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Storybook start - Kevin Lepage riding Daytona 500 momentum to California History lesson - California Speedway latest in rich West Coast racing tradition NEWS & NOTES Storybook start - Lepage off and running ... He made the field for the ...

Storybook start - Kevin Lepage riding Daytona 500 momentum to California

History lesson - California Speedway latest in rich West Coast racing tradition

NEWS & NOTES

Storybook start - Lepage off and running ... He made the field for the 47th annual Daytona 500 when no one expected it, and a ninth-place finish in last week's season-opening event proved his presence wasn't a fluke. NASCAR NEXTEL Cup veteran Kevin Lepage (No. 37 Dodge) was the breakthrough story of Speedweeks - finishing in the top 10 last Sunday.

Lepage's team, fielded by R & J Racing and owner John Carter, hadn't taken their Daytona 500 car to the wind tunnel. Poor performances during NASCAR Preseason Thunder, the annual January test sessions, didn't help, but crew chief Bill Poindexter and crew persevered. A Shelburne, Vt., native beginning his ninth NASCAR NEXTEL Cup season, the 42-year-old Lepage raced his way into the Daytona 500 by finishing third in the second of last Thursday's two 150-mile qualifying races, the Gatorade Duel. He started eighth last Sunday, just two days after learning that Patron Tequila had signed as his Daytona 500 sponsor, and despite lug-nut and stalling issues in the pits, finished ninth, powered by an Ernie Elliott engine.

Now, Lepage heads to California with another ninth-place spot - this time in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings.

"To do what we have done here with the budget and manpower we have is just a credit to the dedicated and hard working people we have around us," Poindexter said. "Kevin drove a great race. The crew made great pit stops all day. Even with the mishaps that we did have, we worked through them."

The champ likes California, too ... Jeff Gordon may be seeking his fifth NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series title, but Kurt Busch is attempting to become the first back-to-back champion since Gordon in 1997 and 1998, and if last week's second-place finish in the Daytona 500 is any barometer, this week's trip to California bodes well for the No. 97 Sharpie/IRWIN Ford team.

California Speedway was the site of Busch's second career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup start. It came late in the 2000 season and Busch finished 37th. Since then, he's finished 13th (2001), second (2002), first (2003) and 23rd in last year's first California race and 11th in the Labor Day weekend race. Certainly, a fast start helps pave the way for a repeat.

"I always enjoy heading out to the West Coast for races," said Busch, a Las Vegas native.

"Being from this side of the Mississippi you always want to run well at the West Coast venues. This is a track where we were able to pick up a win a couple of years ago, and now Fontana is a track that becomes critical in locking yourself in for the Chase as it is one of the final two opportunities to lock yourself in the top 10 when we come back. So running well here is more important than ever."

T. Labonte, Elliott ready for 2005 starts... Two former NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champions will make their 2005 debut this week at California. Bill Elliott (No. 91 Stanley Tools Dodge) and Terry Labonte (No. 44 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) are running part-time schedules this season - Elliott for an as-yet-undetermined number of races and Labonte for 10 races.

The 2003 season was Elliott's final fulltime NASCAR NEXTEL Cup season and Labonte announced last year that 2004 would be his last fulltime season. Both former champions are cutting back to enjoy family, friends and activities outside racing, but both still enjoy competing.

"I enjoy the racetrack and the facility out there," Elliott said of California. "It's a lot like Michigan, and I like Michigan really well, but it seems like I haven't been able to apply Michigan to California too well. It just seems like it takes something a little bit different than what we've learned at Michigan, and now maybe we've got what it takes." Labonte plans to devote a lot of time to helping his son Justin, who competes fulltime in the NASCAR Busch Series. But, like Elliott, he's ready to get back behind the wheel himself now and then.

"I'm excited about it," Labonte said. "I'm looking forward to going to the places we've got scheduled. I picked them all myself. I wanted to visit tracks that were some of my favorites -- places we'd done well at in the past. Next year we might change it up some because there are other tracks where we've had some success. I'm looking forward to the 10 this year."

