5 burning questions for Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN)

What’s Southern California’s Future?

With this being the final race at Fontana until 2025 at the earliest, what’s NASCAR’s future in Southern California? We know that they’ll eventually be back. You don’t spend the kind of money that Fontana is spending to not. However, where do they go next season and maybe even the one following to fill Fontana’s gap?

One topic was the LA Coliseum but there’s no way you stage a points paying race there. That was a debacle this past year with 27 cars. You can’t add 9 more cars and at least another 50-100 laps to it.

So, what do you do?

“I think NASCAR whatever deems is important to them,” Hamlin said. “I’m sure having a race in this area is very important with the talk of the two-mile oval in Fontana, you would have no more and they may be taking a year off while it rebuilds. Certainly I think they’re going to be open to options and maybe this does fall in that slot or we go somewhere else.”

Brad Keselowski sees being in this market as a giant positive not only for the drivers side, but from an ownership standpoint as well. That’s why he valued the Clash being in LA.

“It’s an interesting event.  When you look at the revenues of the race teams, the majority of the revenues are coming from the sponsors, so it does OK for that,” he says. “But when you look at it for the value to the industry, it’s probably, in my opinion, the second-most valuable event that we have all year to the Daytona 500. “To be in Los Angeles, which is certainly a huge market, I read some graphic the other day from NASCAR that we have more fans in L.A. than any other area, which is hard to think of, but of all the regions we go to, there are more NASCAR fans than anywhere else, so I think we lose sight of that sometimes.  But to be able to be in their backyard and to engage them for a key event, I think that’s really important.  Of course, for our TV partners this is a tremendous event as well.  They’re the lifeblood of our sport in so many different ways as probably the primary revenue generator, so from the team perspective it’s probably more neutral, but from an industry perspective this is a significant event for us.”

Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing as well as a driver for JGR, agreed.

“The value is the location is the biggest thing,” Denny Hamlin said. “A lot of team sponsors are probably headquartered somewhere near here so there’s a value in activation that comes with that and it’s also valuable to introduce new fans to the sport. I think that with roughly 40 percent of the audience members that show up this weekend will be new to our sport. Just helps grow the sport in general. Pretty positive thing from that standpoint.”

His 23XI Racing driver, Bubba Wallace, says that the diversity of the city of Los Angeles is massive to the sport and to be able to bring NASCAR to race in front of them, is a win-win.

“I think it’s big and I think I said it at this time last year, but getting into a market where it’s so diverse and exposing our sport to eyeballs is important,” said the newly wed. “We have to continue this trend whether it’s here in LA or we move it somewhere else, whatever it may be. I think this is a start of changing the face of NASCAR and it’s fun to be a part of. For me to just go out and compete and represent our sponsors and our team and we have MJ (Michael Jordan) watching and everybody knows who MJ is so have to do it right.”

So, what do you do then? The Clash has an option year that is currently held by NASCAR to return in 2024. The ROI for teams and sponsors is big. Do you risk the actual race however by getting stagnant in returning again? The crowd already decreased in both attendance and ratings between 2022 and 2023. Why not move the event around to a new venue for 2024 before it gets too late?

The drawback is, by doing so, you risk not being in this market next season altogether too.

Both are risks but which is greater?

There’s nowhere else to really go to in Southern California to race at in terms of NASCAR. It’s down to Fontana and the Coliseum and Fontana is out next year. Did 2023 do enough to bring the Clash back to the Coliseum in the final year of the contract and keep the atmosphere and anticipation up? Does coming back there though dilute it even further and hinder that race for 2025?

FONTANA, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 26: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway on February 26, 2022 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Why Has There Been So Much Dominance Here?

Fontana has been a track that in order to win, you must hit the setup right. That in turn has led to some dominating performances over the years. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch combined to lead 187 of the 200 laps in the 2018 edition. Busch and Brad Keselowski combined to lead 176 of 200 laps in 2019. Alex Bowman led 110 of 200 laps in 2020. Ryan Blaney led 54 of the other 90.

