Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Chase Coverage: Auto Club Speedway Wrap-Up Report

cali start

Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race at California’s Auto Club Speedway was a disappointing day for many of the contenders. Mechanical failures, pit road speeding violations, issues on the track and poor performances plagued the top 12. In the end Tony Stewart crossed the finish line first, earning his second win of 2010 and moving up five places in the standing.

Check out how the top 12 drivers fared in this week’s Wrap-Up Report.

1.  Jimmie Johnson – Leader – Rebecca Kivak
While other Chase drivers left Auto Club Speedway with their championship hopes dashed, Jimmie Johnson’s quest for a fifth Sprint Cup title was bolstered by a third-place finish at his home track. Sunday’s Pepsi Max 400 was Johnson’s third consecutive top-3 showing in the Chase. With the finish, the four-time champion extended his points lead from 8 to 36 over second-place Denny Hamlin.

The El Cajon, Calif., native qualified eighth in the No. 48 Lowe’s/Jimmie Johnson Foundation Chevrolet for Sunday’s race at Fontana. Johnson ran in the top 10 for the duration of the Pepsi Max 400 and led three times for a total of 22 laps. But the race was an atypical one for Johnson, who averted an overheating problem early on when his grill picked up a piece of debris, lost spots in the pits more than once and in the final laps erred by opening the door for Clint Bowyer to pass him for second place.

Johnson was chomping away at Tony Stewart’s lead until the final caution of the race came out on lap 194 for David Ragan and Kurt Busch. When the race restarted, Johnson was so focused on running down Stewart that he went high in turns 3 and 4, giving Bowyer the opportunity to run underneath him for second. Johnson settled for third.

“Our race today was kind of up and down, led some, ran fifth and sixth some and just kind of worked on the car and towards the end of the race got things going in the right direction. I think if it stayed green I was really taking a lot - I was taking big chunks off of Tony's lead right before that caution came out. If it stayed green, I think there would have been a good race for the win,” Johnson said after the race. “But just a solid performance. If we can leave the racetrack with a top 3 each week, we'll be where we want to at Homestead.”

Though Johnson did not get the win at the last fall race at his home track, he padded his points lead and heads next to arguably his best track, Charlotte Motor Speedway.
2.  Denny Hamlin – (-36) – Holly Machuga
No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry driver Denny Hamlin finished eighth at Auto Club Speedway during Sunday's Pepsi Max 400. This is one of Hamlin's better finishes at this particular racetrack, his best finish being third and his worst being 41st.

But, he was not upset with his finish. He was actually content with it. "All in all, it's a decent day. Can't be too disappointed with it, especially from where we started," Hamlin said. "It's somewhat uplifting that we got out of here with a top-10 day." After a 12th-place finish at Kansas, Denny wanted top-10 finishes for the remainder of the season. That was his goal and his strategy for staying in contention for the championship.
In the end, what gave away the win for the No. 11 team were the restarts. If the restarts hadn't hurt the team, you would have seen them in victory lane.

Only 36 points behind the leader, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin will be heading to some tracks where he has dominated - Martinsville, which is two weeks from now and where he has three wins; Texas, where he has one; and Homestead, where Denny won last year.

The No. 11 team has not given up yet. You might just be seeing Jimmie Johnson's points lead being taken away from him in the coming weeks.

3.  Kevin Harvick – (-54) – Amber Arnold
Fontana, while not a dooming race for Harvick, definitely didn’t do him any favors. The 29 team made it out of So Cal with a hard fought seventh-place finish. After starting in the 21st position, it was definitely an improvement from where they took the green.

The major setback for Harvick was a pass-through penalty served under green for too fast exiting. Harvick had worked his way up to fifth, when multiple caution flags at the end of the race locked him back in the seventh spot. Harvick still sits 3rd in the Chase but the margin has grown to a 54-point deficit.

While they are down, they are definitely not out. The morale still seems to be high in the Shell/Penzoil camp. Delana Harvick tweeted after the race, “7th, decent day & we're still within striking distance but its time to step it up if we're gonna beat the 48.” Kevin seemed to echo the positive sentiments, “had a good car today speeding penalty didn't help but we over came it and then the restarts killed us.” With only six races left in the Chase for Cup, it is definitely time for Harvick and the guys to kick it up a notch.

4.  Jeff Gordon – (-85) – Genevieve Cadorette
Jeff Gordon qualified 17th for California’s Pepsi Max 400 over the weekend. After he started the race, he quickly moved up front until he led a lap before Clint Bowyer passed him.

