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Turning out the lights? NASCAR's finest put on one heckava show out here in Southern California

Winner Tony Stewart salutes the crowd (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   FONTANA, Calif.

   And so ends a curious NASCAR/ISC project, with the final fall Sprint Cup race in Southern California...Tony Stewart winning in a barn-burner at this Los Angeles area speedway nestled at the southern foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.
   Sunday's 400 – a six-year mutation of what was for more than 50 years the Southern 500 at legendary Darlington Raceway – is now history. Literally.

   Next season this vast track will host only one Sprint Cup event, in late March, not exactly prime time, it would seem.
   Remember for years this area played host to three of NASCAR's major touring events, in late January, as the season-opener, in June, and in the fall, as the season finale.
   Next season this particular event will be played in Kansas City in early June. Or, or if you can follow the checkers game of mix-and-matching Cup dates and tracks, you could consider this event playing at Joliet's Chicagoland Speedway, in mid-September.
   This specific October race week in 2011 will actually be at Kansas Speedway --- a facility that might well be looked at as much for its surroundings as for its 1-1/2 miles of asphalt. The surroundings there are a veritable mini-city, built out of farmland, plus a soon-to-open casino.
   The way the ISC has handled Kansas Speedway looks like a perfect template: race track surrounded by a giant urban mall.
   Maybe that's the way the ISC/NASCAR people should be – or should have been – looking at this area. Just around the corner is one of those trendy new Disneyland-ish urban malls, Victoria Gardens....a place that, if next to California's Auto Club Speedway, instead of on the other side of I-15, might make this track even more part of the community.

 Juan Pablo Montoya has his fans everywhere (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

 Yes, Fontana-Ontario-San Bernardino-Riverside may be something of a difficult market, all the more so with record unemployment and home foreclosures.
  But this has been NASCAR's Southern California hub since the late 1950s.
  But now, just one Cup event?
  How much mismanagement in this whole deal? And where to lay the blame?
  Well, first, this place needs special attention, clearly, as the sport's largest market. But with the Cup tour as lengthy and demanding as it is, it's hard to get any drivers out here to promote the sport.
   On top of all that, in 2011 NASCAR officials have laid out a curious West Coast schedule: Phoenix (five hours east) Feb. 27th, Las Vegas (three hours north) March 6th, and California March 27th.
   Either that will create marketing synergies, assuming all three tracks work together, or it will surfeit the market with too much in barely a one-month span.
   Gillian Zucker, the track boss, and David Talley have come up with some interesting promotions, like free tickets if you buy $50 or so of groceries, and $29 tickets in Kevin Harvick's Bakersfield.....
   However this is an expensive part of the world, if you want to buy TV time.
   And LA may be a tough market all the way around, considering the NFL hasn't been here since, when, 1994 or so.
   But NASCAR has sometimes seemed either perplexed with the complexity and intricacies of this market, or just arrogant about it all – build it and they will come.
   The idea that cutting this track from two Cup events to one will somehow pump up the grandstands seems rather disingenuous. If this were a Talladega-type track, the stands would almost surely be packed for even three Cup races a year here.
   Fortunately Sunday's 400 was a wild one, just what the doctor ordered. Maybe the best race ever here.
   Now how to do something with that and turn it into momentum.....
   Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson is still the target, and on target toward number five, a fifth straight championship. But with Sunday's victory Tony Stewart put himself back in the title picture.  
    "When I woke up, I thought if we had a top-10 day, that was going to be good...and if we ran top-five, that was going to be an outstanding day," Stewart said after beating Clint Bowyer and Johnson to win the California Pepsi 400, win no. 39 of his career, which clinched this season's manufacturers' championship for Chevrolet.
|    "It's just a difficult track.  This track is so momentum-driven. And when it's as slick as it is, it puts it back in the driver's hands...and normally I think that's going to be my advantage. 
   "But I've just been terrible here.  We've had times when we've been good, but I've really struggled as a driver here over the 12 years."
   Stewart's win came on an afternoon of surprisingly wild action, on a track which hasn't had that reputation.
    "The restarts early in the race were out of control," Stewart said. "We were five-wide. And we were one of them that put a bunch of guys five-wide early in the deal, clear on the bottom. I think we gained four spots in one corner doing it.
    "But guys know how important these restarts are now, and they're willing to take more chances on the restarts. And this place is so wide and you can run so many different lines here."
    This two-mile, Stewart says, "is good, and it's racy, but, man, it's difficult. The seams are slick. The racetrack is slick.
    "It's not an old track, but it sure races like an old, worn out track."
   The man with the best car down the stretch was Clint Bowyer, who says he's trying to make a point, following that championship 'death penalty' in the wake of his Loudon victory.  
    "I really was worried that this was going to be a major struggle being without my crew chief," Bowyer said, referring to suspended Shane Wilson. "But Scott Miller and everybody filled in well. And I think it speaks volumes about Shane's preparation back at the shop.
    "It was a good race. We were strong. I passed Jimmie Johnson on the last lap...and it felt really good.
    "I didn't know what to expect, without our crew chief. I've never been without a crew chief, never been in that situation. 
    "But Scott filled in well. And everything Shane planned was spot-on."

   The Richmond 'warning,' the Loudon 'death penalty,' the weekly post-race orders to turn his equipment over to NASCAR for further detailed inspection at the Charlotte R&D center: Does Bowyer feel like he's being singled-out by NASCAR for special punishment?
    "That's a good question," Bowyer said.
    "No comment."
   Bowyer went on an hunting trip in New Mexico between the Kansas race and this one. "I went on an elk hunt...my phone didn't work for three days...then we went to Vegas and enjoyed ourselves for another couple of days. 
   "It was a hell of a good week.  I got to enjoy it with some racers—Elliott Sadler, Bobby Labonte, Kasey Kahne and Dale Jarrett. Just a good group of good guys. 
    "Beautiful terrain, crawling up on mountains.  I'm telling you it was a workout.  One of the hardest things I've ever done was to pack that elk out of there.
    "You normally don't get the chance during the season to enjoy some of the guys you race against. So I really, really enjoyed the week and had a lot of fun.
    "I think my phone turned on in Truth or Consequences. Elliott was driving, and I'm like 'Where the hell are we?'
   "I think Truth or Consequences is where I finally found out what was going on (with the appeal). 
   "Sometimes it's neat to be able to just go out and get away completely. I'm talking like completely away.
   "It was a well needed week."

    For Johnson, meanwhile, it's all about business right now. The business of winning a record fifth straight championship.
  The game plan: "The company 'motto' is be 'top-five.' 
    "We as a team have tried to be smart about things.
   "The races we show up to where I'm like 'We've got to win,' we're operating with 11-tenths, and we make a lot of mistakes, including myself. 
    "The whole thought process of being in the top-five was just to kind of have everybody stay calm and in control."

   Crew chief Darien Grubb (L) turned Saturday's so-so car into a Sunday winner for Tony Stewart (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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