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NASCAR Fontana Sprint Cup and Nationwide Preview

by Dave Grayson
Thursday, March 24, 2011

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El Camino Real Bell
The elite of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are preparing for the long cross country trek to southern California for next Sunday's race at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. The question is: which one of the drivers from the 43 car staring field will earn the right to participate in the traditional ringing of the El Camino Real bell that adorns the speedway's Gatorade victory lane?

The bell ceremony has become a time honored tradition, at the Auto Club Speedway, that represents a significant portion of southern California history. El Camino Real is Spanish for The Royal Road also known as The King's Highway. It was a 600 mile stretch of road that connected missions from San Diego to the California wine country in Sonoma. Between 1683 and 1834 a series of religious outposts were constructed, approximately 30 miles apart from each other, to facilitate overland travelers. In 1892, in lieu of modern day road signs, the route was marked by a series of bells. From 1920 to 1931 the Auto Club of Southern California donated the resources to care for those bells. That would be the same Auto Club that will be treating race fans to the NASCAR weekend at the Auto Club Speedway.

THE NUMBERS BREAKDOWN

Kevin Harvick leads last year at Fontana
To pinpoint which driver is going to ring the bell at the Auto Club Speedway you have to crunch the numbers from NASCAR's archives and combine them with the efforts of the professional number crunchers from "The Las Vegas Insider," (LVI).

#48 Jimmie Johnson, LVI rating 5 to 2 odds. To no real surprise Jimmie Johnson tops the numbers list. The five time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion is also a five time, series leading, race winner at the Auto Club Speedway. His Fontana numbers are extremely strong and includes 11 top five finishes along with 12 top tens. His series high average finish ratio, 5.3, is absolutely tops among his peers. "The Las Vegas Insider", (LVI), also has Johnson on top of their numbers list as well and has rated him at 5 to 2 odds to win next Sunday's race. By the way, the LVI has gone on record as saying that Jimmie "Five Time" will become Jimmie "Six Pack" by the time the Chase For The Championship is over in November. He appears to be on his way. Following a rather dubious start at Daytona, where he left 27th in the points, he has now worked his way to seventh after four races.

Also, don't overlook Johnson's strong personal and emotional ties with the Auto Club Speedway. His first ever Sprint Cup win came there back in the spring of 2002. He's also the defending race champion from this past February. An even stronger tie is the fact that Johnson is southern California born and bred. His hometown of El Cajon is just a short freeway drive from the track. That means quality time with family and friends as well as some hands on work with the Jimmie Johnson Foundation that benefits his home community in so many ways.

#99 Carl Edwards, LVI rating 3 to 1 odds. A lot of NASCAR observers are saying if there's anyone that can stop Jimmie Johnson's championship streak then this may be the guy. Edwards is off to a strong start in 2011. He has already hit the Sprint Cup win column, at Las Vegas, and is a solid second in points just one marker from the top. His previous Fontana numbers are also very healthy. He's a previous race winner there and also has six top five finishes, 10 top tens along with an average finish ratio of 9.2. Also, don't overlook the fact that those Roush Yates engines are really cranking out the horsepower these days. We could be witnessing another post race victory back flip next Sunday.

#24 Jeff Gordon, LVI rating 4 to 1 odds. After breaking a 66 race win less streak at Phoenix, Gordon endured some bad luck at the Las Vegas and Bristol races that saw him slip to 19th in the current points standings. However the Auto Club Speedway is a perfect place for Gordon to get his drive for five championship run headed in the right direction again. He's a three time winner there, including winning the first ever Sprint Cup race at the speedway back in 1997. His other Fontana stats include ten top five finishes, 11 top tens and a finish ratio of 10.9.

#18 Kyle Busch, LVI rating 5 to 1 odds. Whether you want to be the next president of his fan club or the fan who tosses out the most "boo berries" during driver introductions, there is no denying the natural talent of Kyle Busch. He certainly proved that point last weekend by sweeping Bristol for the second year in a row. That effort moves him to sixth in the points standings. His Auto Club Speedway stats includes one win which, by the way, was his first ever Sprint Cup win back in 2005, along with four top five finishes, eight top tens and a finish ratio of 12.7. There seems to be a stronger display of maturity from Kyle Busch these days. Common sense thinking seems to be replacing a flair for the dramatic and that's only going to make him stronger on the race track.

