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NASCAR Auto Club 500 Preview

by Dave Grayson
Friday, February 19, 2010

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It's that time of the year again. Time for yours truly to take a mini vacation to Fontana-California for the big NASCAR weekend at the Auto Club Speedway. Despite the fact that the race track is a short two hour drive from my southern California home, I'll be camping in a motel from Friday to Monday morning taking in the sights and sounds of the Auto Club 500. I have a tendency to get extremely excited over these semi annual trips to Fontana. I almost turn into a little kid whose parents just told him "we're going to Disney Land."

I don't expect to have "too much time on my hands," but I will be standing in the crowd on Sunday morning when Styx performs that classic song during the pre race concert.

Now I'm being told that legendary professional wrestler, turned actor, Stone Cold Steve Austin will be the honorary starter for the Auto Club 500. Austin will be there to specifically promote his 20th Century Fox film "Damage" which will be released on March 23d.

But there's a cross over between NASCAR fans and those who watch the WWE. World Wrestling Entertainment. The majority of the Auto Club Speedway fans will be well aware that "Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass." When he waves the green flag over the 43 car starting field Sunday don't be too surprised if you can hear him scream "oh hell yeah" over the roar of the engines.

Don't misunderstand me. I will of course be completing the due diligence. I'll be hard at work, wandering all over the speedway complex, looking for stories and quotes to support them. But how can a weekend like this possibly be work?

THE STORY BREAKDOWN

Throughout the Auto Club Speedway weekend we'll be hearing buzz phrases like "the racing season officially starts now" or "we're returning to real racing." There's a lot of truth to that. With all due respects to the Daytona 500, and the spectacular finish we were treated to, a restrictor plate race is not exactly an accurate barometer of who's hot and who's not in the world of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. By the time the series completes their scheduled stops at Fontana, Las Vegas and Atlanta we should be able to tell which teams has a strong game plan and who needs to work on one.

Mark Martin, driver of the #5 Go Daddy.Com/Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, referred to his 12th place finish at Daytona as an act of survival from a form of racing he really doesn't care for. Martin probably put it best earlier this week when he said "this is when we get back to real racing. It doesn't matter which line you're in, or who bumped who or even who your drafting partner is. I'm excited about it. I'm ready to get back there with the Go Daddy.Com team and see what we can do."

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The fans of the Junior Nation reportedly has started breathing normally again after watching Dale Earnhardt Jr charge to the front for a second place finish at Daytona last Sunday. Many of those fans were yelling "we're back!" However Earnhardt is being realistic about Fontana. He'll be the first to tell you that it's not exactly his favorite place to race. In 16 starts he has three top five finishes, four top tens. led a total of 25 laps and his major contribution to the Fontana highlight reel was a second in September of 2006.

"I haven't typically been good at California but it's easier to go there after we ran good at Daytona," Earnhardt said adding "I'm looking forward to see how we are as a team. The entire team had an awesome showing these past two weeks. I want to go to Fontana and be competitive. I think how we run the next few weeks will be a little more validation of where we are. Lance, (crew chief McGrew), and the guys are working hard so hopefully we'll have a good run at Fontana."

The Junior Nation fans may have to look twice to spot their favorite driver at the Auto Club Speedway this weekend. His primary sponsor will be promoting a new product, Amp Energy Juice, this weekend so the #88 will be sporting a striking new orange and white paint scheme.

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Mr. and Mrs. Carl Edwards were expecting the arrival of their first child on Wednesday. By the time you read this it's very possible that the blessed event will have occurred. The driver of the #99 Aflac/Roush Fenway Racing Ford has a back up plan. Roush Fenway development driver Erik Darnell is set to fill in for Edwards in case he receives the baby call while at Fontana.

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In 2009 Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Crown Royal/Roush Fenway Ford, began his season by winning the Daytona 500. A week later he was standing in the Auto Club Speedway's victory lane celebrating his second Cup win in a row. This was accomplished with the contribution of a new crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, who we knew very little about.

