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Auto Club Speedway: NASCAR's newest, raciest track?


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, Denny Hamlin’s return to Fontana, a sport’s continued — and inexplicable — lack of SAFER Barriers, Auto Club Speedway’s surprising raciness and Jimmie Johnson’s SoCal dominance highlight the major topics leading us into Sunday’s 400-mile race at Auto Club Speedway.

1. Hamlin returns to scene of 2013 accident
Denny Hamlin has only made four starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since his latest win, and he’s coming off a weekend at Bristol that included a pole position and a sixth-place finish. He’s nabbed two top-10 finishes so far in 2014 and ranks seventh in the point standings. A year ago at this point — before the season’s fifth race at Auto Club Speedway — he was 10th in the standings.

For as much that looks the same for Hamlin, so much from the past year is so different.

Hamlin suffered significant back injuries in a last lap crash a year ago at ACS — injuries that knocked him out of four races and most of a fifth. A valiant attempt to get back into Chase contention quickly faded, and Hamlin soon went into obscurity as his finishes grew increasingly more disappointing. He won at Homestead-Miami Speedway to close the year 23rd in points.

His story will undoubtedly be the focus of the weekend and Hamlin likely has retribution in mind. Winning, though, won’t be the cure to it all. Hamlin basically lost a season of his career at his prime, and it’s forever valid to wonder if a driver is ever the same — physically or mentally — after a serious crash.

2. NASCAR remains too slow to SAFER response
Hamlin’s crash was a violent one at a horrible angle. He slid off the track at corner exit of Turn 4 and caught a perpendicular wall head-on in a brutal impact. The worst part? The wall — a poorly designed one, at best — wasn’t protected by the tried-and-true SAFER Barrier system used in so many other areas of today’s racetracks.

That fact undoubtedly contributed to the severity of Hamlin’s crash and resulting injuries.

The wall, according to track officials, is now covered by the SAFER system for this weekend’s on-track activities. Obviously that’s the right move. But is it enough?

The California track still has entire swaths of the frontstretch and backstretch outside walls unprotected. Other tracks, too, share similar gaps in safety all because NASCAR remains apathetic about the issue despite numerous examples of race cars hitting those dangerous barriers.

Hamlin being able to hit a solid concrete barrier was simply unacceptable. A year later, it’s unacceptable that a universal approach from NASCAR to wall safety doesn’t even seem to be on the horizon.

3. Will Sunday continue the vindication of California track’s racing prowess?
One the most loathed track on the season schedule — both for the snoozer shows of racing and its unfortunate role as the original substitute for NASCAR’s absent-minded removal of the Labor Day weekend Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway — Auto Club Speedway surprised an entire industry last season with an unexpected gem.

The racing was a welcome respite from years of single-file racing with limited passing. Drivers instead showed new abilities to roam the whole track and saw greater tire wear that substantially affected handling during the course of a run.

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The last lap — despite Hamlin’s resulting injury — was a terrific battle between Hamlin and Joey Logano and the perfect on-track escalation of a simmering feud. Kyle Busch then surprised everyone by slipping by for the win.

The change is largely due to Auto Club Speedway not having to replace the track surface some 17 years after opening. It’s finally reached the perfect age where it’s abrasive and virtually the same speed in every lane. As a result, car handling is a forever moving target — forcing drivers to manage tires and seek new lines as a run progresses.

We can only hope to see more on Sunday.

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4. Track surface could make for interesting qualifying session
Sprint Cup teams hit the track Friday at 4:30 p.m. local time (7:30 p.m. ET) for the three-round qualifying session to set the field for Sunday’s race. The previously-mentioned abrasiveness of ACS’ surface could lead to some varied strategies, ranging from boring to exciting.

Tire falloff is nearly immediate now at the track, meaning every lap a driver runs will typically get slower than the prior. By rule, teams get just one set of tires for use during the entirety of the qualifying session.

The result could be two rounds largely void of drama as teams who get a top lap in on their first go opt to stand on that time, believing it’s the best they could do and hoping to save rubber for the last run. However, the teams that make it in to the final round may have their hands full with worn tires — leading to lots of late action as drivers slip and slide around the two-mile oval in search of speed.

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5. Jimmie Johnson seeks return to California dominance  
Native Californian Jimmie Johnson is six races removed from his last race win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series — hardly a streak worth worrying about. Johnson, however, may be a bit anxious about his recent runs at ACS.

It is his home track, after all.

It’s not that Johnson’s finishes have been particularly bad in Fontana, it’s just that Johnson simply hasn’t been as dominant. The No. 48 has finished 10th and 12th in his last two starts, leading just two laps in the process. Those finishes stand out because Johnson finished worse than third just once (ninth, 2009) in eight consecutive races at ACS from 2007 to 2011. He nabbed a .500 winning average in that span with four victories.

Johnson leads nearly every statistical category available in NASCAR’s loop data at the track. He has the best average running position, best average start, best average finish, best average mid-race running position, the most fastest laps, most laps led, highest driver rating and the highest percentage of quality passes. He only trails in passing categories because, well, when you race up front, you don’t pass a whole lot.

Johnson will try for his sixth win in his 20th ACS start on Sunday.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.