#22 Kurt Busch, LVI rating 8 to 1 odds. The elder Busch brother owns the exact same stats as his younger brother. He's a former Fontana winner with a 12.7 average finish ratio. The difference maker is the fact that the driver of the double deuce Penske Dodge has been a model of consistency this year and remains on top of the championship standings. If crew chief Steve Addington can create some handling magic next Sunday, this driver could surprise us all and score that first win in a points race.

#14 Tony Stewart, LVI rating 10 to 1 odds. After several efforts "Smoke" finally crossed winning at the Auto Club Speedway off of his list of things to do last October. He also has five top five finishes there and that consistency could help him with the points profile. He goes into Fontana third in the championship standings.

#29 Kevin Harvick, LVI rating 12 to 1 odds. Harvick's stats at the Auto Club Speedway aren't that strong. He's still looking for his first win and has a finish ratio of 17.1. His 2011 season got off to a horrible start at Daytona and he left there 37th in the points. Despite that, Harvick and company are looking and sounding like a championship caliber team. They proved that point last Sunday when they turned a crash damaged car into a sixth place finish which elevated them to 15th in the points. If you're into long shot wagers, this team might be worthy of consideration.

#17 Matt Kenseth, LVI rating 15 to 1 odds. With all extreme respects to "The Las Vegas Insider", I'm not understanding Kenseth's rating for next Sunday's race. He's a three time Fontana winner with seven top five finishes, 12 top tens and a healthy average finish ratio of 10.3. Kenseth has a habit of quietly advancing his status during a race at this speedway. From the grandstands you barely notice him. You hear very little about during a television broadcast. Then, somewhere during the final 50 laps of the race, there he is on his way to becoming a major player in the final outcome. During the past two seasons the entry way to his crew chief office practically had a revolving door. However, the presence of iconic crew chief Jimmy Fennig in that office seems to working well for the driver. Kenseth is a rock solid consideration for winning next Sunday's race.

That's just some of the potential El Camino Real Bell Ringers that could find victory next Sunday in the Auto Club 400. Here's some more potential dark horse teams, along with their Las Vegas rating, that could surprise us all by the time the race is over.

15 to 1: #33 Clint Bowyer.

20 to 1: #16 Greg Biffle, former race winner, #20 Joey Logano, #5 Mark Martin, former race winner.

30 to 1: #42 Juan Pablo Montoya, #31 Jeff Burton, #4 Kasey Kahne, former race winner, #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

40 to 1: #39 Ryan Newman, #00 David Reutimann.

50 to 1: #83 Brian Vickers

60 to 1: #56 Martin Truex Jr

75 to 1: #6 David Ragan.

100 to 1: #43 A J Allmendinger, #2 Brad Keselowski, #27 Paul Menard.

150 to 1: #9 Marcus Ambrose, #47 Bobby Labonte

200 to 1: #78 Regan Smith.

Note: if you're favorite driver's name doesn't appear in this listing then he's automatically rated by "The Las Vegas Insider" at 40 to 1

Now for the disclaimer: NASCAR want us to remind you that these posted odds numbers are for informational and entertainment purposes. They neither encourage nor condone the placing of wagers on their events. But if you're going to do it anyway, and many of you will, then you may as well have the latest information from professionals like "The Las Vegas Insider." That way you won't be betting your next mortgage payment based on your favorite number or favorite color of auto paint.

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THE RACE BREAKDOWN

Sunday's Auto Club 400 is 200 laps/400 miles around the Auto Club Speedway's massive, D shaped, oval.

The race has 43 entries vying for the 43 starting positions. That means all entries will get to race and those teams outside of the top 35 in owner's points will not have to endure "knock out qualifying."

The weather could impact qualifying. The forecast for the greater Fontana area calls for 62 degrees and a 40% chance of rain on Friday. On Saturday expect partly sunny skies, 66 degrees with a 10% chance of showers. The forecast for Sunday race day calls for sunny skies, 71 degrees and no rain expected.

The Auto Club Speedway opened in 1997. The first ever event there was a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Race won by Ken Schrader. The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race was held in June of 1997 and was won by Jeff Gordon. Since that time there has been 21 Sprint Cup races at the speedway that has sent 13 different winners to victory lane. Jimmie Johnson leads all drivers with five wins. Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth have won three races each. Hendrick Motorsports tops the team win list with nine. Ford and Chevrolet are tied in the manufacturers win listing with ten each while Dodge has found victory lane one time.

