Wednesday, March 20, 2013

NASCAR Notes: 2013 Auto Club 400 at Fontana

Jimmie Johnson one of seven native Californians racing this week
No Time To Rest For Streaking Keselowski

And you thought Brad Keselowski’s championship year was stellar. He’s wasted no time fashioning a follow-up season that has the potential to be even better.

Four races down, the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has assumed the standings lead. He heads Dale Earnhardt Jr. by nine points entering Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway near Los Angeles.

Fear the Keselowski? It appears so.

The 29-year-old Keselowski hasn’t won – yet.

But he’s done the next best thing, recognizing that putting yourself in position to win is the next best thing. He’s certainly done that so far.

Keselowski is the only driver to have finished among the top five in each of the season’s four opening races. A third-place finish in Sunday’s Food City 500 follows a similar placing in Las Vegas and fourths at Phoenix and in the Daytona 500.

He’s also the only leader of all four races.

Keselowski’s start is the best in the series since Jimmie Johnson performed similarly in 2005. A fifth consecutive top five would be the first time that feat has been accomplished since NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace’s 1998 start, which also came in a No. 2 Miller Ford. Fellow Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough holds the all-time season start mark of nine in 1974.

"Obviously, we're off to my best start ever. That's really cool. I'm happy for my team and all that stuff," said Keselowski, who stood 14th in last year’s standings after four races. "We can't keep our feet still. We know that Kyle [Busch] and Jimmie [Johnson] are going to continue to make their cars better. We have to keep digging and push on our stuff, too. I think we got a pretty good feel on the 2 team."

Daytona 500 winner Johnson had been the points leader until Sunday, when an accident relegated him to a finish of 22nd. Busch has top-five finishes in each of the past two races.

For Keselowski, Auto Club Speedway remains a question mark. His best career finish – although in just four races – is 18th in last year’s weather-shortened event.

Keselowski, however, has been on a tear when it comes to erasing poor finishes. He logged career track-best or matching performances at 16 different tracks in 2012, a season in which he won five times. Three of those victories – Chicagoland, Dover and Kentucky – came at tracks where Keselowski had not previously won.

Backyard Victory Proves Elusive To SoCal’s Toyota

Toyota has visited Auto Club Speedway’s Victory Lane 11 times in NASCAR national series competition. But never in NASCAR Sprint Cup. The manufacturer’s 0-for-10 record is frustrating for several reasons. The track is one of two in the series (with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) at which the NASCAR Sprint Cup Camry is winless.

Adding salt to the wound is that Toyota Racing Development, the firm’s competition arm, is located in Southern California.

The drought, however, could end on Sunday.

Three current Toyota drivers – Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Kyle Busch – are Auto Club winners, just with other nameplates. Kenseth won in Las Vegas several weeks ago and threatened to double up at Bristol before being collected by Jeff Gordon’s tire failure and subsequent accident.

Martin, the Phoenix Coors Light Pole winner, sat out last week’s short-track event but returns to the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota that stands fourth in NASCAR Sprint Cup owner standings.
Busch, second at Bristol, comes off consecutive top-five finishes and significant momentum considering that both performances were marred by pit road infractions.

Martin and Busch must be considered Auto Club masters, each having won in NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR Nationwide and NASCAR Camping World Truck events at the two-mile facility.

Neither Clint Bowyer nor Denny Hamlin has a NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in Southern California. That might change this weekend.

Bowyer fashioned four consecutive top 10s at ACS between 2009 and 2011, including a third in 2010. Last year’s points runner-up stands fourth in current standings after finishing fifth at Bristol.
Hamlin was last year’s Auto Club 400 pole winner, the second time the Virginian had been the track’s fastest qualifier. He has competed in 12 previous Southern California events with a best finish of third among four top 10s.

Golden State Drivers Top Auto Club Entry, Winner’s Circle

California dreamin’, indeed. Native California competitors not only dominate this weekend’s Auto Club 400 entry list – there are seven, most from any state – but also top the track’s roster of winners. Californians have won nine of the track’s 23 events. NASCAR Sprint Cup champions Jimmie Johnson (El Cajon) and Jeff Gordon (Vallejo) have won a combined eight times. Bakersfield’s Kevin Harvick won at Auto Club Speedway in 2011.

Johnson won at ACS in four of five championship seasons (2007-10). How good is Johnson at Auto Club? His average finish of 5.4 is best at a single track among active drivers with 15 or more starts. He’ll make his 19th appearance at what he terms his home track on Sunday.

Gordon won the Southern California track’s inaugural race in 1997, a title year, and again in 1999 and 2004.

Front Row Motorsports teammates David Gilliland and Josh Wise both hail from Riverside, a community 20 or so miles east of Auto Club Speedway. Gilliland, whose best finish is 17th, will make his 12th start. Wise, a series rookie a year ago, will make just his second appearance. Casey Mears, from Bakersfield, has opened strong in 2013 with a pair of top-15 finishes – most recently last Sunday at Bristol. He has a pair of top-10 performances at ACS. Los Gatos’ AJ Allmendinger, driving the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet, will make his third straight Auto Club start with a different owner. He scored top-15 finishes with Penske Racing a year ago and with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2011. Allmendinger qualified second for the old Red Bull Toyota team in 2008.

