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California bash

Jonathan Baum
Yahoo Sports

FONTANA, Calif. – From start to finish, rough driving was a hot topic during Speedweeks at Daytona.

With bump drafting and flat-out over-aggressiveness, Tony Stewart's warning and his subsequent "Do as I say ..." lack of execution of said warning, and NASCAR's reluctant increased involvement via in-race penalties, the rough driving issue perhaps was overshadowed only by the downs and ups of Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and the 500-winning No. 48 team.

Drivers collectively are happy to have Daytona in the rearview mirror, allowing them to get on with "normal" racing. And indeed, the action here at California Speedway is more in line with what the drivers will encounter throughout the season than is the restrictor plate pack racing at Daytona and Talladega.

But while the restrictor plate package can be held accountable for much of the bumping and banging, the rough driving issue isn't necessarily limited to the superspeedways – especially considering how intense the racing has become right from the start of the season.

"I can't see it slowing down any or getting anymore calm," Dale Jarrett said. "Obviously, restrictor plate racing gets everybody keyed up a little bit more, but the competition at all the other tracks has gotten so close and every position, every point is so important now."

Part of the escalation in intensity probably can be attributed to a general strengthening of the Cup field, as there now are far more cars with the potential to win any given race than there were even five years ago. Another element could be the growing number of younger drivers trying to make a quick impact in the sport.

But there is another reason.

"It wasn't [this intense] before we started with the Chase deal, but everybody – especially after two years – sees that you have to get every position and make every point that you can, so you're a littler more on edge all the time," Jarrett said.

Even with the pack racing that comes at Daytona, the drivers were – with several very notable exceptions – more or less patient, given the circumstances. Still, bump drafting did occur, mainly because it's simply a side effect of the superspeedway aero package and essentially has become a necessity when it comes to trying to make a pass.

That's not the case here at Fontana.

"I don't expect too much bump drafting at these places," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's not necessarily effective at places like this."

That doesn't mean it never happens, but it's a bit of a different animal – a tamer one, if you will – away from the plate tracks. Jarrett describes the bumper-to-bumper contact as being "more of a push" at places like Fontana rather than the slamming that goes on at Daytona and Talladega.

"You don't run into each other nearly as hard here," he said. "If you're going that fast, you're gonna run around the guy and just drive on and make that pass. You can do that here, where at Daytona you can't just pull out and go."

The issue of rough driving at Daytona went far beyond bump drafting, however, as a couple of the more memorable incidents had nothing to do with bumper-to-bumper contact. NASCAR jumped in on those instances and assessed in-race penalties.

If there continues to be too much extracurricular activity, drivers expect NASCAR officials to again step in if they have to.

"I think they made their point that they will get more involved," Jarrett said. "They don't want to, but they probably want everybody to know that they will if they have to."

But that doesn't mean one should necessarily expect NASCAR to be forced into that corner Sunday at Fontana.

"At these bigger race tracks, you don't see as much of that because we get spread out a little bit more," Jarrett said. "Short tracks, yeah, you always get into the beating and banging and tempers flaring, but we seem to work it out and go on about our business.

"I think you probably need to know that they're there if they need to [be], but I think they don't want to do that. They want to leave the racing part of it to the drivers on the track and let us handle that."

NASCAR knows there is a danger in becoming too involved in dictating what is acceptable driving behavior and what is not. NASCAR president Mike Helton made it clear that the sanctioning body did not want to get into that gray area at Daytona but would do so, anyway. And indeed they did.

And just as much as a driver with a strong personality – likeable or not – can spice up the sport, so too can a little impoliteness on the race track.

The drivers know this and they condone it – to an extent.

"That's what our racing's about, man," Johnson said. "We get in and grill on each other and do what we want. There's a long history of different things taking place, situations correcting themselves and NASCAR getting involved when they need to. If there's something unsafe that takes place on the track, they've got a lot of ways they can get you in the truck and help you understand how it's supposed to go.

"It's always intense; that's why our racing's so popular."

Will we witness that popularity in the form of some rough driving on Sunday?

"You just might," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I don't know. Hard to tell."

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