Unfortunately the month of February 2009 were the only highlights of the team's season. They struggled through the remainder of the season and felt the disappointment of not making the Chase For The Championship. The team started 2010 with an eighth place finish at Daytona last Sunday. But, realistically, that finish was aided by late in the race attrition and the fact remained that the Kenseth team was showing all of the signs of a 25th place car.

That's likely was the catalyst of last Wednesday's announcement that said Blickensderfer was being replaced by veteran crew chief Todd Parrott effective immediately. Blickensderfer will remain with Roush Fenway Racing participating in their research and development program. Parrott will bring a lot of experience to Kenseth's team. He guided Dale Jarrett to a Sprint Cup championship in 1999. He also 29 Cup wins as a crew chief which places him third on the active chiefs list.

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THE RACE BREAKDOWN

The Auto Club 500 has 46 entries who will be vying for the 43 starting positions in the race. Ten of those entries are on the go or go home list meaning they are outside of the top 35 of NASCAR's owner's points standings and do not have a guaranteed starting berth. These ten teams will have to rely on their qualifying speed to make the race.

The Auto Club 500 will be 200 laps around the speedway's two mile, D shaped oval. The Auto Club Speedway is noted for its wide straightaways and sweeping turns that easily accommodates high speeds and three wide racing. The turns are banked 14 degrees, the frontstretch has 11 degrees banking while the backstretch is basically flat with only three degrees. The pit road speed is 55 MPH.

The defending Auto Club 500 champion is Matt Kenseth. Jimmie Johnson won the speedway's fall race last October. Johnson practically rules the roost at Fontana and leads all drivers in the win column with four. Right behind him is his Jeff Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports team mate, with three wins. Gordon also holds the track record for most top five and top ten finishes with eight in each category. Kenseth, in his Roush Fenway Racing Ford, has also visited the Auto Club Speedway's Gatorade victory lane three times.

The speedway statistics also indicate that the Hendrick Chevrolets know the fast way around the Auto Club Speedway. They have eight wins there. However, the Roush Fenway Fords have visited victory lane there six times. Don't be too surprised if drivers from these teams are the dominant factors in Sunday's race.

In the manufacturer's stats Ford has ten wins since the speedway opened back in 1997. Chevrolet's bow tie brigade are right behind them with eight wins. Dodge has a single trip to the Fontana victory lane while Toyota is still looking the their first Cup win there.

The Auto Club 500 will be broadcast live by Fox Sports beginning with pre race coverage at 2pm eastern time. The SPEED Channel will present a rebroadcast of the race on Wednesday, February 24th, beginning at 12 pm eastern.

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THE VEGAS BREAKDOWN

The Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, WSE, to no real surprise has driver Jimmie Johnson on top of their favorites list to win at Fontana at 9 to 2 odds. The WSE apparently has a lot of confidence in the Hendrick Chevrolets because Mark Martin, 7 to 1, and Jeff Gordon, 8 to 1, are ranked second and third. However, the fourth Hendrick team mate, Dale Earnhardt Jr has 20 to 1 odds to win the Auto Club 500. Sorry about that Junior Nation.

The WSE seems to think that Toyota's prospect towards a first Cup win at the Auto Club Speedway lies with Kyle Busch and has ranked him at 9 to 1. First time father Carl Edwards is next in line with his Ford ranked at 10 to 1.

At 12 to 1 odds are a quartet of drivers featuring the likes of Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart. Ranked at 15 to 1 for this Sunday is defending race winner Matt Kenseth along with Kasey Kahne and Juan Pablo Montoya.

The WSE is not showing any love for a seemingly rejuvenated line up from Richard Childress Racing. Drivers Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton are ranked at 25 to 1 odds this week. There also isn't any love for Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray. His Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet is ranked at 40 to 1.

Time for the first official disclaimer for the new 2010 season. NASCAR wants me to remind you that these numbers should be regarded for entertainment purposes. They neither recommend, nor condone, the placing of wagers on their races.

Realistically, it may be wiser to invest your racing money into something that has a much higher return value such as Danica Patrick souvenirs.

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