Gordon reported to crew chief Steve Letarte that he was “good but loose.” He remained in the top of the line staying in fourth position until lap 154, when he made a pit stop and was slapped with a speeding penalty which forced him to the back of the line in the 29th position.

That didn’t stop Gordon from driving ahead of the line until he finished in the ninth spot. That shot him up to the 4th seed in the Chase points. With six races left, he still trails leader Jimmie Johnson by 85 points.

stewart cali 5.  Tony Stewart – (-107) – Unique Hiram
Tony “Smoke” Stewart and the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice race team made a huge statement by taking the checkered flag at the Pepsi Max 400 in Fontana, Calif. This track had been deemed Jimmie Johnson’s house; however, the swift competition during this race proved otherwise at the completion of Sunday’s event.

Starting 22nd on the grid and finishing in the top spot at the conclusion of this race has definitely sent a message to the other Chase competitors, media and fans that this race team is indeed a force to be reckoned with, as well as one of the top contenders for the championship. This hard fought victory along with misfortune for some of the other Chase contenders has propelled Stewart into the 5th point standings position (up to 5th from the 10th position).

“I knew we were going to have our hands full with Jimmie (Johnson), and thank goodness Clint Bowyer got up there and mixed it up and broke his momentum,” said Stewart. “I didn’t think we were good enough to do it. But man, this Office Depot/Old Spice team did an awesome job. They did an unbelievable job in the pits that got us an opportunity again. Both races we won, we’ve won because the pit crew gave us a chance, and that is all you can ask for.”

“It was a good team effort all the way around,” said Grubb. “The engineering staff, with Jonathan Toney and Scott Radel, brought me a few ideas and last night we looked at it, and it actually made sense from the feedback we had from Tony at happy hour. And that was the key to the whole thing was we were not really good in happy hour. We made a lot of large changes and it didn’t really seem to affect the car, and we finally hit on a few things right at the very end. No matter how frustrated we were, we kept working on it. The last run was very good, and we had definite things we needed to work on, and the engineers went and found the solutions to that.”

Stewart, Darian Grubb and the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice race team will be fighting until the end to continue making a serious run at the 2010 Sprint Cup Championship. Despite the initial disappointment in the inaugural Cup race, this team has been gaining momentum and will definitely be one to watch as the next few weeks’ progress and the checkered flag waves at Homestead.

· 22nd to top 15 within six laps at the beginning of the race
· Lap 49 21st to top 15 within two laps
· Lap 182 running 3rd behind Clint Bowyer & Mark Martin
· Lap 189 leading for the third and final time
· 39th career win in the Sprint Cup Series
· 2nd victory of the 2010 season
Captured Chevrolet’s 34th Manufacturer’s Cup

6.  Kurt Busch – (-140) - Katy Lindamood
It’s heartbreaking for a fan to see their driver involved in a accident during the closing laps of a race, so imagine what Kurt Busch felt like Sunday. With less than 20 laps to go, the driver of the Miller Lite Dodge was involved in a wreck with David Ragan that ended up costing him a top-10 finish. When all was said and done, Kurt finished the race in 21st.

After starting the race in 38th, the team worked tirelessly to make the car better and work their way through the field. Busch was in 11th position when the accident with Ragan occurred, forcing the team to head to pit road for repairs. After the race, Busch said, “…With 20 to go, it looked like we were going to come out of here with a solid top-10 finish, but it was not meant to be. We fought the car being too loose or too tight most of the day. Just a half-pound of air pressure change would make the car go from sideways loose to really tight.”

Although Busch did not lose positions in the standing, the poor finish allowed leader Jimmie Johnson to gain 70 points on him. The good news for Busch and his fans is that next week the field heads to Charlotte, where Kurt won both the Coca-Cola 600 and the All-Star Race earlier this year.

7.  Carl Edwards – (-162) – Amanda Ebersole
Fontana is in the books and not a moment too soon for Carl Edwards, the 99 team and for Roush Fenway Racing. It was a rough race for Edwards, a part failure later attributed to a broken rotor button in the distributor, gave Edwards his worst finish in the last 12 races. Don’t count Edwards out though, he remains positive and says, “That’s a really tough day, but you’re gonna have days like that.” Leaving Fontana with a 34th place finish, Carl now drops to 7th in the Chase standings and sits 162 behind our current points leader Jimmie Johnson.

