If You Cant Say Something Nice

Several readers (mainly those condemned to live in or around Los Angeles) have told me that I’m too hard on the track at Fontana. They’ve told me I need to be more positive. So this evening I’ve decided to look at the brighter side of the Fontana Cup race. Somewhere upwards of 92,000 people showed up to see the race despite sweltering weather. Normally an event in LA has to feature looting and arson to draw that sort of crowd when it’s warm out. There were certainly more boring ways to spend an afternoon than watching the Fontana Cup race, albeit not many that dared to charge admission or featured commercials.

I look for a sharp upward spike in American worker productivity tomorrow with all the folks who were able to enjoy a long nap Sunday afternoon after tuning into the race on FOX. Most race fans will be able to make alternate plans and enjoy a nice break on Labor Day weekend since there’s no real reason to watch a second race at this normally monotonous track. The race did not under caution. Nothing was thrown on the track, though I suppose the fruits, nuts and flakes that populate Southern California might have been unable to toss a beer can more than a row or two anyway. When cautions did fly NASCAR had very little trouble sorting out the running order, seeing as how most cars were running four or five seconds distant from the car ahead of them and the car behind them. For similar reasons even the most dimwitted fan was easily able to grasp what was going on out on the track. Finally, with the reduced expectations of the race fans when the circuit hits Fontana, it’s pretty hard to feel let down. You knew it was going to be boring. It was. Life is a lot simpler when you accept diminished expectations.

Last week at Talladega there was a lot of argument concerning whether Jeff Gordon won the race. This week the only argument that could be made that Jeff Gordon didn’t win the race was whether it’s fair to call a four hour parade a “race.” Gordon timed his move to the front brilliantly, and his team was able to play the fuel mileage strategy perfectly, bringing their driver in time to keep him from running out of gas on the final lap, but with just enough reserve gas left in the tank to do half a doughnut. You can’t cut it much closer than that. The win was Gordon’s third Fontana Cup victory. No other driver has won more than one Cup race here, though Matt Kenseth has won three Busch races at Fontana. Gordon also scored back to back victories for the first time since he won at Martinsville and Atlanta last fall. In all Gordon has won consecutive races sixteen times during his career.

Jimmie Johnson finished second to give the Californian-native Hendrick teammates a 1-2 sweep. That’s amazing in that Johnson wiped out his primary car on Friday in practice which is normally the kiss of doom for a driver’s chances. But the backup car was so well prepared Johnson actually posted the fasted speed in two practice sessions in that backup unit. Johnson and Gordon are as close in the points as they finished on the track. Johnson in third is now two points ahead of Gordon in third, and both are within 27 points, striking distance, of points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. who had a substandard day at Fontana.

Ryan Newman might have been surprised to find himself crossing the line in third as several cars that had been running ahead of him late in the race either ran out of fuel or were forced to the pits for a splash and go on the final lap of the race. Newman has now finished eleventh or better in six of the last seven races. Based on those strong finishes he’s clawed his way from 21st in the standings after Las Vegas to seventh after Sunday’s race.

Matt Kenseth finished fourth despite being unhappy with his car for much of the race. The anticipated new cylinder heads couldn’t arrive too soon as it seemed the Fords were off the pace most of the weekend.

Bobby Labonte clearly had a fast car late in the race and while it’s highly doubtful he could have run down the 24 in the last two laps, the matter became mute when Labonte ran out of fuel and was forced to coast around to the checkered flag. Despite the bitter disappointment Labonte was sportsmanlike enough to run over and congratulate Jeff Gordon on the win. I feared at first Labonte planned to throw a beer can at the 24.

Other drivers who’d been running well in those final laps weren’t as fortunate after running out of gas. Joe Nemechek fell from tenth to 28th after running out of gas. Jeremy Mayfield and teammate Kasey Kahne had been running third and fourth when they were forced to pit on the penultimate lap. They wound up thirteenth and fourteenth.

Brendan Gaughan led a Cup race for the first time in his career on Sunday, and had a solid top 5 finish seemingly in hand before getting a set of tires not to his liking on the final pit stop. He was still able to salvage a sixth place finish out of the day. Gaughan has bettered his best career finish in each of the last three Cup races, so the 77 team finally seems to be heading in the right direction after a slow start to the season.

Though he never led a lap Terry Labonte scored a decent seventh place finish. As poorly as he’s run at Fontana over the last four years, newer fans may be surprised to learn Labonte was the runner up in the inaugural 1997 Cup race here, and finished third at this track the following year.

Casey Mears finished eighth for the second straight week. His season is showing progress as well though he’s still mired back in seventeenth in the points 360 markers behind Earnhardt.

Kevin Harvick scored what was easily his best ever Fontana Cup finish on Sunday coming home ninth. Prior to this weekend’s race Harvick had never finished better than 25th here. Currently sixth in the points and with Tony Stewart having wrested the “Bad Boy of the Sport” mantle away from him, Harvick’s season is off to a fine start.

Ward Burton finished tenth after having been punted on a restart and sent spinning into the infield grass early in the race. It was Burton’s second top 10 result of the season and his first since Rockingham back in February.

So there you have it Left Coasters. I tried to be positive about your race track. I tried to put aside the fact that the Labor Day weekend race date was stolen from Darlington where Bill France Sr. and God intend it to be run. And I’m told that the folks at Fontana are so determined to spice up their boring parade next year’s race will feature elephants and fire engines.

But how did I really feel about Sunday’s race? It was terrible. Loathsome. Monotonous. Utterly without redeeming social value. But other than that I liked it just fine.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2004

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