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Jamie McMurray brings his charm and luck to California....but the men to beat here are wearing Roush-Ford Blue

  Well, if Greg Biffle really is the fastest man in NASCAR, then this California stop is just the place to show it. (Photo: Autostock)

   By Mike Mulhern

   FONTANA, Calif.
   Now the real NASCAR season begins...so Dale Earnhardt Jr. says.
   The Hollywood 500.
   Okay, okay, so Fontana isn't Hollywood, or even Santa Monica or San Diego. But this is California, one of the most important markets for NASCAR (and anyone selling anything, except maybe the NFL), and this is a big week for the sport, if it wants to carry momentum on from Daytona.
   And we'll see if this time what happened in Daytona stayed in Daytona, or if the things we saw during SpeedWeeks will carry over:
   -- Like the rebounding Richard Childress crowd. Most impressive at Daytona. Kevin Harvick appearing to have the best car (credit crew chief Gil Martin) and Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton were solid too (credit new competition director Scott Miller).
   -- Like Jamie McMurray, who may give new teammate Juan Pablo Montoya some added punch this season. Montoya came on strong last season, after team owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates switched to Earnhardt-Childress engines, from Richie Gilmore and Danny Lawrence. And that's what helped power McMurray to his Daytona 500 win.
   -- Like the rebounding Ford crowd – Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle looked particularly strong. (And what's the real story on that Jeff Gordon-Kahne battling?) What is the verdict on that new Ford FR9 engine?
    And we'll see if all that trouble that seemed to befall the Rick Hendrick guys was an anomaly or the start of something. After such successful 2009.....Jimmie Johnson did make an amazing rally to win last Thursday's 150, but then in the 500 nothing seemed to go right. Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon also had mediocre Daytonas, and if not for Earnhardt's surprising rally in the final 10 miles, it might have been a washout for Hendrick.
   While Daytona track boss Robin Braig ponders his next move with that broken asphalt, a quick review of just what else did happen during SpeedWeeks, beside that pothole and Danica Patrick:
   -- On the plus side, there were more official lead changes in this Daytona 500 than any since 1983. And that's saying something. There were 52 leads changes among 21 drivers...something Daytona PR people will be puffing for sure. And the action was unusually hot right after that pothole developed, just past the race midpoint. The finish was a thriller, the winner rather unexpected. And NASCAR reacted remarkably swiftly with a new triple 'green-white-checkered' rule, after that somewhat odd Shootout finish. While drivers may not like the new rule, they understand it, and it did change things in the 500. But the key here is not just the new rule but that NASCAR officials are continuing their game of shaking things up, which, after two years of inaction, is welcomed.
   -- On the negative side, well, there was that pothole, and the weather was too darned chilly most of SpeedWeeks. But then Florida in February is unpredictable.
   --  Hendrick men and Joe Gibbs men were all generally invisible, particularly odd since they've been hot the last two years. Even Michael Waltrip got more press than the Hendrick guys.
   --  McMurray's victory may be seen as vindication that Ganassi finally has his program on track. Ganassi's Indy-car stuff has been hot for years, as has his Daytona 24 Hours stuff; but in NASCAR, until Montoya's hot streak last season, Ganassi teams have performed fitfully. Ironically McMurray and Ganassi won with Earnhardt-Childress engines, from the shop formed to help 'save' DEI from oblivion; and Ganassi's silent partner in this team is of course Teresa Earnhardt. Unfortunately Teresa Earnhardt not so long ago had four top-35 teams herself at DEI, and Ganassi had three top teams himself; the merger cut those seven teams down to two. And Ganassi's engine program is really a lease program with the Childress operation, rather than in-house.
   -- Ford's decision to add George Gillett's Richard Petty Motorsports operation to its roster appears to be paying off. Kahne, who finished second in the Shootout and then won his 150, before getting crashed out of the 500 in the final minutes, was startling in his performances. And Kahne's best tracks are typically the mid-size tracks, like next week's stop at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the following week's run at Atlanta. And considering Roush's typical prowess at Texas Motor Speedway, and Kahne's strong runs there over the years, well, it could be a good spring for Team Ford. And that's before factoring in the FR9.
   Now California, and this flat two-mile track: The man to beat should probably be in a Roush Ford, and Biffle, as aggressive as he's been lately, may be the pick.
    Roush teams have won five straight spring races here, and they've dominated fall action too.
   One man to keep an eye on may be Jimmie Johnson – after a four-year run as king of the hill, is he finally going to start sliding down the other side?
    Goodyear, who should be getting kudos for its engineering the past year or so, has brought two new tires Cup teams this weekend. The setup was tested here in December by Ford's Kahne, Dodge's Brad Keselowski, Toyota's Joey Logano, and Chevrolet's Burton.
    The new Goodyears are designed for more grip, and the engineers are using some of that technology developed during last year's Indy test program (in the wake of the 2008 Indianapolis fiasco).
    This track has long been noted for extremely fast (too fast some say) corner-entry speeds and strung-out fields, with drivers unwilling to get too close to each other. In part that's because the banking here is only 14 degrees; the Michigan two-mile, upon which this is copied, has a more generous 18 degrees; and Texas World Speedway, another copy-track, has a lightning-fast 22 degrees of banking.
   It has been proposed that this eastern Los Angeles track have its banking raised to as much as 23 degrees, to make for better racing. However track owners have resisted that.
   In the absence of any such major change, crowds here have generally been filled with one-timers; they show up to watch one race and then don't typically bother returning.
   Part of NASCAR's marketing game plan to turn around those sluggish TV ratings and small crowds has to be focused on making action here more exciting.



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  A pensive Jack Roush: his men have dominated this California track. Which one of them will win this 500? (Photo: Autostock)


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