Truex, won by 11.685 seconds in 2018. Busch, won by 2.354-seconds in 2019 and Bowman by 8.904-seconds in 2020. Will this race tighten up?

It did last year but only because of a late race caution. 3 of the last 4 years have seen the final green flag run last 31 or more laps (68 laps in 2018, 31 in 2019, 73 in 2020). That’s why you get a large gap at the finish between first and second. Last year’s final run was only four laps which contributed to a final margin of victory being just .195-seconds.

We have a return to practice this weekend albeit a very short session. It’s just like last year’s. That leads to the question, which do you focus on – long run or short run speed which in turn has led to some dominance.

If you don’t have a good short run car or a good burst of speed, you have no shot in the event of a late race restart like we saw a year ago. But we’ve also seen some long runs to the end here too, which if you have a better long run car, you have a better shot of a win.

So, what do you focus on this weekend and how do you get your car dialed in for both?

I mean, Fontana is an aged surface so handling is key. With more downforce to help you on these cars, it makes passing more challenging and therefore track position is a big part of this equation.

With qualifying, short run speed helps and also gets you closer to the front at the start of the race and in turn gives you a better shot at a win too.

The 2018 races saw the top three qualifiers finish there too. Four of the top five starters that day came from a top six starting spot.

In 2019, three of the top four finishers came from a top five starting spot.

Two of the top three in 2020 came from the top 2 Rows.

But, what if you have a good short run car to qualify well but not good on long runs and can’t stay there for long There’s a balance to be had but how hard is it to find it?

3 of the top 4 finishers last year started 13th or worse.

Which is why setups and decision making/gameplans off the truck are so crucial here this weekend and why you can typically spot out the race winner early.

3 of the last 4 years we’ve witnessed stage sweeps with all five races in the stage era being won by a driver that had finished no worse than fifth in any stage run. In fact, prior to last year, the eventual winner was in the top two of every stage.

  • Stage 1 finishes for eventual race winners: 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 5th
  • Stage 2 finishes for eventual race winners: 2nd, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 5th

FONTANA, CA – FEBRUARY 27: Honorary Pace Car Driver Albert Pujols leads the start of the NASCAR Cup Series Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway on February 27, 2022 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Is This A Championship Preview?

A wildly underrated topic heading to Fontana is the fact that the second race of the season as well as the Auto Club Speedway in general has been a great measuring point for not only defending series champions, but eventual champions as well.

Last year as an example, Joey Logano who won the season title, finished 5th in Fontana. The defending series champ, Kyle Larson, won.

In 2020, Chase Elliott later won the championship, but finished 26th in the second race of the season at Vegas and 4th though in Fontana. Kyle Busch, the 2019 champion, was 15th in Vegas but second in Fontana.

A year prior, the second race was in Atlanta and Busch was 6th. He did win Fontana. Joey Logano won the 2018 championship and was 23rd in Atlanta but 2nd in Fontana.

In 2018, Logano was 6th in Atlanta and 5th in Fontana while Truex Jr. was 5th and 1st respectively.

In 2017, it was Truex Jr. being 8th in Atlanta and 4th in Fontana while Jimmie Johnson was 19th and 21st respectively.

In Fontana, the eventual series champion has 6 straight top 5 finishes (Johnson 1st, Truex Jr. 4th, Logano 5th, KyBusch, 1st, Elliott 4th, no race in 2021, Logano 5th).

Also in Fontana, the defending series champion has 4 straight top 2 finishes (Truex Jr. 1st, Logano 2nd, KyBusch 2nd, Larson 1st).

Does that make this a potential championship preview?

Does Another Longer Shot Daytona 500 winner hurt growth?

Nothing against Michael McDowell or Austin Cindric or even Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but when those drivers win the biggest race of the year, it may be good for parity and internal stories, but it’s not great for marketing in a sense of carrying over Daytona momentum into the rest of the season.

