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Fontana calmer, more crucial

The two weeks the Nextel Cup drivers spend at Daytona to start the season are plenty nice.

There are all kinds of banquets and events and races to keep any driver busy the entire time. Not to mention enough hype to qualify the season-opening Daytona 500 as the Super Bowl of the series.

A win at the 2.5-mile racetrack brings national notoriety and enough confetti to bury the car about to go on display for the next year at the track's Daytona USA attraction.

Just ask last week's winner, Jimmie Johnson, who burrowed out from beneath a ton of chopped up paper to go on a whirlwind tour of late-night talk shows and sportscasts before arriving for this week's race in California.

Ah, yes, California. The place where the real NASCAR season begins.

Ask any driver and he'll say that kicking off the season with the biggest race of the year is nice, but Fontana is where they really start to learn what the season will be like.

"You can't count Daytona out of the season, but Speedweeks at Daytona can feel like a season within the season," driver Dale Jarrett said. "But we do look at this weekend's race with a great deal of awareness in that it is going to be an important indicator for us, and everybody in the garage, as to how our winter preparations went."

Running well at Daytona's superspeedway is nice, but tracks that require teams to use more downforce in their set-ups, like California and Homestead and Texas and Chicago - the list goes on - make up the majority of the Nextel Cup schedule.

In short, you can rock at the restrictor-plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega a total of four times this season) but if you're not good at the 1.5- to 2-mile, D-shaped tracks, which comprise almost half of the 36 races, it's going to be a long season.

Because of that, many teams were working on their California programs while in the Daytona garage. Several drivers even flew to Las Vegas in late January for a test, hoping to get a handle on their cars.

Tony Stewart's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, sent two new cars to Vegas, choosing one as the primary for this weekend. The other car went through the wind tunnel and spent about a week on the seven-post "shake rig" at the shop in North Carolina while the No. 20 team was in Daytona. Zipadelli said he received constant e-mails from Charlotte updating him on the California set-ups, all while readying for Speedweeks.

"The good thing about Daytona was that between the (Bud) Shootout, the Duel and the 500, the guys who were working on our California cars were in Daytona a couple of times," Zipadelli said. "We were all able to get together and talk and know where we were with everything. We were able to communicate one-on-one about some of the issues that we've had in getting these cars ready for California."

That's just one juggling act teams perform the opening week of the season. It's also one reason they're more than happy to pull out of the Daytona infield.

Starting this weekend team members get into more of a groove. The schedule becomes much less hectic and the tracks become more homogeneous.

"I think everybody's pretty worn out after being in Daytona for so long," Tony Stewart said. "California means a normal routine and a chance for the crew guys to get back to their families for a couple of days before heading to another racetrack."

Perhaps the person most looking to get back to a "normal" schedule is Johnson. Not only is the native Californian back home, he's ending a week which has seen him visit New York, Bristol, Conn., and a lot of other places.

Johnson, however, must wait a little longer for his schedule to even out. Crew chief Chad Knaus will serve the first of his three-race suspension for using illegal parts during qualifying at Daytona and Johnson will work with interim crew chief Darian Grubb for the second time.

The problem is, this week is going to involve more technical calls on Grubb's part and that means more communication between him and Johnson and the rest of the team. Nevertheless, Johnson said it will be nice to see how their offseason preparations pan out.

"At Daytona you are very limited with the changes you can make to the cars," Johnson said. "At Fontana and Vegas and the races following, when we're getting into the downforce tracks, there's so many different things in the setup that you can mess with. That's going to be the real challenge, how we work at Fontana together now that we're faced with this situation."