Qualifying 20th put the Aflac Beads of Courage car back further than it has been as on late and as the race started Carl battled tight conditions and dropped further back. On the first pit stop, Bob Osborne made the call to do wedge and air pressure adjustments and take fresh tires and Carl came out 25th. A few laps later caution came out for our teammate Greg Biffle as he blew his engine… leaving all teams to grow anxious. Bob and Carl made the decision not to pit and it was a great call, leaving them to restart in 10th.

Then came lap 54, another caution and pit stop. Bob and the team made adjustments and immediately afterward Carl reported he lost power. Edwards originally thought the problem may have been from the ignition box, but as the crew went under the hood on pit road, they realized it was time to take it to the garage. (My heart sank…knowing this was going to be a bad finish.) Luckily the Aflac crew diagnosed the problem and after some quick repairs Edwards was able to return to the track, although 15 laps down. In the end, Carl fought his way to a 34thplace finish, 13 laps down.

8.  Jeff Burton – (-177) – Genna Short
After running among the top 5 for much of the first three Chase races, Sunday's race in California was a major disappointment for Jeff Burton and the #31 team. Jeff started, by his standards, a decent 15th and worked his way forward in the race's early stages but never quite cracked the top 5, and before long it was clear that it was going to be a long day for the #31 team.

Fighting a car that was both "stupid" loose and tight, Jeff tagged the wall before his first pit stop and never really recovered, ultimately finishing in the 23rd position. It marked his third finish outside the top-10 in the four Chase races and effectively ended his championship bid. With six races left, Jeff sits eighth in the standings, 177 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. He is, however, only 70 points behind fifth-place Tony Stewart.

The biggest story for the #31 team at California probably was what occurred off track, during the Sunday morning chapel services. Crew chief Todd Berrier became dizzy and was taken to an area hospital to be evaluated. He was released with a clear bill of health sometime later, but the race had started by the time he returned to the track. A handful of RCR engineers handled his duties until Todd was able to make his way back onto the pit box and take over calling what was no doubt a very frustrating race.

9.  Kyle Busch – (-187) – Lindi Bess
SOCAL’s Fontana was the site for the Pepsi Max 400 Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway. Sunday was a day that could put several of the drivers out of the running for the coveted Sprint Cup championship. After all the movement in the field after Kansas, it’s difficult to even guess where these drivers will end up.

Busch's #18 M&M's Toyota Camry qualified with a speed of 183.155 and time of 39.311, netting him the 16th starting position. During a pit stop on lap 55, Kyle picked up a position. He wanted to get up to the front of the pack to get his five points for leading. Within 60 laps, the #18 Toyota Camry found himself running in front of the field. Due to a caution by the 99, Kyle found himself in the second position once again. With the #48 back up front, Kyle began to work on him once again.

The M&M's Toyota Camry continued to fight for position while Rodgers dealt with the car's ongoing mechanical issues during several unplanned but awesome pit stops. Things seemed to be getting better for the #18 team, breaking back into the top 5, until lap 155, when all hell broke loose.

It was right after turn 4 that there was huge cloud that engulfed the #18 M&M’s Toyota Camry and everyone nearby. There was an instantaneous cheer coming from the grandstands. It seemed like we were right in the middle of Kyle Busch haters up in section 52.

Kyle commented later, “Just engine failure, apparently, knocked us out of the race. The guys did a great job there adjusting on our M&M’s Camry – getting it a lot better for us. We had something there coming back forward and got to fifth, and it just blew up. It’s real unfortunate, but it is what it is.”

Falling to the 35th position and then a drop to ninth in the standings, the Toyota M&M’s Camry now sits 187 points behind current Chase leader Jimmie Johnson.

Kyle was asked if he could put this disappointment in perspective? "No. Not really. On to another year. It's over."

But don't forget, we've seen over the last two weeks that a lot can change in just one lap. I don't think it's clearly over for anyone in the top 10. It's especially not over for Kyle Busch unless Kyle Busch quits trying. I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Biffle cali 10.  Greg Biffle – (-215) – Stacie Ball
So you win the race at Kansas Speedway, what happens the next weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.? Let’s just say it was not what I was expecting after qualifying seventh on the racing grid for the fourth race in the 2010 Chase. I was expecting like probably every other Biffle fan a good race, getting him higher in the the standings.

Technically the Pepsi Max 400 is a 200-lap race, but for the No. 16 3M Ford the race was over before it even really started, even after a weekend after topping the speed charts during the different practice sessions. Yet on Sunday, as other drivers were getting ready to attack the track on the 41st lap, Biffle’s engine blew up, which ended the race for the team.

