If the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers and teams have felt like they've been on a road course already, well, chances are, they probably have a reason to feel that way with all the cross country trips they've done thus far in the 2014 season. Kicking off at Daytona Beach, FL, the circuit went to Avondale, AZ before returning home to North Carolina to get some new arsenal for racing at Las Vegas, NV. Then after a date in the Sin City, it was back home to Charlotte (or Colorado for Furniture Row Racing) to prepare for a race at Bristol, TN. After the 9 Hours of Bristol, it was back to NC and on the road to sunny Fontana, CA for the Auto Club 400 at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway. Exhausted?
Well, at least they'll be basking in the strong springtime sunshine and racing at one of the most competitive venues on the Cup schedule. With an asphalt that's not been repaved since its opening in 1997, this has promoted to greater tire wear and thus meaning that the drivers are not only racing against each other, but also combating the track all at once. Come to think of it, it won't exactly be like driving in SoCal and blasting some Everclear in your convertible. Instead, it'll be more like a great 43 car battle with the speed, thunder, and excitement of Cup action at this grand facility, which treated fans to a thrilling finish and donnybrook in last year's 400-miler won by Kyle Busch.
Drafting comes into play here and there, but the most important keys to winning at Auto Club are a balance between horsepower and handling, as well as having a car that can adapt to either the preferred low groove or riding the high line just up against the wall. Don't be surprised to see drivers right along the SAFER barrier to as low as on the apron to make passes exiting each straight, which may cause for some double to three wide racing in the corners. Might we see another side-by-side showdown come Sunday afternoon?
Only time will tell - but for now, with yours truly "winning" the Track Talk Bristol race pick last weekend, it's time for the TPF crew to field up this week's Trending Topics! From realignment to keeping repavement off the agenda for Auto Club Speedway, Matt Kacar, Ashley Hobbs, Nick Brincks, and Shelby Parrack talk it up like the best team in racing only does on a consistent basis! Without further ado, here's this week's "Trending Topics!"
Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol saw about everything, including the traditional spring date race finishing under the lights, which is quite fortunate considering the near 100% chance of rain predicted all of Sunday. Would you say that NASCAR needs to reconsider a realignment with its spring race dates?
Kacar : That is hard to say. There are not many places you can have races at in mid-March. Bristol has always had this spring date. Of course, I am of the belief that the whole schedule needs a makeover. It's sad that the only way for dates to change is by the tracks that own them and not NASCAR making the change.
Hobbs : A change in the schedule is needed. You start off in Florida, shoot west to Phoenix and Las Vegas to, which is not as bad as it may seem; but then you shoot back east for Bristol to go back west for Fontana, back east to Martinsville, and then west again to Texas. As a statistician, I know there is a more optimal way NASCAR and the track owners could set the schedule that would put the races in a location that is not as dependent on weather and also cut down on travel costs for the teams. If they do a 2 or 3 week stint on each coast at a time, that would be better than jumping back and forth as much as they do now. Plus, on the east coast, winter easily can hang around until the end of March.
Brincks : If cold temperatures are an issue almost every year and one of your iconic tracks are half empty each spring, then absolutely, there should be some kind of realignment. I don't know which track I'd put in Bristol's place, but I would be supportive of moving Bristol into April. The other issue I have with the early portion of the schedule is 3 west coast races in the first five races. If teams drive to Phoenix, back to Charlotte, then to Vegas, back to Charlotte, and to California, that just seems like an inefficient use of resources. I'd be all for a mid-week race under the lights at Vegas right after Phoenix or before Auto Club. Now that I think of it, I'd put it next to Vegas on the schedule then you could consider using the same car. It would seem to be a money saving issue for the teams.
Parrack : I really do think the Bristol spring date should be moved later into spring. I know rain is always unpredictable and it can show up anywhere at any time, but I do think it's something NASCAR should consider.
Ford appears to have gotten its act together, with two wins already to begin in the young racing season compared to zero at this time last year. Is this a trend in terms of Ford's strength for the balance of 2014?
Kacar : As far as Team Penske is concerned, they will be in contention all year. Roush, on the other hand, struggled at the first intermediate track at Vegas a couple of weeks ago, so they might still struggle some on the downforce tracks.
Hobbs : Chevrolet also has 2 wins, but then again, Chevy always seem to be a step ahead of Ford and Toyota. So far, Ford is going toe-to-toe with the ol' bow tie, which could indeed mean a turn around. Ford does possess the best average finish in 2014 so far at 20.28, thought Chevy isn't far behind at 21.29. I think these two manufacturers will continue going toe-to-toe until the very end; props to Ford on the turn around!
