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NASCAR FYI

He gets to see start in rearview mirror

September 01, 2008|Barry Stavro | Times Staff Writer

Californian A.J. Allmendinger started the Pepsi 500 in an unusual spot for him -- in second on the outside of the front row, his best start of the year in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

Allmendinger, a Los Gatos native who drives the No. 84 Red Bull Toyota, was one of the surprises of Sunday's race. The 26-year-old led one lap at Auto Club Speedway and then fell back, but he still finished 14th for one of his best showings of the year.

His season began miserably; Allmendinger missed the first eight races. But he has improved steadily as the season rolled along, including a 10th at Indianapolis.

He came to Fontana ranked 38th in Cup points and left 37th.

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Cooler, but poorer

It was 86 degrees when the Pepsi 500 started shortly after 5 p.m., about 20 degrees cooler than last year's sweltering race on Labor Day weekend.

But the economy has also cooled off from a year ago and the Fontana speedway joined other tracks that have seen their attendance dip this year.

It appeared Sunday's attendance was down from the 85,000 who came to the Labor Day race in 2007. The cheapest ticket for Sunday's race was $67.

The Fontana raceway hasn't sold out its 92,000-seat complex since 2003, the year before it began playing host to two Cup races a year. The other race takes place in late February.

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Green, not red

Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, changed teams, car numbers and team colors this year -- and his fans made the change with him.

Stands at NASCAR races used to be filled with a sea of red as his fans wore shirts, hats and other garb adorned with Earnhardt's celebrated No. 8 Budweiser logo for the car he drove until the end of last year.

On Sunday, though, Earnhardt was driving the No. 88 Chevy with his sponsor Mountain Dew's green and white colors and it was hard to spot anyone at the track wearing his old red gear. Instead, his fans sported their new Earnhardt-green apparel.

Earnhardt, who finished 11th, easily got the loudest round of applause during driver introductions.

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Halfway home

Another Californian, David Gilliland, started Sunday in 42nd and spent most of the race creeping up in his No. 38 Ford. The Riverside native finished in 23rd place.

Unfortunately for Gilliland, 32, he has started most of this season's Cup races in the back half of the pack.

That's a big reason why he left Fontana 26th in the Cup point standings with only two top 10 finishes this year.

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barry.stavro@latimes.com

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