The track qualifying record, 188.425 MPH, was set by Kyle Busch back in February of 2005.

The Auto Club Speedway's D shaped oval is 75 feet wide allowing plenty of room for three wide racing. The four turns are banked 14 degrees, the front stretch measures 3,100 feet with 11 degrees of banking. The backstretch measures 2,500 feet but only has three degrees of banking.

The speedway's pit road is 2.200 feet long and has 44 spacious pit stalls. The pit road speed is 55 MPH.

The Auto Club Speedway has grandstand seating for 92,000 fans plus 1,800 RV spaces in its infield camping area.

The Auto Club 400 will be broadcast live by Fox Sports with the pre race show beginning at 230 pm eastern time. The re air of the race will be on Wednesday, March 30th, beginning at 12 pm eastern on SPEED.

THE NATIONWIDE SERIES AT FONTANA

Kyle Busch over Greg Biffle in last year's Nationwide race
The NASCAR Nationwide Series will visit "the left coast" for Saturday's running of the Royal Purple 300 at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana-California. Like any event featuring one of NASCAR's big three national touring series, there are some story lines attached to this race. Some of them are very interesting and at least one of them has the characteristics of a daytime soap opera.

THE STORY BREAKDOWN

We already know what the number one NASCAR Nationwide Series story is going to be this weekend. It's, of course, Rick Russell versus Jennifer Jo Cobb in a situation that has just hit another brand new level of bizarre.

In previous editions of this motorsports soap opera, Rick Russell, owner of 2nd Chance Motorsports, and Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing announced an alliance, for the 2011 season, with plans to run at least the first five Nationwide Series races with hopes of attracting sponsorship for the full season.

Already trying to race under tight financial circumstances, the operation hit a major snag at the Las Vegas race where Cobb was caught up in a crash, not of her making, that caused considerable damage to the team's only race car. Following the massive expenses of repairing the car, Russell apparently decided it would be best to start and park at Bristol, a track notorious for sheet metal damage, and have the car ready for the Auto Club Speedway.

It's at this point when team communication apparently fell apart. Russell claimed that everyone was told about the start and park plan during a team meeting the day before the Bristol race. Cobb later admitted that she had heard some "rumblings" about it but didn't actually get the official word from Russell until literally minutes before the race last Saturday afternoon. Cobb further claims that she had already hired a pit crew and purchased tires for the Bristol event. Russell countered with these expenses were incurred "behind his back". That's when Cobb, along with her crew chief Steve Kuykendall, left the track. Cobb later released a statement saying she refused to start and park out of a sense of commitment to her sponsors, the fans and to NASCAR. Russell had driver Chris Lawson suit up, get into the car, run four laps and park it in the garage. He pocketed $16,000 plus for the minimal effort which was apparently enough to cover the repair costs from the previous weekend at Las Vegas. He later announced his intent to sue Cobb for breach of contract.

As they say on those late night television infomercials: "but wait, there's more." This soap opera developed an unexpected plot twist when Russell announced that he has filed an official police report against Cobb and her crew chief alleging larceny. Russell claims that Cobb and Kuykendall stole approximately $16,000 in race car parts from his race shop located in Mooresville-North Carolina.

In comments made to "ESPN Dot Com" on Tuesday, Russell said that police investigators located about half of the missing car parts, last Sunday, in a storage bin used by Cobb located near the race shop. "Both her and her crew chief said they didn't know how it, (the car parts), got there," Russell said adding "I'm in the race parts selling business. There were containers of parts, (in the storage bin), that came right off of my shelves with the prices still marked on them."

Cobb later claimed that the storage bin actually belonged to Russell and that he agreed to let her and Steve Kuykendall relocate some of the parts there in order to clear some work space in the race shop. She further claimed this arrangement was made with Russell while their partnership still existed. She adamantly claims that there was no attempt to steal anything and that she told Russell on Sunday to take all of the parts that were his.

Both parties have clearly parted ways at this point. Russell has entered his #79 Ford, with driver Tim Andrews, sans sponsorship in Saturday's Nationwide Series race at the Auto Club Speedway. Cobb, earlier this week, said she will be driving the #41 Ford for Rick Ware Racing, also with no posted sponsor on the official entry list, on Saturday. She also intimated that she has been talking to "some people" and hopes to make an announcement regarding future plans soon.

