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Race Day: The Chase Looks For Comfortable Home In SoCal

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 11 2009
Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. has been moved into the Chase this season. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. has been moved into the Chase this season. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

The courtship of Southern California by NASCAR continues today and by mid afternoon, we’ll know whether or not the fans in that area have found something to love in Fontana or not.

NASCAR’s latest tactic in trying to lure the ticket-buying public away from their bountiful other Sunday activities and out to the 2.0-mile oval has been to award Auto Club Speedway a Chase date.

In the garages this weekend, opinions varied about the decision to give the gift of Chase an area which has traditionally greeted NASCAR with a collective, “What’s your name again?”

Here is what selected drivers said about the Chase and America’s second-most-important market:

Denny Hamlin, a native of Virginia: “I like it that they moved the date back, for sure.  Definitely don’t mind this being a Chase race.  Obviously the weather is better for us too – and I think that’s important.  The date will probably also help the fans and everyone come out and not be so miserable for them to have to sit in the stands in 110 degree weather.”

Greg Biffle, a native of Washington state: “I’m real excited that California is in the Chase. I think the holiday weekend was not a good time to come to California. I think (now) is a great time. I really like this race track, and I’m glad to be here in October.”

Brian Vickers, a native of North Carolina: “I’m glad we come here. I think it’s a great facility and I’m glad they moved the date. I think the date change is going to be for the better.  117 degree weather is not good for anything, much less a race. That could not have helped our cause here. I think moving the date is going to help.”

Jeff Gordon, a native of California: “I mean certainly this used to be a night race and now it’s a day race and certainly this time of year is the perfect time of year for us to be here weather-wise. You just can’t beat this weather. Track temperature and everything is just perfect for the race cars. Anytime that we come out on the West Coast, the teams are happy to have a day race because that means we get back home at a fairly decent hour instead of a day later and doesn’t shorten our week up.

“Other than that, it doesn’t matter when we race here and what the conditions are as long as it’s the same for everybody. It was pretty extreme last year (hot, that is) and I think that would have made a difference from the fans standpoint and choosing to come out here. I don’t know why the sales are sometimes flat here. I think I made more of a comment about NFL franchises can’t seem to make it work in this area so that tells me that it’s a tough market.”

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

2009 Polesitter: Denny Hamlin

Eyeing the Chase

Going into the Pepsi 500, the one 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 the rest of the top 12 are not letting Martin off easy.

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.

The man with two jobs

One of the Chase contenders 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.”

JPM

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

9/6/09……Atlanta………3rd

2/22/09….Auto Club …..11th

3/22/09….Bristol……… 9th

7/11/09….Chicago……. 10th

5/9/09 …..Darlington….20th

7/4/09……Daytona…….9th

9/27/09….Dover………..4th

10/4/09….Kansas………. 4th

5/25/09….Lowe’s……….. 8th

6/14/09….Michigan……..6th

8/3/09…..Pocono…………2nd

9/20/09…N. Hampshire..3rd

5/2/09…..Richmond…….10th

4/5/09…..Texas…………. 7th

Still breathing

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 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.

At home

Native Californians in today’s race:

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

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.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 11 2009
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