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Race Day: Standings Have Strange Look In Week 4

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 27 2011

The big, wide, 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway is the site of today's Auto Club 400 Sprint Cup race. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

The Sprint Cup standings heading into today’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway have what many would consider a bizarre look to them. The usual suspects are in some pretty unusual locations.

And not just at the top end of the standings, where Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr. and Bobby Labonte all sit in the top 15 in points.

The south side of the standings is also littered with some names that seem out of place down there. Chasers from last year even. Greg Biffle, for example is 23rd in points while Clint Bowyer is 24th and Jeff Burton is 29th.

That kind of begs the questions of: Why?; and, Are those in trouble after only four races of a 26-race preseason.

A select group of drivers pondered those questions and the following are their toughts:

Tony Stewart, No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet: “I think the Daytona 500 has a lot to do with that. Normally if somebody had a slow start to the year, you can normally pinpoint it to Daytona or something similar to that and you look at the first two races and there were two big ones (multi-car wrecks) in the first two races. I think there is a reason why there are guys kind of in a bad sport right now.”

Martin Truex Jr., No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota: They know more than anyone how their cars are running.  How their team is doing, and whether they should panic or not.  Both of those guys

Greg Biffle has not visited Victory Lane yet this year. In fact, there has only been one visit to the top five in the first four races. What's up with that? (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

have been around long enough to understand what it takes to run up front and what it takes to overcome four bad weeks.  I think in 26 races it’s going to look a lot different.  Obviously, we talked about it last week.  Those guys know more than anybody inside of their teams how things are going and what their problems really are. Is it just bad luck?  Are we running well enough to overcome it?  So, they understand all that.  It’s hard to look in from outside another team and say, ‘Well, they haven’t run very well.’ It’s easy to look at finishes and say that’s a bad start.  But, based on their feelings about how they run and how their team is working it could be a decent start just with bad results.”

Carl Edwards, No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Chevrolet: “I think those guys are going to be good. It think Burton will be right back there and I know Biffle will be. They are fast. All you have to be is fast in this sport. If you are fast it will work out. They have had back luck. They won’t run in that position in points for very long.”

Trivia time

Two drivers got their first Sprint Cup victories at Auto Club Speedway. Who are they?

Fast facts

What: Auto Club 400

Where: Auto Club Speedway; Fontana, Calif.

When: Sunday, 3 p.m. ET

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

Radio: MRN/Sirius Satellite Ch. 128

Track layout: 2-mile oval

Banking: 14 dgrees in turns, 11 degrees in front stretch

Seating capacity: 92,988

Race distance: 200 laps/400 miles

2010 winner: Jimmie Johnson

2010 polesitter: Jamie McMurray

Today’s polesitter: Juan Pablo Montoya

First Cup race at Auto Club: The California 500, 1997

First winner of Cup race at Auto Club: Jeff Gordon

Today’s keys

Howard Comstock, Dodge motorsports engineer – NASCAR program manager, points to three keys to the Auto Club 400. They are, he said:

Auto Club Speedway, site of today's race. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Spring Race Date:  “Cooler weather and a clean track surface provide plenty of grip.  It’s going to be much cooler this weekend than recent races here at Fontana and if the track will hold that grip throughout the entire weekend, we’re going to see some fast speeds. That will mean prolonged periods of high RPM for the engines, and that could lead to durability problems.”

400 vs. 500: “The race is 100 miles shorter and nobody has a book for a 400-mile spring race at Auto Club Speedway.   It will be different for the teams to run 400 miles in the spring compared to 400 miles in the fall.  Although I don’t think we’ll see fuel mileage problems, there is concern about tire wear.  With a cool and clean track surface providing the extra grip and fast speeds, you tend to get concerned about tires.”

Feel the Force:  “Because Auto Club Speedway is a big fast track, common thinking is you need to have the slickest aerodynamics.  The fact of the matter is you’ve got to have the most downforce that you can create.  You could run a Daytona-style car here that’s very slick and never be able to get around the track because when you go off into that corner at over 200 mph, with little banking, you need downforce.”

Q and A

For the first time since 2003, the Sprint Cup Series will be paying just one visit to Southern California. The track’s second date has been sent to Kansas.

Kevin Harvick says he has no problem with Auto Club losing a date. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Southern Cal native Kevin Harvick was asked about the move. Here are the Qs and the As:

Q: Are you disappointed that there is only one race this year?

