Tuesday, March 20, 2012

California Auto Club 400 Storylines

Jimmie Johnson has an amazing 5.1 average finish at California (Getty) 
After the weekend’s stop in Bristol’s Thunder Valley, NASCAR Sprint Cup \and NASCAR Nationwide Series teams head west for the third time in 2012 for the season’s only visit to the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The NSCS won’t return west again until the June 24 running of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway’s road course near Sonoma, Calif.

Some questions to be answered at Auto Club Speedway:
· Will Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick duel for victory for the third consecutive season?
· Will Johnson or another Hendrick Motorsports driver post the organization’s milestone 200th victory – or will seven-time ACS winner Roush Fenway Racing spoil the party?
· Can Michael Waltrip Racing add to its unprecedented performance surge?
· Which team(s) will be on the outside looking in after owner points are tallied after the Auto Club 400 for 35 guaranteed starting positions at Martinsville Speedway?
· Will there be a fifth consecutive NASCAR Nationwide Series points-eligible winner in Victory Lane following Saturday’s Royal Purple 300? Will points leader Elliott Sadler post win No. 3 or will a California driver step up to celebrate in the Golden State?


Another Golden State Shootout In the Offing?
The last two spring races at Auto Club Speedway have been duels between El Cajon’s Jimmie Johnson and Bakersfield’s Kevin Harvick. Johnson ended up in Victory Lane with the Harvick-dubbed "golden horse shoe" in hand in 2010. Harvick earned the title of "The Closer" a year ago by edging five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Johnson by 0.144 seconds – the closest NSCS finish in the track’s history.

Johnson leads all drivers with five wins at the track followed by fellow Californian and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon of Vallejo with three wins. Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth, who finished second in last weekend’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, the only other driver with multiple wins.

Gordon, by the way, is one of four finalists for the Justice Brothers-Shav Glick Award given to those who have made significant contributions to motorsports from the Golden State. Other finalists are drag racer "TV Tommy" Ivo, Indianapolis 500 roadster builder A.J. Watson and sports car racer Tony Adamowicz. The winner of the award, named in honor of the longtime Los Angeles Times motorsports writer and columnist Shav Glick, will be announced prior to Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Other California drivers expected to compete at Fontana include AJ Allmendinger, Los Gatos; David Gilliland, Riverside; Casey Mears, Bakersfield; Josh Wise, Riverside; and Robby Gordon, Orange.

No Surprise, It’s Hendrick Vs. Roush In Fontana
Will this be the weekend Rick Hendrick and company get its milestone 200th victory? History is on the side of HMS, which leads all organizations with nine wins at Auto Club Speedway. HMS newcomer Kasey Kahne won in Fontana in the fall of 2006 as the driver of Ray Evernham’s Dodge.

That 200th milestone will be out of reach if Roush Fenway Racing has anything to say on the subject. RFR drivers have won seven times at the Southern California track most recently in the spring of 2009 with Kenseth. All three of the team’s current drivers have victories at Auto Club headed by Kenseth’s three trips to Victory Lane. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings leader Greg Biffle has one win (2005) as does Carl Edwards (2008).

Michael Waltrip Racing Rolls; Who Are These Guys?
Three words describe how qualifying for this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ has become incrementally more difficult in 2012: Michael Waltrip Racing. The team, which has yet to send a driver to the Chase, but counts its two full-time members Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer among the top 10 in points after the season’s first four races.

That follows an unprecedented finish of three drivers – Truex, Bowyer and first-time organization starter Brian Vickers – among the top five in Bristol. All three of MWR’s cars (one is shared by Mark Martin and Vickers) are top 10 in NSCS Owner Championship standings.

Martin has the best record at Auto Club Speedway: a win in 1998 among six top-five finishes. Bowyer, eighth in points, finished second in 2010. Truex, hoping to erase a 171-race winless streak dating to the 2007 fall race at Dover International Speedway, posted back-to-back sixth-place finish at ACS in 2007-08. Truex ranks a heady fourth in points, 18 behind leader Biffle.

Biffle’s Top-Three Streak Ends But Veteran Retains Points Lead
Biffle, 13th at Bristol after running among the top 10 most of the afternoon, left Thunder Valley with a pair of successes. His 10th career Coors Light Pole puts him in field for the 2013 Shootout At Daytona. The Vancouver, Wash., driver also retains the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points lead by nine over Harvick. Daytona 500 winner Kenseth is third followed by Truex and Phoenix winner Denny Hamlin.

Five drivers who didn’t qualify for last year’s Chase rank among the current top 10: Biffle (first), Truex (fourth), Bowyer (eighth), Joey Logano (ninth) and Paul Menard (10th). Last year’s Chase drivers outside the top 10 are Ryan Newman (12th), Bristol winner Brad Keselowski (13th), Edwards (14th), Kyle Busch (15th), Johnson (17th), Jeff Gordon (23rd) and Kurt Busch (27th).

Attention NASCAR Sprint Cup Owners: This Is Cut-Down Week
Last season’s Car Owner Championship standings locked in the top 35 teams automatically qualifying for each of 2012’s first five races. The Auto Club 400 is race No. 5 after which the lock-in will be based upon current points.

Five teams are fighting for a top-35 spot – including the No. 10 of Tommy Baldwin, which has a guaranteed starting spot this week but ranks 36th after last weekend’s Bristol competition. The car is shared by David Reutimann and Danica Patrick. Baldwin trails Thomas Ueberall’s No. 83 by three points and – surprisingly – the 34th-ranked No. 5 of Linda Hendrick (driven by Kasey Kahne) by seven.

Two other teams hoping to make a move into the top 35 this week are Kevin Butler’s No. 30 (38th, 10 points behind Ueberall) and the No. 26 of Jerry Freeze, 39th, with an 18-point deficit).

Teams with cars outside the top 35 beginning with the April 1 race at Martinsville Speedway must qualify for the fields based on speed.

Each Series Manufacturer Boast A Winner After Four Races
Keselowski’s second consecutive victory at Bristol Motor Speedway completed the cycle for the four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series manufacturers. Dodge followed Chevrolet (Las Vegas), Toyota (Phoenix) and Ford (Daytona) into Victory Lane matching a feat last achieved in 1986 when the season’s first four races were won by four different nameplates (Chevrolet, Ford, Oldsmobile and Buick).

Keselowski, at age 28, is the season’s youngest winner. The Food City 500 marked the Michigan native’s fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup win.

Keselowski has yet to finish higher than 21st in three NSCS trips to Auto Club Speedway. He was 26th a year ago.

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