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NASCAR Sprint Cup News and Notes - Auto Club Speedway Daytona 500 Champion Matt Kenseth Leads Westward Charge DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Riding the crest of his first career Daytona 500 victory, Matt Kenseth (No. 17 CARHARTT Ford) heads toward...

NASCAR Sprint Cup News and Notes - Auto Club Speedway

Daytona 500 Champion Matt Kenseth Leads Westward Charge

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Riding the crest of his first career Daytona 500 victory, Matt Kenseth (No. 17 CARHARTT Ford) heads toward Sunday's Auto Club 500 with a solid shot at a 2-0 start.

Maybe even better than that.

Roush Fenway Racing rules at Auto Club Speedway, especially of late. The team has a collective six wins at the 2-mile track near Los Angeles, including the last four February events there, and Kenseth owns two of those -- back-to-back February triumphs in 2006 and '07. He also boasts the second-best pre-race Driver Rating there (110.8) and an Average Running Position of 8.3.

Teammate Carl Edwards (No. 99 AFLAC Ford) is the defending Auto Club champion. Another teammate, Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Ford), won the event in 2005. Certainly, a little statistical karma can't hurt.

"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."

Winless in 2008, the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion started near the rear of last Sunday's 51st Daytona 500 field after going to a backup car. Patience, pluck and good teamwork on pit road and atop the pit box with new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer helped Kenseth razor toward the front. Aided by a push from 2007 Daytona 500 champion Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet), Kenseth wrestled the lead from Elliott Sadler (No. 19 Best Buy Dodge) on Lap 146. The race was called due to rain at Lap 152.

"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."

This week's whirlwind of celebration and national media appearances aside, Kenseth hopes that one career goal -- a Daytona 500 win -- leads to career victory No. 3 this week at Auto Club Speedway.

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

California Native Allmendinger Looks To Build On Daytona Finish

Two seasons and one race into his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, AJ Allmendinger (No. 44 Charter Communications Dodge) won't demur when asked for its highlight:

Last Sunday's third-place finish in his first--ever Daytona 500.

A huge step, and eye-opening to some, especially for a driver who had to race his way into a starting spot. That third-place finish also means he's third in the series standings heading into Sunday's Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway, another career high.

"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."

Now, Allmendinger returns to his home state of California with significant momentum and confidence, all necessary for a driver who's filling a part-time role with the newly-minted Richard Petty Motorsports. A Los Gatos native, he's set to run the first eight races of 2009, plus the July event at Daytona International Speedway, while RPM officials work to secure fulltime sponsorship for his team.

As part of the sport's recent wave of open-wheel transfers, Allmendinger began his NASCAR Sprint Cup tenure with Team Red Bull in 2007. A lack of experience and starts -- he started only 17 races in '07 and 24 in '08 -- led to a steep and often frustrating learning curve. Released by Red Bull late in 2008, he ran the season's final five races for what was then Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

Earlier this year, RPM (a combination of GEM and Petty Enterprises) announced that Allmendinger has been signed through 2009 with a team option in 2010. So far he's validated that move, finishing fifth in the non-points Budweiser Shootout on Feb. 7 and 10th in his Gatorade Duel qualifying race for the Daytona 500.

"I want to do well at any track," Allmendinger 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."

Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Again Looking For Auto Club Speedway Rebound

Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet) didn't win last Sunday's 51st Daytona 500.

In fact, the three-time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion didn't come close, finishing 31st, the last driver on the lead lap behind eventual winner Matt Kenseth

But if you think that sounds an ominous note for 2009, don't.

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 series titles from 2006-08, which mitigates 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."

At least there's consolation in a crowd: Johnson won't be the only Hendrick Motorsports driver seeking a post-Daytona rebound.

Teammates Mark Martin (No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg's Chevrolet), Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet) didn't score their expected finishes, either.

Gordon, who won the first Gatorade Duel qualifying race last Thursday, finished 13th last Sunday. Martin, who started on the outside pole at Daytona, finished 16th.

Earnhardt's eventful day on pit road and on the track led to a 27th-place finish, with Johnson's 31st rounding out organizational frustration.

Auto Club Speedway could provide the perfect panacea, however.

Rick 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's numbers are particularly luminous -- three wins, one pole (Sept. 2007), four runner-up finishes and one third-place finish.

He's also the most recent Auto Club Speedway winner, having captured the event there last August en route to his third consecutive title.

That win, the third of seven in 2008, saw Johnson finish with a perfect Driver Rating of 150.0, only the seventh perfect rating since the stat's 2005 debut. He also led 228 of 250 laps and had an Average Running Position of 1.2.

Stewart, Gordon and Martin Looking To Finish What They Started At Daytona

After nearly 10 days filled with season-opening competition at Daytona, it's on to this weekend's events at Auto Club Speedway, where several drivers hope to build -- or continue -- what they started on the East Coast.

