What To Watch For: Auto Club 500

Ben BombergerSenior Writer IFebruary 18, 2009

One week of racing is behind us and the three NASCAR series head out west to Auto Club Speedway in California.

Here are a few things to watch for heading into Sunday's race:

1. Daytona 500 Champion Matt Kenseth Leads Westward Charge

Kenseth and owner Jack Roush were dancing in the rain this past Sunday when the event was called 48 laps early. Heading into this Sunday's race, Kenseth has a solid chance of starting the season 2-0.

Roush Fenway Racing has owned Auto Club Speedway in recent years. The team has six wins at the 2-mile track near Los Angeles—including the last four February events there. Of those four wins, Kenseth has two (back-to-back February wins in 2006 and 2007).

Kenseth also boasts the second-best pre-race Driver Rating (110.8) and an average running position of 8.3.

Fellow Roushkateer Carl Edwards is the defending Auto Club champion, while Greg Biffle won the event in 2005.

"We know the equipment is there," Kenseth said. "I really feel like I've got the team to win. We need to go win some more races at these other tracks."

Kenseth was winless in 2008 and started near the back of the pack in last weekend's running of the 51st Daytona 500 after going to a backup car.

Patience and a little luck put Kenseth in front of the field when the red flag waved, eventually leading to his and team owner Roush's first Daytona 500.

"It really doesn't take any pressure off," Kenseth said of the win. "It puts, I think, a little bit of a spring in everybody's step. Probably gives everybody a little bit more confidence.

"For some reason, when we do get victories, we've been able to get some early-season wins. I think it's important to get off to a good start like we did."

2. California Native AJ Allmendinger Looks to Build on Daytona Finish

Nothing says, "you made a mistake" like finishing third in the Daytona 500 the season after another team lets you go.

Add in the fact that it was Allmendinger's first Daytona 500 and it's easy to see just how impressive the former Team Red Bull driver's run was.

It was a huge step, an eye-opening to some for had overlooked a driver who not only raced his way into the Great American Race, but proved he belonged.

The third place showing on Sunday? That means he sits third in the points heading into this weekend's Auto Club 500 in California—both of which are obviously career highs.

"For our team's sake, we would have loved to have had a chance to win the Daytona 500," Allmendinger said of last Sunday's rain-shortened race. "But leaving there with a third-place finish isn't all that bad. I'm not going to complain."

This week, Allmendinger returns to his home state of California with significant momentum and confidence—both necessary for drivers running a part-time role.

A Los Gatos native, Allmendinger is set to run the first eight races of 2009, but the July event at Daytona International Speedway, unless the team can find full-time sponsorship for his No. 44.

Allmendinger comes to NASCAR as part of the recent wave of open-wheel transfers and debut in stock cars with Team Red Bull in 2007.

After only making 17 races in 2007 and 24 in 2008, he was let go late last year. Allmendinger ran the final five races for what was then Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

During the off-season, Allmendinger was in the midst of controversy as it was announced he would be piloting the No. 19 Dodge of Elliot Sadler in 2009.

Later—after lawyers were involved—Sadler was named driver of the No. 19, leaving Allmendinger in a part-time ride.

Allmendinger finished fifth in the non-points Budweiser Shootout earlier this month and 10th in his Gatorade Duel qualifying race.

"I want to do well at any track," he said. "But winning at [Auto Club Speedway] would be extra special. I have a lot of friends and family there, and I'd like to perform well in front of them."

3. Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Again Looking For ACS Rebound

It's no secret by now that regardless of how Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe's team finish at Daytona is no indication of what the three-time defending champ will do throughout the season.

He never came close to winning the Daytona 500 this past weekend, finishing 31st, the last driver on the lead lap.

But don't worry about this team, they will rebound and Auto Club Speedway could be just the track to do so.

Since winning the 2006 Daytona 500, Johnson has finishes of 39th (2007) and 27th (2008) to pair with last week's 31st. He also has three consecutive titles from 2006-08, which far outweighs the string of poor Daytona results.

"We knew that we weren't up to speed then," Johnson said of last season's slow start "We were trying to work on it and correct it then when we knew we were off.

"This year, we don't have a clue. We haven't tested. My fingers are crossed, but I have to have the mindset that we're going to be off and just go to Fontana and learn from there."

Johnson isn't alone in the HMS stable. Teammates Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will all three be looking to improve upon their Daytona woes.