New impound procedure new weekend schedule ... NASCAR NEXTEL Cup teams will spend Friday through Sunday just as they do most race weekends - at the track. But how they spend their time will be different. This week's Auto Club 500 marks the first weekend that NASCAR NEXTEL Cup teams will utilize a new post-qualifying procedure that should prove to be a cost-containment benefit for teams. The amount of labor on special qualifying setups, plus the expense of special qualifying equipment, should be reduced. Here's an overview:

Friday's schedule - Instead of one two-hour practice and afternoon qualifying, teams now will have two one hour-practice sessions.

Saturday's schedule - Instead of two 45-minute practices to tune race setups, teams will qualify, then have their cars immediately impounded in their garage bays. No work will be allowed until Sunday morning.

Saturday's traditional "Happy Hour" - the two final 45-minute practices - will be eliminated.

Twelve tracks will use the new impound procedure in 2005, including California (both events), Atlanta (both events) Bristol (both events), Phoenix (both events), Richmond (both events), Pocono (both events), Michigan (both events) New Hampshire (both events), Daytona (the Pepsi 400 in July), Watkins Glen, Kansas and Darlington. Other events may be added during the season.

All NASCAR Busch Series and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series events will use the new impound procedure. Both series will compete this weekend at California.

"A lot of people have tested and have tried a lot of different things," said Kyle Petty (No. 45 Georgia-Pacific/Brawny Dodge), "but you're going to have to make some pretty big decisions by Saturday morning off what you did in a couple of hours of practice Friday afternoon. You are going to have to couple that information with what is still applicable from the testing information, and come up just right. A lot of people are going to be guessing in some areas, and the ones who guess the best will come out the best in the race."

"I think it puts some of the weight of pressure on the shop guys," said Mike Ford, crew chief for Dale Jarrett (No. 99 UPS Ford). "Once you leave for the race track your time is limited on what you can work on. If you have a problem at the race track, you've basically forfeited your entire practice chasing a problem. So the preparation at the shop has gotten more important over the years, but it is elevated to a new level this year because of the impound rule."

Gear ratio, reduced spoiler debuts at California ... A new gear ratio, which reduces engine RPMS, will be in effect this weekend at California. Used for all non-restrictor plate events in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, it's another cost-containment measure. The Auto Club 500 weekend also marks the competition debut of shorter NASCAR NEXTEL Cup spoilers; they've been reduced from 5½ inches to 4½ inches for all non-restrictor place events; the impetus is to reduce aerodynamic dependency and heighten driver control.

Chevrolet leads Manufacturers standings ... Jeff Gordon's Daytona 500 win gave Chevrolet an early lead in the 2005 Manufacturers Championship. Chevrolet, which won the 2004 Manufacturers Championship, has nine points and one win. Ford has six points and Dodge has four. Ford holds the edge in victories at California Speedway with five. Chevrolet has four.

Number-crunching: Key California stats ... One of the younger tracks to host NASCAR-sanctioned events, California Speedway is beginning its ninth season. The two-mile tri-oval is located in Fontana, Calif., and boasts a scenic backdrop available to few other NASCAR NEXTEL Cup venues - the sometimes-snow-capped San Bernadino Mountains. Despite its relative youth, California Speedway has racked up some notable NASCAR statistics. Here's a sample:

Jeff Gordon, a California native, is defending Auto Club 500 champion. Gordon leads all drivers with three California Speedway victories. No other driver has won more than one.

No NASCAR NEXTEL Cup driver has repeated as a pole winner at California Speedway.

Rookies won both poles for the two 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup events at California Speedway. Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) won the first pole and Brian Vickers (No. 25 GMAC Chevrolet) took the second pole.

Hendrick Motorsports leads all teams with four victories at California. Jeff Gordon has won three California races (1997, 1999 and 2004) and Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), another California native, has won once there (2002).

This race will be the 112th NASCAR NEXTEL Cup event to be held in the state of California. The list dates back to April 8, 1951 when Marshall Teague wheeled his Hudson Hornet to victory at the Carrell Speedwayin Gardena. It was the first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup event to be held west of the Mississippi River and the second career win for Teague, a founding member of NASCAR and the organization's first treasurer. Carrell Speedway's half-mile dirt oval hosted a field of 20 drivers that day, with Teague starting on the outside pole. He led all 200 laps and beat Long Beach's Johnny Mantz, winner of the 1950 Southern 500, for the victory.

