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NASCAR's Chase contenders look to California

The Pepsi 500 in Fontana joins the 10-race series for the first time. Tony Stewart, who finished eighth at the track in February, has higher hopes this time around.

October 06, 2009|Jim Peltz

KANSAS CITY, KAN. — NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series is on its way to Southern California this weekend, with its championship playoff in tow, and several title contenders are looking forward to coming west.

They include Tony Stewart, who won Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway in his quest to win a third championship in NASCAR's Chase for the Cup playoff.

The Chase's fourth race is the Pepsi 500 on Sunday at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. The race formerly was held on Labor Day weekend but was moved into the 10-race Chase starting this season.

Stewart formed a new racing team this year, which included a new crew chief, Darian Grubb, for his No. 14 Chevrolet. And Stewart said the team is more prepared than it was in February, when Auto Club Speedway staged the Cup series' second race of the season and Stewart finished eighth.

"We were still just learning each other going into California in [February]," said Stewart, whose Kansas victory lifted him one spot to fourth in the Chase standings, 67 points behind leader Mark Martin.

"We obviously know each other better," Stewart said of his team. "We've had time to make mistakes and make decisions that worked for me, and we've learned the feel [in the car] that I like together, and that's something that will help us definitely for next week."

Others among the 12 Chase drivers also are looking forward to Fontana, including reigning champion Jimmie Johnson, who is trying to win a record fourth consecutive title.

Johnson at times appeared to have the strongest car in Kansas, but he faded toward the end and finished ninth after his crew changed four tires on his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet late in the race.

But Johnson remains second in the Chase, 18 points behind his teammate Martin.

"We certainly lost some track position" with the tire change, Johnson said. "Then the car was really tough to drive, edgy and all over the place, so I'm not sure what happened."

That said, Johnson won the Pepsi 500 last year, and there is "still a lot of racing left," he said.

Johnson, a three-time winner in Fontana, is one of several Chase drivers with victories at Auto Club Speedway.

His teammate Jeff Gordon -- currently seventh in the Chase -- also is a three-time winner there.

Greg Biffle, who appeared to have the winning car in Kansas until a four-tire change late in the race put him behind Stewart, also has won in Fontana. So have Martin, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch.

Busch finished 11th at Kansas and is fifth in the Chase, 91 points behind Martin.

"We could never find the right balance" for the No. 2 Penske Dodge in the Kansas race, Busch said. "We'll take our notes, learn from them and head to California."

Kahne, meanwhile, earned a sixth-place finish in Kansas, and he's 11th in the Chase, a distant 190 points behind Martin with seven races remaining.

"It's just tough battling all those guys, they run so good," Kahne said of the Chase field. Nonetheless, "California is another good track for us, a track we're pretty good at."


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