Kahne, Junior Looking To Pile Onto Hendrick’s Championship Haul

As far as titles go, none of today’s drivers can touch five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time titlist Jeff Gordon. But fellow Hendrick Motorsports drivers Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have issued a statement to start 2013: Don’t forget about us.

With four top-10 finishes in four races – a feat that has launched him to second in the standings – Earnhardt is enjoying the best start of his career. Never before has Earnhardt started off the season so prolifically. In 2004 and 2008, he went 3-for-4 in top 10s. And in 2004, he was third in the points after four races. Those were his previous benchmarks as far as "best starts" go, both trumped by 2013.
Can Earnhardt go 5-for-5, and potentially claw his way into the points lead? It’ll be tough, considering his history at Auto Club Speedway, site of Sunday’s Auto Club 400. True, Earnhardt finished third last season. But in the seven races prior, he has suffered through an average finish of 25.0.

But then there’s this: Earnhardt went 12-for-12 in top 10s in races at intermediate race tracks (those measuring 1.5 or 2 miles), the only driver to accomplish the feat.

Likewise, Kahne has set a blistering pace to open the season – especially compared to 2012, his first with Hendrick Motorsports. Kahne slogged through some first-year jitters last season, sitting 32nd in points after four races.

Now, he’s seventh in the points after his win at Bristol on Sunday that tied him with Ernie Irvan at No. 50 on the all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins list with 15. Kahne was this week’s guest on the national NASCAR teleconference. Click here to listen to and download the audio from the teleconference.

At Auto Club Speedway, Kahne has a win (2006) and nine top 10s in 16 starts.

Stewart Going Back To Cali … Fortunately

A bizarre start to the 2013 season has greeted three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart.

Two decent finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas have been bookended by results outside the top 30, resulting in his current points position of 24th. It’s only the fourth time in his 15-year career that Stewart has been outside the top 10 in points after four races, and the first time he’s been outside the top 20.

But it’s early. And Auto Club Speedway’s on deck. And, if worse comes to worse, there’s the Wild Card – and Stewart wins in bunches.

Stewart has won two of the last three races in Fontana, including last year’s rain-shortened event. In that one, the then-defending champion combined talent and veteran guile to steal the win after faking a pit stop and staying in the lead shortly before the race was called. It was the latest in a string of successful Southern California visits. Stewart has finished in the top 10 in five of the last six races at Auto Club. His pre-race Driver Rating of 102.4 is fourth in the series.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

Mark Martin returns to the seat of the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota on Sunday after a one-week hiatus. Brian Vickers drove it in Bristol to an eight-place finish, pushing the No. 55 to fourth in the owner points standings. … The No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet also resides in the top 10 in points – it’s eighth – despite a revolving door of starting drivers. AJ Allmendinger has run two races, and Regan Smith and Austin Dillon have run one each. Allmendinger’s slated to run this weekend. … Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Timmy Hill, who won NASCAR Nationwide Series rookie honors in 2011, will make his first start of 2013 in the No. 32 FAS Lane Racing Ford.

Rookie Larson Starting To Turn Heads

When NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate Kyle Larson, of Elk Grove, Calif., returns to his home state for Saturday’s Royal Purple 300 at Auto Club Speedway, he will have a lot of people paying attention to his on-track performance.

After racing down and challenging Kyle Busch in the closing laps of last Saturday’s Jeff Foxworthy’s Grit Chips 300 at Bristol, Larson impressed many throughout the NASCAR Nationwide Series garage. His side-by-side racing showed how much the 20-year-old had learned in the past month.
In the opening race of last month’s inaugural UNOH Battle at the Beach, Larson turned race leader C.E. Falk into the infield on the final turn of the last lap to seize the victory. Although he did what was necessary to win, the move drew the ire of some fans and those inside the garage.

In last Saturday’s race, Larson was again aggressive on the track, but instead of punting the leader into the infield wall, and possibly out of the race, he chose good, clean racing. It’s a sign that he’s already learned that knocking people from the lead or race is not always the best way to get to the front.

Through the first four races of the 2013 season, Larson has proven that he’s more than capable of winning his fair share of those last-lap duels without unnecessary contact. He finished the first two races in 13th place. At Las Vegas, he had to head to the garage prematurely after an accident left him 18 laps shy of the checkered flag.

With the series off to California, Larson sits ninth in the NASCAR Nationwide standings, 49 points behind leader Sam Hornish Jr. In the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, Larson is second behind Alex Bowman, who is eighth in the standings (-47) after two top-10 finishes.

"I’ve done a lot of traveling over the past couple years, so it will be nice to come back to California and Auto Club Speedway," Larson said. "It’s always nice to come home and race in your home state."

- NASCAR Media Services

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