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Auto Club could be right place for Johnson

March 22, 2012, , NASCAR.com

Harvick in the way; MWR's explosion on the scene, top-35 battle also on tap

1. It's on to Auto Club Speedway, where Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick have battled it out the past two years. Which one comes out on top Sunday?

Joe Menzer: Wouldn't it be just the perfect capper to the week for the No. 48 team to win this race in Southern California? And wouldn't it be just like them to do it? That would rile up all the 48 haters and the anti-Hendrick Motorsports folks, but get ready. I think it might just happen.

David Caraviello: Even with all the tumult that's been swirling around the No. 48 team for the past several weeks, there's one very easy answer to this question -- and it's Johnson. As great as Harvick has been at Fontana lately, and he's been dang good, California is simply Johnson's best track. His record there is unbelievable. An average finish of 5.1 over 17 career starts? Are you kidding me? That's not a golden horseshoe, that's just good.

Mark Aumann: Until I looked it up, I honestly didn't realize Chevrolets had won the past four races at Auto Club/California/Fontana. When I think of the place, I think of Roush dominating -- particularly Matt Kenseth. And the way they've run so far in 2012, maybe that's the logical choice. But since the question is Johnson or Harvick -- hmmm. Give me Johnson, even though Harvick made last year's event very intriguing over the final few laps.

David Caraviello: Joe hits on it -- what a perfect place for Jimmie and Co. to leave all this behind. I can absolutely see them getting to Victory Lane on Sunday, riding the wave of momentum that began with the penalty being overturned on Tuesday. But let's be honest, Jimmie is so dang good in Southern California, you'd have to consider them a major threat even if Chad Knaus wasn't on the box.

Mark Aumann: All I know is, don't pick the pole winner. Johnson's win in 2008 is the only victory by the driver who won the pole in 22 races there. And Albert Hammond sang "It Never Rains in Southern California," but he obviously never went to a race at Fontana in February.

Joe Menzer: Five-Time is Five-Time at this track alone. It's where he and Chad Knaus won together for the first time way back in 2002. They definitely are going to be right in the mix all day long. And with Mark -- the Rain Man -- sitting this one out for a change at Fontana, I think everything will be just fine on that front. I think the only rain that will occur will be metaphorical when the 48 team rains on everyone else's parade.

Mark Aumann: But here's the deal: Harvick hasn't finished worse than 11th this season and looked pretty stout at Vegas. I think this might be the weekend where he shows everyone that his crew is championship material.

California throwdown

Johnson vs. Harvick at ACS
StartsJohnsonHarvick
Wins51
Top-fives123
Top-10s138
Poles10
Laps led84960
Avg. start9.118.7
Avg. finish5.116.2

David Caraviello: OK, Harvick is the defending champion of this race, so let's give the guy some credit. He's awfully good there too, with four consecutive finishes in the top 10. But Johnson's record there is just staggering. He's finished worse than 11th there just once since 2004. It may be tough for Menzer to remember back that far, I know, but it all just goes to show what a grip the No. 48 team has had on the place, even in those years where the Roush cars were winning the races. The guy has always been a threat there.

Joe Menzer: 2004? I was hanging with Jake Delhomme, I think.

David Caraviello: Mark, I think we all thought Kevin's win there last spring had changing-of-the-guard overtones, given how he had been beaten there the season before, and who had dominated the place. Turns out Jimmie's title reign would indeed end, but to someone other than Harvick. Even so, another strong run at another intermediate track would absolutely assert his status as a title contender, as if we needed any further evidence to that. And oh yeah -- didn't I hear Joe used to cover the NFL? He only reminds us of that fact about 1,000 times a year.

Mark Aumann: This race traditionally gets long green flag runs and the field gets strung out. But Harvick was best in that short sprint at the end last year. Still, I think it's hard to pick against JJ -- for the reasons already given.

