Every race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is important, although races at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway and Darlington (S.C.) Raceway seem to carry extra importance due to historical significance.
Daytona is home to the “Super Bowl of stock-car racing,” the Daytona 500. Indianapolis has been around since 1909, with the Sprint Cup Series racing there since 1994. Charlotte is the “home game,” for Sprint Cup teams, and Darlington and NASCAR were practically born together.
While Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., doesn’t have the historical significance of Daytona, Indy, Charlotte or Darlington, it’s critically important to the teams of the Sprint Cup Series due to the fact it is among the “intermediate” tracks of 1.5 or 2 miles in length.
If a driver and team are going to be successful in the Sprint Cup Series, mastering intermediate tracks is key. More than a third of the 36 races on the schedule – 14 to be exact – are conducted at tracks 1.5 or 2 miles in length.
For rookie Danica Patrick, driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing, learning at every track is critical. She must learn how to restrictor-plate race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and Daytona, while learning the short-track strategy at places like Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Richmond (Va.) International Raceway and Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
But perhaps more important than anything is learning the nuances of racing at intermediate tracks, given their heavy presence on the schedule. And Patrick’s education will continue this weekend at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval, site of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 Sprint Cup race.
Patrick has competed in four races at Fontana, but only one in the last two-and-a-half years. She finished 18th after an accident in an IZOD IndyCar Series race in 2005 and then returned to the track in 2010 for NASCAR Nationwide Series races in March and October. Her last start at Fontana came in March 2012, when she qualified 21st but finished 35th thanks to engine problems that ended her day after just 63 of 150 laps.