The Frontstretch: Race Trax: Sony HD 500 by Amy Henderson -- Thursday August 31, 2006

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Race Trax: Sony HD 500

Amy Henderson · Thursday August 31, 2006


On Track
The Sony HD 500 is the twenty-fifth race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule, and the second of the year at California Speedway, an intermediate, downforce-dependent track. California Speedway has been on the Nextel Cup circuit since 1997. Jeff Gordon was the first Cup winner. It is a D-shaped oval with 14 degrees of banking in the turns, 11 degrees on the 3,100-foor frontstretch, and a very flat 3 degrees on the 2,500-foot backstretch. The field will include the 2005 polesitter Carl Edwards and defending race winner Kyle Busch.

49 teams will compete for 43 starting spots for Sunday, with the top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. 2006 owner's points will determine who is in this group for qualifying purposes. Qualifying runs on an oval consist of two laps, the faster of the two determining the starting spot. The Nextel Cup Series qualifying record at California is 188.425 mph, set by Kyle Busch in February 2005.

With just two races remaining before the Chase for the Nextel Cup begins, the point standings tightened up at the top and continued the weekly shuffle of third through tenth. Jimmie Johnson holds just a seven-point advantage over Matt Kenseth after Kenseth's win at Bristol last week. Both Johnson and Kenseth have clinched their spots in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Kevin Harvick remained in third with another strong late-summer performance to back up his Watkins Glen victory earlier this month. Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon move into the top five. The biggest points loss of the week went to Mark Martin, who slipped from fourth to tenth after Bristol. Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin round out the top ten. Kasey Kahne is eleventh, just 90 points out, and Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards are in twelfth and thirteenth, also with a chance make the top ten should any of those teams have problems. Fourteenth-place Kurt Busch is mathematically eliminated from contention. Should any team leave more than 191 points ahead of eleventh place leaving Fontana on Sunday, their spot is assured, and any team that distance behind tenth is eliminated.

What To Expect
California is about as different from Bristol as a track can be, but the general theme among the top ten will likely remain the same. While all of them will race for the win if the opportunity presents itself, especially Johnson and Kenseth with their berths assured, don't look for any of them to take chances or put themselves in a position to wreck or hurt their equipment.

California, much like Michigan, will produce long green flag runs, so good strategy and superior pit work will give a team an edge. So will great downforce-any team that can hit on a setup with the front springs coil bound will be tough to beat. There will be caution periods during the race-there have never been fewer than four-so good fuel mileage and keeping the drivers cool are also considerations at California.

Finally, qualifying well has never been particularly important at California, so don't be surprised if some teams forego a top starting spot to perfect their race setup if they're locked into the race. That said, there could be some surprises in qualifying from the teams not locked in-they have to put everything into time trials, and could take some good spots on the grid.

Who to Watch
Jeff Gordon leads all drivers with three wins and five top five finishes in Fontana. His team has been consistent on the flatter track this summer, so they could find victory lane again this week. Mark Martin has six top ten finishes at California, the most of any active driver, and is looking for a top finish to solidify his spot in the top ten. Martin's teammate, Greg Biffle, has started in the top ten in four straight California races, a longer streak than anyone.

How about the rest of those Roush teammates? Although Rick Hendrick has the most wins at the track as a car owner, the Roush cars certainly have their share of impressive statistics on the Fontana track. Carl Edwards leads all active drivers with an average finish of 4.5 (although he only has four races at the track) and Edwards and Jamie McMurray are the only drivers with four straight top ten finishes at California. Matt Kenseth won there in the spring and has momentum on his side with back-to-back wins.

But don't overlook Kasey Kahne. He has the best starting average of all driers, with an 8.6. Finally point leader Jimmie Johnson got his first win here, and it's his home track-a combination which could well equal victory lane when coupled with his team's desire to start the Chase in first place.

Did You Know:

  • No driver has ever won from the front row at California? In twelve races, only five winners have come from inside the top ten. Kenseth won from 31st earlier this year.

  • That in twelve races there have been eleven different polesitters? Qualifying was rained out in 1999, so that means no driver has won a Fontana pole twice on speed.
  • That a Dodge has never won a Cup race at California?

You Don't Say…
"We can't control what other teams do these next two races. Our focus is on the No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge Charger and how we perform. Our objective is to make the Chase. Two things must occur for that to happen. First, we have to have two good races - wins would certainly help, but we definitely need top-five finishes. Then, a driver sixth through tenth in the standings must have a problem. A 100-point swing can happen in one race. We still have two opportunities to get in the Chase. We just have to do our part to put the No.9 Dodge Charger in a position to take advantage of every opportunity. This is a humbling sport. It's about ups and downs. That's what makes it so good. We've had great cars this year. We're confident we have a car capable of winning at California. We've run well there, qualified on the pole, had a couple of top-five finishes and led laps. We've had success at Richmond. We need and opportunity and then take advantage of it." driver Kasey Kahne, who is eleventh in points, just 90 out of tenth, on making the Chase

If you want me to guarantee a finish—forget it. Until we get rid of the voodoo, I am being very cautious about any future races. The only thing I know is that we’ll give it more than 100 percent. We’ve had more bad things happen to us the past month than I care to recall. A number of strong potential finishes went south in a hurry. It’s time to end the jinx—both at California and with our 2006 season.” driver Joe Nemechek on his chances at California following some unusual occurrences this year, including a blown engine at the spring race after leading the most laps

"I still have a lot to learn about the Dodge Charger. It does not react to the same adjustments I've been used to the last seven or eight years. I've got to learn that as a driver and kind of feel my way through that. To come out of the box and get the first top-10 finish of the season for this team and run as well as we did at Bristol is very important to me and I think it was very important to those guys." driver Elliott Sadler on learning the Dodge Charger and on his strong runs with his new team at Evernham Motorsports

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Contact Amy Henderson

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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.