Posted: Thursday March 24, 2011 1:32PM ; Updated: Thursday March 24, 2011 2:48PM
Cory McCartney
Cory McCartney>RACING FAN

Johnson looking for first win of the season at hometown track

Story Highlights

Jimmie Johnson is hoping to score a win at his hometown track Sunday at Fontana

Despite pit troubles, Johnson believes his slow start is attributed to setup issues

NASCAR may be looking at its ratings and attendance numbers all wrong

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Green Flags

Jimmie-Johnson.jpg
With Kansas taking over Fontana's second date, Jimmie Johnson will only have one shot to take the California checkers.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images for NASCAR

1. Jimmie Johnson is going Hollywood -- at least for a few hours.

Before he begins his on-track commitments for this weekend's Sprint Cup race at Fontana's Auto Club Speedway, Johnson will be filming an episode of pal Christian Slater's Fox comedy Breaking In. But don't expect a test of the five-time defending champion's acting chops.

"[It] shouldn't be too hard of a spot, [I'm] playing myself," Johnson said. "But I might screw it up. Acting is not my specialty by any means."

Sunday, Johnson will try to assume a role he's been far more comfortable playing in the shadow of the Entertainment Capital of the World: Auto Club's most dominating force.

His stats in 16 starts on the California oval are overwhelming. No driver has a better average starting spot (8.6) or finish (5.3) than Johnson, who has two more wins (five) than anyone else and hasn't finished outside of the top nine since the fall race of 2006, and even that was a paltry 11th. Fontana is also the site of Johnson's first Cup victory, coming 10 years ago and it's his hometown track with his native El Cajon just a two-hour drive away.

If there's one bittersweet element to Johnson's trip back home, it's that it's now the only one on the schedule with Auto Club's second date going to Kansas Speedway.

"I love winning at that track," Johnson said. "It's been very good to me and I only have one chance to strike and get a victory. Hopefully, we can take advantage of that this weekend."

After finishing an average of 15th through the first three races, Johnson has risen up to seventh in the points behind a third-place finish last weekend at Bristol. Auto Club would certainly seem the right track at the right time, even more so when you consider the last event on an intermediate track saw Johnson finish an atypical 16th.

If there's been one glaring problem with the No. 48 team over the season's first four events -- and an issue dating back to last season -- it's been in the pits. They were slow at Phoenix and Las Vegas, but at Bristol the troubles were amplified. Johnson, who led a race-high 164 laps came down pit road as the leader under a caution on Lap 430, but his rear tire changer slipped while running from the right side of the car to the left and Johnson was fourth off pit road.

Last season's meltdown at Texas led crew chief Chad Knaus to devise a way to revolutionize the pit crew game, building a pool that includes starters and reserves. So far it would seem the system hasn't resulted in the flawless execution Knaus had hoped for. But Johnson sees a different issue holding his team back.

Despite a run during last year's Chase where he averaged a 7.3 finish on intermediates, Johnson believes something's been off on their setups for the tracks that make up the backbone of the schedule.

"We realized in the middle of the Chase last year that our mile-and-a-half stuff is competitive and will run top-5 or top-10, but it wasn't what we were used to in the past and mile-and-a-halves have really been our bread and butter," Johnson said. "We couldn't really change course then because we had a championship to focus on.

"Over the offseason we've worked hard on a lot of areas and Vegas was the first mile-and-a-half track for us and we were experimenting and trying to learn stuff. ... Hopefully, this weekend we have everything just right. But it might take two or three more attempts on the mile-and-a-half tracks just to get everything where we need it."

If there's a track where Johnson can accelerate that process, it's Fontana. After a month largely ruled by the brothers Busch and Carl Edwards, another strong run at one of his best tracks would signal that Johnson remains very much the man to beat.

2. And now for your ratings/attendance update, because if there's one thing we can't help but fixate on between the debates over whether Johnson will soon be knocked off and if Dale Earnhardt Jr. can become a force again, it's NASCAR's numbers game.

After seeing ratings increase over the first three races of the season, Sunday's viewership at Bristol drew a 3.9 rating, down seven percent from a year ago and the crowd in Bruton Smith's 160,000-seat coliseum looked half full.

Some blamed the racing, which is now devoid of the banging that was Thunder Valley's trademark thanks to the 2007 repave. Others say it's skyrocketing gas prices or the NCAA tournament, whose ratings hit an 11-year high and March Madness on Demand, available on SI.com, which drew 26.7 million visits in the opening week.

Ultimately you have to ask yourself not why ratings and attendance are dropping, but whether NASCAR is looking at it all wrong.

Certainly the overzealousness the sport's 1990s explosion spawned didn't help the ratings/attendance fixation. It gave way for Bristol to expand from 71,000 seats to 135,000 in 1999 and then to its current capacity of 160,000. It allowed NASCAR to go from signing a five-year, $2.4 billion TV rights contract in 2001 to an eight-year, $4.48 billion extension four years later. So from that end, NASCAR may not be living up to the expectations of those who have invested heavily into its future. But at the same time, it's not like NASCAR is in dire straits.

Feb. 27's Phoenix race drew a 5.9 rating, more that double the second-most watched broadcast TV sporting event of that week, Lakers-Thunder at 2.4, and more than cable's highest game of that week, Heat-Knicks, with a 3.2.

Certainly it doesn't look good when grandstands aren't filled to capacity, but even when there were 120,000 empty seats last year for the Brickyard, NASCAR still estimated a crowd of 140,000.

The problem isn't that NASCAR's popularity is sagging; it's those who thought a boon would lead to yet another and set the bar even higher. This sport remains healthy, more so than its getting credit for.

Pit Stops

18.0 -- Is Denny Hamlin facing a near-title hangover? He's averaging an 18.0 finish this season through four races.

21.5 -- That's higher than Hamlin's average finish through the first four races of 2010, at 21.5.

Auto Club Pick

Johnson. Sure, Edwards has momentum, but nobody's better at the track formerly known as California Speedway than Johnson, with his two wins and 134.4 driver rating in the last four races. Needing to make a statement after an up-and-down first month, Johnson will deliver as the series dials up LL Cool J/Notorious B.I.G and goes back to Cali.

Photo Finish

Danica Patrick had a memorable first trip to Bristol, ending with a hard wreck after contact with Ryan Truex. She then exploded over her radio, dropping some expletives directed at Truex. But before all that drama unfolded, Danica took time out to hang with Harlem Globetrotter Hot Shot Branch, who showed her one of the Globetrotter's staple moves.

danica.globetrotters.jpg
Courtesy of Harlem Globetrotters

 
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