Cal races represent
NASCAR shift West

Apr 27, 2004 6:29 AM

California Speedway holds its eighth NASCAR Nextel Cup Series event this weekend. Unlike the last seven years, this will be the first of two races on the season at California. The other one is scheduled for prime time television Labor Day weekend.

The growing popularity of NASCAR is sweeping through the West creating new fans with each visit. The demand for Western Cup events is stronger than ever and based on attendance, we can expect to see more races from Southern tracks lose their dates.

Due to NASCAR politics, Las Vegas was passed up for additional date in favor of California, despite Las Vegas having more seating, continuous sellouts, and high Nielson ratings. Nevertheless, at least NASCAR recognizes the demand and has responded by adjusting the schedule. Rumors are abound that both Las Vegas and Texas may get additional dates next season, which would mean pulling dates from existing tracks such as Rockingham and Martinsville.

The track itself doesn’t create great racing. In fact, California is rather boring, and for the sake of good NASCAR racing, I’d hate to see great tracks like Rockingham and Martinsville lose dates to go to more cookie cutter tracks.

The last two years however, California has produced some pretty good races with multiple grooves around the corners allowing drivers to strategize more. In the past races, the winners had won by a large margin adding to the disdain many have for cookie cutter tracks.

California is a wide open 2-mile track with minimal banking and plenty of room for drivers to maneuver. It’s almost identical to its sister track, Michigan Speedway, and has several similar traits as Las Vegas. When combining the last seven years of races at California, Michigan, and Las Vegas, you’ll see that most of the successful drivers on one of the tracks also do well on the others.

Kurt Busch (8-1) won at California last season then followed up with a win at Michigan six weeks later. Busch comes from that great stable of Roush drivers. Roush of course is also the King of Las Vegas, having won five of the seven races run there including this year’s event won by Matt Kenseth (10-1). Look for both Busch and Kenseth to have good runs this week.

Two of the other top candidates this week are also part of the "Young Guns" group. Ryan Newman (9-1) and Jimmie Johnson (9-1) have been very strong on these type of tracks. Newman won the fall Michigan race last year, while Johnson won this California race two years ago for his first career Cup victory.

After a couple of tough weeks for super rookie Kasey Kahne (8-1), he now gets back to his element and chances are, he’s going to be very fast. Kahne has been knocking on the door at all the tracks that aren’t too difficult for drivers and has been a notch above the rest. He just doesn’t have the hardware to prove it other than a few second place finishes.

In the last two California races, Bill Elliott took the No. 9 Dodge to consecutive fourth place finishes. In all the races Kahne has done well in this year, Elliott had similar performances while driving the car. California should continue the trend.

Kahne comes in as the co-favorite, the first time in his career that he’s been a favorite, which says a lot about just how far he’s come as a driver. Both the bettors and oddsmakers have come to respect him and every week he is one of the most bet drivers on the odds to win indexes. His popularity with the betting public has as much do with his outstanding performances as it does with what we’ve seen in NASCAR over the last three seasons.

The "Young Guns" have taken over, with drivers like Johnson, Newman, and Busch proving that horsepower conquers all past notions that a rookie can’t win. This wasn’t the case five years ago.

Other drivers to look for this week are Bobby Labonte (12-1), Jamie McMurray (18-1), Jeff Gordon (10-1), and Rusty Wallace (15-1). Gordon is a two-time winner at California including the inaugural race in ’97, but hasn’t won there since ’99. His last Michigan win was in 2001, the same year he won at Vegas. Gordon placed second to Wallace two years ago at California.

Wallace is definitely a driver to keep an eye on. His last win before Martinsville two weeks ago was at California. Last year, he finished third and was a major factor late in the race, leading 52 laps. He’s still all fired up about his big win and getting the monkey off his back and has even talked about winning the championship.