The Cool Down Lap: Most Chase drivers are California pipe-dreamin’
By: By Reid Spencer, Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
To hear the Chase drivers tell it, this Sunday’s Pepsi Max 400 at Auto Club Speedway is the race that’s going to propel them toward a NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
Listen to Kevin Harvick, who finished second there in February, despite nicking the wall in the closing laps.
“I feel like I let one slip away there just getting into the wall there at the end,” Harvick said. “We still had a good finish and (Richard Childress Racing teammate) Jeff (Burton) ran really well there, too, so we’re looking forward to going back.
“Obviously, a lot can change. It’s been a hot summer, and the racetrack will be different, but it’s been a good racetrack for us over the last couple years, and we’re really looking forward to going back. We need to capitalize over the next couple of weeks on making something happen.”
Denny Hamlin, who trails Chase leader Jimmie Johnson by eight points after three races, also is looking forward to racing at the 2-mile track about an hour east of Los Angeles.
“Any big track is good for us at this point,” Hamlin said. “We’re getting ready to get into a swing of a lot of big mile-and-a-half, 2-mile racetracks, and I feel like that was really our bread and butter through the summer months. I feel like we’re definitely heading into some tracks that are definitely in our favor, I believe.”
Auto Club Speedway is an inviting place for Carl Edwards, too.
“It’s a finesse track and a fast track, and it changes a lot throughout the race,” Edwards said. “I really enjoy it. People have knocked it for getting strung out, but it is 2 miles long—43 cars don’t look that grouped-together spread around a 2-mile track. For me it’s always been really fun to drive.”
Jeff Gordon says he’s not crazy about the track, but running well there makes it a lot more palatable.
“I’m not a big fan of that racetrack, but we seem to run pretty good there,” Gordon said. “That’s what I like about it. That always matters more than anything else.”
If the Chase drivers are looking for a cure-all in California, however, they might want to look at the statistics a bit more closely.
Here’s the reality check. Yes, Harvick ran second in February, but he has never won there, and his average finish in Fontana is 17.7.
Yes, Hamlin won the pole for last year’s Chase race, but he ran into Juan Pablo Montoya and wrecked himself from the front row on a restart. Like Harvick, Hamlin is winless in California, with an average finish of 18.2.
Yes, Gordon has three wins at California but none since 2004. Gordon, however, was second in both races last year and can point to a respectable average finish of 11.0.
Of the drivers who look to Fontana to launch a title bid, Edwards would appear most likely to make it happen. He has one win and 10 top 10s in 12 starts, along with an average finish of 7.2. Yes, Edwards ran 13th in the February race, but the Roush Fenway cars have come a long way since then.
To bring everything right back to earth, though, listen to Kyle Busch and his assessment of Jimmie Johnson’s performance at the track closest to his hometown, El Cajon.
“California is just another one of those racetracks that seems to suit Jimmie really, really well,” Busch said. “He’s been in contention to win the past six races there, I think, and he’s probably won four of them. That’s another place we know he’ll be fast.”
Busch’s stats are spot-on. Johnson has won four of the past six events—including the last two—at the track that gave him the first of his 53 Cup wins in 2002. His average finish is 5.5.
So if any driver is apt to make California dreamin’ a reality Sunday, it’s Johnson. The statistics say he’ll leave Fontana with the points lead—and one bigger than single digits.