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Jamie's on the pole, Jack's got hot iron again too, but the Inland Empire is one of hardest hit by recession

  Jamie McMurray: Great season. Big-game hunter. And LA is big-game....."But we weren't even looking for the pole." (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

  FONTANA, Calif.
   Kevin Harvick, an old Bakersfield boy, who now, perhaps naturally, feels more at home in pastoral Kernersville, N.C., than hustle-bustle Charlotte, remembers the first time he went to Riverside Raceway, just 30 minutes up the road from here, for some NASCAR action.
    "I wasn't old enough to get in, and my dad was there working on Rick Carelli's car, so I actually went into the infield in the backseat of Cathy Carelli's car with a blanket over the top of me, to get into the pits,"Harvick was recalling Friday, during a lull in practice here at California's Auto Club Speedway for Sunday's 400.

   Those were the days when the Carellis used an old bread-truck as hauler.
   Times have changed....easily seen here Thursday evening, when NASCAR's long-distance truckers, coming in from Kansas City, via Charlotte, paraded down Fourth Street toward the track.
   Of course this is the trucking capital of the west, with probably more trucks per square mile than anywhere else west of the Mississippi, so it's hard to gauge how much PR impact that hauler parade might really have had as a NASCAR promotion.

   Matt Kenseth puts on his game-face early (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Harvick comes here on a mission. First, to avenge that loss here in the spring, when he, driving impatiently, slapped the wall while chasing Jimmie Johnson. Second, to show again he's got enough to dethrone Johnson as king of stock car racing in this year's championship race.
     Harvick, who took a jab in February at Johnson's amazing luck in pulling victory out after an untimely caution nearly trapped him a lap down, cracked "I hope I have the horseshoe (this time)."
    Harvick, meanwhile, made some nice local news by announcing he will fund a full academic scholarship to one California State University-Bakersfield student-athlete per year for the next 12 years, a $151,200 award.
    Chevy's Jamie McMurray won the pole for Sunday's California Pepsi 400 at this fast, flat two-mile track on the outskirts of Los Angeles, but four of the top-7 qualifiers were Jack Roush Ford men.

    NASCAR's home in Southern California: but only one Sprint Cup race next season in one of the country's biggest markets? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    This will be the last fall run at this $150 million facility – NASCAR and the France family's International Speedway Corp. decided to kill this race and move the Cup date to Kansas City next season. The only California race in 2011 will be March 27th.
   That decision to drop an LA date has been controversial (  here's one take:  http://bit.ly/9Wf2gx ), and it looks like a calculated gamble by NASCAR and ISC – that having only one Cup weekend here (and not even an Indy-car event) will boost attendance at this 92,000-seat arena.
    One major issue surrounding this track....is the that this area – Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario -- has been one of the hardest hit economically by the recession. Unemployment around here is the worst in the country, according to the U.S. government, even worse than Detroit: almost 15 percent. And the real estate market was in a meltdown earlier this year, and it is still considered the 'epicenter' of the foreclosure crisis. To put it bluntly, this is the land of the dispossessed and disenchanted.
   This area, the western hub of the great American trucking empire, was on a high just a few years ago. Major urban revitalization was well underway – one of the most curious aspects was taking all these huge trucking hubs and literally enclosing them with huge, glossy-glassy, high-tech-looking box-buildings, each surrounded by dramatic landscaping. New shopping malls were going up everywhere around here – this is right on Historic Route 66. Spiffy townhouse projects sprouted right and left.
   But now.....
   Well, few places in America have been as hard hit by the bad economy as this place.
   And, this track, unlike say Phoenix (four hours east), isn't a campers' paradise.
   It may take some very innovative marketing and promotion to fill this place.
   Just putting Danica Patrick in Saturday's Nationwide field or a feud or two on Sunday's Cup grid might not be enough.
   On top of all that, the racing action here has been generally dismally boring the past several years, follow-the-leader stuff...in part because these drivers are running 208 mph into the relatively flat 14-degree corners. (Sister track Michigan has 18-degree corners; sister track Texas World has awesome 22-banking.)
   So that's the stage for Round Four of the NASCAR Sprint Cup title chase.

   Tony Stewart (R), with crew chief Darian Grubb. Stewart hasn't had much patience with the media lately. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The two big NASCAR stories here as of Friday: the surprising plunge in TV ratings for NASCAR's championship playoffs the first three weeks, with stops at Loudon, N.H., Dover, Del., and Kansas City; and that Kyle Busch-David Reutimann flap.
    Busch and Reutimann have yet to be calmed down, apparently. Busch was jabbing at Reutimann here Friday. Toyota officials were fretting about it all – how would it look if one Toyota team, that isn't in the chase, were to take out one of Toyota's top championship challengers?
    Busch, of his first tagging Reutimann: "I don't know how you can change your closing-rate on a guy.  I got into the corner and was closing on him, and he got loose, and the rear end spit out.
    "I was off the gas. At that point you're supposed to be on the gas exiting...and I was off it, waiting, and got into him. My fault. 
    "I guess I shouldn't be cutting it as close and (instead) leaving 50 feet between everybody.
    "Everybody knew payback was coming. I think that's kind of dumb, (for NASCAR) to let it happen. 
     "Before, he ran into me off turn two, then brake-checked me 30-miles per hour getting into turn one. So I had an idea of what was coming. But I thought 'This would be really dumb if this did happen.'
    "It did, so it just makes us look like idiots.
    "I race guys how they race me...and against David Reutimann I've gotten no room, no slack, no nothing. 
     "I had the opportunity to pass him at lap 30, and he raced me so hard it lost me two spots, and I just backed off.
    "The next time I got to him was lap 50, and I didn't cut him any slack."

