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Carl Edwards is the new Sprint Cup Series points leader following the NASCAR race at Fontana, a result of his sixth-place finish and former points leader Kurt Busch's off-day.
Edwards is nine points ahead of Ryan Newman – the biggest lead so far through five races of NASCAR's new, simplified points system. That's as high in the points as Newman has been since 2008, when he started off the season by winning the Daytona 500.
Clint Bowyer (17th) and Brian Vickers (24th) made the largest leaps, up seven spots apiece. Race winner Kevin Harvick gained six spots and moved to ninth.
Among the drivers who took a big hit: Denny Hamlin, David Gilliland and Bobby Labonte all lost four spots each.
Here are the updated point standings after Fontana:
Jimmie Johnson was explaining to reporters why he didn't try to press the issue with Kevin Harvick on the last lap of Sunday's race at Fontana when Kyle Busch playfully interjected.
It was part of a humorous exchange between the two drivers, who finished second and third at Auto Club Speedway.
Johnson had said "today was all about a win," but then added "there is a flipside."
"When Kevin was alongside of me off of (Turn) 4, I could have maybe tried to squeeze the door, do something a little stupid there," Johnson said. "I'm like, 'If I spin out here and finish 15th because I'm down on the grass, can't get the car fired up, it would just be stupid.'"
But Busch didn't see the problem with that. Sitting right next to Johnson on the post-race press conference stage, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver couldn't help himself from expressing what he would have done in the same situation.
"C'mon," Busch said jokingly. "What the hell, damn it!"
Johnson laughed and told Busch, "That's what happens (to a driver's mindset) at (age) 35 and 10 years in the sport."
Then Johnson turned the tables on Busch.
"What did you do off of (Turn) 4?" he asked Busch about the last lap.
"I got in the wall," Busch said with a smile. "I told you, I was bored."
Johnson then emphasized that though it was a good points day, he was far from satisfied with second.
"It's like kissing your sister, running second," Johnson said, "and I don't have a sister."
You already know how the individual drivers finished in Sunday's NASCAR race at Fontana. But how about the teams? Here's a look at the four biggest multi-car teams and how they fared at Auto Club Speedway:
Richard Childress Racing (average finish: 9.75)
Team owner Richard Childress won for the first time ever at Auto Club Speedway, thanks to Kevin Harvick – who moved up six spots in the point standings to ninth place after his win.
Clint Bowyer also had a much-needed good day, with a seventh-place finish that helped him gain seven positions to 17th in the standings.
Jeff Burton ran well, but was hit with a speeding penalty and went a lap down at one point in the race. But he rebounded nicely and finished 15th, which allowed him to move up to 25th in the standings.
The news wasn't as great for Paul Menard, though. His final race of "Menarch" was a quiet one, as he finished 16th and fell from fifth to seventh in the point standings.
Roush Fenway Racing (average finish: 10.75)
Former points leader Kurt Busch's bad day opened the door for Roush Fenway's Carl Edwards to take over the Sprint Cup Series points lead following his sixth-place finish.
Edwards snapped an incredible streak of either first- or second-place finishes in five of the last six races, and he was never much of a factor at Fontana. Still, he holds a nine-point lead over Ryan Newman in the standings.
Matt Kenseth led the way for Roush with a fourth-place effort (which moved him to 10th in the points) and Greg Biffle had his second consecutive positive finish, posting an 11th-place result. Biffle, who was once mired toward the bottom of the top 35, gained three more spots and is now 20th.
David Ragan didn't make much impact, unfortunately, finishing 22nd.
Hendrick Motorsports (average finish: 13)
Sunday was a mixed bag for Hendrick, as Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin were non-factors with an 18th- and 20th-place finish, respectively.
But Jimmie Johnson contended for the victory and finished second, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued to show he's rebounding with a solid 12th-place run.
Johnson leads the way for Hendrick in the point standings, having moved up to fourth after Fontana. Earnhardt Jr. is 12th, followed by Martin (14th) and Gordon (16th).
Joe Gibbs Racing (average finish: 22.3)
Uh oh. Joe Gibbs Racing's engine woes don't seem to be going away, and that's a concern for one of NASCAR's premier teams.
Denny Hamlin had a motor issue that forced him out of the race on Sunday just after the halfway point, despite a promising day that saw him lead 15 laps. His 39th-place finish dropped him to 21st in the point standings.
Things aren't much better for Joey Logano, either. Logano changed an engine before the race and made it to the end, but a late restart violation dropped him to a 25th-place finish – another bad day he couldn't afford.
Logano is now 29th in the point standings, sitting 64 points out of a Chase spot. He'll likely need to win a couple races and get into the top 20 in points if he hopes to make the Chase as a wild card this season.