Joe Menzer: The thing about this race for the 48 guys is that now they probably feel like they're playing with house money, so to speak. The pressure is off. Heading into last week with all the uncertainty about whether or not the 25-point penalty would be restored, or if that was going to be the last week for a while that Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were part of the crew, put lots of pressure on them -- as did that Lap 2 wreck that led to a 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500. Now they're back up to 11th in points and the suspensions have been lifted, points restored ... look out!

David Caraviello: Yeah, Jimmie jumped what, 12 spots in the standings and he wasn't even at the race track? That group has to be walking on air right now. Wouldn't it be nuts if something like this is a springboard to a sixth title? Hey, stranger things have happened. In that case, I just hope Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook gets a big thank you in Johnson's banquet speech. Heck, he would probably deserve a seat at the head table.

Joe Menzer: I think it was 11 spots, but, hey, what does it matter. Whether the points had been restored or not, it's been a steady march toward the front for Five-Time since the Daytona debacle. You have to be impressed with how they've managed their season since then.

David Caraviello: Every point matters. Didn't we learn that last year?

2. Michael Waltrip Racing placed three cars in the top five at Bristol. Is MWR now for real as a Chase contender?

David Caraviello: I know they've won a few races in their short history, but I really think Sunday was the day that Michael Waltrip Racing really grew up. It's not so much the finishing positions as it is just how good the cars have been -- good enough for Brian Vickers to jump into that No. 55 and lead a ton of laps and record a really strong finish. You just don't see that very often, but you did Sunday, and it's a sign that the MWR bunch is clearly doing something right these days.

Message sent


With three cars in the top five at Bristol, Michael Waltrip Racing made its presence felt as a team capable of contending for the Chase.

Mark Aumann: Martin Truex Jr. really seemed focused when we visited the shop during the media tour, much more than normal. And I attributed some of that to it being the last year of his contract. But it seems obvious that MWR has found something in the construction of their cars -- or the setups -- that has put them up front. So I don't think it's a fluke.

David Caraviello: Mark, I'm right with you there. I think their drivers have always been capable, even more so now with Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer in that stable. The cars have always been the issue, and something changed. The cars are consistently good every week now, which they weren't before. I know they started that process by forging a closer relationship with Toyota even before last season ended, and it has to help having guys like crew chief Brian Pattie and competition director Scott Miller in the fold. They simply have more people involved now who know what it takes to turn out very good race cars, and it's paying off.

Joe Menzer: As a Chase contender, absolutely. Martin Truex Jr. currently sits fourth in the point standings and Clint Bowyer is eighth. After the impressive three-four-five finish at Bristol, they turned some heads and sent notice that they'll likely be Chase contenders all year. Now they just have to start winning some races consistently to prove they can take that next -- and most difficult -- step, the one where you go from contending for a Chase position to actually contending for a championship during the Chase. To do that, you have to show you can win races.

Mark Aumann: And don't discount the fact that hiring veterans like Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer significantly improved the feedback to the crew chiefs. Not to pick on David Reutimann in any way, but a guy like Martin has three decades of experience at driving these things. It's perhaps a perfect melding of better equipment and a deeper driver lineup.

David Caraviello: Mark, you're right. Clint said as much at media tour -- when Mark Martin tells you something, you don't dispute it, whereas you might if it's coming from a younger or less experienced driver. I'm sure Martin's influence is being felt even when he's not at the race track.

Putting on a show

MWR drivers in 2012
StartsTruexBowyerMartin/Vickers
Poles001
Top-fives111
Top-10s223
Owner pointsFourthNinthSeventh

Joe Menzer: The best thing MWR has maybe ever done was hire Scott Miller to as competition director, or whatever his exact title may be. Very sharp. Has helped place many of the pieces to the puzzle they probably already had in their building in the right spots. And of course they spent the money to upgrade drivers with Bowyer in the full-time gig and Mark Martin the part-time role.

Mark Aumann: Doesn't it seem like every year, somebody comes out of the woodwork and surprises us? Last year, it might have been RCR. This sport is all about incremental gains and taking advantage of momentum. And right now, MWR has both.