David Reutimann: Big-game hunter? Had Kyle Busch in his sights at Kansas (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  That wound up costing Busch about 60 points, with his 21st place finish: "If I gave myself a fifth-place finish, we'd be second or third in points right now, 20 points out of the lead. 
   "Now we've got way too much catching up to do. We have to step it up -- we have to win or finish second or third."
    So what do rivals make of this chaser-versus-nonchaser deal?  It's a little worrisome to rivals, who may have to add those two to the list of drivers to be wary around.
    "That, to me, looked like something that hadn't been settled," Harvick says. "Obviously there is more that has happened than just last week. There was just too much emotion involved in that whole situation."
   Busch agrees: "Obviously there was malicious intent involved in what he did...and had it happened a little differently...who's to say, at that speed, I couldn't have gotten upside down down the backstretch. Something a lot scarier could have happened."
   Jeff Burton, who has had a run-in with the hard-driving Busch, says "Kyle didn't intentionally wreck him.
   "(But) when a wound is opened, it might start to close...but it is just real easy to open it back up. That is what happened last week.
    "That whole deal wasn't just about what happened last week; it was what happened throughout the year. When you feel somebody doesn't respect you,  and then they get into you -- whether they meant to or not -- there's a different thought process.
   "The retaliation...was swift and harsh.
    "You can debate whether it was too hard or not; that's for those two guys to decide."
    Taking Reutimann's viewpoint, Burton added when one driver has an issue with another driver, "you can take something they've got, or you have to put fear in them.
    "It can't be idle words. If you tell somebody what you are going do and then if you don’t do it, then it is worse than not ever saying anything.
    "It was a big deal. Anytime someone intentionally does something, it is a big deal.
    "There is a history there...and it gets a little complicated when emotions get involved."


    Kyle Busch: not ready to forgive and forget, not by a long shot. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    While Jeff Gordon is still looking for a full-time sponsor for next season, Tony Stewart has scheduled an announcement at his shop next Tuesday, apparently to announce a new sponsor, which could be Mobil 1, the Exxon-Mobil oil that is a major rival for Shell-Pennzoil.
   How large a sponsorship Mobil 1 might be now is unclear; Roger Penske, who has had the Mobil sponsorship for years, made a sudden move earlier this year to take the Shell sponsorship, apparently after Mobil decided it wanted to cut back on its NASCAR sponsorship dollars. According to one unconfirmed report, Mobil was only willing to offer $16 million for the 2011 season. That's about half of what has been the going rate for a top-notch Sprint Cup team.
   However, even the prospect of new money coming to his team doesn't seem to be enough to perk up Stewart, who has been in a rather foul mood lately, for some reason...and whose relationship with the media has been somewhat sour.
   During Friday's press conference Stewart took only three questions:
   -- Charlotte, next week's stop? "It always seems like it's a battle of trying to get your car to cut through the center of the corner and keep the forward drive in it. It seems like it's a sacrifice of one or the other; but the two ends are different. It seems like you can carry a lot more speed through one and two, and three and four are a little more 'thread the needle.'"
   -- Charlotte spring versus Charlotte fall? "Well, sometimes there isn't one. You know they're spread out so far, and they're at the beginning of summer and the end of summer, so a lot of times they can be very similar."
    -- That Hall of Fame stuff coming up this week in Charlotte? "I haven't even looked to see who is on the ballots yet. I've been a little busy. We've got this chase-thing that we're doing."


     Yes, you want 'Quack,' NASCAR's marketeers will provide 'Quack!' (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    If history is any benchmark here, Matt Kenseth should be one of Sunday's contenders. And Kenseth was strong last week at Kansas.
   However, there's just been something funky and off about Kenseth and the team this season. He's seemed downright grumpy at times, very un-Kenseth. And his runs haven't been that impressive. He's been a pretty solid 11th or 12th place runner every week, but seldom firing a good one off.
   Like the Kansas 400: "On  the last pit stop we came out ahead of Jimmie Johnson, and he finished second and we finished seventh, without a caution.
   "The worst we ran the whole race was our last run...and lately there have been a lot of long green-flag runs at the end, and you've got to have your
car handling right and do the right things at the end of the race.
   "So we just haven't been doing the right things to keep up on whatever it is, track conditions or adjustments."
    Kenseth says this track is so similar to Michigan that the men who ran well there in August (Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Kenseth himself, and Tony Stewart) should run well here.
                    Friday's qualifying results for Sunday's California Pepsi Max 400


There is one argument about

There is one argument about Fontana that nobody I've heard or read about races there. Keep in mind that LA could support a NFL TEAM. Twice, the Rams and the Raiders (who moved there and didn't cut it and moved back to Oakland). Why should be so surprised that NASCAR isn't cutting it??

Woodbridge, VA

Excellent point. Strange

Excellent point. Strange place, LA. NASCAR's here and the NFL ain't! But I am still baffled that they can't draw better here. if they could drop some like that Kansas Speedway/MegaPlex out here somewhere, i think it would work. but first Nascar has to offer a decent product on the track, and i still think this track needs a lot more banking, and a lot less horsepower under these hoods. 208 mph into 14-degree corners? in a two-ton stock car?

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