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NASCAR Preview: California here we come!

by Dave Grayson
Wednesday, October 07, 2009

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Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth did battle in the spring at Fontana
\For the first time in its history the Auto Club Speedway will be playing a pivotal role in NASCAR's Chase For The Championship. The massive two mile oval, in Fontana-California, will host the elite of the Sprint Cup Series for Sunday's running of the Pepsi 500. The Cup teams will be hauling their super speedway cars to California for this one and you can bet their will be multiple pre race carburetor checks and fresh batteries in lap top computers so the crew chiefs can monitor fuel mileage potential.

If Sunday's Pepsi 500 gets down to a gas and go pit stop it certainly wouldn't be the first time. Fuel consumption could very determine who parks their car in the speedway's Gatorade victory lane. It could also become a huge factor in the Chase standings when the evening is over.

THE CHASE BREAKDOWN

1. Mark "The Kid" Martin picked up an additional eight championship points on his team mate and championship rival Jimmie Johnson last weekend in Kansas and remains the top seed in the Chase. But it's only a slim 18 point advantage. Martin understands the fast way around the California Speedway. He's enjoyed success there in all three of NASCAR's touring series including winning the 1998 Cup race where he set the track record for most laps led by a race winner at 165. The series leading five time race winner is expected to be as formidable as ever this Sunday.

2. For Jimmie Johnson a ninth place finish last Sunday is a set back for him and this team. They will be looking to retrieve the handful of points they lost to Martin. He couldn't have picked a better speedway to make that happen. Johnson is a trio of drivers who has three wins at the Auto Club Speedway. He's also the defending race champion from last year which he won from the pole position. There's also some additional momentum from his personal life as well. Johnson is from El Cajon-California which is located just down the freeway from Auto Club which he considers his home track.

3. After scoring another top five finish last weekend, Juan Pablo Montoya picked up some points on the leader and, at 51 back, remains a rock solid title contender. This is one of the Cinderella stories of the season and this team continues to impress all observers. One thing that would greatly help their cause is the maximum points that comes from a win.

4. Expect Tony Stewart to arrive at the Auto Club Speedway with a vengeance because he feels this track owes him won. This is one of three tracks that "Smoke" has never won at. He's had some close calls over the years but still remains 0 for 16 there. Stewart's Chase efforts got off to somewhat of a sluggish start but the team appears to be back on track after scoring their fourth win of the year at Kansas. A highly coveted win at California could easily erase a major portion of his 65 point deficit.

5. Kurt Busch's 11th place finish last Sunday leaves him fifth in the standings, 91 point back, but he's still considered to be a player in the championship profile. A win and/or a strong finish in California will greatly help his cause. The good news here is the fact that Busch is another driver who totally gets what it takes to achieve success at the Auto Club Speedway. He's a former race winner, in 2003, and he holds the track record for the most pole positions at three.

6. With two wins this season, Denny Hamlin finds himself 99 points away from the Chase leader. That's certainly not insurmountable but it could just as easy go the other way. The lone hope of Joe Gibbs Racing winning another championship will be looking for a strong finish at the Auto Club Speedway to launch a drive to the top.

7. Bet the farm that Jeff Gordon is delighted to be returning to the Auto Club Speedway. His second place finish last weekend moved the team up to seventh in the points and 103 points back. But if he's going to pull off that "drive for five" championship run then he needs a second win to reactivate that effort. That win could come on Sunday because, when it comes to Auto Club Speedway stats, Gordon rules at this track. He's tied for the most wins at three, he holds the records for the most top five finishes with eight and the most top tens also with eight. This team will be a strong contender to keep an eye on this Sunday.

8. For a team that has endured consistency issues over the past several weeks, Greg Biffle was extremely strong at the Kansas race last Sunday. His third place finish moved him up to eighth in the Chase standings,114 points out. But at this stage of the game any team 100 plus points out of first may see their title hopes showing the signs of treading water. Biffle and company needs to start putting together a string of strong finishes before too much time slips by. The good news here is the fact that Biffle is another Chase driver who has tasted success at the Auto Club Speedway including a win back in 2005.

9. From this point on we have Chase contenders who are perilously close to facing mathematical elimination. Ryan Newman's 22nd place finish last Sunday drops him to ninth in the standings and 164 out. This is the second half of the Stewart Haas Racing operation. When this new organization started the 2009 season everyone said they would be spending the year with growing pains. The fact that both Newman and team owner/ team mate Tony Stewart made the 12 man Chase line up is already one of the big stories of 2009.

10. Last year Carl Edwards won nine races and was heavily favored to win his first Sprint Cup title this year. The fact that he struggled to make the Chase and has gone this far minus a win is without logic. For that matter the fact that Roush Fenway Racing's stable of five teams has only two wins, the last being in February at Auto Club, is equally without logic. But Edwards is another Chase driver who has good runs at the Auto Club Speedway with wins both in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series and a possible turn around in his long season could begin with the Pepsi 500.

11. The fact that Kasey Kahne and Richard Petty Motorsports has two wins and are in Chase is indeed another NASCAR Cinderella story. But the Chase effort quickly got bogged down with a blown engine at New Hampshire and more distractions that any driver needs right now. The engine that blew was one of the new Dodge R6 power plants and that prompted the team to revert back to the older, but solidly tested, Dodge R5 engines. Then Kahne had to endure the distractions of a still pending merger between RPM and Yates Racing with no idea who his new team mates will be, a change in manufacturers from Dodge to Ford and there was even a totally ridiculous rumor that said he may be driving for a Saudi Arabian Prince next year. All of the above is not conducive for Chasing a championship. None the less he has to be looked at as a favorite during next Sunday's Pepsi 500. In the fall of 2006 he swept the NASCAR weekend there winning both the Nationwide and Cup Series events based on fuel conservation.

