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Chase for the Cup is close as series comes to Fontana

Jimmie Johnson leads pack as NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series resumes at Pepsi Max 400 on Sunday.

October 06, 2010|By Jim Peltz

Now this is a chase.

NASCAR's Chase for the Cup title playoff this year is the closest ever after three races, although Jimmie Johnson is a favorite to widen his current slim lead in the standings as the Sprint Cup Series returns to Southern California.

Seven of the 12 Chase drivers are within 85 points of Johnson, and three others are within 150 points as NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series holds the fourth of the 10 Chase races, the Pepsi Max 400 on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

Johnson, seeking an unprecedented fifth consecutive Cup title in stock-car racing's premier series, has an eight-point edge over Denny Hamlin. Right behind them are Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, his brother Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle, who won last weekend at Kansas.

Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth also are within striking distance of getting back into title contention.

Only Clint Bowyer, 252 points behind Johnson, is considered all but out of the Chase already. Bowyer won the first Chase race at New Hampshire but then was penalized 150 points when NASCAR ruled that the body of his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet didn't meet requirements.

Although the Chase is close, Johnson is a good bet to widen his lead at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway oval because the El Cajon native has won four of the last six races there, including the Auto Club 500 last February.

But several others in the Chase also have victories at Fontana, including three-time winners Gordon and Kenseth, along with Biffle, Edwards and both Busch brothers.

"We're not going to throw in the towel," Biffle, driver of the No. 16 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, said this week. "Jimmie's won a lot in California [but he is] not clearly running away with this thing yet."

Johnson, 35, also refused to look too far ahead.

"It's early" in the Chase, Johnson said after finishing second behind Biffle at Kansas. "We have to get deeper into the Chase to be concerned about who the points leader is."

But Burton, Stewart and Kenseth have to be concerned about where the leader is, and they need solid finishes at Fontana to further tighten the Chase.

"Fontana is typically a good track for me," Kenseth said, "so it's good to travel there this weekend, especially after a strong run at Kansas," where he finished seventh.

Drivers like the wide lanes at Auto Club Speedway, where the cars reach 200 mph on the front straightaway, because they can race high or low to find the quickest speed.

"You can really experiment with it because the straightaways are so long and it's a big, fast race track," Gordon said.

But with the corner banking a relatively modest 14 degrees, cars often get strung out on long, green-flag runs and passing is difficult. So the race, formerly 500 miles, was shortened to 400 miles this year in hopes of boosting its excitement by tightening the competition.

Among other things, the shorter distance forces drivers and teams to shift strategies because there will be at least one less pit stop and they'll need to press their cars into contention sooner before the closing laps.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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