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NASCAR Notebook for February 20th

by Dave Grayson
Friday, February 20, 2009

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The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series moves onto race number 2, of 36, this Sunday at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Here's the break down for the Auto Club 500:
  • The Auto Club Speedway is a D shaped oval two miles in length, with 14 degrees of banking in the turns, meaning the Auto Club 500 will be 250 laps.
  • Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, is the defending Auto Club 500 champion.
  • There has been 17 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at the Auto Club Speedway since its1997 opening. The first race was won by Jeff Gordon.
  • 12 different winners have visited the Auto Club Speedway's victory lane. Multiple race winner include Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, three each, and Matt Kenseth with two wins.
  • Rick Hendrick has visited victory lane seven times, more than any other NASCAR team owner.
  • Eight of the 17 races have been won from starting positions outside of the top ten. Only one race has been won from the pole position.
  • Matt Kenseth won the 2006 Auto Club 500 from the 31st starting position, the deepest in the field that a race winner has started.
  • There are 48 entries for Sunday's Auto Club 500 meaning five teams will be going home early.
  • Handling is a strong key for success at the Auto Club Speedway. Pre race set ups are vital and so are a crew chief's ability to make the proper adjustments during pit stops.
  • Fuel mileage is often a determining factor in the conclusion of an Auto Club Speedway event. The pit fuel window for Sunday's race is 42 to 46 laps. 
  • The race can be seen on the Fox Network beginning at 5 pm eastern with the pre race show.

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THE AUTO CLUB 500'S INSIDE TRACK.

Carl Edwards
The inside track at the Auto Club Speedway may very well belong to Roush Fenway Racing, and their quintet of drivers, who has six wins at the speedway including winning the last four Auto Club 500's in a row. Defending race champion Carl Edwards has one win, six top fives, eight top tens that calculates to an impressive average finish of 6.7.

Matt Kenseth has two wins, six top fives, 10 top tens with an average finish of 9.6. Don't forget that Kenseth will be working off of the strong momentum of winning the Daytona 500 last Sunday.

Greg Biffle has a win, along with three top fives, that calculates to an average finish of 18.2. But that may be a little misleading. Biffle has been snake bit a few times at the Auto Club Speedway and that 18.2 is not the greatest indication of how strong he can be at this track.

Not to be overlooked here is the presence of Jamie McMurray whose team seems to be on fire lately. Also worthy of consideration is David Ragan whom many think is going to have a break out season in 2009.

If any organization can upstage the Roush Fenway dominance it's without question the group from Hendrick Motorsports with their power house Chevrolets. This group is led by three time champion Jimmie Johnson who has a phenomenal record at the Auto Club Speedway. Those stats include three wins and eight top fives for an average finish of 5.9. It may seem unusual, but every time Johnson has a bad finish in the season opening Daytona 500 he redeems himself with a strong finish at the Auto Club Speedway. The last two years in a row supports that unusual theory. Johnson finished 31st at Daytona last Sunday in a car that even he proclaimed as being terrible over the radio. That means a strong finish, including a possible fourth win, could be coming February 22nd in Fontana.

Also scoring high marks at the Auto Club Speedway is four time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon who has three wins, eight top fives and an average finish of 11.5. Gordon is still feeling the burn of his team going winless in 2008. He did win one of the Gatorade Duel qualifiers last week in Daytona and he was happy to be back in victory lane. But Gordon is in a hurry to win an official points paying race. With his overall track record at the Auto Club Speedway he has a better than good chance of making that happen this Sunday.

On an emotional level it's likely that every NASCAR fan in the country is hoping that Mark Martin has a great 2009 season. At the Auto Club Speedway Martin has a win along with an average finish ratio of 13.3. He's also led over 1,100 laps at this speedway so he knows the fast way around. He had a good run at Daytona and he knows that if he's going to win that coveted championship that has alluded him all these years then the Auto Club Speedway will be a great location to launch that campaign.

The Auto Club Speedway has not been that kind to Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr over the years. However, there may be a highly significant factor that could make him run hard and strong in California this Sunday. Junior was mortally embarrassed at Daytona last week both on an off the track. He will be looking for redemption for this Sunday. Earnhardt likes to run the extreme high line at the Auto Club Speedway and if his team can get him the handling and grip he needs to stay up there he might be a strong factor in the race.

Also representing the bow tie brigade will be Tony Stewart and his newly formed Stewart Haas Racing. Stewart has been in the Auto Club Speedway's victory lane in the Nationwide Series but a Sprint Cup win has eluded him. You could go so far to say that this race track owes him one. Pesky little things like fuel mileage and tire wear has hampered his efforts in the past. However the new team looked strong at Daytona and that momentum could follow him to the other side of the country. Let's not overlook the fact that he's led nearly 1,500 laps at the Auto Club Speedway.