David Caraviello: And who's the common thread there? Scott Miller. Guy did incredible work helping to pull RCR out of the doldrums, and look at the gains being made at MWR. The guy is developing a heck of a track record.

Mark Aumann: There you go! It's Miller time.

David Caraviello: That's what I'm here for, to connect the dots. It's what I do.

Mark Aumann: Well, this has always been puzzling to me. But you won't see me using any cross words.

Joe Menzer: I've got to be honest here. When they first went after Bowyer, I pointed out that at the time Reutimann had the same number of wins over 2009 and 2010 that Bowyer did. Then Clint won at Talladega toward the end of last year, really showing me something in that he was in a lame-duck situation with Richard Childress Racing at the time. So I guess that probably is an upgrade in that Bowyer also is much younger. But you guys are right: Martin is a key -- and Miller, in my mind, was an even more important acquisition.

David Caraviello: Of course, Bristol is a very specialized kind of place, and we'll see if MWR continues to show strength at a very different kind of track this weekend in Southern California. But they give us no reason to expect otherwise. Truex and Bowyer are both in the top 10 in points for a reason, and the No. 55 has been strong every weekend regardless of who is behind the wheel. This team has been very steady the first four weeks, and I doubt that's going to change overnight.

Joe Menzer: Brian Pattie admitted as much after the Bristol race, saying that this two-mile track and some of the other intermediates up ahead on the schedule will be more of a true test. But it's pretty obvious their short-track program is in good shape, as well as their superspeedway stuff.

Mark Aumann: And Bowyer was sixth at Las Vegas. So the potential is there.

David Caraviello: And on top of all this, you have Vickers making a rather incredible statement about himself. The guy's been through a lot, and he's faced a lot of questions based on some choices he's made, but a run like he had at Bristol was impossible to ignore. You have to think he's put himself in position to fill out some other weeks in his Sprint Cup schedule beyond the half-dozen or so events he's going to run this year with MWR.

Joe Menzer: Yeah, Vickers' run was the surprise story of the Bristol weekend. Amazing, really. He led 125 laps at a place where in 14 previous starts he had led the grand total of one -- and this after being out of a ride for the first portion of the season.

Mark Aumann: And that's a whole 'nother topic. The guy was invisible all off-season, perhaps because of his feud with Matt Kenseth -- and that may have poisoned his reputation in the garage. But Vickers can wheel a car when given the chance. And I'm guessing he'll get more chances. He made the Chase before his heart surgery.

Joe Menzer: Again, I think Vickers' run speaks to the overall improved strength of MWR. They seem to be gaining the most from the off-season agreement between all the Toyota teams to share more information.

Mark Aumann: Scott Miller! Genius! I'm going to have that guy do my taxes for me.

3. California marks the final week where teams use top 35 points from the previous season. As we look ahead to Martinsville and 2012 points going into effect, who should be worried about being left on the wrong side of the cut-off?

David Caraviello: There's one driver who should be concerned here, and she's not even in the Sprint Cup race this weekend -- and it's Danica Patrick. That No. 10 car is way down there at 36th in owner points right now, and it seems to have trouble week after week. Danica doesn't get back in the car until Darlington in May, but as it stands right now she may very well have to make it in on speed at the Lady in Black -- far from an ideal scenario, to say the least.

Mark Aumann: Would anyone have guessed that Kasey Kahne would be seven points away from having to qualify to make the show at Martinsville? That wouldn't have even been on my radar before Daytona. Boy, have they had terrible luck. They just need to get to the end of the race at Fontana with a decent run.

Outside looking in


This week's race is the last one of the season which sets the field based on the 2011 owner points. And there are some familiar faces toeing that line.

David Caraviello: Mark, the idea of a Hendrick car being outside the top 35 -- goodness, that's just too mind-boggling to fathom. I have to think that they're going to turn things around this weekend on a big, wide track where perhaps drivers can avoid one another a little more. Goodness knows, they need a clean run to settle everything down. They go to Martinsville on the fence, or outside the top 35 ... that kind of thing just does not compute.

