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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Now that the 51st Daytona 500 is a soggy memory and winner Matt Kenseth has made the most of his media trip to New York as the winner of NASCAR's biggest race, it's time to look ahead to the rest of the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
And it's off to Fontana, Calif., where the grim reality of a bad economy will hit the sport squarely in the face.
Sunday's Daytona 500 was officially announced as a sellout last Saturday afternoon. After playing to off crowds during Speed Weeks, it was obvious that NASCAR fans saved their money for the "big race" of the year. That equated into down crowds for the Budweiser Shootout, the Gatorade Duel at Daytona, the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series races.
But the fans turned out in droves for the Daytona 500 and witnessed a most peculiar race until the rain-shortened finish at 152 laps.
So, as Kenseth enjoyed a hero's welcome as the Daytona 500 winner, it's going to be grim at Fontana as sources indicate just 26,000 tickets have been sold for Sunday's 500-mile race at the 92,000 Auto Club Speedway. The numbers are even worse for Saturday night's Nationwide race with 6,000 tickets sold.
The lack of a crowd isn't going to keep the drivers and crew members from approaching this race wholeheartedly.
While superspeedway racing at Daytona and Talladega feature restrictor-plates and the art of the draft, tracks like California, Las Vegas and Atlanta are better indicators of what teams will face throughout the season. Most drivers believe the lack of testing at Daytona didn't matter but believed the loss of test dates at California and Las Vegas will be meaningful.
That means it's time to dig out the notes and cram for Sunday's setup.
"I think it'll be pretty important," Kenseth said. "If it was any other year, I'd say [past notes] wouldn't be that important with the other car, but since we've switched to this car and we ran it at every race track last year, there have been zero rules changes to the car, so we have the same exact aerodynamic package we had when we went to both races last year. None of that has changed and all of the rules are basically the same, so, of course, through that time you hopefully learned some things and you get a little smarter as far as your chassis setups go, but it's not like we're going there with a different kind of car, so we'll look at what we did last year and we'll try to improve on that.
For other veteran drivers, the California Clash will be a battle of minutiae.
"I think it's going to be really interesting," Jeff Burton said. "I don't know what to expect. I don't think anybody knows what to expect ... Until we get to California and really put it out there with our competition, we truly don't know what we have."
While the lack of testing at these tracks for any team would theoretically level the playing field at this track, it's going to put an emphasis on the setup sheets and engineering reports from past races.
"It's going to have an effect," Burton continued. "Some teams are able to be productive without testing. Some teams are very test-reliant; I am in no way saying the No. 48 [Jimmie Johnson] can't win the championship this year because I believe they obviously can, but if you look at what they did last year, they struggled early in the year. They went and did a lot of testing and got a lot better. If you didn't have that testing, what could you have done in that situation?"
Jeff Gordon enters this weekend's race with a veteran's attitude of what to expect.
"The teams that were strong at the end of last year I believe are going to be strong again this year," Gordon said, "but then there's that other factor where some teams that weren't strong are going to just kind of roll the dice and go for broke and really look outside the box and could possibly hit on some things.
"It's sort of that double-edged sword every season. When you're successful, you're afraid to change much. You want to keep things pretty much on par where you were and just try to make small improvements and you think that will get the job done to keep you ahead of the competition. Sometimes that can be good and sometimes that can hurt you. I feel like for us, we're that team that has to go a little bit more outside the box."
Gordon said his team at Hendrick Motorsports made big gains toward the end of last season but were nowhere close to where teammate Johnson or Roush-Fenway's Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle were at last year.
"We've just got a few adjustments that can work with my driving style and also we see things that they are doing that I need to step up to and can improve and make ourselves better," Gordon said. "As a whole we were just focused on the team. I think that it's going to be very interesting to get to the next few races after Daytona. We've got to step it up. We're probably not going to be this strong against the competition. That's going to be a work in progress as the season goes on."
Biffle is another leading contender this weekend. He won this race in 2005 but admits there are some unknowns going into NASCAR's second race of the season.
"I'm not going to say it's going be a gamble, but last year, we didn't test at California; last year we tested at Las Vegas," Biffle said. "This year we go to California without testing, similar to what we did last year, so California isn't really going to be any different. Going to Las Vegas will be different.
"We're going to Vegas with no test. We ran third at Las Vegas last year and felt like we had a little better car than that. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and I got to racing on the white flag lap and I got run up the hill a little bit, but Carl Edwards won, so I'm sure we're going to go back with the same setup as we ran there and Carl did the tire test there so one of our cars has tested there."
Biffle still expects a passing grade in this class despite the lack of testing, which makes Sunday's race more of a pop quiz.
"Really, it seems like the testing is more of a non-issue now that we've had a little track time with this new car," Biffle said. "With the new car you have to test a lot, but with the old car we were able to change nose offsets, we were able to change all this stuff on this car to try different aero platforms, try different side force, try this, try that, try all these crazy things about moving the bodies around and all that. We can't really do that anymore, so with this new car we're so limited to what we can do that at some point testing will obviously become almost obsolete with the new car because we're in such a tight box already.
"I think without testing this year and with us having a couple years under our belt with this thing and no new tracks and no new repaves, I almost think it's a non-issue. I honestly do."