Buckle up: Real race for the Cup cranks up in California

FONTANA, Calif. -- Daytona was quite a show, on and off the track, but the real race to the championship starts Sunday in the Auto Club 500.

Tracks like California Speedway decide who finishes on top in Nextel Cup.

"I think we're all going to know a lot more about the first quarter of the season after this race," said defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "Coming here is the start of what the bulk of our season is built on. This race will show us where we stand."

How a team does at Daytona has little bearing on how it races at most of the Cup tracks. Daytona and Talladega are restrictor-plate races, which account for four of 36 events. The motor is choked off by the metal plate that fits on the carburetor.

But the 2-mile oval at California is representative of the majority of Cup races, a track where the engines roar free and downforce is the key factor. Twenty-one races are on ovals that range in size between one mile and two miles.

All of them have differences in banking, shape and width, but they all require good downforce to run up front.

So what is downforce? It's aerodynamic and centrifugal forces that hold the car down on the track. The more downforce a car has, the more grip it has on the asphalt and the easier it is to drive though the turns.

It's always a balancing act between downforce and drag. Downforce adds drag, which slows the car down. But you can't win on the intermediate ovals without good downforce to help the car handle well.

That's the boring technical lesson of the day, but all you need to know is these tracks are the key to a successful season.

It's especially true of the 1.5-mile ovals, often described as cookie-cutter tracks. Those seven ovals -- Atlanta, Texas, Las Vegas, Miami, Chicago, Kansas City and Lowe's in Charlotte -- account for 10 races each season.

Johnson had an average finish of 7.9 on the 21 intermediate tracks last season. His average finish on the 1.5-mile ovals was an amazing 5.5.

Johnson also won two restrictor-plate races, but it wouldn't have mattered if his No. 48 Chevrolet was junk on the downforce tracks.

Matt Kenseth, the runner-up to Johnson last season, also was strong on the downforce tracks. His average finish in those 21 events was 8.5, but he was way behind Johnson in the 10 races on the 1.5-mile ovals. Kenseth's average finish was 10.3 in those events.

Kenseth won at California a year ago and finished seventh in the September event. Johnson finished second in the February race and 11th on Labor Day weekend at California.

Both California events come before the Chase begins, but the need to do well on intermediate ovals is magnified in the Chase. Eight of the 10 Chase races come on downforce tracks, including five 1.5-mile ovals.

But this season has an added X-factor into the normal recipe for winning the title. Every team has to try to figure out a successful formula in the Car of Tomorrow.

The COT will race in 16 events this season, but the 1.5-mile and 2-mile ovals are not on the list. The only intermediate ovals for the COT in 2007 are the two 1-mile tracks (New Hampshire and Dover) and Darlington (a 1.3-mile oval).

"It's a huge change for everybody," Cup driver Casey Mears of the COT. "We've got a lot of learning to do."

Teams will test the COT next week at Bristol, Tenn. The first COT race comes on the .533-mile high-banked oval March 25.

The original plan was to phase in the COT over three seasons. The 1.5-mile ovals were last on the list, but the Cup teams are lobbying NASCAR officials to speed up the COT program and race it at every track next year.

If that happens, this season obviously becomes the last year for the current model on the downforce tracks. All that research and development becomes obsolete, but they still have to get it right this year.

Teams that are way off on their setups Sunday know they need to make some major changes. Having cars that perform well on the intermediate tracks is the only way to make a run at the title.

"This is where the championship is made, on the downforce tracks," said Jeff Gordon, who starts on the pole Sunday. "If we put a good race car on the track this weekend, I'm going to be pretty excited about the type of year we can have."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.