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Running out of chances in California

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The National Weather Service predicts it will be partly cloudy on Sunday in Fontana, Calif., and a balmy 69 degrees. A favorable forecast, indeed. But is it enough to secure Auto Club Speedway's future as a two-race stop on the Sprint Cup Series schedule?

Nope. Not even a nice day will lure fans to the stands, and that's what the speedway needs to prove it deserves two races a year.

But by all accounts, the track is simply not capable of filling its seats.

Since NASCAR awarded the speedway two Cup dates a season in 2004, the facility has yet to boast a sellout. Track president Gillian Zucker certainly tries her best, but filling the 92,000-seat track is as likely as Kyle Busch knocking Dale Earnhardt Jr. off the most popular driver throne.

Zucker has been plagued by bad race dates, weather that alternates between blistering heat and blinding rain, and the poor fortune of sharing Sunday with a little gold man hosting his own event 50 miles down the road.

It doesn't matter if Earnhardt promises to punch Busch in the face in a race to the finish line, Sunday's Auto Club 500 will still be overshadowed by the 81st Annual Academy Awards.

So it's make-or-break time for Auto Club Speedway, a track that's probably received more chances than it should have simply because its owned by NASCAR-sister International Speedway Corp. And unfortunately for Zucker, she's got to produce during a horrible economic downturn and a year after rain ruined her event.

But all the excuses in the world don't change the fact that two dates in southern California simply don't work and probably never will.

The track was a fan magnet when it opened in 1997, with one stop on the Cup schedule, the 15th race of the year. California native Jeff Gordon thrilled a sold-out crowd by leading 113 laps en route to the win, and NASCAR was certain it had a happy marriage with a West Coast market it deeply coveted.

The race was moved up five weeks the next year, and it settled into a comfortable slot as the 10th event on the schedule. Held in front of packed houses, NASCAR had a winning formula on its hands.

Then someone got greedy and messed with success.

In an effort to take NASCAR out of its traditional Southern markets, NASCAR awarded California a second race date in 2004. Not just any date, mind you, but the Labor Day weekend race date. The Southern 500's race date. The day hardcore, die-hard race fans traditionally spent under the sweltering South Carolina sun at Darlington Raceway.

It's a jewel of a date in terms of competition, as it's one of the last races drivers have to secure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. But the fans who care most about such things had zero desire to fly across the country to see it in person.

California got another revered date the next season, when its cozy spot on the calendar was moved up eight weeks to take over the second race of the year. It was a low-key post-Daytona 500 spot that had previously been held at North Carolina Speedway, the perfect venue for those looking to unwind after the hype of the season-opener.

At first, the crowds responded favorably to California's increased presence on the NASCAR schedule. But they've dwindled every year, and the track has yet to host a sellout since it expanded to its two events per season.

Zucker is doing her best – courting Hollywood, calling on Cup drivers to help, drumming up interest every time she can – and she orchestrated a three-track date swap that has rid California of its beleaguered Labor Day race date.

This season, the second date will be held in early October, during the Chase, and presumably long after the oppressive heat and humidity have lifted. Maybe that date will ultimately work for California, and prove why NASCAR should continue to court the market.

But it doesn't fix the first date, where weakened economy or not, things just aren't working.

Sandwiched between the Super Bowl of NASCAR at Daytona and next week's race in Las Vegas, fans have little reason to choose Fontana as their destination of choice for a February race. It's not like Los Angeles to Fontana is an easy commute, so an itinerary of spending part of the day at the track then driving an hour back to the glitz and glamour of the big city is a major commitment.

While giving up Labor Day was a good start, NASCAR still stubbornly refuses to consider that two race dates is one too many for California. But empty seats will prove this weekend there's more work to do, and if taking away a date is not an option, then perhaps California would be better served back in its original late-April spot.

At least Oscar isn't stealing the attention then, and the weather is guaranteed to be better.

It's something NASCAR needs to think about, immediately, because California has run out of chances.