“We had a great car,” said Biffle. “We were just a little bit on top of the race track right there. The wind is playing havoc with us and the track is a little slick, but it’s a tough day for us. We felt like we had an opportunity to run up front, for sure.”

The 41st-place finish dropped Biffle to 10th in the Sprint Cup point standings, 215 behind first place.

“It’s disappointing, but what can you do?,” asked Biffle. “Everybody is giving this program 110 percent, so you can’t blame anybody. We just have to move on to next week and get ready for Charlotte.”

Back in 10th in the standings, he and the team might be out of it for the Cup, yet the support system for the rest of the Roush Fenway Racing team members. He, Erwin and the Pit Bulls still have six races left - yet will he get back in the hunt?

11.  Matt Kenseth – (-241) – Whitney Richards
Following their great run at Kansas Speedway last weekend, Matt Kenseth and his crew came to Auto Club Speedway hoping to build on the week before. Kenseth has seen a lot of success at the 2-mile speedway and has three wins there. The team had a fast car right from the start of the weekend. Kenseth posted solid speeds in practice, and qualified 3rd in the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford. Just when it looked like Kenseth would have a great weekend, mechanical issues left him hanging on during the closing laps to finish 30th. It was a disappointing end to what could have been a promising run.

Once the green flag dropped on Sunday, Kenseth immediately moved up to battle the No. 42 of Juan Pablo Montoya for the 2nd position. On lap 15, Kenseth passed the No. 1 of Jamie McMurray to take the lead. Once in the lead, Kenseth reported to crew chief Jimmy Fennig that the No. 17 Ford was just a bit loose off turn two and that the strong wind was making the car hard to handle entering turn three. Around lap 35, green-flag stops began, and Kenseth made his stop on lap 38 for four tires, fuel and an air pressure adjustment. Shortly after he pitted, the first caution of the day came out for teammate Greg Biffle losing an engine in the No. 16. Under the caution, Kenseth told Fennig that the car was looser than it had been before the crew had made adjustments.

The following restart found Kenseth battling three-wide for position in a loose racecar. The caution came out again on lap 55, and Kenseth pitted for tires, fuel and a track bar adjustment. The race restarted on lap 58, but the yellow flag waved almost as soon as the race restarted. Kenseth’s teammate Carl Edwards was having issues in the No. 99. Following Edwards’s mechanical problem, Kenseth began to wonder how his car would hold up. He restarted 9th on lap 62, and in the opening run the car was loose, but slowly the handling began to improve. Loose-handling issues continued to plague the No. 17, but Kenseth’s crew made adjustments every pit stop. He remained inside the top 10, until the team heard news from their driver they didn’t want to hear.

On lap 161. Kenseth reported that something didn’t feel right with the car. Kenseth said he was doing all he could, but the car just was not going anywhere. He began to drop back through the field. With smoke coming from the car and the engine threatening to go, the No. 17 Ford limped to the finish line in the 30th position.
The disappointing finish left Kenseth 11th in the standings, 241 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

bowyer cali 12.  Clint Bowyer – (-247) – Amy McHargue
With most already counting Clint Bowyer out of the Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship, he had nothing to lose coming into Fontana but said that he wanted to redeem himself after the struggle of the past few weeks. Starting in 13th position on Sunday afternoon, Bowyer quickly began to move his way up through the field. The #33 Hartford Chevrolet made it to the top five on lap 23 and continued to be competitive through three yellow flags and three rounds of pit stops as he stayed in the top five through the next 100 laps.

On lap 126 Clint took the race lead from Jeff Gordon. He left the track to pit on lap 138 but retained the lead after winning the race off pit road. With 52 laps to go Bowyer lead on the restart with Tony Stewart chasing him down. Stewart took the race lead from Clint on lap 149. The caution came out again and leaders hit pit road on lap 156. Bowyer restarted in the 4th position three laps later. By lap 161 he had made it back up to second place and took the lead from Tony Stewart on lap 168.

With 20 laps to go Bowyer had a full second lead over 2nd place. A yellow flag on lap 181 found Clint in 3rd place after pit stops and falling to 4th place within a lap. Another yellow flag gave Clint the inside line on the lap 198 restart from the 4th position; Bowyer quickly claimed 3rd place and then passed Jimmie Johnson for 2nd place as the White Flag waved. Bowyer held the number 48 at bay throughout the last lap to finish in 2nd position. Richard Childress Racing driver Clint Bowyer earned 175 points in the Pepsi Max 400, gaining five points on the Chase leader; he remains in 12th position, 247 points back.


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