NASCAR returns to Cali, racing this weekend for 400 miles at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Jimmie Johnson just missed the pole for Sunday. Clint Bowyer will start on pole.

No, those aren’t Toyota, Chevy, or Ford production cars running around the 2-mile oval at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana this weekend. Not really, though they look like it. Rather, they are purpose-built race cars whose bodies are massaged within thousandths of an inch in order to cut through the air just right. But if you don’t know any better, you’d think that the Toyota Camry that you’re driving was just about like the one Kyle Busch (or five others amongst the 38-car field) was trying to put into victory lane—yet again. This on Sunday in the  400-mile, 200-lap feature race of the weekend.

And that’s a good part of the fun of a NASCAR weekend. The skill it takes to drive 205mph straight towards a wall before making a last-minute turn. The craziness that ensues when somebody makes a mistake (hopefully not to really bad ends, as at Daytona this year when one car crossed the finish line on its roof—but these are big boys, and risk is their way of living). The thrill of being a part of something as a member of the enormous crowd of fellow fans, or even just curious onlookers, when the green flag drops.

Is this a Mustang?

There are many reasons to attend the race, which goes at 12:30 on Sunday. (Rain is pending, though should be through the area by mid-morning, leaving a “green” racing surface washed of tire rubber and thus different from what it was at the moment of qualifying, which took place surrounding the noon hour on Saturday.) One is that you’re there, rather than couching it up at home. The sound of 38 cars coming to the green flag, 30,000-plus horsepower thrumming through the body of everyone in the stands. This can’t be beat.

The incentives for drivers, by the way, include a reported total purse of $7 million bucks.

Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘38 cars?’ The max is 40, and it used to be 43. There were days when guys would show up and not get a spot for Sunday. That’s past. The Series first cut their entry list to 40 and now is not able to fill that field, causing the recent news that the number will likely be reduced once more. Anybody  who has followed the “sport” (please don’t argue too much with that term—the fact that these guys are athletes can be proved by looking at how rare it is that even a young and fit newbie survives in the NASCAR trenches) knows that in recent days, the NASCAR field had a couple or three or four “start and park” guys at the back—there to make the field appear full, but not competitive. Cutting to competitive cars gives the whole thing a greater feeling of honesty, to my way of thinking.

Anyway, you want to be a part of things, right? And to enjoy the spectacle—famous people, big hype, some kind of flyover after the American national anthem—all of it is the material reality of attending a big-time auto race, and it’s something anyone should do at least once. You’ll find tickets available and parking free. Whether you pay $11 for a beer at the track is quite up to you.

Truex tries for the third time

Then there’s the insider news. Jimmie Johnson has won this race a number of times (six—more than anyone else, ever), and he’s racing at California’s Auto Club Speedway for the last time this weekend. Love him or hate him, you want to eyeball him at least once for yourself. He’ll start second on Sunday. His wife and daughters will be in the flagstand to give him and the rest of the field the green flag.

Intrigue also surrounds the “big three” rookies, plus one or two more, who are the next generation of NASCAR Cup. These would be Christopher Bell, Cole Custer, and Tyler Reddick. They all moved up from the Xfinity series together, but so did bright light John Hunter Nemechek along with Brennan Poole and Quin Houff.

Final practice saw Bell the fifth fastest in the field and the fastest of these six. Reddick was 14thoverall and second of the rookies. They were trailed by Custer (20thfastest), Nemechek, and Houff. Poole did not appear on the final practice list.

But just to show you that things shift and change, in the prior practice, Reddick had been third overall, and Houff 37th(of 38, as was said above).

Qualifying shifted it all up again, with the rookies running from 18th(Custer) to 35th(Houff). There was considerable speed difference between the two, with Custer doing his lap at 40.519 (177.694 mph) and Houff at 42.657 (168.788 mph). The rookie qualifying order was Custer, Reddick, Bell, Nemechek, Poole, and Houff. The tightest packed were the top four of these, with Nemechek the fourth of them and running 23rdoverall with a 42.657 and going an average of 176.909 mph.

Qualifying for Sunday’s 400-mile race took place in cool, overcast conditions on Saturday, at least for the first fifteen qualifiers, the opposite of Friday’s heat—around 82 degrees at the peak.  The pole was taken by Clint Bowyer.  Seven one-thousandths of a second separated Jimmie Johnson from first place as qualifying proceeded. This will be Bowyer’s fourth time leading the field to a green flag in his career. He has competed in 508 previous races. This is his second top-ten start this season. (The series is three races in.) He has been at this track prior, twenty times to be exact.

Clint Bowyer, pole winner

He was effusive in his comments to the media after winning the pole, with a number of moments of laughter, typical of his aw-shucks attitude. “This track is unique in some many ways, from as wide as it is to the grip level that it has because of the worn surface. I think it just presents well for a product for our fans, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s going to be cool or hot. We’re going to be slipping and sliding around and you’re going to be looking for real estate where that car in front of you is not, trying to keep that momentum alive, because that’s what’s important.”

On the possibility of rain, and a delay, tomorrow, he said he’s anxious for this 11-day swing away from home to end, and so is his wife, who is alone with the two kids. “We’re supposed to take the kids and meet up in Park City to go skiing next week. If  my ass don’t make that because we’re racing, she’s not going to be very happy.”

Martin Truex did not qualify officially after failing inspection three times. He’s always a favorite, but he’ll start at the back of the field.  Upon hearing that word, LACar went to his garage trying to suss out what happened and what his boys are doing to rectify that. Per media reports, his crew chief said that they twice got dinged for “a small spot on the body” and then got excluded for a mechanical irregularity. I showed up at the NASCAR inspection station, an indoor garage with a laser measuring station, just as they lowered the front curtain to perform the re-inspection. He was officially listed as having no qualifying time and placed 38th.

These cars have to be within 150,000ths of an inch tolerance in order to race. This wasn’t enough to let Truex through in those early attempts. The problem was, he had no choice but to get it right, and at the top of the field, where he is, the teams push right to the limit because they have the technical expertise and the engineering chops to fiddle at the limit. That kind of science belies the hillbilly image of NASCAR, but buy yourself a garage pass if you go to the race Sunday (and show up early) and you’ll be able to see the laptops tuning the engines and the complicated dual-display monitors on the garage tool boxes. This isn’t NASCAR of old by any means.

So if that’s not enough to tempt you, you’ve got a really important date with something else for Sunday. You’re missing out. And don’t tell yourself, “next year,” because we all know that bucket lists are hard to complete.