A rain-shortened Daytona 500 is one factor.

Drivers completed 152 of 200 laps before last Sunday's race was called due to weather, negating all the what-ifs and last-laps strategy.

For drivers like Tony Stewart (No. 14 Old Spice Chevrolet), Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, that left some unfinished business.

All three veterans began 2009 with strong showings and consideration as Daytona 500 contenders.

Gordon, who started third and finished 13th, had 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.

Winless in 2008, Gordon now has additional motivation to do so in 2009, and, as noted above, has a stellar record at Auto Club Speedway.

In his first season as a driver-owner with Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart -- who'd earned a fifth-place Daytona starting spot -- actually started at the rear of the field because of a backup car. He lost his primary car after colliding with teammate Ryan Newman (No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet) in last Saturday's final Daytona 500 practice.

Like Gordon, Stewart rebounded to lead laps -- 15 of them. Unlike Gordon, who has three Daytona 500 wins, Stewart has none. He finished eighth last Sunday.

Martin, who'd secured the outside pole, finished 16th in what many had described as his best shot to win his first-ever Daytona 500.

A four-time series runner-up, Martin had finished second to 2007 Daytona 500 champion Kevin Harvick by an eyelash -- .020 seconds, the ninth-closest finish since the advent of electronic timing and scoring in 1993.

Martin, 50, is working a one-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports. He likely approaches Auto Club Speedway with optimism, as he won the track's second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race there in February 1998.

Stewart hasn't won at the Southern California track, but he has three top fives and seven top 10s 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 mph), 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).

Loop Data Shows Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch Among Auto Club 500 Favorites

Though always threats to land a spot in the Chase for NASCAR Sprint Cup, Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) and Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge) missed out 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 rarely was anywhere near the Chase cut-off bubble.

Clearly, they both want to change that this season. Auto Club Speedway might be the perfect track to start their comeback campaign.

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

Since the inception of Loop Data in 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% (seventh) and 387 Quality Passes (passes of cars in the top 15 under green), which is fifth-most at Auto Club Speedway.

Busch won there in 2003, and has five top 10s in 13 Auto Club Speedway starts. Despite his 39th-place finish in the series' last trip west, Busch has solid numbers in Fontana.

Since 2005, he 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.

Mark Martin also missed the Chase last season, but, of course, that comes with an asterisk. He ran just 24 races, but is back running a full-time schedule with Hendrick Motorsports. Martin, an Auto Club Speedway winner in 1998, is always in contention at the two-mile track. In his six races there since 2005, Martin has a Driver Rating of 98.5 and an Average Running Position of 10.3. He will attempt to break a 91-start winless drought this weekend.

NSCS etc.

Earnhardt Jr. Seeks West Coast Restart

Dale Earnhardt Jr. hopes to put a frustrating beginning to the 2009 season behind him this week at Auto Club Speedway.

All eyes are on the driver who's expected to challenge not only for a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but a series title in his second season with Hendrick Motorsports.

By necessity, last Sunday's pit-road problems, pit-road penalty and his role in a Lap 124 pileup that sparked peers' criticism likely are in Earnhardt's rear mirror by now.

But when he takes the track for Friday practice, he has some work to do. Earnhardt is one of four active drivers with a career-high four DNFs (did not finish) at Auto Club Speedway. He also has four top-10 finishes in 14 career starts there.

"We had a lot of stuff happen down there in Daytona," said crew chief Tony Eury Jr., "but I'm pretty excited with how the car ran. The team had some pretty good pit stops. Overall, it was a really good weekend running wise. There were no results to come along with it so we were disappointed about that. I was pretty excited with how the car ran. We'll put those weekends behind us and move on."

RPM Off To Surprising Start

Seeking to sustain its season-opening accomplishments, Richard Petty Motorsports teams head west hoping to maintain their Daytona 500 momentum.

Leading the pack was Los Gatos, Calif., native AJ Allmendinger and his third-place finish. But close behind is Elliott Sadler and his fifth-place finish, a tribute to both drivers' resiliency as they endured January uncertainty over which, if any, RPM cars they would drive.

Teammate Reed Sorenson (No. 43 Charter Communications Dodge) finished ninth. The dean of RPM drivers, Kasey Kahne, who at age 28 is in his sixth season with the team, finished 29th. RPM was formed earlier this year by Gillett Evernham Motorsports' merger with Petty Enterprises.

"Our goal isn't just to get the 43 car back to Victory Lane," said NASCAR legend Richard Petty of his own iconic car number. "We're focusing on all four cars. We're working together with everyone. People aren't coming to the track to see Richard Petty race. It's about those drivers we have here now. I want the 43 to win, but I'd be happy to see the 9, 19 or 44 win as well."