To no one's surprise the Toyota team will be led by Kyle Busch who has a win at this track along with an average finish of 9.9. He's also led over 1,600 laps at the Auto Club Speedway.  Complimenting those stats is Busch's go all out driving style which will likely entertain the Auto Club 500 fans this Sunday.

The Dodge campaign has a couple of strong representatives as well. Last Sunday's performance by Richard Petty Motorsports at Daytona surprised everyone. If any of their drivers can carry that momentum across the country it's Kasey Kahne. He has a win, that was actually a Nationwide-Sprint Cup sweep, along with a 13.1 average finish ratio. Kahne's team has already proven that they know how to play the fuel mileage game at Fontana and that's always important at this track.

Another possible Dodge standout next Sunday could be Kurt Busch. The senior member of Roger Penske Racing has a win at the Auto Club Speedway and a 13.5 average finish. He would also love to win another race at the track his boss actually constructed back in the 1990's.   

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A WORD FROM THE BOYS IN VEGAS

The "Spread Dot Com," one of the premiere sports book agencies in Las Vegas are telling us that Carl Edwards, at 4 to 1 odds, is the favorite to win Sunday's Auto Club 500 and he has Jimmie Johnson right behind him at 4 and 1/2 to one. Other high profile possibilities include Kyle Busch-5 to l, Matt Kenseth-9 to 1, Greg Biffle-10 to 1 and Jeff Gordon-12 to 1. "Spread Dot Com's" dark horse picks includes Dale Earnhardt Jr and Mark Martin-15 to l, Denny Hamlin-18 to 1 and Tony Stewart at 20 to 1.

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ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN.

There are 12 teams, outside of NASCAR's top 35 in owner's point, who are going to be dependent upon a fast qualifying run if they're going to see the green flag for the Auto Club 500. That list includes:

#09. Sterling Marlin. James Finch/Phoenix Racing. Finch runs a good operation and Marlin knows how to qualify. Don't be too surprised if you see the team drive their way into the Auto Club 500 on speed. 
#14. Tony Stewart. Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet. Stewart has his past champion's provisional to fall back on in the event of a slow qualifying speed. It's highly doubtful that he will need it.
#28. Travis Kvapil, Yates Racing Ford. Kvapil successfully raced his way into NASCAR's top 35 in owners points last year only to lose that status following another one of those famous points swap deals. He's a good qualifier and there's no reason why he can't race his back into the top 35 just like he did in 2008.
#36. Scott Riggs. Tommy Baldwin Racing Toyota. The team's performance last Sunday in Daytona has earned them a one race sponsorship extension from Red Bank Outfitters to cover the expenses for this Sunday. Riggs is a strong candidate to race his way into Sunday's race.
#37. Tony Raines. Brad Jenkins Dodge. The team missed the Daytona 500 and, if they're going to keep sponsorship from Long John Silver's Restaurants, a starting berth at the Auto Club Speedway is a must.
#41. Jeremy Mayfield. Mayfield Motorsports Toyota. The team raced their way into Daytona and needs to do the same in California to keep that momentum going.
#44  A J Allmendinger. Richard Petty Motorsports Dodge. Allmendinger needs to capitalize on last week's third place in the Daytona 500 with a strong two lap run at the Auto Club Speedway. He currently has sponsorship for another eight, possibly 12 races, and a good run in Fontana will help that situation.
#51. David Starr. Black Jack Motorsports Dodge. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series veteran David Starr could be making his Sprint Cup debut if he can get the car up to speed during Friday's Auto Club 500 qualifying session. This could turn out to be a long trip home to North Carolina.
#64. Todd Bodine. Larry Gunselman Toyota. "The Onion" is going to have his work cut out for him to make the Auto Club 500 with this unsponsored ride. If he does make the race it's likely we'll find out that this was a pre arranged start and park team.
#66. Dave Blaney. Prism Motorsports Toyota. Blaney makes his Sprint Cup return after his 2008 team, Bill Davis Racing, closed due to economics. This new team, co owned by former driver now broadcaster Phil Parsons, appears to have enough strength to qualify for Sunday's race. Sponsorship is a serious issue here.
#71. David Gilliland. TRG Motorsports Chevrolet. Gilliland begins a four race deal in this car in hopes he can get the team in NASCAR's top 35 owners points. Gilliland traditionally is a solid qualifier so the team has a good chance of making the Auto Club 500.
#73. Mike Garvey. Barry Haefele Dodge. Speed issues kept this team out of the Daytona 500 and sponsorship issues is going to create a stressful trip to California. It could turn out to be an even longer return trip home.
#87. Joe Nemechek. Nemco Toyota. Nemechek missed the Daytona 500 by a tiny margin that wouldn't cover the length of an eye lash. An appearance in the Auto Club could help out the sponsorship problems. "Front Row Joe" is an outstanding qualifier so expect to see him in Sunday's line up.

