FONTANA, Calif. (AP) - David Gilliland's long, strange run through the NASCAR season has brought him home. It couldn't have come at a better time.
Fighting through a season in which he's traded the qualifying hot seat with Travis Kvapil for Front Row Motorsports, Gilliland was able to let out a big sigh after returning to Auto Club Speedway.
``I've already seen a lot of people I know, my friends and family, so that part of it's always good,'' said Gilliland, of nearby Chino Hills. ``This track's special to me. I did most of my racing out of my house, which is about 10 minutes from here, so it's good to come back and see everybody.''
Gilliland came out early to visit everyone so he could concentrate on racing in one the final races of what's been an awkward-at-times season.
Front Rows' top two cars are comfortably within the top 35 needed to run in a Sprint Cup race, but the team is trying to add a guaranteed spot for a third car. Gilliland and Kvapil have taken turns trying to qualify the No. 38 car, often not knowing who'll get the call until just before the entries are due.
``It's been a little bit different; it's been an experience,'' Gilliland said. ``But all the drivers of Front Row Motorsports, we all realize it's what we have to do for our team right now to make it better for next year. It's not the funnest thing to do at times, but we feel it's the best thing to do for Front Row Motorsports.''
Gilliland has gotten the call to qualify the No. 38 car 14 times and has cracked the field all but once. Kvapil is 8 for 9 in qualifying.
It hasn't always been easy for the two drivers on a team that's not nearly as big as some of the NASCAR giants.
Gilliland and Kvapil don't always have top-of-the-line equipment, the team typically doesn't buy the full tire allotment and there isn't a team of people analyzing data, leaving the two drivers to rely on information from each other.
What has helped are their racing styles. Gilliland and Kvapil like similar setups in their cars, so there aren't a lot of adjustments when the seat-swapping occurs.
``Travis and I were teammates before and we have enough confidence where if we're struggling, we can put his whole setup in, start the race and go into the first corner like we had practiced all weekend,'' Gilliland said.
Gilliland pulled it off at his home track, qualifying 38th for Sunday's 400-mile race. Seeing his family and friends made it all that more enjoyable.
Auto Club Speedway was once a big draw, routinely pulling in 100,000 fans after opening in 1997.
Sagging attendance over the past few years - the speedway was about half full for the last fall race - and a shift in focus by NASCAR have left the track with just one race in 2011.
Not everyone was disappointed.
``Unfortunately, the crowds just haven't been what everyone hoped they would be,'' Chase driver Jeff Burton said. ``With that being said, if there is an opportunity to have a one-race event would be better for a facility, this is an opportunity.''
Fontana lost its fall date for a second race in Kansas, leaving the track with just a spring race, on March 27. Cup drivers hope the change will spark more interest among Southern California fans and boost attendance at the one race that's left.
``As a California native, I'm disappointed to hear it's losing an event because it's taken so long for NASCAR to get here,'' said Chase points leader Jimmie Johnson, who's from El Cajon, Calif. ``I hate for us to lose a weekend here, but on a national scale and what's right for the sport, I can see that as well. If we're not packing the stands, then take the second date somewhere else.''
The past 20 races at Auto Club Speedway have been 500-milers, so when this year's race was trimmed by 100 miles, it caught a few drivers off guard when they arrived.
``Oh, so this is a 400-mile race? I thought it was a 500-mile race all weekend,'' said Carl Edwards, fourth in the Chase, 53 points behind Johnson. ``Man, I'm glad we covered that.''
Strategy-wise, the mileage change won't affect the teams too much, other than taking two fewer pit stops.
``I don't think that the approach is much different,'' said Kevin Harvick, third in Chase points. ``I think the engine guys take a deep breath and are happy that you don't have that extra 100 miles. From our point, really nothing changes other than you're calculating to the end of a 400-mile race instead of 500.''
``South Park'' took on NASCAR with its season-opening episode entitled ``Poor and Stupid.''
Not everyone around the garages had seen the show yet, but most of the drivers had no problem with the idea of being the brunt of a not-so-flattering parody.
``I think any time somebody takes the time to make fun of you is a compliment. I don't think anybody takes offense to that,'' said Danica Patrick, who will also appear on ``The Simpsons'' later this year. ``I think we all made history being on 'South Park.' It's pretty cool.''
Not even Johnson took offense when Cartman, a character on the show, had this to say about him: ``I'm a little worried about that Johnson guy - he seems dumber than spit.''
``I've had multiple text messages saying that I was on 'South Park,' really, from all of my friends' kids,'' he said. ``I've got to check it out. I haven't seen it, but I heard that Cartman's in a very entertaining sponsored car. I haven't seen it yet and I can't wait to.''
Patrick was run over by another car and killed at the end of the show, but didn't seem to mind.
``I got killed, I was told,'' she said. ``Well, you know, some days I feel like that might be the easy road.''

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