NASCAR News & Notes: Auto Club Speedway

Auto Club Speedway: Pepsi 500

Carl Vs. Kyle: Emerging Rivals Fight For Chase Momentum

When Carl Edwards (No. 99 AFLAC Ford) bumped Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M’s Toyota) out of his way on Lap 470 at Bristol Motor Speedway, he was doing more than just trying to win the race. He was sending a message to Busch – and the entire NASCAR Sprint Cup Series field – that he is a true contender for the championship and won’t back down from anybody.

Edwards has been chasing Busch for the top spot the entire season and has narrowed the gap with consecutive wins at Michigan and Bristol. The two drivers have combined to win six of the last seven races and 14 of 24 on the season. Edwards was the runner-up in three of Busch’s victories and Busch has finished second in each of Edwards’ last two victories.

The next round of the battle is slated for Auto Club Speedway on Sunday evening, a place where each driver has succeeded. Edwards won the February race at the Southern California track, while Busch earned his first career win there in 2005.

So far, the two are the only drivers to clinch a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Busch has earned the top seed and will start with at least 80 bonus points (10 points for each win). Edwards has clinched the second seed and will have at least 50 bonus points.

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Bristol Blurs Bubble Picture

Two races remain before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and the 12 Chase participants are far from set. Only 101 points separate the drivers currently in positions 11 through 14.  Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota) (11th place), Clint Bowyer (No. 07 Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet) (12th) and David Ragan (No. 6 AAA Ford) (13th) each moved up one position after Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge) finished 40th at Bristol, dropping him to 14th in the standings.

Furthermore, seventh-place Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Ford) is only 141 points ahead of Ragan, the first driver on the “wrong” side of the bubble.

"I’ve felt like we’ve had a chance to be in the Chase since the beginning of the year,” Ragan said. “Our AAA Ford has been fast every week and as a team we haven’t made many mistakes. We deserve to be in the position we are in and just have to take these last two races one at a time."  

Ragan may have some difficulty catching the field at Auto Club Speedway, where he has yet to register a top-10 finish in three starts. His Driver Rating of 77.4, is 18th-best, the lowest of the drivers he is battling for a spot in the Chase.

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Two Down, 10 To Go: Several Drivers Look To Secure Chase Berths

Only two drivers – Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards – have clinched a position in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, leaving the final 10 spots up for grabs. Three drivers control their own destiny this weekend, with six others having the opportunity to clinch based on others’ results.

To clinch a Chase spot, a driver needs to leave Auto Club Speedway with a 196-point lead over 13th place.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet), Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet) and Jeff Burton (No. 31 AT&T Mobility Chevrolet) can all lock up a Chase berth regardless of what any other driver does. Earnhardt and Johnson each need to finish 40th or better, or finish 41st and lead at least one lap. Burton can sew up his spot by finishing 15th or better, 16th or 17th and lead one lap or 20th and lead the most laps.

"Well, we are obviously in a position of need,” Burton said. “We need to get ourselves in the Chase. That is goal number one. To do that, we need to have good finishes, we need to run well, we need to compete at a high level and we need to get the best finish that we can.

“We certainly don’t want to put ourselves in a situation that we didn’t have to be in because I did something silly or we had a mechanical problem. But at the same time, you have to compete at a high level. The competition is too tough.”

Six other drivers can clinch this weekend as well, but must rely on help from other drivers. All six must increase their current points lead over 13th place in Sunday’s race. The drivers who can  reach the important 196-point margin this weekend are:

Tony Stewart (No. 20 Subway Toyota)  – currently 170 points ahead of 13th; needs to pad his lead by 26 points.

Greg Biffle — currently 141 points ahead of 13th; needs to pad his lead by 55 points.

Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell-Pennzoil Chevrolet) – currently 129 points ahead of 13th; needs to pad his lead by 67 points.

Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet)  – currently 108 points ahead of 13th; needs to pad his lead by 88 points.

Matt Kenseth (No. 17 R & L Carriers Ford) – currently 78 points ahead of 13th; needs to pad his lead by 118 points.

Denny Hamlin – currently 57 points ahead of 13th; needs to pad his lead by 139 points.

Clint Bowyer is currently 12th in the standings, 12 points ahead of 13th. There is no scenario for Bowyer to clinch a spot if David Ragan starts Sunday’s race.