From the Archives ... Although California Speedway has hosted only nine NASCAR NEXTEL Cup events, it's merely the latest in a list of California venues to host NASCAR events. The state of California claims a rich history of stock-car racing, and the sport's west coast origins parallel the sanctioning body's 54-year history. Here's a historical primer:

Five NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races were held in California during the 1951 season. Following Marshall Teague's April win at Carrell Speedway, Lou Figaro won on June 30 at the same track. Marvin Burke won on Oct. 14 at Oakland Stadium while Danny Weinberg won the Oct. 28 race at Hanford, Ca. Bill Norton won on Nov. 11 at Carrell Speedway. All five races were run on half-mile dirt tracks. Oakland Stadium featured 46-degree banking in the turns; compare that to Bristol Motor Speedway's 36-degree banking.

NASCAR didn't return to California until 1954, when it staged four events. Former driver Bob Barkhimer, president and organizer of the California Stock Car Racing Association, joined NASCAR as its Western Regional Director and transferred all of CSCRA's racing activities to NASCAR. This move brought many popular west coast drivers and speedways into the NASCAR fold. Drivers such as Marvin Panch, Lloyd Dane and Bill Amick became full-time NASCAR competitors.

California's first NASCAR road-course race took place in 1956 at the Willow Springs track. Chuck Stevenson won on a twisting 2.5-mile oiled dirt road course. Of the 111 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races held in California, 66 have been staged on the Willow Springs Raceway, Riverside Raceway and Sonoma's Infineon Raceway road courses.

NASCAR NEXTEL Cup events have taken place on 16 different California speedways ranging in size from the .4 mile Ascot Stadium in Los Angeles, to the 2.5-mile Ontario Motor Speedway of the 1970's, to the 2.6 mile Riverside Raceway.

Dirt-surfaced speedways have hosted 27 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races. The last dirt-track event was held Sept. 10, 1961 at the California State Fairgrounds in Sacramento. California driver Eddie Gray won the 100-mile race.

California tracks that have hosted NASCAR events span nearly the entire length of the state - from Eureka's Redwood Speedway in the north to Los Angeles' Ascot Stadium in the south.

Early prominent drivers from California include Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney and Ray Elder. Current NASCAR NEXTEL Cup stars and California natives include Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet), Casey Mears (No. 41 Target Dodge) and Robby Gordon (No. 7 Jim Beam Chevrolet).

QUOTABLE

"For some reason it didn't take California long to get like Kansas and Chicago, to get the groove worked in. The first couple of races and we were already three wide through the corners. It's a handling track. You've got to be right on the edge of being loose all day to make the cars go fast." - Sterling Marlin (No. 40 Coors Light Dodge).

"California Speedway is a fun track. It's very wide and I think a lot of times people tend to compare it to Michigan because of the shape and size, but I can assure you that is about the only things that are similar other than both require a solid engine and good aero program to be successful." - Dale Jarrett.

"Hopefully this entire season we'll be a million miles away from the luck we had last year. Right now, we have this ball of momentum rolling toward us and it's getting bigger and bigger. This is the first time we've gotten the chance to show just how big it is and now it's rolling even faster heading into next week. This is going to be a fun year for us." - Scott Riggs (No. 10 Valvoline Chevrolet), who finished fourth in the Daytona 500.

Fast Facts

What: Auto Club 500. (Race No. 2 of the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season.)

Where: California Speedway, Fontana, Calif.
When: Sunday, Feb. 27, 3:10 p.m. (ET).

TV: FOX, 2 p.m. (ET).
Radio: MRN/XM Satellite.

Race length: 500 miles, 250 laps.
Track layout: 2-mile oval.

2004 winner: Jeff Gordon.
2004 polesitter: Kasey Kahne.

2005 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10: 1. Jeff Gordon 185. 2. Kurt Busch 170. 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 170. 4. Scott Riggs 160. 5. Jimmie Johnson 160. 6. Tony Stewart 156. 7. Mark Martin 150. 8. Sterling Marlin 142. 9. Kevin Lepage 138. 10. Rusty Wallace 134.

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Kyle Petty , Kevin Harvick , Kevin Lepage , Sterling Marlin , Robby Gordon , Kurt Busch , Casey Mears , Jimmie Johnson , Scott Riggs , Dan Gurney , Parnelli Jones , Kasey Kahne , Brian Vickers , Marvin Panch , Jim Beam , Mark Martin
Teams Hendrick Motorsports