a little bit of luck to end up in Victory Lane Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, but there's no denying that Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet was the best of the bunch. Not only did he lead a whopping 101 of 250 laps, but he also maintained an average running position of 3.376 through the entire race and ran 31 total fast laps (all race-leading figures).
That's not only bad news for this weekend, but also for down the road - remember that the 2-mile oval is one of 10 tracks in the championship-deciding Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Johnson put it best: "Yes, we were lucky today. But you don't get lucky and win four championships and 48 races."
There's more than one driver to watch in the Nationwide Series - I know, that sounds like the pot calling the kettle black , but while everybody's been watching Danica Patrick, up-and-comers like Justin Allgaier (fourth in Daytona, ninth in Fontana), Kelly Bires (seventh in Fontana), Brian Scott (10th in Fontana) and Trevor Bayne (11th in Fontana) have been getting the job done on the track. With you-know-who set to go into hibernation (OK, the IndyCar Series, but it's almost the same thing) after this weekend's race in Las Vegas, it's time to shift your attention to the future stars and champions of the sport.
Goodyear does its due diligence - NASCAR's tire maker gets criticized loudly on the odd chance things go awry, but hardly is there a mention of it when things go as planned - or when troubles are prevented. This week, the company found wear issues with a certain set and quickly pulled them from use (13 sets of right side tires in total). Drivers and fans should remember moments like these before they are quick to point fingers in the future.
Up to Speed - He's still got a long way to go in his stock car progression, but Scott Speed certainly looks to have turned a corner. In two races, he already has half the amount of top-20 finishes (two) that he had in 2009. He also has led almost the same amount of laps (15 so far in 2010, 19 in all of 2009). He's making the right gambles on track and he's staying out of trouble. He needs to continue down the same path for a few more weeks to earn a spot inside the top 35 in points - ensuring a starting spot in every race and possibly taking him off the hot seat.
But it takes a while to get there ... - Danica Patrick can learn a thing or two from Speed. Just like the former Formula One driver, Danica is taking her lumps as she learns what it takes to race in a stock car. Improvement won't be immediate, so don't expect a dramatic result boost this weekend in Las Vegas. Remember that this is supposed to be a learning experience and temper the expectations for the rest of this year.
4 Things you may have missed
Sending a message? NASCAR confiscated the No. 66 Prism Motorsports ride shortly after it start-and-parked Sunday, and some are crying foul .
False start? All that momentum Dale Earnhardt Jr. gained by going from 10th to second on the final lap of the Daytona 500 last week ... yeah, it's gone .
Meet the new guy : It took only one race, but the crew chief carousel has started as Matt Kenseth got a new pit boss over the weekend .
Fireworks erupt in Nationwide Series : What happens when you have Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski battling with a handful of laps for the win? Watch this .
3 on top
Jimmie Johnson - There's a reason he's a four-time defending Sprint Cup champion. And right now, No. 5 doesn't look unlikely.
Kevin Harvick - Already has a (non-points) win, two (points paying) top-10 finishes to date and the lead in the championship standings. Still think he's looking for an exit plan at Richard Childress Racing?
Jeff Burton - Would've been interesting to see what Burton could have done had he gotten past Harvick in the final laps, but his results so far in 2010 (11th, third) are much better than 2009 (28th, 32nd).
2 quotes around the garage
"(Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team) did a good job today in winning the race, but they have a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass. I mean, there's no way to get around that." Kevin Harvick after Johnson's win Sunday.
"(Greg Biffle) decided to hit us again. I don't know what his deal is with me, but for some reason in California he feels like putting me in the fence or hitting me towards the end." Joey Logano after Saturday's Nationwide Series race | "If I wanted to do that, it's pretty easy to do." Greg Biffle upon hearing Logano's quote.
1 Last thing
Another race weekend at Auto Club Speedway, another chance for track president Gillian Zucker to play spin doctor as she explains why the 92,000-seat track wasn't at full capacity.
In case you've missed the biannual tradition, here are some of the gems from the past: Why were there so many empty seats in 2006? Fans were "shopping during the race." (Quote courtesy of Yahoo! Sports). 2007? "We're trying everything we can. ... Some ideas stick, some don't. We're certainly having fun with it." (Sporting News Wire Service) 2008? "We have a five-year plan, the company has a five-year vision, we have a fantastic foundation built to experience growth and we are poised and ready for that."(NASCAR.com)
You get the idea.
Once again, Zucker had to play the spin game after an estimated "72,000" fans attended Sunday's race according to NASCAR (although many long-time press members predicted lower numbers: "All tracks are not equal," Zucker said. "If you're at a track that holds 50,000 people and sells out, is that better than a track that holds 92,000 and is growing? I don't think it is.
"The crowd count was about flat, maybe a little off. But considering the economy in this part of the country, I think that says something. It's been hard hit here. People are struggling."
Uh-huh, because I'm sure the economy hasn't hit areas like Las Vegas (site of next week's race, capacity 142,000), or Michigan (which last year hosted estimated crowds of 90,000 and 103,000).
This is far more than an issue about ticket sales. Imagine that you are a team owner trying to sell sponsorship - would you be able to convince a company to give you the amount of money necessary to field a competitive race team if they saw empty seats throughout a track?
All the ingredients are there for good racing in Fontana - like we saw this past weekend in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series. But maybe the NASCAR community would be better served by having just one race like they did from 1997-2003 ... back when the grandstands were full.