Saturday, October 9, 2010

Chase Coverage: Auto Club Speedway Preview

Checkered flag falls at the Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway in February. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

The Chase drivers head west to Auto Club Speedway for Race #4 in the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup. This will be the last year that the California track is a part of the Chase lineup. Next year the track goes back to hosting one Cup event during the season, its spring race, and will be replaced by Chicagoland Speedway in the Chase. 

The spring race ended with a fierce battle between Jimmie Johnson, current points leader, and Kevin Harvick, the regular season points leader. We can only hope that the Pepsi Max 400 on Sunday ends with just as exciting a finish for its final bow. And maybe another good soundbite - remember Harvick's "horseshoe" comment?

Twelve of our contributors weigh in on the 12 Chase drivers' chances this weekend at California. Come back Tuesday for their recaps from Sunday's Pepsi Max 400.

1. Jimmie Johnson – Points Leader – Rebecca Kivak
After taking over the points lead from Denny Hamlin after Kansas, Jimmie Johnson couldn’t ask for a better racetrack than Auto Club Speedway for the fourth race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. You’ve probably heard the saying “You can’t go home again,” but Johnson has stomped on it and ripped it to shreds when it comes to his home track in Fontana, Calif.

The four-time Sprint Cup champion scored his first Cup victory at the 2-mile oval in April 2002, the first of his five wins here, the most of any driver. Johnson has won three of the last four events at Fontana, including the February race and the last three fall races. In 15 starts he has racked up 10 top 5s, 11 top 10s, one pole and led 824 laps. Johnson leads all Chase drivers with an average finish of 5.5. His average driver rating at Fontana, 124.0, is the highest among all drivers, but his high rating tops out at 150 – a perfect score.

Johnson’s impressive history at Fontana only works in his favor to hold onto the points lead after Sunday’s Pepsi Max 400. His car will feature a special design, the No. 48 Lowe’s/Jimmie Johnson Foundation Chevrolet, and he is undefeated at the track in this paint scheme.

In the spring race, Johnson blocked Kevin Harvick in the final laps to claim his 48th victory in the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet and his first win of 2010. The victory almost wasn’t – Johnson pitted just before a late-race caution and managed to beat leader Jeff Burton to the scoring line, taking the lead on the restart. The turn of events in Johnson’s favor led to Harvick’s quote of the year about the No. 48, “They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their a--."

Though luck was on the side of Johnson and the No. 48 team in the spring, there’s no denying Johnson’s stellar track record at Fontana. Sunday’s Pepsi Max 400 presents yet another opportunity for the No. 48 to maximize their points and finish the day in Victory Lane.

2.  Denny Hamlin - (- 8) – Holly Machuga
Denny Hamlin fell back a spot in the points standings this week to Jimmie Johnson when he finished 12th at Kansas. However, in a post-race interview, he said he wasn't worried. He shouldn't be. He has been running great for the FedEx team. So far, he has six wins, which mostly came after having surgery on his torn ACL earlier in the season. He has added 13 top-tens to his stats also. He has an average of 14.4 for a finish and has led 918 laps this season.

At Auto Club Speedway, Denny has one top 5, three top 10s and a pole. This is another track that has proven to be tough for the No. 11 team. His average running position is 15.2 and his average finish is 18.2 in nine races. However, he only has one DNF on the board and that was for a crash. If Denny has a quiet day come Sunday, he could ultimately stay in his spot or be close to the first spot.

Denny and his team have proven that they have the potential to be a championship team. The only thing standing in his way at this point is Jimmie Johnson and eight points.

3.  Kevin Harvick – (-30) – Amber Arnold
Kevin Harvick considers Auto Club Speedway to be his home track, but it definitely hasn’t always been a ‘happy’ homecoming.

In 16 races in the Cup Series, Harvick has had no poles, no wins and just two top 5s. His average finish is 17.7 and he has an 11th-best driver rating of 91.5.

While Harvick hasn’t been able to seal the deal at Fontana, he has run 1,963 laps in the top 15. The 29 team is currently third in points coming into this weekend’s race, just 30 points out of the lead. With the points lead within reach, the 29 team cannot afford any costly mistakes on pit road this week, something that has seemed to plague the Shell/Penzoil guys the last two weeks.

4.  Carl Edwards – (-53) – Amanda Ebersole
California here we come! Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway is up next on the schedule and is a race that the driver for the No. 99 Aflac Beads of Courage car is looking forward to. Carl Edwards likes racing here and has said, “This is a track on the Chase schedule that I feel very confident at and feel like we have a great shot at a win there."

Looking back on previous races at Fontana, Carl has one win, six top-5 and 10 top-10 finishes in his 12 starts at this track. Carl has also led 121 laps at the speedway, most of those were in February 2008 at the Auto Club 500, in which Edwards led for a total of 64 laps and won. Carl has an average start of 18th and average finish of 7th, which is second only to that of our reigning four-time champion, Jimmie Johnson.