Kyle Busch Doing Triple Duty

As he did last week at Daytona, Kyle Busch (No. 18 Interstate Battery Systems of America Toyota) will participate in all three national series events at Auto Club Speedway.

Aside from Sunday's Auto Club 500, Busch will drive Billy Ballew Motorsports' No. 51 Miccosukee Resort Toyota in Saturday's NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event and Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 18 Z-Line Designs Toyota in Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series event.

Off The Track ...

Thursday, Feb. 19:
What: Auto Club Speedway Day in L.A. A free event featuring a fan Q&A, autograph session with Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth.
When: 11 a.m.
Where: Auto Club Speedway/NASCAR L.A. Office Courtyard in Los Angeles

Saturday, Feb. 21
What: Defending Auto Club 500 champion Carl Edwards' Walk of Fame Induction Ceremony.
When: 10:30 a.m.
Where: Gate 12.
Also: Recording artists Pam Lyn King, Ronny North, HoneyHoney and Rev Theory all will perform at the Opportunity, California FanZone.

Sunday, Feb. 22
What: Clint Bowyer reading to kids in the Kids Club Driver Story Time
When: 10:40-10:55 a.m.
Where: Opportunity, California FanZone stage

Also: Recording artists Monte Negro and Rev Theory will perform along with the Band From TV, a group of celebrities from TV's "Heroes", "Desperate Housewives" and "House", among others, who sing for charity. The Metal Mulisha Extreme Stunt Show, a freestyle Moto-Cross FMS Demo Show, also will perform.

Stars Galore For Sunday's Auto Club 500

Actress Teri Hatcher, of "Desperate "Housewives" fame, is the honorary starter. Grammy-nominated country music standouts Little Big Town will perform the National Anthem prior to Sunday's Auto Club 500 while singer Gavin Rossdale headlines a pre-race concert that begins at 1:15 p.m., on the Opportunity, California FanZone stage.

In The Garage: Southern California Natives

The southern half of the Golden State boasts a longtime stock-car heritage, as evidenced by homegrown NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent:

Richard Childress Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Casey Mears (No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet) both hail from Bakersfield. Jimmie Johnson is from El Cajon. Robby Gordon (No. 7 Jim Beam Toyota) is from Orange and Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate Scott Speed (No. 82 Red Bull Toyota) is from Manteca. David Gilliland (No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet) is from Riverside.

Gordon's crew chief, Kirk Almquist, hails from Blythe, as does his brother, Clint, the No. 07 catch-can man. John Dullan, engineer for the No. 33, is from San Diego. Sammy Gonzalez, mechanic for the No. 1, is from Van Nuys. Ron Hornaday III, No. 19 mechanic, is from Palmdale. Robbie Maschhaupt, No. 19 transporter driver, is from Huntington Beach.

Josh Houghton, No. 00 front tire carrier, is from Lancaster. Dave Collins, No. 83 front tire changer, is from Riverside. Clay Robinson, No. 24 front tire changer, is from Simi Valley. Doug Newel, No. 83 gas man, is from Oxnard. Jeff Patterson, No. 14 gas man, is from Escondido, and Chad Avrit, No. 82 rear tire changer, is from El Centro.

Up Next: Las Vegas Motor Speedway

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stays on the West Coast for Week 3, journeying to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Shelby 427.

The Sunday, March 1 event will be televised by FOX. The pre-race show starts at 3:30 p.m. ET with the race starting at approximately 4:30.

Carl Edwards is the defending champion of the Shelby 427. Jimmie Johnson has the most career wins at Las Vegas with three. Mark Martin won the first event there in 1998.

This season's Shelby 427 will be the 13th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

***

The Race: Auto Club 500
The Place: Auto Club Speedway; 2.5-mile oval

The Date: Sunday, Feb. 22
The Time: 6 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 500 miles/250 laps
Track Layout: 2-mile tri-oval

TV: FOX , 5 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN and Sirius XM Channel 128; (Local MRN affiliates KFRG-FM 95.1, KVFG-FM 103.1, KFXG-FM 92.9)

2008 Polesitter: None (weather)
2008 Winner: Carl Edwards

Schedule: (All times local PT)
Friday -- Practice, Noon-1:30 p.m.; Qualifying, 3:40 p.m.
Saturday -- Final Practice, 2:15-4 p.m.

-credit: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Greg Biffle , Robby Gordon , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Casey Mears , Ron Hornaday Jr. , Jimmie Johnson , Richard Petty , Kasey Kahne , Scott Speed , Carl Edwards , Clint Bowyer , David Gilliland , Elliott Sadler , Reed Sorenson , Jim Beam , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing , Richard Childress Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , Richard Petty Motorsports , Roush Fenway Racing , Joe Gibbs Racing , TRG Motorsports , HART