Which makes me wonder if all this randomness of Daytona is keeping NASCAR back in terms of even larger popularity.

Kevin Harvick hurt Dale Earnhardt Jr’s feelings a few years ago when he mentioned that part of what stunted NASCAR’s growth was the fact that Junior wasn’t a championship threat. He was the most popular driver but not one that won as much as the face of the sport should.

I get why that would burn Earnhardt. I also get Harvick’s side too.

In sports, you want your stars winning. The NFL grew in popularity because of Tom Brady and now Patrick Mahomes. The NBA with Michael Jordan, Kobe, LeBron and now lately Steph and Giannis.

Who’s NASCAR’s “star?”

Chase Elliott is according to this fan base, but Elliott has no Daytona 500 wins, just as many top 5’s (1) as he has championships (1). Wouldn’t it serve NASCAR better if someone like Elliott or more in the mainstream limelight won Daytona?

Nothing against Stenhouse, but him doing a nationwide media blitz doesn’t do much for the sport like it would say Elliott or Kyle Larson or Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski or someone of that magnitude having won.

The dilution of a Daytona 500 win also dilutes marketing.

Kyle Busch, a Cup star in a sense you either love him or hate him, is 0-for-18 in the Great American Race.

“It’s just par for the course. Just used to it and come down here every year to just find out when and where I’m going to crash and what lap I come out of the care center.

“Who won? I don’t even know who lucked into it.”

Busch, a two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, approached the dais last Wednesday during DAYTONA 500 Media Day, he noticed a lottery ticket next to the microphone—a leftover item from the earlier announcement of PowerBall as an official NASCAR partner.

“Better chance of winning that than the DAYTONA 500,” Busch quipped, mindful of his 20.24 average finish in the Great American Race. “Here, a lot of your result can be in the hands of the other drivers around you and the circumstances around you. That’s just the nature of it, but we all have the same race to go out there and run in.”

He’s only had one top five here since 2017 too and just three of his 18 starts in the Great American Race resulting in a top five finish. That’s not great for momentum.

We didn’t used to see all this randomness between Daytona 500 winners. You got the best winning Daytona and also winning championships. Even with Dale Earnhardt taking years to win, other stars were winning in the interim.

From 1959 through 1970, only four of the 12 races were won by eventual champions in the sport. However, among the other 8, LeeRoy Yarbrough had 14 wins and become the first to win the “triple crown.” Mario Andretti’s stature speaks for itself. Fred Lorenzen and Junior Johnson are each in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Marvin Panch had 17 wins and Fireball Roberts 33.

Basically only Tiny Lund and Pete Hamilton were the “flukes” of that era.

From 1971 through 2000, 22 of the 30 Daytona 500’s in that era were won by series champions. Between 1971 and 1989, the only three Daytona 500’s not won by an eventual series champion was 1972 by AJ Foyt, 1980 by Buddy Baker and 1986 by Geoff Bodine. Again, all three of their careers speak for themselves as they weren’t random Daytona winners.

In the 90’s and into 2000, the only non-champion winners were Derrike Cope, who was a fluke, but Ernie Irvan, Davey Allison and Sterling Marlin aren’t considered “random” winners. In this span, you also got Gordon, Earnhardt and Jarrett also winning Daytona 500.

That’s a good era.

Afterwards though, that’s where this all changed. Out of the last 23 Daytona 500’s, only eight of them have been won by a series champ. In fact, it’s only happened once in the last eight years.

Think about it, from 1959 through 2000, other than Hamilton (4 wins), Lund (5 wins) and Cope (2 wins), everyone else was either an auto racing legend (Foyt, Andretti), a NASCAR Hall of Famer (Baker, Johnson, Lorenzen), won 10+ times in NASCAR’s premiere series or even better, a champion in general.

This new era has seen Michael McDowell (1 win), Austin Cindric (1 win), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (3 wins), Austin Dillon (4 wins), Michael Waltrip (4 wins), Ward Burton (5 wins) and Jamie McMurray (7 wins) all win NASCAR’s Super Bowl.