12. An ill handling car last Sunday resulted in a 37th place finish for Brian Vickers and, at -250 points, his Chase hopes are pretty much gone. But this is team that made the Chase by going from 15th to 12th in the standings is less than a month. They have plenty to be proud of and plenty to look forward to in 2010.

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THE RACE BREAKDOWN

The Pepsi 500 is 250 laps around the Auto Club Speedway's mammoth two mile, D shaped, oval.

The race has 45 entries vying for the 43 starting berths. Ten of those entries are on the "go or go home" list meaning they do have a guaranteed start because they are outside of NASCAR's top 35 in owner's points. In the event that Friday's qualifying session is rained out then drivers Regan Smith and Max Papis will be the odd men out and will not make the race.

However weather is not expected to be a huge factor this weekend. The Fontana-California forecast calls for Sunny skies with daytime highs in the high 70's and low 80's

The defending race winner ,from August of last year, is Jimmie Johnson who won the race from the pole position. Matt Kenseth won the previous Auto Club race last February after starting 24th. Kenseth, by the way, is tied with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson for being the only three time winners at the Auto Club Speedway.

When it comes to NASCAR's four auto makers in the Sprint Cup Series, Ford has the most wins at the Auto Club with ten.

But it's the Chevrolets from Hendrick Motorsports who has the most team wins with seven.

Friday's qualifying day will be intense as teams will be looking for the best track position available for the Pepsi 500. Kyle Busch holds the track's qualifying record, 188.425 MPH, set back in February of 2005.

However the Auto Club Speedway records indicates that being at the front of starting field is not necessarily a guaranteed route to victory lane. For example Matt Kenseth won two of his three races there starting from the 24th and 31st positions. Out of 18 Sprint Cup races at Auto Club, nine of them have been won from starting positions outside of the top ten.

The track record for lead changes at the Auto Club Speedway is 33 set back in February of last year. In comparison the lowest amount of lead changes is 18 set in 1998. There were a record high 16 race leaders in the fall of 2007 but the race lead only changed hands eight times in the spring of 2002.

For a 500 mile event on a two mile track, caution flags and laps have been on the low side over the years at the Auto Club Speedway. The largest amount of yellow flags in a race there was 12 in 2008. The race in September of 2004 had 51 caution laps. On the opposite extreme there were only four yellow flags in 1997 and 22 laps of caution in the race held in the spring of 2000.

The element of attrition, despite the presence of start and park teams, has been relatively low at the Auto Club Speedway over the years. At the conclusion of the fall race in 2006 there were a record 42 cars still running at the finish. In two occasions, the latest being February of 2005, the lowest amount of cars running at the finish was a still healthy 32 teams.

One of the huge points of interest to Sunday's Pepsi 500 will be the debut of NASCAR's new double file, "shoot out style", restart program. Considered by many to be one of NASCAR's best ideas in quite some time, this new restart procedure is expected to add a lot of excitement to this race.

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THE TRACK BREAK DOWN

The official ground breaking ceremony for the track, then known as the California Speedway, was held in November of 1995.

The first race at the speedway was held in June of 1997. The event featured the NASCAR Camping World West Series and was won by NASCAR veteran Ken Schrader.

The first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race was held at the Auto Club Speedway in June of 1997 and was won by Jeff Gordon. Joe Nemechek set the fast time in the first ever Sprint Cup qualifying session.

Since that point there has been 18 Sprint Cup events that has sent 12 different winners to the speedway's Gatorade victory lane.

Following an impressive endorsement deal, the track was renamed the Auto Club Speedway in February of last year.

The Auto Club Speedway is a two mile, D shaped, super speedway with 14 degrees of banking in the turns.

The frontstretch is 3,100 feet long with 11 degrees banking. The backstretch measures 2,500 with only three degrees of banking.

The pit road measures 2,200 feet with 44 available pit stalls. The pit road speed is 55 MPH.

The speedway currently has seating for 92,000 fans with an additional 1,800 for RV camping in the infield.

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THE TELEVISION BREAKDOWN. (all posted times are eastern)

Friday, October 9th.

2pm. NASCAR Live. Speed

230pm. NASCAR Sprint Cup practice. Speed

5pm. NASCAR Now. ESPN2

630pm. NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying. Speed

Saturday, October 10th.

12am. NASCAR Nationwide Series practice,(taped), Speed

11am. Trackside. Speed

12pm. NASCAR Nationwide Series qualifying. ESPN2

3pm. NASCAR Sprint Cup final, happy hour, practice. ESPN2

4pm. NASCAR Nationwide Series Copart 300. ESPN2

Sunday, October 11th.

130am. Re broadcast. NASCAR Nationwide Series Copart 300. ESPN2

10am. NASCAR Now pre race show. ESPN2

1230pm. NASCAR Raceday. Speed

230pm. NASCAR Sprint Cup Pepsi 500. ABC

7pm. Speed Report. Speed

8pm. NASCAR Victory Lane. Speed

9pm. Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain. Speed

10pm. NASCAR Now post race show. ESPN2

Pepsi 500 re broadcasts

Monday. 3am. ESPN2

Monday. 12pm. ESPN Classic

Wednesday. 12pm. Speed

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