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Lovecchio’s Weekend Lowdown: Johnson, Knaus Seek Redemption in California

Jimmie Johnson expected to kick off 2010 with a solid run in Daytona and begin his quest for a fifth consecutive championship. Instead, he finds himself behind the 8-ball.

A DNF and subsequent 35th-place finish in the 52nd running of the Daytona 500 may not seem like much for a four-time defending championship team with 25 races left until the Chase field is set, but try telling that to Johnson and his perfectionist crew chief Chad Knaus.

For them, this is unacceptable. They don’t see a poor finish at Daytona as just a minor hiccup in a long and probably successful season, they look at the standings and see that heading into California, there are 34 other teams with more points than the No. 48.

It’s an unfamiliar position for a team that strives for perfection week in and week out. Just as a pothole in the Daytona 500 is a black-eye for NASCAR, a mechanical failure – a bad wheel bearing – in the sport’s biggest race is enough to embarrass the No. 48 team and make them feel they have something to prove going forward. Two bad races to open the season would be uncharted territory for Johnson, and while it wouldn’t be the end of the world with half a calendar year left on the schedule, it sure would feel like it.

Enter California.

It’s a track that the media and fans have come to expect as one of those “Roush tracks.” Every Roush car, it seems, every year runs well at Auto Club Speedway. Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth have combined for 27 starts at the 2-mile oval, with 21 of those starts resulting in top-10 finishes. That, my friends, is domination.

But what fans often forget is that Johnson is the rightful king of California. In 14 starts he has four wins, nine top fives and 10 top 10s. His average finish? 5.8. He has won a race at the track each of the past three years, albeit they were all in the fall, and has completed every lap since his first start in 2002.

It would almost be insane to think that Johnson won’t be in contention for the win this weekend. You can’t say that the No. 48 team is satisfied after winning a fourth consecutive… they want a fifth, and a sixth. They know there’s a bulls-eye on their backs and they work extra hard to make sure nobody gets to their level.

This is everything we’ve come to expect from this team. Nothing’s changed. And this weekend in California don’t be surprised if the four-time defending champion returns to victory lane.

What You Need to Know About this Weekend’s Races

Qualifying and Race Coverage
All times Eastern

February 19

6:30 p.m. – Sprint Cup qualifying (SPEED)

February 20

12:30 p.m. – Nationwide Series qualifying (SPEED)
5:30 p.m. – Nationwide Series Stater Bros. 300

February 21

3 p.m. – Sprint Cup Auto Club 500 (FOX)

What’s the Odds?
Suggested bets for this weekend’s Sprint Cup race using BetUS.com as of Thursday night

Carl Edwards: 12/1
Clint Bowyer: 25/1
Jamie McMurray: 40/1
David Ragan: 50/1

Advice: Auto Club Speedway has traditionally been dominated by the Roush brigade. I expect the same this weekend as Ford showed promise last weekend in Daytona after a disappointing 2009. If you can get any Roush driver at odds that you deem favorable, take him. Why not take a flier on a guy like Ragan at 50/1? Stranger things have happened.

Frontstretch Live Blog

The Frontstretch live blog kicks off Sunday at 3 p.m. for the Auto Club 500. Make sure to stop by and join in the chat as your favorite Frontstretch writers breakdown all of the on-track action live from Auto Club Speedway.

Drivers to Watch

Nationwide Series (Nationwide-only drivers)

  • Danica Patrick: I’ll admit I’m curious as to how she handles an intermediate track.
  • Trevor Bayne: Crashed out early in Daytona, but has the car and talent to compete in California.
  • Justin Allgaier: Could have best season of all Nationwide-only drivers.
  • Kelly Bires: Unfortunate circumstances cost him a ride in Daytona… this weekend is about proving himself.

Sprint Cup

  • Edwards: Will be racing for a lot more than a win on Sunday.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Okay Jr.… you got everyone’s attention at Daytona, now do something.
  • Johnson: Best average finish at Auto Club, needs a good run.
  • Jamie McMurray: Don’t be surprised at back-to-back to wins.
  • Greg Biffle: Top five in Daytona, should be good this week.

LOOKING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL

WINNERS

Stater Bros. 300: Joey Logano
Auto Club 500: Edwards

2010 Predictions: 6 races, 0 win(s), 4 top fives, 5 top 10s

Have a prediction/thought on this weekend’s races? Send Mike a Tweet

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