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Keeping Pace

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes - Auto Club Speedway

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)

A total of 190 points separate first place to 11th in the Chase standings, and only 99 points separate first to sixth – the closest points margin after the first three races of the Chase since the format’s inception in 2004.

Courtesy: NASCAR Media Relations

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings started with drivers bunched closely together points-wise. Three races into the Chase, little has changed.

Going into Sunday’s Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway, the man everyone is trying to catch continues to be Mark Martin (No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg’s Chevrolet), as he is 18 points ahead of second-place, Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet), the three-time defending series champion. Martin has posted a series-leading and career-high seven poles plus five victories.

But don’t be fooled, the rest of the top 12 are not letting Martin just walk away with the title.

A total of 190 points separate first place to 11th in the Chase standings, and only 99 points separate first to sixth – the closest points margin after the first three races of the Chase since the format’s inception in 2004.

And to boot, three different Chase contenders have won the first three races of the Chase – (Martin, New Hampshire; Johnson, Dover; and Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet), Kansas).

“It just shows that you're going to have to be on for 10 weeks to win this thing, and if you have a bad day, there's going to be guys that are going to capitalize on it,” said Stewart.

This weekend, Auto Club Speedway welcomes its inaugural Chase race, and returning race winner Johnson could benefit. Johnson is tied with Gordon and Matt Kenseth (No. 17 R&L Carriers Ford) for a series-high three wins at ACS.

Stewart Working Two Jobs And Climbing The Standings

Of all the top 12 Chase contenders this season one of them has had a little more on his plate than the rest. Tony Stewart co-owns Stewart-Haas Racing and also drives the No. 14, and has been able to do both while competing for this season’s championship.

Stewart heads to California this week coming off a win at Kansas Speedway that moved him up one spot in the Chase standings to fourth and closed the points gap behind Mark Martin to 67-points. Stewart has posted four wins, 14 top fives and 20 top 10s this season with the help of his crew chief Darian Grubb.

“We knew going into the Chase it was a must win situation,” said Grubb. “You're going to have to win races against these competitors (top 12 contenders).”

Stewart heads to Auto Club Speedway this weekend having posted three top fives and eight top 10s. He has yet to win at the 2-mile track, but Stewart and Grubb are much more optimistic this time around at Auto Club Speedway,

“We were still just learning each other going into California in the spring,” said Stewart. “We've had time to make mistakes and make decisions that worked for me, and that's something that will help us definitely. I'm anticipating California a lot more this time than in the spring.”

Loop Data Says: Montoya Remains In Thick Of Title Contention

The career year, as far as NASCAR is concerned, continues for Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Target Chevrolet).

Last Sunday at Kansas, Montoya scored a fourth-place finish, his career-best at the 1.5-mile track. That made Kansas the 14th track at which Montoya has posted a career-best finish in 2009.

In other words, past statistics for this weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway might not be the best analysis tool. Prior to this season, Montoya struggled at the track.

In February, Montoya finished 11th, his best career Auto Club finish in five races. Prior to that, he averaged a 24.8.

His overall Auto Club numbers aren’t less than impressive: Driver Rating of 68.4 (23rd-best), Average Running Position of 20.1 (21st), one Fastest Lap Run and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 41.4%.

But his February run might be more indicative of how he’ll run this Sunday in the Pepsi 500. That race, Montoya had a Driver Rating of 90.5, an Average Running Position of 10.8 and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 98.4%.

Montoya, third in points, owns some of the top statistics over the first three races, suggesting that his 51-point deficit to leader Mark Martin might vanish sooner than later. Over the first three races, Montoya is the only driver to notch three top fives. Over that span, he has an average finish of 3.7 (second-best), a Driver Rating of 122.2 (second), an Average Running Position of 4.6 (second) and a series-best Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 99.4%.

On the other side of the “career year” coin is Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford). Edwards, though enjoying a solid season, has fallen far off from winning a series-high nine races in 2008.

Edwards is still looking for his first victory, but Auto Club Speedway seems like the perfect spot. For one, his Roush Fenway Racing team has won at least one race in Fontana in each of the last five seasons (the outfit prolonged the streak earlier this season with Matt Kenseth’s victory).

Secondly, Edwards is strong there. In his 10 career races at Auto Club Speedway, Edwards has finished in the top 10 nine times. Since the inception of Loop Data in 2005, Edwards has outstanding statistics: a Driver Rating of 105.0, an Average Running Position of 10.8, 139 Fastest Laps Run and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 79.1%.

Edwards won there in last season’s spring race, notching a Driver Rating of 135.4, his best at Auto Club Speedway.

