KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Every race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is important, although races at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway and Darlington (S.C.) Raceway seem to carry extra importance due to historical significance.
Daytona is home to the “Super Bowl of stock-car racing,” the Daytona 500. Indianapolis has been around since 1909, with the Sprint Cup Series racing there since 1994. Charlotte is the “home game,” for Sprint Cup teams, and Darlington and NASCAR were practically born together.
While Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., doesn’t have the historical significance of Daytona, Indy, Charlotte or Darlington, it’s critically important to the teams of the Sprint Cup Series due to the fact it is among the “intermediate” tracks of 1.5 or 2 miles in length.
If a driver and team are going to be successful in the Sprint Cup Series, mastering intermediate tracks is key. More than a third of the 36 races on the schedule – 14 to be exact – are conducted at tracks 1.5 or 2 miles in length.
For rookie Danica Patrick, driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing, learning at every track is critical. She must learn how to restrictor-plate race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and Daytona, while learning the short-track strategy at places like Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Richmond (Va.) International Raceway and Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
But perhaps more important than anything is learning the nuances of racing at intermediate tracks, given their heavy presence on the schedule. And Patrick’s education will continue this weekend at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval, site of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 Sprint Cup race.
Patrick has competed in four races at Fontana, but only one in the last two-and-a-half years. She finished 18th after an accident in an IZOD IndyCar Series race in 2005 and then returned to the track in 2010 for NASCAR Nationwide Series races in March and October. Her last start at Fontana came in March 2012, when she qualified 21st but finished 35th thanks to engine problems that ended her day after just 63 of 150 laps.
DANICA PATRICK, Driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What are your overall thoughts on Fontana? “Fontana’s pavement has not aged gracefully (laughs), so it makes for a challenging race. It’s a challenge to set up the car – the seams move the car around a lot. It’s very fast, yet you still have to get the car to rotate and it seems really tight off of (turn) two. It’s one of the tougher places to get the balance right. But if you do strike a good balance in practice, you have a chance to have a really good day on Sunday.”
Are you getting used to three-day events and not doing “double-duty” with a Nationwide Series race? “The race weekends actually feel rather paced. On Saturday, you have half a day off, actually, because you’re usually done mid-day. You find more time in market. I enjoy being at the racetrack more than ever.”
TONY GIBSON, Crew chief of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What are you overall thoughts on Fontana? “I think it’s probably a better track for us to go to being a bigger track – a multiple-lane racetrack. I feel like we’ve run extremely well there in the past with Ryan (Newman). For two or three years, we’ve been really fast out there. I think it’s more Danica’s style of racing – a lot of throttle, not a lot of braking. That seems to be her type of deal. Hopefully, we can go out there and qualify a little better. I think that will help the racing. I’m excited about going. I feel like we’ve got a really good setup for out there and I think we’ve been pretty good there the last three or four years.”
What has most impressed you about Danica in the first four races thus far this season? “I know last year you saw her not be as patient and try to make something out of what’s not there. And I told her that. What impresses me is that she takes what the car will give her and not drive over her head and get herself in trouble. That’s probably the biggest thing I’m impressed with compared to last year. I saw her get herself in trouble and get frustrated and put herself in a bad spot. This year, she’s done a good job of not doing that and just taking what the car will give her and the situation around her and finishing and making laps. She got to learn and it isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to be a process for her just like any other rookie, so she’s just got to be patient with herself and it will come.”