Cali the real launching pad to Chase

FONTANA, Calif. -- The Daytona 500 is known as NASCAR's Super Bowl. Great event, but it has little to do with winning the championship.

Move to the other coast and you'll find a different story this weekend.

Auto Club Speedway, the Southern California track that traditional fans love to hate, the Inland Empire facility that always has trouble selling seats and the locale that hasn't always produced exciting racing, is the place of championship contenders.

Drivers often say California is where the real season starts. They aren't kidding.

"Unlike restrictor-plate racing at Daytona, four guys can't get in a line at California and go to the front," Tony Stewart said. "What you do at California is solely based on what you and your team can do with your race car, not what drafting line you're in.

"Once you get through Daytona, these next three races [ACS, Las Vegas and Atlanta] really set the tone for your season. It gives you an accurate assessment of where your program is right off the bat."

ACS is a little like the old Frank Sinatra song about New York City: If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere.

The facts don't lie. ACS is a VIP (Very Important Place) for telling us which drivers will be near the top of the standings when the season ends.

Don't believe it? Want proof? We got your proof.

Since 2001, eight of 13 Cup race winners on the 2-mile ACS oval finished in the top five in the season standings. Twelve of those 13 winners finished in the top 10.

Let's compare that with Daytona International Speedway. In the 16 Cup events since 2001, only four of those race winners went on to finish in the top five that year. And only seven of the 16 even finished in the top 10.

"Daytona is our biggest race,'' said Ryan Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner. "But most people will tell you California is a better gauge in determining what you have compared to other teams."

Comparatively speaking, 92 percent of the Fontana winners finished in the top 10 in the past eight seasons. At Daytona it was 43.7 percent.

"I don't think last Sunday's results have any meaning on what kind of year you're going to have," said Jeff Gordon, who finished 13th at Daytona. "I think you get a better understanding of how you stack up against the other teams after the races at California and Las Vegas."

Fontana alone has told us a lot in the past three years. Five of the past six winners at ACS, including each of the past four, have finished in the top four in the season standings.

Only one of the past four winners at Daytona (Jimmie Johnson in 2006) finished in the top nine in the standings. We are excluding this past week's Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth, of course, but these aren't fun stats for him to see.

However, there's a bright side for Kenseth. He's won twice at ACS (the February events in 2006 and 2007), and his teammates at Roush Fenway Racing have won at Fontana four other times, including Carl Edwards in this event in '08.

ACS is the place to shine. So is Michigan, an almost identical 2-mile flat oval as the sister track to ACS. Roger Penske owned both facilities before selling them to International Speedway Corp. in 1999.

Our amazing research team at ESPN came up with some other interesting stats that show how drivers need to do well at both tracks if they hope to win a championship.

Since ACS was added to the Cup schedule in 1997, the eventual champion has been among the top seven in average finish at both Fontana and Michigan in their championship season 11 out of 12 times.

Only 2002 champ Tony Stewart was outside the top seven (15th), but Stewart was third in average finish at those tracks (7.3) during his 2005 championship year. Nine of the past 12 champions ranked in the top three for average finish at ACS and Michigan.

"The teams that do well on tracks like [ACS and Michigan] are the teams that are going to be fighting for a place in the Chase," said California native A.J. Allmendinger.

Things might change a little this year because of one key factor -- no testing. No driver has been on the ACS oval since Aug. 31, 2008.

"Without testing, I think the teams that were successful here last year will probably be strong again," Gordon said. "But that's a double-edged sword. When you're successful, you're afraid to change too much. Teams that weren't strong may roll the dice and look outside the box, and they may hit on something."

If they hit it right Sunday, good things may come their way in 2009.

A bad day at Daytona is no big deal. A bad day at Fontana and it's time to worry.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.