The season’s top guys just wanted to stay out of trouble and get to the finish line and clinch their Chase spots. The also-rans had trouble taking advantage because, well, if they were serious contenders they wouldn’t have come here buried in the standings. So it wasn’t like J.J. Yeley or Dave Blaney were going to take control. Did fans pick up on that? The built-in lack of compelling story lines? They certainly didn’t turn out in numbers. If it wasn’t the smallest crowd for a Nextel Cup race in Fontana, it was depressingly close. Reporters estimated 72,000 at the track. Some 40,000 short of a sellout. Or about 18,000 fewer than USC drew the night before for a football game with Idaho. Ask folks who trekked to Fontana what they will remember about the day, and they likely will cite the heat, the blazing sun, the heat, the sunburn and the heat. It was 100-something degrees when the green flag dropped, and maybe 140 on the track. For the race, fans had to settle for subplots. Many of them involving Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver never to win a championship. Would he keep alive his longshot drive for the Chase? Could he win his first race of the season? Would he blurt out what number will adorn his car next season when he leaves the team his father founded and joins Hendrick Motorsports? The answers were yes, no and definitely not. Little E was one of the few guys on the starting grid with reason to drive like a maniac. He needed to cut into a deficit of 168 points to give himself at least a ghost of a chance to snake the No. 12 spot at Richmond next weekend. And he did. Much to the delight of his legion of fans. He was in the top five most of the race, led six times for 15 laps, but at the end he just wasn’t as quick as Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton, the four guys who finished ahead of him. Junior’s Chase chances hang by a thread. He is 128 points behind Kevin Harvick for the 12th spot, and he’s out of championship contention, no matter what he does, if Harvick finishes 32nd or better at Richmond and 11th-place Kurt Busch finishes 36th or better. When he was done with nearly four hours behind the wheel of the Budweiser Chevrolet, Earnhardt was asked how he felt. “It’s hot,” he said. “I’m tired, real tired.” And left needing something approaching a NASCAR miracle to make his season meaningful past Richmond. “I don’t know much about the system,” he said. “I just go out and run as hard as I can. “It doesn’t look like we’re going to make it, but we’re not going to quit trying until they tell us we’re not.” And his number for next year? Keep guessing. It won’t be the familiar 8, of course. Evil stepmom Teresa, owner of Dale Earnhardt Inc., won’t let 8 go. It won’t be 38, either, though it would be so tidy, his late father’s No. 3 and his No. 8. But the Yates team has 38 and isn’t giving it up. So now 81 is the hot rumor. Well, everything was hot, Sunday. Weather was the prime topic all along, and the drivers looked as flushed and drained at the end of 500 miles as if they had run them. “That was a long 500,” Burton said. “It felt like a marathon.” The racing was less than compelling, as generally is the case here. Track officials trumpeted 30 lead changes involving 16 drivers, but Johnson or Kyle Busch led 181 of the 250 laps, so it wasn’t like it a dozen guys seemed capable of winning. And the lead changes seemed mostly a function of the 11 caution flags. A track record. It was a race that will be little noted nor long remembered – because it decided so little. Other than reaffirming that nobody is keen on watching cars drive in circles for four hours when it’s 100 degrees in the shade. Read my blog at www.sbsun.com/blogs/inthiscorner160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! FONTANA – Strange, passionless race, this Sharp Aquos 500. Almost as if it didn’t matter. An exhibition in the middle of the Nextel Cup season. Not yet the Chase for the Cup. But the essential purpose of the season’s first 26 races – to determine the 12 drivers who get into the 10-race, championship-deciding Chase – hardly applied Sunday because the top dozen were all but locked up even before race No. 25 began. So hardly anyone was charging out there.