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NASCAR News and Notes
If last week’s season-opening Daytona 500 is any barometer, expect more “raciness” in this Sunday’s Auto Club 500 at California Speedway.

NASCAR’s new car, beginning its first full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, promises a ramped-up competitive environment along with significant safety boosts and cost-containment measures.

Certainly last week’s Daytona 500 was one of the most competitive in the race’s 50-year history — winner Ryan Newman (No. 12 Alltel-SAMSUNG HDTV Dodge) took the lead on the last lap.

The event’s 42 lead changes were the most since 2001 (49) and the fifth time since 1972 that a Daytona 500 produced 40 or more lead changes.

Also consider that 16 drivers led at least one lap, the second-highest total in Daytona 500 history. Only the 2006 race had more leaders (18).

And the new car begins 2008 by racing at four consecutive tracks for the first time, including California, where series teams tested on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.

“I’m looking forward to these cars because everyone is so close,” said Carl Edwards (No. 99 DISH Network Ford) during the test, which was preceded by a two-day test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “I believe that opens the opportunity for the drivers to be able to make a little bit bigger difference. I think that’s going to be a pretty good thing.”

“I think you're going to see a lot of people moving around,” said Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) at the preseason test, of Sunday’s Auto Club 500. “I think this car, even at Las Vegas, you could move around and make time. You're just going to see a lot of different grooves develop as the race goes on.”

Three-Peat: Kenseth Looks For Third Consecutive California Win

It shouldn’t surprise if Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Carhartt Ford) makes a winning move in the final laps of Sunday’s Auto Club 500 at California Speedway.

The 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion is pursuing his third consecutive victory in the track’s February event.

NASCAR Loop Data statistics illustrate his excellence there. Kenseth leads several key pre-race categories for California, including Driver Rating (113.9), Average Running Position (7.242) and Fastest in Turn 1 (179.453 mph).

And although he didn’t get the finish he wanted in last week’s Daytona 500 — Kenseth finished 36th after damaging contact with Roush Fenway Racing teammate David Ragan (No. 6 Southern California Insurance Ford) — he ran up front for much of the race and led one lap.

Kenseth also was second-fastest during the Thursday night, Jan. 31 session of last month’s California test, while teammate Carl Edwards led two of the five sessions.

“It's one we certainly look forward to,” Kenseth said. “You look forward to trying to get some momentum back after our disappointing Daytona 500. So hopefully it will be all right.”

Hendrick Motorsports Looking To Erase Daytona 500 Disappointment

After a disappointing Daytona 500 performance, Hendrick Motorsports looks to rebound in Sunday’s Auto Club 500 at California Speedway.

Just as they did last year.

The dominant NASCAR Sprint Cup organization in 2007, Hendrick opened 2008 with similar expectations, plus a media consensus as preseason favorites.

Reigning and two-time series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) won the Daytona 500 pole while newest teammate and fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet) won the non-points Budweiser Shootout the week prior to the Daytona 500.

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Cromax Pro Chevrolet), last year’s series runner-up, sought his fourth Daytona 500 victory. Casey Mears (No. 5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet), poised for  a breakout year with new crew chief Alan Gustafson, played the dark-horse role.

But only Earnhardt finished inside the top 10 at Daytona — ninth. Suspension problems relegated Gordon to 39th. A late-race spinout put Johnson in 27th. Mears, running in the top five with five laps remaining, finished 36th after hitting an outside wall.

Fast-forward to California, where Hendrick teams hope to duplicate last season’s West Coast panacea — a rebound that followed similarly frustrating results in the 2007 Daytona 500.

Gordon was Hendrick’s highest finisher in last year’s “Great American Race” — 10th. Mears finished 20th. Then-teammate Kyle Busch (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota) finished 24th while Johnson finished 39th following an accident.

Here’s the precedent: Seven Chevrolets finished in the top 10 of last year’s Auto Club 500 at California, including three HMS drivers.

