California Viewer's Guide

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Steve Byrnes

Steve Byrnes is a host and reporter for NASCAR on FOX. A broadcast veteran, he has covered racing for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter.

Triple-digit temperatures this weekend at California Speedway may not have a direct impact on the race, but the cumulative effect of brutal heat for two weeks in a row may wear down these teams. It doesn't matter how well-conditioned or hydrated you are, it's going to take a toll. Tony Stewart's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, has walking pneumona. Tony Stewart. Knowing Zippy, he'll answer the bell for the race. But car chief Jason Shapiro has been there forever, and Joe Gibbs Racing has a lot of depth in case someone needs to step up for him. In addition to the heat, drivers must race into the sun. Although he didn't make the race, Dale Jarrett made some pretty strong comments about that part of racing at the Fontana facility. "When you are going down the backstretch at close to 200 mph, and you can't see anything — that's not very fun," Jarrett said. "There is not a driver out there that likes driving at that particular time. You can't adjust to it — you are literally blinded by the sun for at least a 35- to 45-minute timeframe. I think we've been fortunate that nothing has happened, but it is still not a very fun time as far as the drivers go until the sun is gone." TV does a pretty good job of depicting how difficult it is for those guys to see. They have to give themselves enough room and know that if they hold their line, they're not going to hit anybody until the sun goes down.

Who to Watch

  • Kurt Busch: Really on a roll this season, Busch has three top-five finishes and a win at California. His hot streak will continue Sunday.
  • Jeff Gordon: With a pretty amazing season so far, Gordon has led 457 laps and has three wins at California Speedway.
  • Tony Stewart: With three top-five Cup finishes at California, Stewart oddly has never won a Cup or Busch race at California. He can change that this weekend. Getting 10 bonus points per win before the Chase for the Nextel Cup means a lot to drivers like Stewart who are locked into the Chase, and it makes them even more dangerous.
  • Jimmie Johnson: Really fast off the truck with the top time in Friday's practice and only .001 seconds off the pole, Johnson got his first Cup win at California in 2002 and has gone on to win 26 more races. He's had a great week, spent a lot of time in San Diego, raising $500,000 for Habitat for Humanity.
  • Matt Kenseth: With four Busch wins and two Cup wins at California, they could run covered wagons, and the No. 17 would be competitive. Kenseth and this track go hand in glove.
  • What to Watch

  • Junior's engine concerns: Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran just six laps in Friday's practice, a session in which another Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver, Aric Almirola, had engine concerns. Dale Earnhardt Inc. is making a concerted effort not to log too many laps or miles on engines. No matter how well the No. 8 team does in the final 10 races, it's really predicated on what Kurt Busch does. Junior told me before the race last Saturday night that his strategy was simple. Go wide open. They need some help. They've run well, but they've had some engine failures and bad luck, so a lot of little things have them on the outside of the Chase looking in.
  • Tight at night: As the sun goes down and the track gets cooler, it gets more grip, which means it will tighten up. Drivers that ran fast in the beginning may slow down while other drivers will give up the first part of the race to be better once the sun sets. It's a similar scenario that we see in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
  • Got to gamble: Whether it's Jeff Gordon trying to get an extra 10 bonus points for a win in the Chase, Earnhardt Jr. trying to get into the Chase or Dave Blaney trying to stay in the top 35 in points, different scenarios may make teams gamble, taking chances on two tires or staying out for track position. The complexion of this race could be pretty interesting given the different agendas.
  • Expensive experiment?: During the NFL season last year, people wondered whether the Indianapolis Colts would try to stay undefeated and play all of their guys or get ready for the playoffs, resting their players. Well, they won the Super Bowl so the point is if you have a gameplan and stick to it, that's all that matters. When the race starts, the top seven drivers will be locked into the Chase so they might experiment, but not if it hurts their momentum heading into the Chase. Right now, they're willing to gamble a little bit to find something for the final 10 races.
  • Speed Mail Steve

    Pit Perspective

    Joe Gibbs Racing has had a long relationship with General Motors, from Pontiac to Chevrolet. But with GM right now, they may be third or fourth in line behind Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and maybe even Dale Earnhardt Inc. From what I've heard, if they go to Toyota, they're going to be at the top of the pecking order. It's hard to say, but they wouldn't make a move without considering Toyota's current struggles. There may be a learning curve for them, but their organization is deep enough and has enough resources so they will make the learning curve a lot shorter for their new manufacturer. The people under the most pressure now are in the shop at Joe Gibbs Racing starting to build Toyotas for 2008. For drivers like Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in lame-duck situations with their teams and Joe Gibbs Racing in a lame-duck situation with its manufacturer, it won't matter because they're so focused on what's in front of them. They always want to be the fastest in practice, lead the most laps, sit on poles and win races. They're always focused on what's in front of them so the drivers shouldn't feel much of an impact at all.

    Finish Line

    Drivers like Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth can do two things:
    1. They're consistent, running smooth and very similar lap times.
    2. If they have to find a little bit different line, they can do it.
    As the racetrack changes, and the temperatures cool down, these drivers can either find a little bit of an advantage on the racetrack or tell their teams what their cars need in order to stay in front. Those drivers — the technicians — will shine on Sunday night.

    NASCAR on FOX and SPEED host and reporter Steve Byrnes has covered racing for more than 20 years.

    Tagged: Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Jarrett, Tony Stewart, Dave Blaney, Kyle Busch, Aric Almirola

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