Kyle Busch had a good day, though. He led the most laps – 151 of the 200 total circuits around the 2-mile oval – and moved up two spots to fourth in points. Of course, it's never a truly good day for Busch unless he wins.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 12th-place result Sunday at Fontana left him wondering what kind of finish would have been in store had his qualifying effort on Friday been better.
Earnhardt Jr. said starting 30th or worse – which he did at Auto Club Speedway and overall in three of the last four races – has hampered his team's ability to get top-five finishes, despite having great race cars.
"We had a much better car than that, we just qualified so bad," he said. "... My car was definitely a top-five car in the last 60 percent of the race, at least. I believe in the last 10 percent of races this year, (the car) is the best it's been all weekend. You can't ask for anything better than that. So if we just qualify better, we'll be alright."
Earnhardt Jr. praised his team's consistency, and said it was "something I've never really had."
Aside from the Daytona 500, in which he started on the pole but was involved in a crash, Earnhardt Jr. has placed 10th, eighth, 11th and 12th this season.
"We're a top-10 team, you know?" he said. "This is about as consistent as I've ever been in my whole career. So that's a good thing."
The focus going forward, to Martinsville and beyond, will be for Earnhardt Jr. to help his team by improving his qualifying performance.
"It's not allowed us to really show how good we actually are," he said. "... You're really not helping yourself starting the race in 30th – even (with) really, really good race cars."
Why does a poor qualifying effort hurt so much? Because Earnhardt Jr. said the amount of dirty air in traffic makes it extremely difficult to gain track position.
"It's hard to get there," he said. "The cars just don't magically drive right up through there in all that dirty air, and guys racing you real hard on the outside and stuff. They're doing what they're supposed to do. It was fun, but I've got to qualify better."
Early in Sunday's race, Earnhardt Jr. struggled and said for the first time this year, crew chief Steve Letarte's changes weren't having much impact.
"I was like, 'Hey, you know, I don't want to be repeating myself here, but nothing is working yet – so just remember we haven't made it better or touched on what we needed to fix,'" Earnhardt Jr. said. "We tried a couple other things that steered him in a different direction, and we found what we needed to find to help me with the car a little bit."
The fact Letarte improved the car yet again and got it to where Earnhardt Jr. felt comfortable driving it as the race wound down led the driver to say he had "100 percent confidence" in his crew chief.
"Everybody's believing in everybody," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Everybody's confident it's going to work out. The communication feels really good."
Despite the 12th-place finish, Earnhardt Jr. slipped three spots in the point standings. He's now 12th after five races.
Kevin Harvick looked dead in the water as the NASCAR race at Fontana saw the laps wind down, but made a miraculous rally in the final laps to steal the win. Harvick trailed Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch as the final lap began, but zoomed ahead of both of them with the finish line in sight to win his first race of the season.
Harvick was an afterthought as the race wound down, but picked up speed and moved up to third place with a few laps remaining. Busch, who held the lead most of the way, was passed by Johnson with under five laps to go, and Johnson looked like he would end up winning. But then Harvick made his rally, stealing the victory from both men in a stunning upset.
The race snapped a three-race winning streak for Busch, who finished third. Here are the complete results:
Here we go! Another live chat is upon us. What do you think will happen in today's race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana?
Howie Mandel is funny. Brian Scott is funny. This is what happened when Scott, a Nationwide Series driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, tried to teach Mandel what to say in order to start today's NASCAR race at Fontana (Mandel is the grand marshal for the Royal Purple 300).
Howie: "This is my first time ever at NASCAR. Never been."
Brian: "You have no idea what you're doing?"
Howie: "No, somebody said just make a left."
Brian: "No, actually you're not making any turns."
Howie: "I'm not making any turns."
Brian: "You're going to get us riled up and ready to go. Normally, you'd say 'Gentlemen, start your engines.' But there's a female in the field, so you've got to say something like (starts yelling), 'DRIIIIIVERS....START....YOUR....ENGINES!!!!!'"
Howie: "Why are you yelling? I'm right here."
Brian: "Because you've got to yell. Otherwise, we can't hear you."
Howie: "Oh, OK. So there's a woman driving today?"
Brian: "There is a woman in the field, you can't say 'Gentlemen.' She might forget to start her engine. You gotta make sure you include everybody."
Howie: "OK, I will. And are you going to be racing?"
Brian: "I'm going to be racing, yeah. So I'm going to go off you. When you say that, I'm going to go, 'Vrooooom.'"
Howie: "You're just going to do that with your mouth, or your actual car?"