Gordon finished second behind winner Matt Kenseth. Johnson finished third and Busch finished ninth. Mears finished 31st.

The Penske Racing Way: Daytona 500 Winner Ryan Newman’s Back …

Ryan Newman’s last-lap victory last Sunday represents more than a one-race triumph in the 50th Daytona 500 — significant though it is.

It also may function as his re-introduction to contender status, a label many media and fans affixed to Newman from the start.

The 2002 NASCAR Sprint Cup Raybestos Rookie of the Year, Newman began his series career the same season as reigning and two-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Both young drivers excelled immediately — Johnson, in his and Newman’s seventh season, has yet to finish outside the top five — but Newman has endured a rockier path, of late.

After consecutive top-10 finishes from 2002-2005, Newman dipped to 18th in ‘06 and 13th in ‘07, noticeable because of his early exploits.

Nicknamed “Rocketman,” Newman set the rookie record for poles in a season (six) in ’02. He also led the series with 11 poles in ’03, nine poles in ’04 and eight  poles in ’05.

He also had a series-high eight wins in ’03.

Recent struggles, coupled with major Penske Racing changes — the departure of crew chief Matt Borland in late 2006 and the arrival of teammate Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) to begin the ‘06 season — also impacted Newman’s team.

However, a good relationship with Busch and the 2008 addition of new crew chief Roy McCauley have proven positive factors. Busch, who finished as Daytona 500 runner-up, powered Newman across the finish line, helping the South Bend, Ind., native to grab his 13th career victory and break an 81-race winless streak.

“It's a life-changing experience,” Newman said. “I'm trying to do my best to represent NASCAR and all the people that have made the difference in my life to get to this point.”

… Thanks To An Image-Changing Boost From Teammate Kurt Busch

“Redemption” may prove to be the longest-lasting effect of Penske Racing’s 1-2 finish in last Sunday’s 50th Daytona 500.

Not only did winner Ryan Newman crack a career-long winless streak, teammate Kurt Busch’s unselfish nudge-to-victory may have spiffed up the latter’s image.

Busch, the sometimes-controversial 2004 series champion, jumped behind Newman during last Sunday’s last-lap scramble at Daytona International Speedway.

Rather than make it a three-wide dash for the win, he chose to help Newman and finish second, ensuring team owner Roger Penske’s first Daytona 500 victory.

“I think Kurt said it best, he was happy to see me in Victory Lane,” Newman said. “It was as if he won, even though he didn't. If the roles were reversed, I would feel the same way.”

“Kurt gave me a great push, was the perfect teammate, the perfect time. Sometimes it takes that. “

The finish was especially gratifying for Busch, who raced from a 43rd-place start to finish second. He also battled distraction; specifically, an alternation with another former champion, Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet), during a Budweiser Shootout practice session the previous week, that earned both drivers a six-race probation from NASCAR.

In The Loop: Former Champions Johnson And Kenseth Seek California Rebound

Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth can chalk up their poor finishes in the Daytona 500 to first race jitters. But only if they continue their dominance at California Speedway.

The two suffered uncharacteristic poor finishes last Sunday, but past California performances suggest a strong rebound this weekend.

Reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Johnson finished a disappointing 27th, but has been dominant at the 2-mile track.

He won his second California race last September, and since 2005, has a Driver Rating of 111.3 (second-best), an Average Running Position of 7.7 (second-best), 99 Fastest Laps Run (fourth), the fastest Average Green Flag Speed at 172.261 mph and a series-high 1,381 Laps in the Top 15 (91.8%).

Kenseth fared even worse at Daytona, finishing 36th. But if his past California success continues, the ship should be righted quickly.

Since 2005 – a span that includes two wins and five top 10s – Kenseth has a series-best Driver Rating of 113.9, a series-best Average Running Position of 7.2, 89 Fastest Laps Run (sixth), an Average Green Flag Speed of 172.195 mph (second) and 1,332 Laps in the Top 15 (88.5%).