The only champions of the sport to win in this era are Gordon (2005), Johnson (2006, 2013), Kevin Harvick (2007), Joey Logano (2015) and Kurt Busch (2017). Notice most took place before 2008.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won twice, but not since 2014 and he went 10 years (2004) between Daytona 500 wins. Johnson hasn’t won in a decade now. Gordon hasn’t won in nearly two decades. 2 are retired and the other part-time.

Hamlin has moved the needle but he’s he only one really since 2016 to do so. The last three aren’t moving the needle and that’s partially why I wonder if that stunts the growth more than it should.

Listen the sport is continuing to grow and that’s a great thing. Speedweeks this past weekend proved that. But, how much bigger could this sport go if their stars start winning their biggest race?

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 05: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, walks the grid during practice for NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 05, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Who Are The Top NASCAR Drivers From California?

With a return to Southern California, it got me thinking – who are the best drivers to come out of the Golden State? There are a lot of drivers to have raced in NASCAR who also hail from there. Then, when you really think about it, and nothing against the other 49 states, but California can make a very valid case to have the best drivers in the sport to have come out of there.

Overall, nearly 50 drivers have called California home. Here are my top five.

5. Ron Hornaday Jr. 

He’s won four championships in the Truck Series which made the Palmdale native a NASCAR Hall of Famer. Also, Hornaday’s 51 career Truck Series wins rank him second on the all-time wins list. He’s also won four times in the NASCAR XFINITY Series as well.

4. Kyle Larson

I know it’s early to have him here but he’s also is a Cup Series champion, led the most laps in a single season in 2021 and has 18 wins, 12 of which coming the last two seasons alone. Now that he’s with HMS, he can have a Gordon/Johnson type of career. It’s staggering to see where his numbers may end up a decade from now.

3. Kevin Harvick

How can you not have the Bakersfield native on here. Harvick, has won on all three levels of NASCAR. He has 14 Truck Series victories, 47 XFINITY wins and 60 trips to victory lane in the Cup Series. Combined, that’s 121 wins in total.

He’s also won a Cup title (2014) and two XFINITY Series championships (2001, 2006) to go along with a Daytona 500 triumph (2007), two Brickyard 400 wins (2003, 2019), a two-time Coca-Cola 600 winner (2011, 2013) a Southern 500 win (2014) and a win in the All-Star Race (2018).

2. Jeff Gordon

This may be controversial, but I have Gordon as second best. Gordon, brought NASCAR into the mainstream media. But, this isn’t a popularity award, but a list of on track achievements.

He won 93 times on the Cup Series circuit to go along with four championships. Like Harvick, Gordon has won everything. He’s a six time Southern 500 winner, five time Brickyard 400 champion, three time Daytona 500 as well as Coca-Cola 600 and All-Star race winner. He most recently was voted into the Hall of Fame too.

He’s my all-time favorite driver, but I have to rank him second.

  1. Jimmie Johnson

I can’t overlook a seven time Cup champion. I know many debate his titles, but you can’t debate history. He’s won 83 times in Cup and once in the XFINITY Series. He has 11 Dover wins, nine Martinsville victories, eight wins at Charlotte including four in the ‘600, seven trips to victory lane at Texas, four Brickyard 400’s and two Daytona 500’s. How do you deny him as being the best ever from California?

Honorable Mention-

Marvin Panch (216 starts, and reached victory lane 17 times. He was the 1961 Daytona 500 winner and in 1998 was named one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers)

Ernie Irvan (18 NASCAR wins) *1991 Daytona 500 winner

Dick Rathman (13 NASCAR wins)

Dan Gurney (5 NASCAR wins in just 16 tries)

Parnelli Jones (4 NASCAR wins in only 34 tries)

Mike Skinner (29 NASCAR wins, 28 in the Truck Series)

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