Things to look for: the 99 team and crew chief Bob Osborne are bringing the same car that Carl raced in Atlanta, where they finished second. Also look for a new paint scheme on the Aflac Ford Fusion, honoring a program called Beads of Courage. Beads of Courage is a nonprofit organization that helps children dealing with cancer and other serious illnesses through art-based projects. The children earn beads while undergoing their medical treatments and than use the beads as a positive coping method. Please go to http://www.beadsofcourage.org and you can make a donation through their online store and there is even a link to click for being a Carl Edwards fan.

5.  Jeff Gordon – (-58) – Genevieve Cadorette
Jeff Gordon will be driving a specially designed Pepsi Max paint scheme for the Pepsi Max 400 at Auto Club Speedway in his home state California this weekend. Gordon has been successful here several times and hopes to move forward with a good qualifying finish and a hope for a fourth win this Sunday.

His first win was in 1997 and he went on to win two more races (1999 and 2004). He has finished in the top five 10 times, has 10 top 10s and to top it off has won two poles. Last February he posted a pair of runner-up finishes. This spring he led the race but finished 20th due to a spark plug issue.

After a successful run in Kansas, he tied with Carl Edwards for the best average finish (7.3) in the first three of the 10 races in the Chase and is 58 points behind first-place driver and teammate Jimmie Johnson. However, Gordon believes he still has to work hard and try hard to qualify. Since the 2-mile track has been good to Gordon in the past 20 career starts, his chances of a good run this weekend are likely.

6.  Kurt Busch – (-70) – Katy Lindamood
“Fontana is a big, wide track with plenty of room to move around. We put ourselves behind a bit in qualifying. Now we’ll have to play catch up on race day,” said Kurt Busch, driver of the #2 Dodge on Friday following his qualifying run at Auto Club Speedway. With only 70 points separating Busch and points leader Jimmie Johnson, there is still plenty of time for him to overcome the deficit, but it’s going to take more than just a solid middle of the pack run for Busch

In his previous 16 races at the California track, Busch has an average finish of 12.2. Busch has one win, three poles and eight top-10 finishes. In February, the last time the circuit visited the track, Busch finished in sixth position after a 12th-place start. Another day like that would help Kurt and his team move up in the standings and one step closer to the trophy in Homestead.

7. Kyle Busch – (-80) – Lindi Bess
As a Sprint Cup driver, Kyle has 12 career starts at Fontana. He has racked up one win, four top 5s, eight top 10s, one pole and has an average start of 12.4 and average finish of 10.8. As a JGR driver of the #18, Kyle has a total of five starts, no wins, two top 5s, one top 10 and no poles. He has an average start of 14.2 and an average finish of 10.4. His driver's rating at the SoCal track is 102.4, third best.

The top nine positions are separated by a mere 101 pts. Kyle Busch and his #18 M&M’s Toyota Camry are in the seventh position, 80 points out of first, currently held by four-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Don’t count this team out as they are very much still in contention for the 2010 Sprint Cup championship but will have to step up their game.

After a decent qualifying run, Kyle will start in row 8, next to fellow Chaser Jeff Burton. Busch's #18 M &M's Toyota Camry reached a speed of 183.155 mph and a time of 39.311.

What do all these numbers mean for Kyle? Probably nothing at this point. Kyle, Dave and the team behind the M&M’s Toyota Camry need to go into Fontana with their eyes on the prize.

8.  Greg Biffle – (-85) – Stacie Ball
After last week's win at Kansas Speedway, what kind of surprises will Greg Biffle and the No. 16 team get this weekend at the Pepsi Max 400 in Fontana, Calif.? The 2-mile track of Auto Club Speedway has been tamed by Biffle with one win, four top 5s and five top 10s, along with leading 297 laps on the track. “I really can’t wait to get to California. I love that track partly because we’ve had success there but also because it’s a lot of fun and it is fast and challenging. A lot of strategy comes into play at California and that usually makes it interesting too."

“We’re obviously pretty excited to be going to California with a win a Kansas. California is another big, fast racetrack where we seem to run well. Qualifying well will be important because the field gets strung out pretty quickly and if you start near the back, it can be hard to make up positions. We’ve also see fuel mileage come into play at California several times so pit strategy will be a factor. We finished fourth in Michigan a couple of months ago with the car we’re racing this weekend and these two tracks are pretty similar.” said crew chief Greg Erwin of the upcoming race.

On Tuesday afternoon Biffle took part in the NASCAR Cam Video Teleconference and he was asked about many different things. As for this weekend's race being the last fall event at Auto Club Speedway, to be replaced by Chicagoland Speedway next year, “Both racetracks are great racetracks for me. So I'm okay with either one. If I can convince them to take Martinsville out and put Chicago or leave California in, then I think I'd be in much better shape. But between California and Chicago, they're both great racetracks for us. And I really like California as a racetrack to go to. I enjoy going out west. But I'm good with either one.”  I think it just depends on the driver honestly. Yes, Biffle had troubles at Chicagoland in July, yet the No. 16 3M Ford really has come back from that race.

This is the fourth race in the Chase. Each race has been won by three different drivers - will Biffle be the first one to get a second win at Auto Club Speedway? Only time will tell!

