Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday October 7, 2010
NASCAR makes its final Chase visit to Auto Club Speedway this week, and while most longtime fans will agree that A) the track doesn’t belong in the Chase and B) the Chase doesn’t belong in NASCAR, the Fontana, California track has the chance to go out with a bang. There could be quite a shakeup in the championship picture this week, even if the track produces its usual humdrum finish. With six drivers less than 100 points from the top of the heap, there are four who, based on past performance, could use this weekend’s race as their own personal springboard as the Chase enters the final six weeks-and two Chase favorites who could wind up pointing to this weekend as the end of the road.
If past performance is any predictor, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, who enter the weekend second and third in points, respectively, just eight and 30 points behind Jimmie Johnson, have their work cut out for them. Of the 12 Chase contenders, Harvick and Hamlin are 11th and 12th in average finish at Auto Club Speedway. Neither have a win, and their combined top 5 total in 25 total races matches Jeff Gordon’s win total in 20 races at three. Three wins is a superb number; three top 5 runs for two title hopefuls, not so much. Harvick’s average finish of 17.7 is the lowest at Richard Childress Racing; Hamlin’s 18.2 is the lowest at Joe Gibbs Racing by more than three positions. Both have finished in the top 10 in about a third of their races, with Harvick’s top 10 percentage just a bit better than Hamlin’s.
Their numbers aren’t terrible, to be sure, but they’re up against 10 who are consistently better. These two need to be on their game all weekend to maintain their position, and will have to be absolutely stellar to improve it. The middle of the Chase is pivotal, and it’s not a good time to be at the bottom of the heap.
On the other side of the coin, Jimmie Johnson could make Fontana huge for his team. Both driver and team looked far from championship caliber from Daytona in July through Loudon. They won at Dover, as they should have, but didn’t show real championship form until last week in Kansas, where they showed for the first time in months that they could overcome problems and finish up front. And they found that ability at the right time-Johnson is nothing short of brilliant at his home track. In 15 starts, he has more top 10 runs (11) than Hamlin and Harvick combined, and his average finish is an eye-popping 5.5. Johnson has five trophies from the track and has never finished lower than 16th. That kind of stellar performance could see Johnson stretch his lead, and in the process, make him impossible to catch.
While it’s possible to win the Chase without a Chase win, it’s only been done once (Tony Stewart won the 2005 title without a playoff win). The game has changed since then, and no driver has won a Chase title on a winless season. That means that Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards have their work cut out for them. The good news is that they are both among the best drivers to grace Auto Club Speedway. Edwards’ average finish of 7.2 is second only to Johnson, and though Edwards only has one win at the 2-mile track, he has 10 top 10s in a dozen races, only finishing worse than 20th once, with a 29th-place run in 2007. He’s completed a whopping 99.9% of all the laps in those 10 races-falling just three laps shy of a perfect score. Again, that number falls just shy of Johnson’s perfect 100%, but it’s that consistency that makes Edwards a threat to win-and to erase part, if not all, of his 53-point deficit.
Gordon once dominated at Fontana, and his numbers are still impressive. His three wins are tied with Matt Kenseth’s for second all time, and he’s one of just four drivers who has been in every Cup race at ACS. His average finish is 11th, but Gordon could easily improve on that this week. He’s the track’s leading money winner and a native Californian, though Sonoma is his home track. Gordon is hungry, and he’s tied of having his name on the Cup trophy as the car owner. 58 points behind means Gordon’s so close he can touch it, and don’t think he doesn’t know it. He has more incentive than ever before to show his former brilliance at this track-and if he finds that, nobody will catch him.
Finally, Kyle Busch has something to prove after losing four positions in the standings after a dustup with David Reutimann at Kansas. Busch is dangerous when he’s fired up, and he knows how to get around ACS, with eight top 10 runs in 12 starts and an average finish of 10.8. Busch has to prove this week that he can put Kansas behind him once and for all. Should he do that and claim his second Fontana win, he’ll be right back in contention for his first title. He needs to capitalize on his former record at the track, where he’s only finished off the lead lap twice and where he’s finished lower than 20th just three times. It’s not over for Busch by a long shot.
There are others who could play spoiler in California, of course. Matt Kenseth has three wins and an average finish of 9.1, but he doesn’t look like he can put together a stretch run worthy of a championship. Though in racing, it’s anyone’s game.
But the numbers are in favor of four at Fontana, and those four could fuel their championship dreams this week. The racing at Fontana might not be very exciting, but this year the points battle could give the track a memorable sendoff-any one of these drivers could look back and say they began the road to the title in Fontana.
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