It would appear that, at some point, the "L WORD", that would be lawyers not losers, is going to play a prominent role in this motorsports soap opera. That's too bad because it appears that both sides really can't afford massive legal expenses right now. Then again, maybe the word loser does apply here because the only possible winners will be the lawyers.

Jennifer Jo Cobb, during a television interview on SPEED earlier in the week, appears to prefer an amicable resolution that would simply, and officially, dissolve the partnership, everyone wishes each other good luck and then move on and go racing. That's actually a very good idea.

Again, you expect to hear a lot of commentary about this story prior to Saturday's Royal Purple 300 Nationwide Series race.

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Fortunately that's not the only story line connected to Saturday's race at the Auto Club Speedway. There has been a long time NASCAR Nationwide Series policy that states any team entrenched within the top thirty in series owner's points will be awarded a guaranteed start in the next race on the schedule. During the first five races of any new NASCAR season this privilege is bestowed based on the owner's points from the previous year. After race number five the current 2011 points becomes effective.

Saturday's Royal Purple 300 at the Auto Club Speedway is race number five on the Nationwide Series schedule and the jockeying for position to stay in the all important top thirty could get most interesting. Going into Saturday there is only a three point separation between positions 27 through 31 in the current owner's points. The teams in positions 28 through 30 are tied with 70 points each.

Then there's the matter of who's on the outside looking in. There are six teams within eight points of the 30th place cut off. They are led by 69 year old ageless wonder Morgan Shepherd. The owner/driver is currently 31st in the owner's rankings just a mere two points away from a guaranteed start in the next series race at Texas.

Do you believe that Morgan Shepherd is going to drive his heart out at the Auto Club Speedway on Saturday? I do. Do you think every NASCAR Nationwide Series fan in the country is going to pulling for this fine gentleman to make the top thirty? So do I.

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Speaking of points, how about Steve Turner's teams and how well they're doing in the Nationwide Series championship standings? Late last year Turner Motorsports announced they had acquired select assets of Braun Racing and planned to run three full time teams in the series in 2011. Turner entered a fourth car at Las Vegas for veteran Mark Martin who presented him with his first series' win.

Turner Motorsports goes into Saturday's race with driver Jason Leffler leading the points while his team mates, Justin Allgaier and Reed Sorenson, are third and fourth in the championship standings.

By the way, Leffler is really looking forward to returning to southern California and the Auto Club Speedway this weekend. That's because it's a homecoming for the driver. He's from nearby Long Beach. He would love to win Saturday's Royal Purple 300 with family and friends cheering him on from the grandstands. He's also looking forward to visiting his favorite restaurant: In And Out Burgers. Apparently that's the only burger joint that doesn't have a franchise back east.

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Steve Turner also arranged for Mark Martin to make another appearance in the Nationwide Series in his fourth team: the #32 Chevrolet. After winning at Las Vegas, Martin now has a series high 49 career wins and he wants to become the first driver to win 50 times. So does Kyle Busch who, after winning at Bristol last weekend, now has 45 Nationwide wins. Expect a little good natured ribbing between these two while at the Auto Club Speedway.

Their Nationwide Series career stats are remarkably close. Martin has 232 starts with a winning percentage of 21.1 percent. Busch has 206 starts with a win percentage of 21.8 percent. At the Auto Club Speedway Martin has two Nationwide starts and has made the best of them by scoring a win and a third place finish. Busch has 12 career starts at NASCAR's home in southern California. He's also made the best of the opportunity with four wins, seven top five finishes, nine top tens and two poles. Both men are the only drivers who have scored wins in all three of NASCAR's national touring series while racing at the Auto Club Speedway.

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THE RACE BREAKDOWN

The Royal Purple 300 is 150 laps/300 miles around the Auto Club Speedway's massive two mile, D shaped, oval.

There are 45 posted entries for the race vying for the 43 starting berths.

14 of those entries are on the go or go home list meaning they do not have a guaranteed starting berth in the race because they are currently outside of the top 30 in Nationwide Series owner's points. These teams will have to rely on qualifying speeds to make Saturday's race. Three of these drivers, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Green and Joe Nemechek, have past champion's provisionals available to them if needed.

Kyle Busch is defending race champion from last year. He actually won both Nationwide Series events at the Auto Club Speedway in 2010.

The Royal Purple 300 will be broadcast live by the ESPN Network on Saturday beginning with the pre race show at 5 pm eastern time.

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