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TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS.

Window World, a North Carolina based residential glass contractor, signed on with Front Row Motorsports and driver Regan Smith for the Daytona 500. The company was so impressed with the way the team raced their way into the field, and performed in the race, they have announced plans to extend their sponsorship to cover next Sunday's Auto Club 500 plus the next three races through Bristol.

Richard Petty Motorsports announced this week that Auto Value/Bumper To Bumper will be the primary sponsor for two NASCAR Sprint Cup events on their #43 Dodge driven by Reed Sorenson. They will also be the primary for RPM's #9 car in two Nationwide events as well as becoming associate sponsors on all Sprint Cup and Nationwide events.

Kevin Buckler, principal owner of TRG,(The Racing Group), Motorsports hopes that driver David Gilliland will give the team the shot in the arm that they need. Gilliland has been signed to drive the TRG Chevrolet in the Auto Club 500 as well as the three races after. Buckler is hoping that the southern California driver can get them in the top 35 in owner's points by the time the 2009 points becomes effective prior to race number six on the schedule. If Gilliland can make that happen then it will be a major boon towards signing sponsors.

Mike Wallace was in the car last Sunday but failed to earn a qualifying berth for the Daytona 500 which turned out to be extremely costly for TRG. Buckler noted that last place in the Daytona 500 nets a team $240,000 and added that he had a potential race sponsor willing to hand him a check worth $250,000. In short, not making the Daytona 500 cost the team at least half a million dollars.

R&L Carriers, a long time associate sponsor on driver Matt Kenseth's Roush Fenway Racing Ford, announced this week their intent to be the primary sponsor on the car for at least four Sprint Cup races this year. Now there's the power of the Daytona 500.

All through 2008 Yates Racing had to sign the sponsors for their #28 team, and driver Travis Kvapil, on virtually a race to race basis. It appears at least for now that it will be more of the same this year. Golden Corral Restaurants covered the expenses for the Daytona. Next on the sponsor list for this team is a one race deal, for Sunday's Auto Club 500, with the Farmers Insurance Group.

One of the drivers who will be under the gun this Sunday will be Aric Almirola the driver of the #8 Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet. This team only has a limited amount of sponsorship currently provided by the video game "Guitar Hero." Last week co owner Chip Ganassi said the team will be in the first five races of 2009 but also made it clear that their #8 will not race unfunded. He was also honest enough to state that the team is no where near getting the additional sponsors that they need. 

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HANGING OUT WITH DR. DRAKE.

It seems that actor Jason Thompson, who portrays the role of Dr Patrick Drake on the famed ABC Television soap opera "General Hospital", is a avid NASCAR fan. He's also a Jeff Burton fan and invited the driver to join him on the "GH" to film some scenes with him. Burton is scheduled to make his daytime soap debut sometime in mid March. Returning the favor Burton invited Thompson to spend the weekend with him and his Richard Childress Racing team at the Auto Club Speedway. Burton is going to treat the actor to a high speed ride around the Auto Club Speedway in the pace car. Thompson will also join him for a fan meet and greet at the team's hospitality team. You can also catch "Dr Drake" sitting on top of Burton's pit box during Sunday's Auto Club 500.

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A NASCAR NICE GUY.

Robby Gordon, driver of the Jim Beam Ford, spent February 19th in San Diego attending the Firehouse World Expo Convention. In addition to expressing appreciation for the service that firefighters provide, Gordon was there to bolster Jim Beam's long time support of the Terry Farrell Fire Fighter's Fund which is dedicated to assisting fire fighters and their families in time of need all across the country. The non profit group was founded after the September 11th 2002 terrorists attack. Farrell was a New York City decorated firefighter and one of 342 of his brothers who perished in the attack on the World Trade Center. 

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AND FINALLY: IT TAKES CELEBRITIES TO START THE RACE

When it's go time for the Auto Club 500 three prominent celebrities will play very active roles in making that happen. Hugh Laurie, the award winning actor who plays the cranky doctor on the Fox Network's "House" will give the drivers the command to start their engines. The 43 car field will run their pre race parade laps behind the official pace car driven by Major League Baseball Hall Of Famer Reggie Jackson. The first green flag of the race will be dropped by actress Terri Hatcher one of the stars from the ABC series "Desperate Housewives." One can only hope that the drivers will be watching the green flag and not the pretty lady holding it.

From that point the real stars of the show will take over.

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