Also look for a strong performance out of Kyle Busch, who had an incredible weekend at Daytona, but nothing to show for it. Busch finished in the top five in all three of NASCAR’s national series races last weekend, but never entered Victory Lane. The trip to California might cure some of that frustration.

Busch’s first career win took place at California – the victory earned him the record for youngest driver ever to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, an accolade he still holds – and he has scored five consecutive top-five finishes at California.

Since 2005, Busch has an average Driver Rating of 109.3 (third), an Average Running Position of 9.5 (fourth), 102 Fastest Laps Run (third) and a third-best 1,259 Laps in the Top 15 (83.7%).

Happy For “The Captain”: NASCAR’s Richard Buck Pays Tribute To Former Boss

Team owner Roger Penske’s first Daytona 500 victory — courtesy of driver Ryan Newman — has resonated through the motorsports world.

Particularly accomplished in open-wheel competition, Penske had won many NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races as a stock-car team owner. But he’d never won the race — the Daytona 500 — until last Sunday.

A 13-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Penske is beginning his 25th season in NASCAR. And many former, as well as current, employees are happy for him, including Richard Buck, NASCAR’s Director of Touring Series.

“I hear that Ryan had to buy a new suit,” said Buck, who worked for Penske’s open-wheel teams from 1985 through 1996. He served as the crew chief on five of Penske’s Indianapolis 500-winning teams, working with drivers such as Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr., Al Unser Jr., Paul Tracy, Danny Sullivan and Emerson Fittipaldi.

“That was one of those small things. You always had to get that suit out, dust it off.”

He cites teamwork as Penske’s key.

“He’s a fierce competitor,” says Buck, now in his third season with NASCAR, of Penske, “but genuine, caring — wrapped up in one great guy.”

History On The Move: NASCAR’S 60th Anniversary, California-Style

Although California Speedway marks its 11th birthday this season, NASCAR’s competitive presence in the Golden State extends back to 1951 — NASCAR’s fourth year of existence.

As the sanctioning body celebrates its 60th season in 2008, consider that 15 California tracks have hosted events throughout the years.

And that Sunday’s Auto Club 500 will be the 120th NASCAR event in the state of California.

In April 1951, Marshal Teague won the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event in California, at Gardena’s Carrell Speedway, a dirt track.

In the 1960s, California native Dan Gurney, an open-wheel and sports-car star, won five times at Riverside International Raceway, driving for two historic NASCAR organizations — Holman-Moody and the Wood Brothers.

In the 1970s, the legendary A.J. Foyt won the first Ontario Motor Speedway events, in 1971-72.

In the 1980s, Tim Richmond won four times at Riverside (twice in 1982, then in 1986-87).

In the 1990s, another California native — Jeff Gordon — rose to prominence, winning two of the first three races at California Speedway (1997 and 1999).

This decade, another California native — Jimmie Johnson, also Gordon’s teammate — has two California Speedway wins.

In fact, no other state boasts as many current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers.

Including Johnson and Gordon, seven California natives will compete this weekend at California — Kevin Harvick, Casey Mears, Robby Gordon (No. 7 Jim Beam Dodge), David Gilliland (No. 38 Freecreditreport.com Ford) and AJ Allmendinger (No. 84 Team Red Bull Toyota). 

Jeff Gordon hails from Mission Viejo, Johnson from El Cajon, Harvick and Mears from Bakersfield, Robby Gordon from Orange, Gilliland from Riverside and Allmendinger from Los Gatos.

Other California natives attempting to qualify for Sunday’s Auto Club 500 include Burney Lamar (No. 08 Rhino’s Energy Drink Dodge) and Mike Skinner (No. 27 Bill Davis Racing Toyota).

Off The Track: Special Events, Entertainment For Auto Club 500

Celebrities are no stranger to California Speedway, located only 50 miles from the world’s entertainment capital, Los Angeles.

