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Last Year's Top 10 Drivers Facing Must-Rebound Race *Off And Running: RCR Teams The Early Barometer *Chevrolet Leads Manufacturer Standings *Star-Struck: California Speedway An Entertainment Magnet Making Up Lost Ground: Top-10 Drivers Seek ...

Last Year's Top 10 Drivers Facing Must-Rebound Race *Off And Running: RCR Teams The Early Barometer *Chevrolet Leads Manufacturer Standings *Star-Struck: California Speedway An Entertainment Magnet

Making Up Lost Ground: Top-10 Drivers Seek Important California Rebound

For those drivers who had sub par Daytona 500 performances, Sunday's Auto Club 500 offers a necessary shot at redemption.

Only four drivers who participated in the 2006 Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup are among the top 10 heading to California, including reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson, who's 38th in the standings. His accident-marred Daytona 500 finish ended his streak of 105 consecutive weeks in the top 10 -- the sixth longest mark in series history.

Here's why rebounding is critical: The first 26 of the series' 36 events establish Chase eligibility, and race winners receive five extra points this year. Also new in 2007: the Chase expands from 10 to 12 drivers, who will be seeded by their win totals following the cutoff race -- No. 26 at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 8.

Aside from Johnson, here's who needs a boost: Series runner-up and defending race winner Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Ford), who's 26th in the standings, and last year's third-place finisher, Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet), who's currently 29th.

Others include last year's fifth-place finisher, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet), who's currently 31st; last year's eighth-place finisher Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge), who's currently 23rd, and last year's 10th-place finisher Kyle Busch (No. 5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet), who's 22nd. Both Kahne and Busch are former California winners.

Conversely, five drivers head to California enjoying their top-10 spotlight, including fourth-place Mike Wallace (No. 09 Miccosukee Resorts Chevrolet), who's fourth; Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate David Ragan (No. 6 AAA Ford), who's fifth, and sixth-place David Gilliland.

Veteran Joe Nemechek (No. 13 Ginn Racing Chevrolet) is seventh with a new Ginn Racing team. And two second-year drivers -- ninth-place David Stremme (No. 40 Coors Light Dodge) and 10th-place J.J. Yeley (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet) -- seek to improve on rookie seasons.

What Off-Season? RCR Teams Start Ahead Of the Pack In 2007

So much for time off.

Two months of preparation and relaxation apparently hasn't slowed down Richard Childress Racing's three NASCAR NEXTEL Cup teams, as evidenced by last Sunday's performances in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Kevin Harvick's victory was the capstone, but teammate Jeff Burton's (No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet) third-place finish likely quieted any potential critics. Even Clint Bowyer's (No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet) 18th-place finish counts as a bright spot. The second-year driver was battling for a top-15 finish before becoming part of last Sunday's last-lap incident.

The RCR finishes are noteworthy because of last season's resurgence. After several years of poor performances and significant personnel and equipment changes, both Harvick and Burton earned the organization's first berths in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup.

Harvick finished a career-best fourth in the 2006 series standings while Burton finished seventh -- his best showing since a third-place finish for Roush Racing in 2000.

Harvick also won his second NASCAR Busch Series title. And Bowyer finished second in last season's Raybestos Rookie of the Year competition.

Also, Harvick's victory in the 49th Daytona 500 came for new sponsor Shell/Pennzoil, which takes over from longtime RCR sponsor GM Goodwrench.

Additionally, NASCAR's Loop Data statistics credit Burton with the highest Driver Rating in last Sunday's Daytona 500 -- 109.3.

In The Loop: Roush-Fenway Drivers And Kasey Kahne Top California Pre-Race Data

You could always count on a good finish -- even a dominant win every now and then -- from Roush Fenway Racing whenever the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series came to an intermediate track.

Roush Fenway became the gold standard on the 1.5-mile and two-mile courses.

Then Kasey Kahne came along.

Kahne dominated much of the intermediate portion of the schedule last season, winning six races on that brand of race track.

The NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series returns to California Speedway this weekend, the first intermediate track on the schedule.

And not surprisingly, Roush Fenway and Kasey Kahne own the top spots in much of the Loop Data taken over the last two years at California (four races total).

Matt Kenseth has the top Driver Rating over that span with a 110.1. Behind him fall Greg Biffle (No. 16 Ameriquest Ford) with a 108.0 rating, Kahne with a 106.9 and Carl Edwards (No. 99 Office Depot Ford) with a 106.7. It makes sense, then, that three of the last four races there have been won by members of that group (Kahne, Kenseth and Biffle).

If not Roush Fenway or Kahne, look for Jimmie Johnson to make a strong run. He has the third-highest Average Running Position (8.694), the sixth-highest Driver Rating (103.6), the fifth-most Quality Passes (185) and the sixth-highest Speed in Traffic.

