ANDY CAGLE: Standing Up Against Empty Seats at NASCAR Events
I know this horse is dead. Buried it a long time ago. But I am going to dig it up one more time to give it a good kick.
Sorry for the macabre metaphor there, but I get a bit out of mind every time I see all of those empty seats in California. If I had to guess -- and I do because ESPN didn't mention the less-than-packed house during its race broadcast -- I would say that the attendance at the track was somewhere around 60,000 people. I must be getting old because for a while those multi-colored seats fooled me.
The Auto Club Speedway of Southern California has a permanent seating capacity of around 92,000.
I have yet to hear the excuses track president Gillian Zucker will put forth on this one. In the past couple of years they have been good. She has complained about the weather - can't use that one this time, the weather was perfect. She has said that there were lots of fans milling about under the stands at concession stands and souvenir rigs. I found that one to be an indictment of the boring racing action at the track. If the track president says that fans would rather shop for garish t-shirts and hats than watch the on-track action, then you have a problem. If you can't find 92,000 to come to your event in a metropolitan area of 15 million people, something is wrong.
The bottom line is this, and then I will move on to something else: the Auto Club Speedway does not deserve two NASCAR Sprint Cup dates because, to be perfectly honest, not too many people in Southern California care about stock car racing.
On a more positive note, Richmond International Raceway doesn't have these problems. Theirs is one of the toughest tickets in racing, and once again RIR serves as the final race before the chase field is set, which I'm sure doesn't hurt ticket sales.
Hurricanes, now that's a different story.
Heading into the last race of the "regular" season, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton are all locked into the Chase for the Cup. All Greg Biffle has to do to assure that he will be racing meaningful races through November is to take the green flag. Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart appear to be in pretty good shape going into Richmond. They are currently seventh and eighth in the standings, 160 and 138 points ahead of 13th place. Keep 'em clean and they are in.
After eighth place is where things start to get interesting. Matt Kenseth is only 109 points ahead of teammate David Ragan, who is currently the last car on the outside of the Chase looking in in 13th place. Seven points back of Kenseth is Jeff Gordon. It's then only nine points back to Denny Hamlin in 11th, who holds a 76-point lead over 12th place Clint Bowyer. Bowyer is only 15 points ahead of Ragan and 46 ahead of Kasey Kahne. Brian Vickers is still mathematically alive to make it. He is currently in 15th place 190 points back of Hamlin. So when Bowyer starts the race, he is eliminated from contention.
Kenseth isn't going to miss the Chase. He's made every one up to this point and will make it 5-for-5. Besides, he was my preseason pick to win the Cup, and I'd look pretty silly if he didn't even crack the top 12.
Joining him from the above-mentioned group will be Hamlin, Bowyer and Ragan. Yes, I left out Jeff Gordon and I don't see the Evernham team pulling off the kind of Richmond magic they did in 2004 and 2005 to sneak Jeremy Mayfield in the Chase.
Gordon's team has been way too inconsistent and seems to be in disarray and panic mode right now. Not exactly the right frame of mind to be in for the biggest race of the season. I wouldn't be surprised to see some changes with that team for 2009 -- I'm looking at you, Steve Letarte.
I have to admit that I am extremely impressed with Ragan for being in this position, considering where he was less than two years ago when NASCAR didn't clear him to race at Atlanta after an embarrassing showing at Martinsville.
But I guess we'll just have to wait to see how short-track Saturday night plays out at Richmond -- Hurricane Hanna notwithstanding.
Andy Cagle can be reached at email@example.com.
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