Montoya’s Making Mark In NASCAR
Juan Pablo Montoya has scored a career-best finish at 14 different tracks this season, including Auto Club Speedway, site of this Sunday’s Pepsi 500. Below are those finishes:
Date           Track             Finish
9/6/2009     Atlanta               3
2/22/2009   Auto Club          11
3/22/2009   Bristol                9
7/11/2009   Chicago            10
5/9/2009     Darlington         20
7/4/2009     Daytona             9
9/27/2009   Dover                 4
10/4/2009   Kansas              4
5/25/2009   Lowe's               8
6/14/2009   Michigan            6
8/3/2009     Pocono              2
9/20/2009   New Hampshire   3
5/2/2009     Richmond         10
4/5/2009     Texas                7

On The Rebound: Biffle And Gordon Continue To Dig 

Slow starts in racing can lead to finishing last. This season Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Ford) and Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) started off slow in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but have spent the last three weeks building momentum and climbing back into contention.

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon finished second at Kansas to move up into seventh in the points standings 103-points behind the standings leader Mark Martin.

Gordon has posted one win (Texas) and 13 top fives this season, and is tied with Tony Stewart for a series leading 20 top-10 finishes.

“Right now we've got to focus on our team and our program and our finishes,” said Gordon. “We got a little bit behind in New Hampshire, and now we've got to make sure that's the worst finish that we have in the Chase. That's the only chance that we have, and that's asking a lot, but that's now our goal.  It's the position we put ourselves in,“ said Gordon.

Gordon heads to Auto Club Speedway tied with Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth for the series most wins at the 2-mile track with three (1997, 1999, 2004), and has posted nine top fives, nine top 10s and two poles in 18 starts.

Biffle has had the tallest ladder to climb this season, after being seeded 12th coming into the Chase, and climbed he has.

Biffle is eighth in the Chase standings 114-points behind Martin. He has posted nine top fives and fourteen top 10s this season.

In the first three races of the Chase, Biffle has finished in the top-10 twice.

“We're sure excited to be running good again and especially going to some tracks we like, like California,” said Biffle. “I'm having the time of my life, I know that.”

Biffle won at Auto Club Speedway in 2005, and has also posted four top fives, and four top 10s in 13 starts.

Matt Kenseth Has Opportunity To Pull Off Career First Sweep At Auto Club Speedway

Leaving Fontana, California this season back in the spring most people had named Matt Kenseth and Drew Blickensderfer as the hottest driver/crew chief duo in the garage after having started the season off 2-0. But the dream of being on top  was short lived, especially when the team failed to make the Chase at Richmond International Raceway.

But all is not lost, Kenseth and Blickensderfer have a chance to sweep Auto Club Speedway’s two races  this season.

Kenseth tied Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson for a series high most wins at Auto Club Speedway with three after his win there earlier this season.

If Kenseth does win, he would be the first driver not in the Chase this season to win a Chase race which would make him the “The Spoiler.”

Besides Kenseth’s three wins, he has posted seven top fives and eleven top 10s in 15 starts.

If Kenseth is able to win this weekend it will be his first sweep at a track in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition.

Kenseth is currently 14th in the standings having posted two wins, five top fives and 10 top 10s this season.

On The Line: Kurt Busch

This week, Chase competitor and former (2004) series champion Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) was the guest on the NASCAR teleconference. Busch is currently fifth in the standings having posted one win, eight top fives and 16 top 10s this season.

Following are some excerpts from the teleconference, the rest of the transcript (and an audio file) can be found on

Q: Nine contenders legitimately have a chance to win the championship. What do you think are your chances?

Busch: “There are still plenty of guys that have a legitimate shot at this. And ours is still very high with our team at Penske Racing. We feel like the first couple of races have gone very well. To finish 11th at Kansas was a bit off for us, but we struggled on pit road. We had loose wheels and the last adjustment we made on our Miller Lite Dodge didn't allow us to take advantage of the double restarts at the end. So we still find ourselves in a great position. You just don't want to have that bad race early on and have to dig out of a hole.” 

Q: Being on both sides, in the Chase and out of the Chase, does being out of the Chase make you feel like an outcast riding around, is it a tough situation to be in?

Busch: “No, not at all. I still think it's a great opportunity to do a number of things.

“One is to just throw yourself into position to try to win. Whether it's staying out on a pit stop or short pitting for fuel. 

“Then there is the next scenario of using those final ten races to advance your program for the upcoming season. 

“There are guys this year that didn't make the Chase that are running very competitively:  Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&Ms Toyota), David Reutimann (No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota).

“They're making names and waves out there just as they would if they were in the Chase.”

California Natives: More Than You Would Think Behind The Wheel

Many think that most of the drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are from the east coast of the country, but what many don’t know is California also has quite the contingent of natives behind the wheel.

Of the seven drivers from California, two are vying for the championship this season, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon who hails from Vallejo, Calif. and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, three-time series champion Jimmie Johnson who grew up in El Cajon, Calif.

Another set of teammates, Kevin Harvick (No 29 SHELL/Pennzoil Chevrolet) and Casey Mears (No. 07 Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet) for Richard Childress Racing are both from Bakersfield, Calif.