9.  Jeff Burton – (-101) – Genna Short
Jeff Burton’s stats at Auto Club Speedway aren’t spectacular, but he has had a few shining moments at the D-shaped 2-mile oval.

In 1999, he earned the pole position by default due to weather and being the points leader at that time. He led 57 laps in that race and finished second place, behind Jeff Gordon. That second place is to date his best finish at this track and one of only six top-5 and seven top-10 career finishes in his 20 starts here. In the 2010 February race, Burton led 46 laps, which would bring him to a total of 127 career laps led.

Of his 20 starts at Fontana, he’s had only 12 lead-lap finishes and has finished 19th or worse in nine starts, including every race from April 2001 through September 2005. He broke this streak with an impressive fifth-place finish in the February race in 2006. Burton’s average finish at the track is 16.7 - not much of an improvement from his average start of 19.2.

In his last five starts here, he has one DNF in October 2009 and finishes of 12th, 17th, 32nd, and 30th in 2008 and 2009 before finishing third in February of this year.

While the numbers are certainly not encouraging, Burton still believes there may be a chance for the 31 team to overcome their poor fortune at this track and, ultimately, in the Chase so far. “Some people’s chances are lower than they were when the thing started. I think there are a few teams that are teetering on not being able to be afforded another bad race. I don’t wanna say anyone’s eliminated, but certainly people are getting really close.”

Certainly Burton’s statistics are dismal and if history repeats itself, it could be another poor finish for the 31 team. However, they’ve had some strong runs recently and this week could prove to be a turnaround point for them. Don’t count out the 31 team just yet.

10.  Tony Stewart – (-127) – Unique Hiram
Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., will play host to the fourth Sprint Cup Chase race. Even though this is considered to be a strong track for the current points leader Jimmie Johnson, he is sure to capture some swift competition from the other nine Chasers who are within an arm's length of taking over the points lead dependent upon what transpires during and at the conclusion of the race.

Tony Stewart and the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice team will be coming off the momentum that they gained after finishing fourth in last’s week race at Kansas Speedway. Although they would love to get a win during these series of Chase races, it is realized that a climb in points can be made as long as they continue to finish in the top 5 consistently. The statistical data for Tony Stewart at this track include four top 5s, 10 top 10s and an average running position of 11.4.

In a recent interview, Stewart was asked what his current mindset is in regards to his current points standings placement and his response to this question was as follows: “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain, really. It’s a situation where I wish we could say that we’re right in the middle of this and had to worry about everything, but in the first two weeks, we dug ourselves a pretty big hole. We literally have a go-for-broke attitude. We don’t have anything to lose right now. Tenth doesn’t mean anything to me in the point standings. I’m going for everything I can get right now.”

Once again, this week will definitely be one to watch and see how things shape up during the race event because there will continue to be some shuffling in the points standings until the end.

11.  Matt Kenseth – (-149) – Whitney Richards
After their great run at Kansas last weekend, Matt Kenseth and his team are looking forward to returning to Auto Club Speedway for the second time this season. Watch for the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford to more than likely be up front at some point on Sunday. Auto Club Speedway is a track Kenseth normally runs well at, and he is no stranger to Victory Lane there. He has three wins at the 2-mile speedway — February 2006, February 2007, and February 2009. Along with those three wins, Kenseth has earned seven top-5 finishes and 12 top-10 finishes in 17 starts.

Kenseth has an average starting position of 22.2 and an average finishing position of 9.1 at the track. He has completed 4,253 of 4,255 laps, and his lowest finishing position is 26th. The team is bringing chassis RK-707 to Auto Club this weekend. It is a brand new car so it should be interesting to see how it will work for him.
He comes to Auto Club Speedway 11th in the standings, 149 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

12.  Clint Bowyer – (-252) – Amy McHargue
Clint Bowyer is coming into Fontana in the 12th place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. After being through two sets of appeals for failing post-race inspection at New Hampshire, the team has gained relief on the crew suspension and monetary fine portions of the penalty but no relief in regard to the points penalty. Bowyer remains 252 points behind the Chase leader. Clint does come to Fontana with five of his nine Cup starts on the 2-mile oval resulting in previous top 10 finishes and so has some confidence in his abilities at this track.

Clint finished the February race at the Auto Club Speedway in the eighth position; a repeat performance of that early-season race would be welcome after the last two weeks. Perhaps with the appeals process over, the #33 Richard Childress Racing Team can focus on the track activity and improve their showing. Bowyer needs at least a top-10 finish to cut into the large point deficit he has to overcome to end the year the way he wants.

Prior to the Kansas race, Clint said “...I've never finished out of the top-five in the Chase, and I want to continue that streak and want to continue that consistency in the Chase, and I think that's an attainable goal.” If Bowyer hopes to finish in the top five, it is time to turn it on. With Clint's 14.7 average running position ranking 12th among Cup Series drivers, it is time for Bowyer to show he can post above-average performances. Clint's average simply will not cut it if he wants to end the 2010 season in the top five in the Chase.

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