Perhaps the newest is California native Kina Grannis, who will sing the National Anthem prior to Sunday’s Auto Club 500.

Grannis, who hails from Jeff Gordon’s hometown of Mission Viejo,  won the recent Doritos “Crash the Super Bowl” music challenge. She’s also a University of Southern California graduate.

Emmy Award-winning actor and comedian Brad Garrett, of FOX’s “Til Death” comedy, will serve as Sunday’s Grand Marshal. Garrett also played Robert on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

The legendary blues-rock band ZZ Top, still comprised of original members Billy F. Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, will be featured at a pre-race concert on Sunday.

On Saturday, George Thorogood and the Destroyers will perform at the Miller Lite Rock ‘n Racing Show following the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series doubleheader.

That concert will take place in the Opportunity, California FanZone.

On Wednesday, Daytona 500 champion Ryan Newman will appear at California Speedway Day in L.A. at Hollywood & Highland Center. He’ll be welcomed by City of Los Angeles officials, who will proclaim Wednesday, Feb. 20 as California Speedway Day in L.A.

NSCS, Etc.

Back On Track … Although he’s completed only one of 36 events in 2008, it’s clear Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be a threat with his new team, Hendrick Motorsports.

Aside from winning the season’s non-points precursor, he also finished ninth in last Sunday’s Daytona 500 — the highest Hendrick finisher.

Back On Track, Part II … Six Dodge teams finished in the top 10 of the Daytona 500, including winner Ryan Newman and runner-up Kurt Busch.

That’s happened only two other times — most recently in 1969 and before that, in 1967.

Back On Track, Part III … Despite a difficult first season in 2007, Toyota teams look ready to flex their competitive muscle in 2008.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Toyota) won his Gatorade Duel qualifying race for the Daytona 500 while teammate Tony Stewart won the season-opening NASCAR Nationwide event.

Stewart was Toyota’s highest Daytona 500 finisher — third. Teammate Kyle Busch was fourth, and led a race-high 86 laps.

Triple-Duty Man … Busch will be busy this week at California Speedway, competing in Saturday’s scheduled NASCAR Craftsman Truck and NASCAR Nationwide Series doubleheader along with Sunday’s Auto Club 500.

MilestoneDale Earnhardt Inc.’s Mark Martin (No. 8 Principal Financial Group Chevrolet) is scheduled to make his 700th career start this Sunday

Top 12 Driver Press Conferences … Each event weekend, the top 12 drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings are available to the media at designated times. This week’s schedule for the top 12 drivers in the series standings is available at NASCAR’s media-only web site — www.nascarmedia.com.

Up Next: The UAW-Dodge 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Following Sunday’s event at California Speedway, NASCAR Sprint Cup teams head five hours northeast, across the Nevada state line and the Mojave Desert,  to the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

That’s where Jimmie Johnson is the logical favorite for the UAW-Dodge 400 on Sunday, March 2. He’s won the last three consecutive races at Las Vegas, and seeks his fourth victory.

Kasey Kahne is the event’s defending pole winner.

The Race: Auto Club 500
The Place: California Speedway
The Date: Sunday, Feb. 24
The Time: 4 p.m. (ET)
The Track: 2-mile oval
The Distance: 500 miles/250 laps
TV: FOX, 3:30 p.m. (ET)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS Satellite Radio
2007 Winner: Matt Kenseth
2007 Polesitter: Jeff Gordon
2008 Points
1 Newman          190
2 Kurt Busch      175
3 Stewart            170
4 Kyle Busch      170
5 Sorenson        160
6 Kahne              151
7 Sadler              150
8 Earnhardt Jr.    143
9 Robby Gordon  142
10 Biffle                139
11 Labonte          130
12 Burton            129
Pre-Race Schedule: Friday—Practice, 12-1:30 p.m.; Qualifying, 3:40 p.m. Saturday—Practice, 2-3:55 p.m. (All times local — PT)

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