The next driver, Robby Gordon (No. 7 Robby Gordon Motorsports Toyota) calls Orange, Calif. his hometown. Gordon is 33rd in the standings, having posted one top five this season. He has made 14 starts at Auto Club Speedway posting one top-five finish.

One of this season’s Raybestos Rookie of the Year contenders Scott Speed (No. 82 Red Bull Toyota) is from Manteca, Calif., and AJ Allmendinger (No. 44 Dassault Systems Dodge) is from Los Gatos. 

NSCS California Native Drivers

Kevin Harvick (No. 29 driver) – Bakersfield
Casey Mears (No. 07 driver) – Bakersfield
Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 driver) – El Cajon
Robby Gordon (No. 7 driver) – Orange
Scott Speed (No. 82 driver) -- Manteca
Jeff Gordon (No. 24 driver) – Vallejo
AJ Allmendinger (No. 44 driver) – Los Gatos


Off Track: Auto Club Speedway Doing A Lot For The Fans

In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), Auto Club Speedway is bringing Southern California race fans “Viva la Fiesta,” the Speedway’s all-new Hispanic musical festival area located in the ACS Opportunity, California FanZone. 

Race fans will not only experience the thrill of incredible world-class racing, but also a full weekend of Hispanic heritage and culture. Walking through the gates of Auto Club Speedway and into Viva la Fiesta, fans will enjoy live musical performances from: Los Angeles punk rock band Fatima, the Los Angeles based, indie band Son Locuaz,  Latin alternative pop/rock group Ruido De Fondo, and the Los Angeles favorite Mariachi Latino de Jose Cervantes

Not only will those attending witness the “first” ever Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Southern California, but they will also have the opportunity to be part of the “first” live performance video shoot of rock-and-roll legend Foreigner’s “Can’t Slow Down” at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday, Oct. 11.  Fans wishing to take part in the taping should gather at the main stage in the Opportunity, California FanZone at 10:15 a.m.

Foreigner’s Mick Jones said, “NASCAR fans are our kind of people and that’s why we have chosen to film our new music video at Auto Club Speedway. I'm really looking forward to our future affiliation with a great community and hope everyone will come out to the Pepsi 500. ‘It Feels Like The First Time’ all over again,” said Jones.

The Stars Will Be Out This Weekend

Audrina Patridge who stars on the hit MTV series The Hills has been named Honorary Starter for the much-anticipated Inaugural Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race – the Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway.

As Honorary Starter for the Pepsi 500, Patridge will wave the Green Flag from the top of the flag stand on the speedway’s start/finish line, to get the Pepsi 500 underway.

Also, Kelsey Grammer will serve as Grand Marshal for the race. Grammer, of “Frasier” fame, now stars in the new ABC comedy “Hank."

On Saturday, Dancing with the Stars celebrity contestant Kelly Osbourne will serve as Honorary Starter for the Copart 300, NASCAR Nationwide Series race on Oct. 10, and joining her will be Academy Award and multi-Golden Globe Award-nominated actor John C. Reilly, who will serve as Grand Marshal.

Chevrolet Clinches 33rd Manufacturers’ Championship

Chevrolet clinched the 2009 Manufacturers’ Championship in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. It is the 33rd manufacturers’ crown for Chevrolet, the most ever by any automobile manufacturer in the sport.

“To win the Manufacturers’ title for Chevy by winning this race is awesome,” Tony Stewart said. “This is a proud moment. Chevrolet has been a big part of my career, and General Motors, in general, has. To be the team that wins the race today and locks down the championship for them is a huge sense of pride for us.”
Up Next: Lowe’s Motor Speedway

The Chase reaches the halfway point next week when Lowe’s Motor Speedway hosts the fifth race in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup — the Bank of America 500 — next Saturday, Oct. 17 (7 p.m. start on ABC).

Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) is the defending race champion. Last October’s victory at Lowe’s Motor Speedway was Burton’s third time winning at the 1.5-mile track. It also was car owner Richard Childress’s fifth win there.

Fast Facts

The Race: Pepsi 500

The Place: Auto Club Speedway (2-mile oval)

The Date: Sunday, Oct. 11

The Time: 3:15 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 500 miles//250 laps

TV: ABC, 2:30 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128; (Local: KVFG/103.1 FM)

2008 Winner: Jimmie Johnson

2008 Polesitter: Jimmie Johnson

Schedule: Friday—Practice, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.; Qualifying, 3:40 p.m. Saturday—Practice, 10:30 -11:15 a.m. and 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m.

2009 Top 12 Drivers
    Driver                      Points
 1 Mark Martin               5,551
 2 Jimmie Johnson         5,533
 3 Juan Pablo Montoya   5,500
 4 Tony Stewart              5,484
 5 Kurt Busch                5,460
 6 Denny Hamlin            5,452
 7 Jeff Gordon                5,448
 8 Greg Biffle                 5,437
 9 Ryan Newman           5,387
10 Carl Edwards            5,386
11 Kasey Kahne            5,361
12 Brian Vickers            5,301

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Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.