One driver who has surprising troubles at California is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt has a 23rd best Driver Rating of 73.2. He's in the middle of the pack in Laps in the Top 15 with 339.

Off And Running: Chevrolet Takes Early Lead In Manufacturer Battle

Chevrolet is ahead of the pack in the manufacturer championship thanks to Kevin Harvick's Daytona 500 victory.

Chevrolet has nine points, followed by Dodge with six, Ford with four and Toyota with three points.

Dodge, however, leads another category -- laps led -- with 96 by Dodge drivers last Sunday. Chevrolet drivers led 82 laps and Ford drivers led 24 laps.

Off The Track: Hollywood And Music Heavyweights Converge At California Speedway

Given California Speedway's proximity to the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles and star-filled Hollywood, it's a given that entertainment icons from the film, television and music industries come out to watch NASCAR's national series stars perform.

Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Costner will serve as Sunday's grand marshal. He'll also perform with "The Kevin Costner Band" during pre-race activities. Rocker Sammy Hagar and his band also will play in Sunday's pre-race concert, while Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Brian McKnight has the honor of performing Sunday's national anthem. This will be McKnight's second California Speedway national-anthem performance. He also performed during the 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Awards Ceremony in New York.

Along with his Sunday performance, Hagar will serve as the grand marshal for Saturday's NASCAR Busch Series' Stater Bros. 300. Actors Bill Fichtner of FOX's "Prison Break" and David Boreanaz of FOX's "Bones", will serve as honorary race officials for Saturday's NASCAR Busch Series event. And Columbia recording artist Frankie J will perform Saturday's national anthem.

NNCS, Etc.

Daytona 500 runner-up Mark Martin (No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet) and fourth-place finisher Mike Wallace head west with some interesting notes attached.

Martin has one win, three top-five and six top-10 finishes in 13 starts at California. He also has led 271 laps -- second only to Jeff Gordon's 455 -- and has an average finish of 13.7.

Martin also now leads the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series with 36 consecutive weeks in the top 10. He's scheduled to run 22 races for Ginn Racing this season.

As for Wallace, his career-high series finish was presaged by his ninth-place effort in the 2003 Daytona 500 -- also in the No. 09 Chevrolet owned by James Finch. Wallace also won the July 2004 event at Daytona International Speedway -- his last victory.

Prior to Wallace's two top-10 Daytona 500 finishes, Geoffrey Bodine placed third in the 2002 event, also in the No. 09 Chevrolet.

Keys To California: Winning at the 2-mile California Speedway means having a strong, durable engine, and a balanced, well-handling car. Pit strategy also is key because fuel mileage can be an issue. Good pit stops usually mean an increased chance of success at California.

Watch Out For Greg Biffle: The driver of the No. 16 Ameriquest Ford led a race-high 168 laps in last February's event before engine failure ended his day. Still, he leads five NASCAR pre-race Loop Data categories and should be considered a threat on Sunday.

On Deck: Car Of Tomorrow Test At Bristol Motor Speedway

Following Sunday's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway, the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series' next activity is a test session -- the third of six this season.

And it's a very important one. Teams will test the Car of Tomorrow -- the innovative new chassis that debuts this year -- on Feb. 28 and March 1 at Bristol Motor Speedway. It's all in advance of the Food City 500 on Sunday, March 25 at Bristol.

The Food City 500 marks the first of 16 events in 2007 where teams will race the Car of Tomorrow. The culmination of a seven-year project, the car features improved driver safety, competition, cost management for teams and increased manufacturer identity.

Among the car's safety components are a larger driver cockpit, double frame rails with steel plating, energy management materials to protect from impact and a safer fuel cell.

Fast Facts

The Race: Auto Club 500

The Place: California Speedway

The Date: Sunday, Feb. 25
The Time: 3:30 p.m. (ET)

TV: FOX, 3 p.m. (ET)

Track Layout: 2-mile oval
Distance: 500 miles (250 laps)

Purse: $6,065,926

2006 Winner: Matt Kenseth
2006 Pole: Kurt Busch

Pre-Race On-Track Schedule: Friday -- Practice, 11:30 a.m.- 1 p.m.; Qualifying, 3:10 p.m. Saturday -- Practice, 11-11:50 a.m.; Final Practice, 2:20-3:20 p.m.

-credit: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Geoffrey Bodine , Kevin Harvick , Joe Nemechek , Greg Biffle , Mike Wallace , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne , J.J. Yeley , Carl Edwards , David Stremme , Clint Bowyer , David Gilliland , David Ragan , Denny Hamlin , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin
Teams Richard Childress Racing , Roush Fenway Racing