The Frontstretch: Race Trax: Auto Club 500 by Amy Henderson -- Thursday February 23, 2006

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Race Trax: Auto Club 500

Amy Henderson · Thursday February 23, 2006


On Track
The Auto Club is the second race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule, the first on an intermediate, downforce-dependent track. The Nextel Cup Series will visit the 2-mile California Speedway twice in 2006, with the second visit on Labor Day weekend. California Speedway has been on the Nextel Cup circuit since 1997. It is a D-shaped oval with 14 degrees of banking in the turns, 11 degrees on the 3,100-foot frontstretch, and a very flat 3 degrees on the 2,500-foot backstretch. This year’s field will include the 2005 polesitter Kyle Busch, as well as defending race winner Greg Biffle.

Qualifying for this race returns to the format that will be used throughout the remainder of races in 2006. Each driver makes two laps, with only their fastest lap time used. The top 35 in owners’ points are locked into the field, although lap times determine their starting positions. For the first five races of the season, the top 35 are determined by 2005 owners’ points.

Jimmie Johnson leads the points race heading to the West Coast, but not without controversy following the Daytona 500. NASCAR chose not to dock points from the No. 48 team following a rules infraction during qualifying, citing that all parts used were legal, although they altered the fit of the templates to the car. Johnson leads second-place Casey Mears and third-place Ryan Newman both by just 15 points. Mears, though tied with Newman, holds second spot because his second-place finish was higher than Newman’s third at Daytona.

What To Expect
After waiting for the Big One at Daytona, California will seem downright relaxing, despite speeds nearly as fast. California and its sister track, Michigan, generally enjoy long green-flag runs. In fact, it’s the type of track where fuel strategy often comes into play.

You won’t see the tight packs of cars or bump drafting, either. The racing surface at California usually produces a strung-out field of cars near the front of the pack, but there will be racing for position throughout the race…just not necessarily up front.

Who to Watch
Coming off a career-high second-place finish at Daytona, Casey Mears is back on exactly the type of track he loves at California, and he is due to break into the win column soon…this might be Mears’ turn to shine. All five Roush Racing teams will be strong here- Greg Biffle will be gunning to defend his race title, and Jamie McMurray has something to prove after a rough Daytona 500. Roush veteran Mark Martin has a win at California as well, and his average finishing position of 5.6 leads all active drivers by nearly three spots.

Jeff Gordon has three wins at California, the most of any driver, and is nearly always a threat. Jimmie Johnson is coming off of the biggest win of his still-young career with a team that wants to prove the critics wrong. Johnson got his first Cup series win at California in 2002.

Should this become a fuel strategy race, look for Ryan Newman to be in the thick of things…they always seem to have an extra drop in the tank when they need it. Ditto for darkhorse Bobby Labonte. Labonte, a right-foot braker, has always been an excellent fuel-mileage driver.

Did You Know:

  • In last year’s Auto Club 500, Scott Riggs passed 19 cars before a car passed him?

  • That, in two of the 11 races held at California, only nine cars have finished on the lead lap…twice?
  • That four of the drivers in Sunday’s race grew up within 150 miles of the speedway? Mears, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Robby Gordon all hail from southern California.
  • That current point leader and runner up Johnson and Mears were once teammates? They raced under a team banner in the Super Light Division in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Series as teenagers.

You Don’t Say"¦
“We had a good test at Las Vegas, so we expect the things we learned there and during other tests to translate into a good setup for California. Combine that with the attitude of this team, and it’s easy to see why we’re eager to get to California. This race will provide a real picture of the season ahead. Teams will leave California knowing they can be competitive, or that there’s a lot of work to be done.” -former California Winner Jeremy Mayfield on the importance of California to the rest of the season

“I think all of the teams are ready to move to California, to get the “real” season started. This is where you see a lot of strategy start to unfold, a little more points racing maybe. We all love Daytona and would love to try and win the 500, but this is where the season really starts. Our M&M’S Team has a great start so far. Tommy and I have a win under our belt from the (Duel) 150s in Daytona. We’ve got a top-five finish on Sunday. Our team is excited. It’s great to head to California carrying over that type of momentum from Daytona.” -former California winner Elliott Sadler

“We won the Cup race at California in 2003 and, with just a little luck, we could be sitting here with more wins at that track entering this weekend. It seems like several of the California races have come down to the end with strategy determining the winner. That’s another reason I’m so confident coming back to California. The two Penske teams showed just how well we can work together at Daytona, and we’re confident that established a precedent for the rest of the season. I’ve always looked at Matt Borland (Penske teammate Ryan Newman’s crew chief) as one of the best strategists in Cup racing. That No. 12 team has certainly won their share of races by making the right decisions on pit road at the end of races.” Former Nextel Cup Champion Kurt Busch on strategy and teamwork

“Our goal this year is to get all four cars into the Chase, and hopefully one of the cars wins the championship, and also the Busch championship. Rick had a big meeting at the shop, put a lot of money up on the line as incentive for the shop and the organization to get all four cars in the Chase, and try to win two championships. It sounds a little greedy, but we want to set our expectations high and go after something that we feel we can do.” -Daytona 500 Champion Jimmie Johnson on his team’s season goals.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

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