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Drivers take lessons of Daytona into Fontana

The rain-shortened race gives them a good look at their strengths and weaknesses and they head into Auto Club 500.

February 19, 2009|Jim Peltz

NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series visits Auto Club Speedway in Fontana this weekend for the Auto Club 500, and here are five things to watch for:

1. Fresh off his Daytona 500 win, Matt Kenseth is poised to extend his early push for a second NASCAR Cup championship because he's a two-time winner at Fontana.

The Wisconsin native, who captured the title in 2003 in his No. 17 Ford, won the February race at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in 2006 and 2007.

The rain-shortened Daytona win put "a little bit of spring in everybody's step" on Kenseth's Roush Fenway Racing team, he said. But after enduring a winless 2008, "my goals are pretty high for this year. We really need to go perform, try to win more races."

2. If two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart proved anything at Daytona, it's that his new Stewart-Haas Racing team already is competitive.

Despite suggestions that the team might have early season growing pains, Stewart led 15 laps of the Daytona 500 before settling for an eighth-place finish in his No. 14 Chevrolet.

Stewart noted that Daytona is unique because it's a race in which NASCAR mandates carburetor-restrictor plates that limit the cars' speeds for safety and keep the field bunched together. Not so at Fontana, a wide, relatively flat track where drivers top 200 mph.

"I enjoy going to California because I really feel that's where our season starts," Stewart said. "That's a track where you don't really worry about what everybody else's car is doing. You worry about what your car is doing."

3. Joey Logano, the 18-year-old rising star who replaced Stewart in the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing this year, is ready to start over after a forgettable Daytona 500.

Logano spun and crashed head-on into an infield wall on Lap 79 at Daytona. He wasn't injured, but the accident meant the rookie finished last in the 43-car field.

"We didn't have the finish we wanted last weekend, but as a team we learned a lot about each other and got to know each other better," Logano said. "I know I have a lot to learn at these tracks."

4. Richard Petty Motorsports, the result of the off-season merger of Petty Enterprises and Gillett Evernham Motorsports, got off to a fast start at Daytona with three of its four drivers finishing in the top 10.

"From a piece of paper to get it to work, nobody could have imagined that it would have worked as good as it did," Petty said. "We're going to take it and be ready to go to California."

Kasey Kahne, with a 29th-place finish at Daytona, was the only RPM driver outside the top 10. But Kahne could quickly bounce back at Fontana because he won there in 2006.

5. The Auto Club 500 starts Sunday at 3 p.m. There also is practice and qualifying Friday starting at 9:45 a.m., and a racing doubleheader Saturday: The San Bernardino County 200 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at noon, followed by the Stater Bros. 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race about 4:45 p.m.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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Auto Club 500

Sunday, Auto Club Speedway

Fontana, 2 p.m., Channel 11

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