A: “Honestly I wish all the race tracks would be held accountable for how many people are sitting in their grandstands.  I think sometimes there’s just certain places that we go to — I think this particular track is a good venue that when we first started coming here supported one race very well.  Sometimes a lot of people want more and you try to make two races out of it.  I always tell people there is no reason to make two mediocre out of one good.  This is a good one event and there’s several race tracks that should be held to the same accountability on a yearly basis in my opinion.  I think that new markets and new, fresh fans that haven’t been able to see the races year after year would be an eye opener for a lot of race tracks.”

Q: Is this weekend a fair test for the track?

A: “I don’t see why it shouldn’t be considered a fair test.”

Q: What specific other tracks would you want to see looked at?

A:  “You’re smart – figure it out.”

Top of heap

Kurt Busch is your points leader through the first four races. He was asked on Friday if he is surprised by that.

“I think that we’re right on par,” Busch, the 2004 Cup champion said. “It’s been a good start to our season.  We haven’t had anything seriously go wrong other than the spin that I had at Las Vegas.  We were running in the top-five at that point and (the spin) put us in the back at the halfway mark in that race. I had to charge up through there and our car was good enough and get back up in the top 10.  We’re just looking for a good, smooth race again this weekend.  You have to win if you want to build on the points lead; you just can’t maintain top-10 finishes.  So that’s what we hope to do and go get a win.”

Trivia answer

Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch both got the first victories of their Cup careers at Auto Club. Johnson got his in April of 2002 and Busch got his in September of 2005.

Track tidbits

Number of races: 21

Youngest winner: Kyle Busch, 20 years, 4 months, 2 days)

Oldest winner: Rusty Wallace, 44 years, 8 months, 15 days

Races won from pole: 1

Most cautions: 12

Fewest cautions: 4

Most poles by a driver: 3, by Kurt Busch

Most wins by a driver: 5, by Jimmie Johnson

Most lead-lap finishes by a driver: 17, by Jeff Gordon

Most DNFs: 8, by Joe Nemechek

Widest margin of victory: 12.8 seconds

Narrowest margin of victory: .231 seconds

Acting up

Jimmie Johnson got to Los Angeles early last week so he could do a little acting.

On Wednesday he took part in taping for upcoming episode of the television show “Breaking In!” The

Jimmie Johnson, actor/driver. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR)

35-year-old five-time series champion himself in the storyline, which will air on April 20.

Johnson was asked about the experience.

“We spent a lot of time just doing the same thing over and over,” he said. “They would change cameras and get different angles, close-ups of each person involved.  Five or six hours went by and we taped a two-minute piece just for that.  It was a long day.  With the different scenes we ended up taping.  The cast, there’s some characters on that cast and there wasn’t a dull moment all day long.  I had a great experience with it.  It’s an edgy show.  Some of the stuff that the actors are going through, there’s no way it will make television, but it was good for laughs and had a great time with it.  We did it in Los Angeles at the Sony studios.”

Johnson was asked about acting training and past experience.

“No training. Trial and error,” he said. “I guess the commercials we shoot have been my training ground of sorts.  The show “Las Vegas”, four or five years ago and I think I had more on camera time and dedicated three or four days to doing that where this experience was just one day.  I would say the “Las Vegas” show was more intense time schedule.

“I think this was by far, which Christine (Curley, PR representative) even said I did a good job, which is hard to believe – she’s not one to pass out compliments.  I knew Christian (Slater, the star of the show) from the different years that he has been out here promoting other programs and projects so hung out with him and talked and then the rest of the cast as well.

“They’re all going to come out for the race as well, we got them hooked up to come out.  Hopefully you guys can grab them.  The actor that was on Smallville, if you look on the website, his hair is all spiky.  That guy is a riot.  If you have a chance to ask him some questions, you’ll get quality answers.  Not sure you can write or repeat much of what he says, but he’ll be entertaining.”

Up next

Denny Hamlin celebrates 2010 victory at Martinsville. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The Cup series moves from a big track to the smallest track – Martinsville Speedway – next week.

Last year, Denny Hamlin plowed through traffic after a green-white-checkered-flag restart to post

his second straight victory at Martinsville Speedway, wresting the title ―Mr. Martinsville —at least temporarily—from Jimmie Johnson, who rode a nondescript ninth-place finish to the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead.

On fresh tires, thanks to a pit stop under caution on Lap 493, Hamlin powered past Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon on Lap 507 of 508 after Kenseth and Gordon traded shots earlier on the same lap.

Hamlin cleared Gordon’s Chevrolet through Turns 3 and 4 and finished the race on a cut tire, .670 seconds ahead of teammate Joey Logano, who weaved his way through the melee to give Joe Gibbs Racing a 1-2 finish at the .526-mile short track.

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

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 27 2011
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