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Richard Childress is turning the corner...now can Greg Biffle get the break he needs to break through?

  The drive up from California's Auto Club Speedway to Las Vegas Motor Speedway is through snow-capped mountains (Photo: LVMS)

   By Mike Mulhern

   There's snow all over the mountains between here and California's Fontana track, and it's such a picturesque drive that it's surprising the promoters at these two tracks, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway, can't work any better together to put together a fan-friendly package for these back-to-back races.
   In fact there's a lot of pondering to be done in the wake of Sunday's California 500 – at a track which has earned a reputation for some of the most boring racing in NASCAR.
   First, after each California race the media pounds track president Gillian Zucker about the empty seats, and she replies with the huge litany of promotions and marketing gambits she and her staff have been using.
   Second, perhaps the answers are not harder/better promotions but harder/better action on the track. But that's been the debate almost from the day the two-mile track opened.
   One big problem – it only has 14 degrees of banking in the corner, and the corner-entry speeds are as fast or faster than at Daytona, which has 31 degrees of banking.  Even Michigan, a copy of this track, has 18 degrees of banking; and Texas World Speedway (not Texas Motor Speedway) has 22 degrees of banking. Part of the solution here would seem obvious – put more banking in the corners. And Zucker has suggested that, 23 degrees even. But so far the track owners keep saying no.
   Another problem with the California track – the speeds are way too fast. Cut the speeds 20 mph, cut horsepower, and there would probably be much better racing.
   Yet another problem with the California track is its location, an hour east of the Los Angeles airport. Now Fontana's physical transformation over the past 10 years has been amazing. It is, at heart, a truck capital, for cross-country haulers. But a heck of a lot of money has been poured into reshaping the town, and 'then' and 'now' pictures are stunning. Plus there are new shopping centers right and left.
   Nevertheless there appears to be something of a disconnect between the track and the people who live in the surroundings. At most NASCAR venues, the race track is an integral part of the local community. But there is no sense of that in Fontana.
   Bottom line, of course, is that NASCAR will keep the two Cup weekends at Fontana, because Los Angeles is simply too big a market to skip out on. When a team owner goes to a major company to make a pitch for the$20 million or $25 million it takes to run a top NASCAR team, he can say 'We play twice in Los Angeles,' to help sell the deal.
   Yes, the economy is pretty bad, and Las Vegas has taken a brutal hit, which is one reason track president Chris Powell has invited President Obama here to check things out in person. (Maybe Nevada Senator Harry Reid would be a good pick too....)
   It will be interesting to see what Danica Patrick can do here....following that fiasco at Fontana. What is hard to understand is if she had planned all along to make her NASCAR debut at Fontana why didn't she do more testing – Texas World would be an excellent place. If Patrick doesn't do better here – and there probably isn't much reason to expect she will – then she and her handlers should reassess her NASCAR game plan.
   Meanwhile, looking at the first two weeks of the NASCAR season, three things stand out:
   -- Richard Childress' guys appear to have turned a corner. RC's teams hold three of the top-five spots in the Sprint Cup standings, with Kevin Harvick atop the board.
   -- Greg Biffle is carrying the freight for Ford's Jack Roush, and The Biff could easily have won both Daytona and California.
   -- Jimmie Johnson's luck may still be golden, but his Hendrick teammates aren't doing that well. And what to make of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s broken axle at Fontana: equipment failure, or driver error in the pits?
   Many teams and drivers have made the short jaunt up here from over the boarder, rather than journey all the way back to North Carolina.
   Biffle is one of the men here, and he's going to take a play day or two: "It's a great time of the year to be out here...and I like coming to the West Coast, a lot more than other people do. 
   "I'm from this area, and I enjoy running two races back-to-back.  It's good on our travel schedule to stay out here and not go home.
   "I'm going to the sand dunes and take my off-road car.  That's always a lot of fun.
    "Then I'll go on to Vegas;  I love to gamble, and I love Vegas the city."
    And Vegas the track? Well, it's a little trickier than most 1-1/2-milers, and AJ Allmendinger hopes he can find some of that Jimmie Johnson luck this weekend: "I've never had good luck at Vegas. 
    "I missed two races there my first two years, and then last year we made the show and just struggled. 
    "Vegas is a tough place. The track doesn't widen out like a lot of the 1-1/2-miles, where you can run two or three lanes.  It gets almost like just about one and a half grooves.
    "It's got a lot of grip, and it's really fast.  But to me it's one of the places where you really have to be on top of the handling...because if you're not, and you're just a little bit out of the throttle, the track is so fast that everybody is digging really hard for the throttle. 
    "It makes track position really critical, because it is hard to pass, because you get real aero-sensitive behind other cars."



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   With crowds like this, Las Vegas Motor Speedway deserves two Sprint Cup weekends....and California Speedway has some answering to do about why its crowds are typically so off (Photo: LVMS)

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