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NASCAR: Round and round they went, and nothing changed

By Jim Peltz
Los Angeles Times
FONTANA, Calif. ó Perhaps it was appropriate that Jimmie Johnson thanked the spectators for showing up Sunday at the NASCAR Sprint Cup race here, considering that everyone except Johnson’s fans had little to cheer about.
The reigning Cup champion routed the 43-car field in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to win the Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway, leading all but 22 of the race’s 250 laps.
In fact, it’s noteworthy that after all those drivers raced for 500 miles, very little changed in stock-car racing’s premier circuit, which closes its regular season this weekend in Richmond, Va.
Kasey Kahne was talking about his own situation when he said “tonight was pretty much a draw,” but his comment could have applied to most of the field.
Consider:
– The same top dozen drivers in points coming into the race left Southern California as the top 12 as well, although some changed positions. A driver must be in the coveted top 12 to qualify for NASCAR’s late-season championship playoff, the Chase for the Cup, over the season’s final 10 races.
– David Ragan and Kahne, who began the night 13th and 14th in points and within striking distance of the Chase, left Auto Club Speedway in their same spots.
– Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, two-time title winner Tony Stewart and 2003 champion Matt Kenseth all left Fontana still looking for their first win of the year.
– Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of Johnson’s Hendrick teammates, failed to finish a race in the top 10 for the seventh consecutive time. (He was 11th Sunday.)
But thanks to his 12 top-10 finishes earlier in the year ó including a win at Michigan ó NASCAR’s most popular driver remained fourth in points and clinched a berth in the Chase.
Also locked into the Chase are Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, who have won 14 of the season’s 25 races and are 1-2 in points, along with Johnson and Jeff Burton.
Kenseth, meanwhile, also might qualify for the comeback of the year. The Wisconsin native was 22nd in points when the series last visited Richmond in May and looked in serious danger of missing the Chase for the first time since the format was implemented in 2004.
But Kenseth, of Roush Fenway Racing, has turned matters around since then and now has 14 top-10 finishes this year. He also was ninth in points, and likely assured of a Chase berth, after Sunday’s race.
NASCAR estimated the race’s attendance at 70,000, down from 85,000 a year earlier when the race began on an afternoon with triple-digit temperatures. Conditions were much cooler this year.
The attendance figure includes the several thousand campers in the infield of the two-mile oval speedway, which has 92,000 grandstand seats.
Track President Gillian Zucker, echoing officials of other speedways that have struggled with empty seats this year, said the sluggish economy and high gas prices were two factors in the decline.
But “it’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about,” Zucker said. “I’m really making sure when they (fans) come here they want to come back.”
Starting next year, NASCAR is moving the Labor Day weekend race to Atlanta and Fontana will stage its race Oct. 11 during the Chase. Auto Club Speedway also stages a Cup race in late February.

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