Gordon won the first Gatorade Duel race the Thursday before, but finished 13th in Sunday's big event. Martin started on the outside pole, but came home 16th.

But the biggest news out of the HMS camp was Earnhardt Jr., who was involved in two different pit road problems and a wreck on lap 125, leading to a 27th place finish—in other words, a frustrating day for team owner Rick Hendrick.

Auto Club Speedway could be the perfect place for all four drivers to take a step forward. Hendrick leads all owners with seven wins there.

Gordon and Johnson lead all drivers with three wins each at Auto Club—they also lead all drivers with eight top-10 finishes each there.

Johnson has three wins, one pole, four runner-up finishes and one third-place finish. He also is the most recent Auto Club Speedway winner, having captured the checkered flag there last August en route to his third title.

Johnson won that day with a perfect Driver Rating of 150.0—only the seventh perfect rating since the stat's 2005 debut. He led 228 of 250 laps and had an average running position of 1.2.

4. Stewart, Gordon, and Martin Looking to Finish What They Started at Datyona

Several drivers are looking to pick up where they left off at Daytona on Sunday. The rain-shortened Daytona 500 washed away the hopes of many drivers looking for their first Daytona 500, such as Mark Martin and Tony Stewart. Both had a chance to win the event and ran up front for most of the race.

For the three veterans, the shortened race left unfinished business.

All three began the season with strong showings and consideration as potential Daytona 500 winners.

Gordon started third and finished 13th, but bounced back from being a lap down (due to a green-flag pit stop). He led 14 laps, one of nine drivers who led at least one Daytona 500 lap.

Gordon was winless in 2008 (the first time since his rookie season) and has even more motivation to visit Victory Lane in 2009. As noted above, he has a pretty good record at ACS.

As for Stewart, he was starting his first points-paying event as a driver-owner. Though he earned a fifth-place Daytona starting spot after finishing second in his Duel race, he went to the back of the field when he switched to a backup car.

Stewart meticulously worked his way to the front of the field and led 15 laps, but was running in eighth when the red flag waved—keeping Stewart from winning his first Daytona 500 in 11 tries.

Martin has secured the outside pole, but came home 16th after many thought was his best shot to win his first ever Daytona 500.

Martin has finished runner-up in the championship hunt four times and was beat to the line in the 2007 Daytona 500 by Kevin Harvick by .020 seconds—the ninth closest finish since the advent of electronic timing and scoring in 1993.

Martin has visited Victory Lane at ACS in the track's second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race there in Feb. 1998.

Stewart is the only member of the trio that hasn't won at the track, but has three top-fives and seven top-10 finishes in 15 career starts there.

He also ranks in the top-10 of six pre-race loop data categories including: fourth in fastest laps run (131), sixth in average green flag speed (171.244), laps in the top-15 (1,487) and quality passes (384), seventh in average running position (11.1) and eighth in driver rating (97.8).

5. Loop Data Shows Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch Among ACS Favorites

Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch both missed the Chase in 2008. Kahne looked like a near lock with wins in the Coca-Cola 600 and Pocono 500, but missed out thanks to a mid-summer slump.

Despite winning the first New Hampshire race last season, Busch had an uncharacteristic down year. The 2004 series champion was rarely talked about as being anywhere near the Chase cut-off bubble.

While both had disappointing 2008 campaigns, ACS may be the perfect place to start the comeback year.

Kahne won there in 2006 and has finished in the top-10 in six of the last seven races.

Since 2006, Kahne has a driver rating of 99.2 (fifth best), an average running position of 13.0 (10th), 96 fastest laps run (tied for seventh), a laps in the top-15 percentage of 71.6 percent (seventh) and 387 quality passes (passes of cars in the top-15 under green), which is fifth-most at ACS.

Busch won there in 2003 and has five top-10 finishes in 13 ACS starts. Last year, he finished 39th in the trip out west, but has solid numbers otherwise.

Since 2005, Busch has a driver rating of 90.9, an average running position of 15.0, 75 fastest laps run, a laps in the top-15 percentage of 65.7 and 337 quality passes.

Extra Lap: Star Gazing

With the track near the home of many celebrities, Hollywood Stars will be all around come Sunday. Actress Teri Hatcher of Desperate Housewives is the honorary starter, while Grammy-nominated country music standouts Little Big Town will perform the national anthem prior to the race.

Gavin Rossdale headlines a pre-race concert that begins at 1:15 p.m. on the Opportunity, Calif., FanZone stage.


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