Lower Bristol crowds put pressure on California Speedway

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It will be interesting to see what kind of crowd shows up for this weekends NASCAR race at Auto Club (California) Speedway after witnessing the rapid attendance decline at Bristol last Sunday.

Once the hardest ticket to get in sports, it was disappointing to see a 160,000 seat beast like Bristol only draw about 90,000 in attendance. The type of racing Bristol produces on its new surface may contribute to the demise, but there is something more to it.

Does NASCAR cost too much for a family to attend in this still depressed economic climate and is the sport in a decline after seeing monster growth at the end of the 1990’s? The answer to both is YES.

California seats only 80,000, but because of declining attendance they had one of their two dates stripped from them before the start of the 2011 season. Last season with only one date, the Fontana, Calif., track was relatively full for the first time in nearly five years.

But the problem with a track in Southern California is that there is so much to do on weekend that always has perfect weather. NASCAR is low on the list that includes beaches, Hollywood and just the overall LA vibe. The people that attend the Fontana races usually aren’t from the area and require folks from elsewhere to fill the seats.

This week’s race is the fifth of the season, but yet West Coast fans have already been treated to events in Las Vegas and Phoenix. Fontana will lose out to those two facilities on just about every traveling NASCAR fans’ bucket-list. Not even Danica Patrick driving (which she isn’t this week) can change NASCAR’s appeal in SoCal.

But even if we don’t want to go to the race there, we’ll still be watching it on television. The first four races have been fantastic with four different winners on four different tracks and not even a hint on who is going to be the driver to beat during the Chase.

Favorites such as Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson both look like they’re still in the midst of working out some issues while longer shots like Greg Biffle and last week’s winner, Brad Keselowski, create some intrigue.

The driver that no one seems to be talking about who has quietly gone about his business is Kevin Harvick who is currently second in points, nine points behind Biffle. Harvick captured his first win at what is deemed his home track last year in this race.

Just because of that victory last season he has to be considered a candidate to win.

With only four races run and not having any track that is similar to go from, we have to use last season’s race as a barometer along with past history there. We can also use a little bit of the Las Vegas results because both require lots of horse power even though the tracks run completely different.

Having established Las Vegas as part of the equation, we have to include Tony Stewart into all talk about who might win this week. Stewart had never won at Fontana until taking the checkers in 2010. Since 2009, a span of five races, Stewart has finished 13th or better with two top-5 finishes.

Fontana’s all-time leader in wins is Johnson with five, including his first Cup win in 2002 during his rookie season. He has a sick 5.1 average in 17 starts that includes five runner-up finishes.

Last season was one of those occasions when Harvick passed him late for the win. To take Johnson’s amazing feat even further on a recent basis, he’s finished in the top-3 in eight of his last nine starts there.

Whenever Johnson isn’t winning there, it’s a good probability that Matt Kenseth is. Kenseth is a three-time winner with an average finish of 9.9. We also have some similarities this year from the last time he won in 2009. It was also the same season he won the Daytona 500. Not that the two tracks correlate, but it is unique nonetheless.

Drivers we can also expect to do well include Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Biffle and maybe Edwards. No one is more scared of how Edwards’ season is going thus far than him, but maybe a bettor who took him to win the championship could compete with their concern.

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