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Johnson Knows Experience Makes Him An Instant Championship Contender

It’s not often that a two-time defending champion is overlooked as a title contender in any sport. However, Jimmie Johnson finds himself in exactly that position as Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards dominate most championship predictions. Johnson obviously disagrees with the masses.

“We have a lot of forward momentum and progress with this race team,” said Johnson on the NASCAR teleconference. “I feel like we are one of the guys to be considered a favorite in the championship and look forward to getting started.”

It’s not that Johnson’s season has been subpar, either. He is currently fourth in the standings, and is one of four drivers with multiple wins on the season, including a recent triumph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of the crown jewels of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule.

“I’ve all along said I would put the championship, if I was to see the championship, I would go off experience,” Johnson said. “I just think the competition is going to continue to increase. You’re going to see the pressure really do its best and worst to everyone in the Chase. It’s just going to be part of it.”

Johnson knows all about facing – and beating – the pressures of the Chase. He is one of two drivers, along with Matt Kenseth, who have been in the Chase every year since its formation in 2004. Last season, Johnson entered the Chase in sixth place and was considered second fiddle to teammate Jeff Gordon who had a lead of over 300 points before being seeded for the Chase. All Johnson did was win four of 10 Chase races and beat Gordon by 77 points, the widest margin in the four-year history of the Chase.

Overall, the numbers are astronomical: In 40 Chase races, Johnson has amassed 11 victories, 20 top fives and 28 top 10s. He has also led 9.6% of all laps run (1,243).

“(The Chase) is a lot closer to equal to what we have now,” Johnson said. “So I think it’s a great opportunity. We get into the final ten, and it’s great tracks for myself and the 48 team.”

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Top 35: No. 66 Chevrolet Leaps Into Locked-In Position

Scott Riggs (No. 66 State Water Heater Chevrolet) finished 27th at Bristol, bringing his Joe Custer-owned Chevrolet to 34th in the owner standings above Sam Hornish Jr. (No. 77 Penske Truck Rental Dodge) who finished 37th. The No. 77, owned by Roger Penske, sits 35th in the standings, the final locked-in position.

Each week the top 35 cars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup owner standings are locked in to the race, regardless of qualifying time. The remaining eight positions are set based on qualifying.

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California-native AJ Allmendinger will have to  make the Pepsi 500 on qualifying time in the No. 84 Red Bull Toyota owned by Dietrich Mateschitz. The team is currently 36th in owner standings, 14 points behind the No. 77.

Mike Skinner (No. 00 Champion Mortgage Toyota), another California native, will attempt to put the Michael Waltrip-owned car into the race. Skinner, the all-time pole leader in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, is temporarily replacing rookie Michael McDowell to help the team make races. Skinner filled the same role for Allmendinger for five races earlier this season.

Loop Data: Auto Club Speedway Win Eludes Stewart

No doubt, Tony Stewart has had a prolific career. With 32 wins and two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships, the Indiana native ranks among the most successful drivers in NASCAR’s history.

What may stand out most is Stewart’s versatility. He can win at any track, any where, any time. Only four tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule have yet to be conquered by Stewart: Darlington, Las Vegas, Talladega and Auto Club Speedway – the site of this weekend’s race.

That list may be trimmed down to three after Sunday’s Pepsi 500. Stewart has finished in the top 10 in three of the last four races at Auto Club Speedway, and boasts some of the top Loop Data statistics at ACS since 2005.

Over the past seven ACS races, Stewart has a Driver Rating of 101.0 (fifth-best), an Average Running Position of 10.6 (sixth), 130 Fastest Laps Run (second) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 75.2% (sixth).

In each of the past six ASC races, Stewart had a car that could have won – including the spring race of 2006, when he finished 43rd because of engine trouble.

The statistic breakdown is impressive:

Summer 2005: Stewart registered a Driver Rating of 128.2, his highest at Auto Club Speedway. Finishing fifth, Stewart also had an Average Running Position of 3.0 and 21 Fastest Laps Run, while running all 254 laps in the top 15.

Spring 2006: A last place finish is all Stewart will probably remember from this race, but he was certainly one of best out there. He had a Driver Rating of 101.9, an Average Running Position of 12.2 and 54 Fastest Laps Run.

Summer 2006: Statistically, the only real difference between the 2006 summer version and the 2006 spring version was the finish. Stewart crossed the line in ninth, but notched the exact same Driver Rating – 101.9 – as he did in the spring 2006 race.