Joe Menzer: Kahne in 32nd in the one who stands out. The No. 5 team is 34th in owner's points -- and if you look at the driver standings just to illustrate how bad Kahne's been, Brian Vickers is only 17 points behind him despite having run one race to Kahne's four.

Mark Aumann: And here's the thing about Danica. We already know the Wood Brothers aren't running a full schedule, so toss them out of the equation. So the No. 10 is basically battling with the two Burger King teams, Germain and the No. 30 car for that spot. And honestly, if you have Hendrick/Stewart equipment, you ought to make the show -- even if it is Darlington.

David Caraviello: Joe, I understand you used to cover the NFL, so let me try and educate you a little -- driver points don't matter here. Owner points are the whole ballgame for the teams around the top-35 cutoff. And right now Kahne, the No. 10 car shared by David Reutimann and Danica Patrick, and the BK Racing entry driven by Landon Cassill are probably the most concerned as Martinsville approaches. These guys have all been living off 2011 points for the first five weeks, and their struggles of this season are suddenly going to seem that much more real as the tour heads to southern Virginia next weekend.

Mark Aumann: It seems like we're seeing about 46 cars showing up each week, and a couple of those are rookies just trying to make the show. I still think a fully-funded top-notch team has the advantage. However, that changes the entire weekend -- because the team now has to worry about qualifying setups instead of using practice to work on race trim. I imagine Tony Stewart is pulling hard for David Reutimann to have a couple of really good races over the next few weeks. And isn't that the oddest situation we've faced in a long time? I can't remember a time when two teams shared owners points.

David Caraviello: Yeah, Mark, so should we be surprised if Tony gives Reutimann a lap back at California? As for the BK Racing guys (who bought the former Red Bull assets), when I talked to them at Daytona, they spoke about hopefully finishing inside the top 25. Clearly, they have some work to do there. I'm not certain, but they very well may be using year-old chassis. Cassill hung in there with the No. 51 last year, so we know he's a better driver than where he currently sits in owner points.

Joe Menzer: I believe I said earlier that I mentioned driver points only to further illustrate how poorly Kahne has run this season -- and I think it does just that. The fact of the matter is that you guys are creating more drama here than there actually is. Reutimann will get the No. 10 where it needs to be, I'll bet. Kahne will be fine after a solid run this weekend. And Landon Cassill? Already scoring points at least with the media after delivering Whoppers to the appeal stakeout at the NASCAR R&D Center. He'll be fine, too.

David Caraviello: As for Kahne -- listen, we all know he's a better driver than this. Clearly. He's been hit this year by everything but the pace car, and once he strings together a few clean runs, he'll be out of his current perilous situation with ease. He's in jeopardy right now, surely, but we all know the potential is there. We're talking about a driver and a team that can win races, unlike a lot of the other programs surrounding them in owner points. He may not make the Chase, but he'll get out of this top-35 situation -- eventually. For his sake, you hope it's this week.

Mark Aumann: If there's a surprise at the bottom of the standings, it may be the BK folks. They seemed to get into the game very late -- and with used equipment. But it really tells me a lot more about Landon Cassill's ability to get the most out of his stuff without overdriving it. And really, the engine issues at Las Vegas are perhaps the only reason we're having this conversation about this team. If they get decent finishes there, they're solidly in the top 35. Plus, who doesn't like burgers and Dr Pepper? The very definition of "fast" food. Did they serve that in the press box at those NFL games, Joe?

Joe Menzer: Kahne very well might make the Chase still -- but it will have to be as a wild card. Did I ever tell you guys about the great NFL Wild Card playoff game I once covered between the Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams, who were coached by a guy who looked like me?

David Caraviello: Oh, yes, Uncle Joe. Please tell us more stories about the NFL. Please! And then please hit me in the head with an impact wrench.

Mark Aumann: Geez, all this talk about the top 35 reminds me we're only two weeks away from Martinsville hot dogs.

David Caraviello: Suddenly, I need a Pepcid.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.