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Pepsi 500 newbie: Get your NASCAR cred here

Clueless about stock car racing? No problem. Follow these tips and fans will think you're part of their crowd.

October 11, 2009|Jim Peltz

So you're attending the Pepsi 500 NASCAR race today in Fontana, or watching it on television, but don't know much about NASCAR stock car racing and don't get the hoopla.

Here's some help to put you at ease with your gear-head friends for all 500 miles. With these shortcuts, you might even feel a bit smug by the time the checkered flag falls:

Pick a favorite: Choose any driver before the race starts (at noon) and root for him all day. There are 43 to pick from and it's more fun tracking his progress than getting dizzy watching the whole field go around in circles. If your driver falls back early, don't despair, there will plenty of time to recover.

Learn some lingo: The race is held at Auto Club Speedway, a two-mile oval track 50 miles east of Los Angeles. Most everyone just calls it "Fontana," no doubt to the chagrin of the Auto Club of Southern California.

It's just "Junior," not Dale Earnhardt Jr., when referring to NASCAR's most popular driver. You can say: "Just once I'd like to see Junior near the front" -- he's having a lousy year -- and you'll sound knowledgeable and up to date. And because Earnhardt is so popular -- listen to the crowd when he's introduced -- you'll instantly make friends.

It's also "Rowdy" or "Shrub" when referring to Kyle Busch, and "Smoke" when referring to Tony Stewart.

Both are aggressive drivers, fun to watch and great picks to impress others.

Remember the "Chase": NASCAR's version of a playoff is called the "Chase for the Sprint Cup." A dozen drivers try to win the Chase, and hence the championship, over the last 10 races of the year.

Fontana is Chase race No. 4, and Mark Martin currently has the Chase lead by 18 points over Jimmie Johnson. Juan Pablo Montoya is third, 51 points back.

Just randomly say, "I'm so glad Fontana is finally in the Chase" -- this is the track's first year in the playoff -- and watch the eyebrows go up.

Use numbers, not letters: This is how you really let everyone know you get it: Refer to drivers by their car numbers, not their names, as in "it looks like the 5 [Martin] is gaining on the 48 [Johnson]." It's a NASCAR thing -- drivers, crew chiefs and announcers routinely talk this way, so you'll sound like you belong.

Also accept that "tight" and "loose" will be mentioned ad nauseam on TV. "Tight" simply means the car doesn't turn well in corners, "loose" means it turns too easily for the driver's liking. Mention how pit reporters can't seem to talk about much else and you'll appear shrewd.

Go Hollywood: If you're coming to the race, drop the names of actors Kelsey Grammer (its grand marshal) and Christian Slater (its pace car driver).

Put a pen in your pocket and keep your eyes open in case they walk by.

Bring ear plugs: Seriously. The cars have engines with 850 horsepower and no mufflers. The relentless roar is part of NASCAR's "charm."

Watch for cautions: When an accident or some other problem -- such as debris on the track -- occurs, NASCAR throws the yellow flag and calls a caution period. That's when the drivers typically head for the pits and get a full tank of gas and tires -- in less than 15 seconds.

Then the field is bunched up again, creating tense restarts with cars side by side. At Fontana, where the cars get strung out during green-flag racing, you can plead for more drama by saying, "What we really need now is a debris caution."

Or better yet, say, "What we really need now is a debris caution so the 48 can get fresh tires and catch Smoke." Then watch the heads turn.

One more thing: If Carl Edwards wins, casually mention to everyone that he won't be doing his signature victory back flip off his car because he broke his right foot playing Frisbee. Don't forget to add: "That dumb 99."

--

james.peltz@latimes.com

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