Brincks : I'm more surprised by the lack of strength by Toyota than I am by the strength of Ford thus far. Ford isn't out of the woods yet, though. Penske Racing has looked stout at every track so far, but Roush cars haven't. Edwards has gotten off to a solid start, and even Stenhouse has too, but Biffle is the one that concerns me. Bristol isn't indicative of the whole season, but it was great seeing the Petty cars in the top five. I'd say after Texas we'll have a pretty good idea of who has what going forward this season.
Parrack : I sure hope so!! Being a Ford girl, this is super exciting, I feel that seeing their strength this early-- it means good things for the rest of the season.
During the FOX portion of the NASCAR schedule, we see Michael Waltrip utilized a lot in the Hollywood Hotel and he's a current Cup owner. Do you see this as a conflict of interest or do you enjoy his insights during the races?
Kacar : It is without a doubt a conflict of interest and very wrong. MWR has been pretty bad so far this season but I bet they have had more sponsor exposure then they deserve just because Mikey is part of the Fox broadcasts. I take everything he says with a grain of salt.
Hobbs : There is no doubt - it is a conflict of interest. Yet at the same time, Michael Waltrip will put his focus where it needs to be, regardless of if his team is doing well or not; then you get the times he just wants to get the sponsor plug in (hence the conflict of interest). I usually see Michael entertaining and insightful during pre-race, especially with his grid walk. It's hard to deny that Michael brings something different to the booth.
Brincks : It's absolutely a conflict of interest. I like Michael as a driver and an owner, and even as a broadcaster, but not all at once. It's unfair to viewers to see Michael talking with one of his drivers almost every week during the Grid Walk. I wish Fox would revert to its Myers-Hammond pre-race show and take Michael out of their Cup broadcasts. I'm fine with him covering Truck races, but not Cup races.
Parrack : I've always thought about it being a conflict of interest, but I think Michael does a great job in not being biased towards his own cars. I do enjoy the spirit and personality that Michael brings to the broadcast on Sundays, so hopefully he keeps it up!
NASCAR heads out west to do some racing at Fontana, CA, where the asphalt has aged greatly and resulted in some exciting action, especially last year. Are we going to see much of the same thing at Auto Club or should this track get repaved?
Kacar : No track should ever be repaved unless it's so bad that potholes happen. The races at Auto Club have improved greatly the past few years and that is because the pavement has worn out. If you pave it, the race will be back to single file, follow the leader.
Hobbs : If it ain't broke, don't fix it! Besides the boring racing that Auto Club Speedway produces, the track itself is fine. Unless there is something physically wrong with a track, say a pot hole caused by a jet dryer exploding after being run into, leave the tracks alone! They attempted to fix Bristol and we know how wonderful that turned out; just don't touch it for the sake of making it prettier.
Brincks : Should this track be repaved? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! Did you get my point? The pavement at Auto Club led to the great racing last season because tires actually wore down after a few laps. Denny Hamlin restarted outside of the top ten with over ten laps left and he drove his way to the front on new tires. That's what makes racing great - tire falloff. I hope we see the same great racing this weekend, or at least something comparable. I'm optimistic though.
Parrack : So many tracks have been repaved in the past few years, some necessary, some not. I think that last year's race was one of the most racy in years and we shouldn't change or "fix" it when it isn't particularly broken! I don't think tracks should be repaved until it's absolutely needed.
Pretty clear that we want Fontana to stay away from repaving so hopefully our buddies know a good thing when they've got it! Before revealing our picks for this Sunday's Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, here's a look at the TPF Point Standings after round four at Bristol, TN:
1) Rob Tiongson - 164 points (1 win)
2) Nick Brincks - 151 points (1 win)
3) Shelby Parrack - 147 points
4) Ashley Hobbs - 133 points (1 win)
5) Matt Kacar - 124 points
Brincks has been bringing the heat with his consistency to picking Team Penske racers! Does he stay the course? Or for that matter, do we all pick the same drivers? Drumrolls, please...
Tiongson : Sticking with the Chevrolet brand and thinking that Jimmie Johnson is going to score another win at ACS - it was either him or Joey Logano, but Six Time is ready for a victory at Fontana once more!
Hobbs : My statistics say this is the week we get a 5th different winner; Jimmie Johnson in the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet #SE7EN!
Kacar : I'm going with Joey Logano.
Brincks : He almost won here last year before the last lap scuffle, and he's had one of the best cars so far this season. I like Joey Logano's chances this weekend.
Parrack : My race pick this weekend is Brad Keselowski. Another front row starting sport for the Penske driver-- I think we see another win on Sunday!
There you have it, race fans! The TPF crew has spoken and given their thoughts on round four of the NASCAR season. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into Sunday's race at Fontana? And who is your favorite to win the Auto Club 400? Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now! Thank you, Nick, Matt, Shelby, and Ashley - let's go racing, girls and boys!