Teammates Denny Hamlin (L) and Matt Kenseth: fast Toyotas, fast drivers. But will Sunday's California 400 feature great racing and a big crowd? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
What's Denny Hamlin up to now?
He's on the pole for Sunday's California 400....yet another way to make headlines this spring.
The new stock car racing season is barely a month old and Denny Hamlin has gotten in trouble and out of trouble how many times now?
Is this Charlie Brown, or Dennis the Menace?
At Daytona Denny was going at it hard with Carl 'Bad Luck' Edwards off the second turn in their 150, and side-by-side simply didn't work over there.
Hamlin managed to finish 14th in the single-file 500, and afterwards griped about Joey Logano, his former teammate, messing up the low line during the race.
That complaint would prove to be more than idle bickering....
Then at Phoenix Hamlin, with a good pit call by crew chief Darian Grubb, rallied to finish third, missing by only a foot on a daring pass for second on the apron the last lap.
Afterwards Hamlin griped about the Phoenix tires being too hard, and tossed in a comment -- obviously valid, based on his victory at Phoenix last spring, and his second place run at Phoenix last fall -- about how the new 2013s aren't quite as good as the old COTs. NASCAR executives took umbrage, blindsided Hamlin with a $25,000 fine, and raised an amazing storm of fan protest.
Hamlin did okay in the Las Vegas 400 three days later, in the hunt for the victory until foiled by a late caution.
Which led into Bristol.....where a conversation between NASCAR CEO Brian France and Hamlin was aimed at defusing that controversy.
Joey Logano is none too happy with getting walled by former teammate Denny Hamlin at Bristol (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Then, just a day or so after 'winning' that war in the court of public opinion, Hamlin squandered some of his 'winnings' in Sunday's 500 when he put Logano into the wall while they were both chasing for the lead.
Logano, naturally, didn't take kindly to that. After the race he charged over to Hamlin's car to make that clear.
Not so much, in the grand picture of NASCAR history. But as lackluster as the season has gone so far, it will have to do.
Tony Stewart won last spring's California 400, but the race was marred by rain and ended early, much too early, just past halfway. How much effect might that rain-shortened event have on this weekend's crowd in the key Los Angeles market track? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"I told my crew I could pretty much guarantee the pole had we qualified anywhere 20th or later," Hamlin says. "I knew our car was just ridiculous fast in qualifying trim."
And Joe Gibbs' Toyotas have been fast this season, for sure.
However reliability is still something of a cloud over the Toyota camp: several engines lost at Daytona, and several engines lost at Bristol.
Now how believable Sprint Cup drivers can be, in the wake of all those heavy-handed NASCAR penalties, is up for debate. Daytona officials seem to like their drivers 'plain vanilla,' for some reason.
Still, here's what Hamlin is saying about the flat two-mile California Speedway layout:
"I love this race track. A lot of the reason is because it's bumpy and worn out, and we got tire fall-off, like three seconds between the beginning of a run and the end of a run. That always makes for good racing.
"If you polled the drivers, this is one of the favorite race tracks that we go to."
This track has put on some of the most boring NASCAR racing ever since it opened in 1997. The banking is much too flat (14 degrees, versus 18 degrees at Michigan, a similarly designed track), and the speeds are much too fast, well over 210 mph into the corners.
No wonder the track, despite all the amenities provided by Gillian Zucker, has such a problem drawing a crowd, despite its prime location at the junction of the I-15 and I-10, two of the busiest interstates in the country.
And the new 2013s are even faster than last year's COTs, which has even NASCAR pondering a possible cut in horsepower sometime this season. However that may come too late to save Sunday's 400.
Why the Daytona-NASCAR Frances have steadfastly refused to add banking to this track, as some have suggested, seems inexplicable. How many times has Homestead-Miami been redesigned?
After all, the Los Angeles market is the biggest market that this sport plays in, and it's one of the world's most important -- and diverse -- cities.
In fact, for a cash-strapped sport like NASCAR racing, the Los Angeles market, and economic engine, should be prime: only Tokyo and New York City generate more pure capital.
NASCAR's repeated failures in this key market should point directly toward poor management right at the top.
Of course if Denny Hamlin, or any other driver, were to say that, he'd be dinged with a big fine.
The San Gabriel Mountains make such a grand backdrop to NASCAR's Los Angeles anchor track. But the racing itself almost never lives up to what it should be, and sometimes it appears that Daytona-NASCAR executives have simply written off this market -- even though it's one of the three most important economic markets in the world. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)