Spring 2007: Leading 28 laps and scoring a strong Driver Rating of 114.4, Stewart finished eighth. His statistical highlight this race was a Pass Differential (passes minus times passed) of +34 – his highest at ACS.

Summer 2007: Though his 13th-place finish was solid, it stands as his worst statistical ACS performance of the past six races. He scored a Driver Rating of 91.7.

Spring 2008: Stewart’s highest position was third, but he finished seventh. His Driver Rating of 99.5 was eighth-best that race.

Raybestos Rookie Of The Year Standings:

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Rookie Points
Regan Smith 181
Sam Hornish Jr. 179
Patrick Carpentier 170
Michael McDowell 156
Dario Franchitti 80

Regan Smith (No. 01 DEI/The Principal Financial Group Chevrolet) finished 14th on Saturday to extend his lead over Sam Hornish Jr. to two points in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year  standings.

It was the seventh time this season that Smith was the Raybestos Rookie of the Race, including all four short tracks (both Bristol Motor Speedway events, Martinsville Speedway and Richmond International Raceway.)

Manufacturers’ Standings

Carl Edwards’ victory was the sixth victory of the season for Ford, which now trails Toyota by 17 points in the Manufacturers’ Standings. Edwards is the only Ford driver with a victory this season.

Toyota is the only manufacturer without a win at Auto Club Speedway. Ford leads the way with nine victories, including Edwards’ February win, Chevrolet has six and Dodge has one.

NSCS, Etc: Hollywood Stars Play Role In ACS Weekend

Celebrities Aplenty at ACS

Several stars from various entertainment fields will be at Auto Club Speedway this weekend in different capacities. Actor/producer and host of the “The Price Is Right” Drew Carey will serve as Grand Marshal for Sunday’s Pepsi 500 and give the command for the drivers to start their engines. Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag from the hit MTV show “The Hills” will be the honorary starters and wave the green flag. Former American Idol runner-up Bo Bice will be singing the National Anthem.

Other celebrities expected at the track over the weekend include UFC Hall of Famer and former champion Randy Couture, two-time “Dancing With The Stars” winner Cheryl Burke and actor Ron Perlman of “Hellboy.”

When in Rome: Earnhardt Jr., Menard Visit Hit TV Shows

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will make a special visit to the set of his favorite television show “The Office” while in Southern California for the Pepsi 500.

“I’m so excited to finally get to meet the cast of ‘The Office’,” Earnhardt said. “Jim’s my favorite character. He’s everybody’s favorite. I just think it’s a great show. It’s kind of like ‘Cheers’ and ‘Seinfeld’ were in their hay day. To me that’s what it’s like for this generation or for this decade. It’s just a good show. It’s a really funny show, well-written, great cast and it’s just done really well.”

Paul Menard (No. 15 Menards/Johns Manville Chevrolet) will also be making a trip to Hollywood, touring the set of ‘CSI’ on Thursday.

Burton Reaches Milestone

Jeff Burton will add his name to an exclusive list on Sunday when he starts his 500th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Burton, who will be the 29th driver to reach the 500-start mark, made his series debut at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July 1993. He is 30th all-time with 20 wins and has compiled 114 top-five and 205 top-10 finishes.

“It’s pretty hard to believe I’m coming up on my 500th start,” Burton said. “Professionally, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. Competing in NASCAR’s top level series has been a lifelong dream and I’m fortunate that I have been doing what I love for as long as I have, but I still believe my best years are ahead of me. I’ve learned a lot over the years and this environment has made me a better person because of it. Racing is something I dreamed of as a kid and I’m fortunate that I am doing it.”

Hamlin To Make Special Delivery

Denny Hamlin will visit the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank on Thursday to present a special hybrid vehicle to the organization.

Hamlin, and local FedEx employees, will also work a volunteer shift at the Foodbank and will assist in loading meals for distribution.

For more information, contact Jon Mason (612) 387-8780.

Jimmie Johnson Foundation Gives Back

Jimmie and Chandra Johnson will host the second annual Jimmie Johnson Foundation Golf Tournament on Wednesday with funds to benefit the San Diego chapter of Habitat for Humanity. The events will start Tuesday as the Johnsons will put the finishing touches on one of two Habitat for Humanity homes being built with proceeds from last year’s tournament.

“The response we have received since we started this tournament is truly humbling,” he said. “While we are looking forward to this year’s tournament, I think we are most excited about handing the keys to the family who will be moving into the first house.”

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