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It's showtime in Hollywood...and out here in eastern LA too. Can NASCAR deliver an Oscar-winning performance in Sunday's California 500?


    Nope, it's not the Swiss Alps, it's California's Auto Club Speedway, and crew chief Greg Zipadelli has traded the pressures of having Tony Stewart at the wheel for the pressures of having hotshot newcomer Joey Logano (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   FONTANA, Calif.
   Tony Stewart, who is having fun, sort of, as one of NASCAR's newest team owners, an owner-driver in fact, says going into the first turn here at California's Auto Club Speedway at 210 mph isn't really that much of an issue…particularly after riding Interstate-10 to the track.
   "I've been on the 10…and I get nervous," Stewart says. "This is one of the few parts of the country that I get nervous on the freeway.
   "But they do it every day, and they make it, so you can tell they know how to do it.
   "But when you're not used to being in this much traffic as they have out here, I'd definitely take my chances with five rookies on the race track. At least we're all going the same direction."
    Stewart, fresh off an eighth place run at Daytona, is eager to see just what Hendrick horsepower is like here. New teammate Jimmie Johnson won last summer and ran second in the spring with that stuff.
    Now Stewart gets to see what he can do with it.
   Of course there is more to this race and this NASCAR weekend than just 500 miles at high speed.
   This is Los Angeles – or at least LA is somewhere out there down the 10 – and cracking this market is very important for the sport….and so far doing that has been quite difficult.

Gabi DiCarlo walks down pit road. The NASCAR newcomer finished 19th in her Truck series debut in Saturday's California race. (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

    So track boss Gillian Zucker is throwing as many big names as she can muster for this marketing campaign.
   -- Angie Harmon, who plays Abbie Carmichael on NBC's Emmy-winning Law&Order, will be the honorary starter, and her husband, Jason Sehorn, the ex-New York Giants defensive back, will be another honorary race official. 
   -- Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, a major league car buff, will drive the Chevy pace car.
   -- Grammy-nominated 'Little Big Town' will perform the National Anthem.
   -- Gavin Rossdale will have a pre-race concert. Also making music here over the weekend: Rev Theory and Billy Ray Cyrus.
   -- TV actors from 'Heroes,' 'Desperate Housewives' and 'House' will also be wandering around.
   -- And wasn't that Sarah Jessica Parker hanging out with some NASCAR buds the other day?
   But apparently no Jack Nicholson or Barack Obama….
   However, this is shaping up as a springtime where NASCAR's promoters really start promoting.
   Of course sometimes these promotions can backfire; that Rolling Stone piece on Stewart last year perhaps as example of something where things get lost in translation.
   But NASCAR men are opening up to new angles, like behind-the-scenes stories on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s TV ads shoots.
   Jeff Burton just did a walk-on for General Hospital (for March 18th).
   Carl Edwards played with Sports Illustrated in a 'dive-bombing' plane ride.


Daytona 500 winners Matt Kenseth and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer discuss strategy for Sunday's Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway. (Photo Credit: Jason Smith/Getty Images)


   Hitting non-traditional media may never be more important than this season…where NASCAR teams are facing not only economic issues but also a general collapse of the sport's traditional media base. A remarkable number of major newspapers simply skipped last week's Daytona 500, a stunning loss that may have hit NASCAR execs hard…and pushed them to step up the game plan.
   Tom Cruise was last week's pace car driver, getting the sport some big-time national exposure.
   And it may be time for more Gonzo stuff….which has long been a Red Bull forte. So keep a close watch on Brian Vickers and Scott Speed and their handlers. Vickers has already taken up residence in New York's funky Soho district. (Wonder what his former Thomasville, N.C., neighbors are thinking about that?)
   Expect Kyle Busch and sponsor Mars to step things up too (and not just with new colors for those M&Ms).
   NASCAR marketing promotions this season may be more lifestyle-oriented than ever.

Can 18-year-old Joey Logano deliver this season? (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)


And where does that leave Jeff Gordon?
   He has long been NASCAR's chief ambassador-driver, comfortable in any situation, from Regis and Kelly to Saturday Night Live….
  However at the moment Gordon would just like to start winning again.
  He went dry last season, and that Daytona 150 victory broke a long, strange drought.
  Gordon's Daytona 500, however, went down the tubes with tires issues. He was poised to make lightning sprints, but his tires didn't work well on longer runs.
   "I think we made the most out of the 500," Gordon insists. "With the rain-shortened event, we've got to be pretty pleased….if you look at some of the guys that had trouble and the guys we were racing.
   "All-in-all I felt it was a very positive SpeedWeeks for us.
   "Winning the 150 was definitely something this team needed -- that spark, that confidence builder.
   "We had an incredible car in speed. When we were out front, we were as good as anybody.
   "We just had some issues wearing out the inside of the right-front tire when we got behind other cars."
   And that forced Gordon to make an early pit stop just before rain halted everything, taking him out of contention. If the race had gone green again, after Kyle Busch had crashed out in the Dale Earnhardt Jr. –Brian Vickers thing, Gordon would have had the car to beat. But he wound up 12th.
   Still Gordon is quite upbeat now: "The only thing you can take out of Daytona is momentum and points  -- You can see which teams are well-prepared and executing well. "Our goal throughout Daytona was to make improvements in how we performed -- pit stops, communications, speed -- and I felt we did.


Jeff Gordon: back on track (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

"It's just one race…and this is going to be a handling track, so I'm excited to see what we've got.
   "Without testing, everybody is very anxious to really see."
   And drivers are certainly anxious to see just what some of these new teams might have to offer. There are more question-mark teams in the field this season than in many years.
    Gordon says, despite complaints about the car-of-tomorrow's handling, "with this car there has never been a better opportunity for teams with less funding, maybe less personnel, to be able to pull off some spectacular finishes, and maybe even a win.
   "Some of those newer teams might just surprise us."
   Certainly that might be good for the sport, an element of surprise, and the unexpected.
   And for NASCAR in Southern California, every little bit helps.
   Gordon, from California himself, knows this may be the toughest market NASCAR plays in.
  "I don't know how many fans there are in this area…but this is probably one of those unique markets, because there are just so many forms of entertainment, it's hard to get the interest in our sport," Gordon says.
     "There are other things going on….not something that we have, say, in the Midwest, where we just pack the stands.
   "You go to these small towns in the Midwest and a Saturday night event is the biggest happening thing that's going on, and everybody is there to be a part of it.
    "And that's just not necessarily the case here in Southern California.
   "You can put a lot into marketing, and try to promote the heck out of it. But is that going to change it? I'm not sure.
    "But I do know there are a lot of fans out here, a lot of fans….and they've kind of been snake-bitten by the weather here, from rain (last February's issue) to 105 degrees (the Labor Day weekend issue).
   "Maybe the schedule change (to October) will help for the second race here.
   "And of course the economy is affecting everybody everywhere we go."




One of the most gorgeous backdrops of all tracks on the NASCAR trail....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


When you media guys write

When you media guys write about the low attendance at Fontana, why is it that none of you ever mentions that LA is the only market that would not provide enough support to keep an NFL team? LA is the largest market in the country without an NFL team - it's a strange place.

Also, the "journalist" involved with the proposed new F1 team (Peter Winsor) was team manager for Williams for several years and worked for some other teams in F1 before getting into journalism. He does have a lot of experience and contacts in F1.

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