California: How NASCAR won Western fans

Apr 22, 2003 6:52 AM

Let’s reflect once upon a time back to 1996, otherwise known as B.C. (before California Speedway).

The majority of longtime NASCAR fans, usually those from the Southeast or Midwest portion of America, will tell you they liked seeing NASCAR hold races within a few hours drive almost every other month. In the West, the only form was road course events, which didn’t really give fans the full NASCAR experience that an oval does.

Television coverage was getting better. Most of the smaller events were on TNN

or ESPN with the higher profile races on Network television. Still, many in the West stereotyped the races as a Southern thing. When California Speedway came onto the scene in 1997, it opened up a whole new audience.

Baseball was still taking a beating from loyal fans because of their selfish strike. Other fans were losing interest in the constant number of jurisprudence stories hitting all the major sports.

NASCAR took advantage of an opportunity out West to spread fan interest. In 1998, Las Vegas got a race and television ratings have since gone through the roof to proportions only Monday Night football matches on a weekly sports basis.

Last year’s California winner, rookie Jimmie Johnson, is one of the few to grow up in the West. He says California needs more races.

"I really love it out there on the West Coast," Johnson said. "Growing up in California, Indy car racing, off-road racing and motor cross racing were the big things. I was never that interested in NASCAR until I got older and was around it. That’s because there are not a lot of races out there.

"There are a lot of race fans craving and wanting more West Coast races," he said. "The more dates we can have out there the better. There is a huge fan base out that’s wanting it and I’m glad to hear that Fontana is being considered as an option."

It’s a safe bet that California will get another date next year and rightly so for several reasons, one being the great weather. Of the six events held in Fontana, the weather has been typical California sunshine and blue skies. The only negative was one year when 12 mph gusty winds occurred during the race and another year when rain washed out a Friday qualifying session.

The co-favorites coming into this week’s race are Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr, and Kurt Busch, all at 6-1. Gordon is the track’s all-time leader in just about every category. He won the inaugural race in ”˜97 and again in ”˜99. Last year, he was a non-factor during a tough season. However, Gordon’s stock has risen since winning recently at Martinsville.

"There are so many sweet things about getting a victory in the first third of the season," Gordon said. "I think it means so much. It just takes the weight off your shoulders. We don’t have to go each weekend saying, OK, it’s been 18, 20, 30, 40, however many races it’s been since we won."

Historically, once Gordon does get a win, he’s an excellent bet to follow it up with another. In his last 14 wins, excluding Martinsville, eight have come on back to back instances. Gordon has several factors in his favor this weekend. California is one of the only tracks where he gets a resounding roar of approval from the fans during driver introductions. Originally from California, Gordon won the first California race in 1997 and is the active career leader in Winston Cup victories with 62.

Should Gordon continue his back-to-back win trend, it would end a streak of nine different winners on the NASCAR circuit this season. The record is 10, set in 2000. Records are always nice to root for, so lets take a look a few candidates that have a good chance of continuing the streak this week.

Jimmie Johnson (7-1): Normally, California races are won in blowout fashion with the eventual winner leading much of the final 60 to 80 laps and dominating the field by taking the checkers five seconds before the runner-up crosses the finish line. Last season, "Young Guns" Johnson and Kurt Busch put on a side by side show for the final 30 laps before JJ eventually won by a half-second for his first career victory. Currently, Johnson is fourth in points despite having only one top 5 finish. Expect Johnson to be close to his boss and teammate Gordon near the front in the later stages of the race.

Tony Stewart (10-1): The defending Cup champ is currently seventh in points. He’s had two fourth place finishes in his four California starts and also has a win at the replica sister track in Michigan. He was fifth in Vegas, one of his two top 5’s on the season. Vegas can be used as a barometer because of the similar width and banking despite California being a half-mile larger. For all of those same reasons, teammate Bobby Labonte (15-1) will be a driver to watch.

Mark Martin (20-1), Rusty Wallace (15-1): Both are former winners at California and have struggled equally, which is surprising considering how well their teammates have performed.

Elliott Sadler (25/1): Performed exceptionally well at California last year as a teammate of both Ricky Rudd and Dale Jarrett. Of late, Sadler has more resembled the type of Yates power we’re accustomed to seeing.

Drivers that could end the streak:

Matt Kenseth (10-1): Points leader with seven top 10 finishes on the season. Finished third in 2000, his best finish, the same year he won the Busch Series race there. Finshed 17 and 20 the last two seasons.

Dale Earnhardt Jr (6-1): Hottest driver on tour. Best Cal Finish was third in 2001 when he used a back-up car starting from the rear. Hard crash ended race last year.

Kurt Busch (6-1): Finished second last year after leading the most laps and 12th in his rookie year. Always rebounds well off a poor a performance. Should qualify well and be in top three most of the day.

Ryan Newman (10-1): Wide open California track made ideally for him. Has been involved in two spectacular crashes already this season. Nevertheless, he’ll qualify well and be given the opportunity to break away from the top 10.

Stations releases Indy odds

Station Casinos released their Indy 500 odds favoring Michael Andretti at 7-1 to win in his farewell race. The field was also set at 7-1 because of several yet to be announced drivers for the entered cars of Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske.

Saturday, Team Andretti-Green found a driver to fill in for the injured Dario Franchitti. Despite routinely saying he wouldn’t drive in this year’s Indy 500. Tony Stewart accepted the chance to drive for one of the top teams participating.