Brian: "No, I'm going to do that with my mouth."
Howie: "Oh. See, cause when I was a little kid, I used to play with racing cars and I didn't know you could actually do that."
Brian: "Yes, we still do that: 'Vrooooom.' We're just bigger kids with bigger cars."
Howie: "Oh, OK. Well, good luck to you. What number is your car?"
Howie: "11, OK. Well, we'll be watching for you. You feeling good about today? ... Shouldn't you be preparing instead of talking to me? What preparation goes into this?"
Brian: "Nah, I got nothin' else to do. I'm playing Scrabble with my mother on my iPad."
Howie: "Wow, you take all the glamour out of the behind-the-scenes thing. He's playing Scrabble with his mother. OK, alright. You would think a race-car driver would be doing something dangerous."
Brian: "It is dangerous. Have you ever met my mother? She's over there."
Howie: "Let's talk about the race, not your mother."
Brian: "... So you know what you're doing? You want to give it a try?"
Howie: "Yes. Driver...start your Scrabble!"
When it comes to reaching a huge number of people and getting exposed to potential new fans, American Idol is about as big of a stage as there is these days.
So when Idol invited NASCAR drivers Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne to attend Thursday night's results show, both drivers were beyond thrilled to go.
"Man, that was awesome," Bayne said. "I have gotten to do some really cool things recently, but (Thursday) night ranks right up there. I was so excited when I found out that I was getting to go and check it out. We got to sit in the front row right behind the judges and witness it."
Bayne and Logano had a decent amount of camera time, and host Ryan Seacrest gave them a shout-out during the broadcast.
Imagine if just one percent of Idol's 20 million viewers then Googled the drivers to find out more about them. Would some of those people decide to tune into a NASCAR race sometime or perhaps even buy a ticket?
Apparently, the Idol judges themselves are already among those interested in NASCAR. Randy Jackson expressed his enthusiasm for the sport when chatting with Logano, Jennifer Lopez specifically asked to meet Bayne and Logano learned after chatting with the remaining judge that "Steven Tyler is the man, apparently."
"Maybe I need to start dressing like him," Logano joked of the Aerosmith lead singer.
Bayne was floored that Lopez and her husband, singer Marc Anthony, even knew who he was.
"The cool part to me is not that I got to meet them, but that they actually wanted to meet me," he said. "That blows my mind. I mean that is Jennifer Lopez and she wanted to meet me? It is just crazy."
Logano, who also got to meet Hulk Hogan backstage, said he "had a blast" seeing behind the scenes and getting introduced to celebrities.
"I was a total fan, you know?" he said. "I was on the other end of the spectrum than I normally am. It was cool to meet all those guys and get some pictures."
Bayne was introduced to each of the Idol contestants after the show, but said he couldn't pick a favorite because "top to bottom, all of the finalists are so good."
"I really think that it is the most talent they have had on that show in a long time, maybe ever," he said. "I think it is impossible to pick a winner. I got to meet each of them after the show and they were all really cool people. I am rooting for all of them."
Juan Pablo Montoya had struggled to put together good qualifying results in the first few races of this season, finishing higher than where he started in every Sprint Cup Series event so far in 2011.
But Montoya solved that problem on Friday at Fontana, claiming the top spot for Sunday's Auto Club 400 starting lineup with a lap of 184.653 mph.
"I didn't think we were going to qualify that well," a smiling Montoya said. "Overall, I was really happy. Actually, I'm really surprised we qualified that well."
The pole was the sixth of Montoya's career, with the most recent coming last fall at Talladega. None of Montoya's previous poles had come at a 1.5- or 2-mile oval, however.
Denny Hamlin made a late charge to try and knock Montoya off, but he came up just short and recorded a lap of 184.270 mph. He'll be second on the starting grid.
Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Joey Logano, was third, followed by Regan Smith and Tony Stewart.
Smith continued his strong qualifying efforts this season. He had a series-leading 6.5 average starting position entering the Auto Club Speedway weekend.
David Ragan, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Mark Martin rounded out the top 10.
There were only 43 cars entered in the race, meaning none of the so-called "go-or-go-home" drivers were actually sent home. All of them made the race.
Other notable drivers included Southern California native Jimmie Johnson (16th), Carl Edwards (18th), points leader Kurt Busch (23th), Jeff Gordon (29th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (30th).
Here is the starting lineup for Sunday's Auto Club 400 in Fontana:
Friday's Sprint Cup Series practice in Fontana was supposed to be the typical 90-minute session teams usually get before taking their qualifying laps for Sunday's race.
But because of weather, the session was reduced to 45 minutes – and about five or 10 of those minutes were lost to cleaning up debris from Kyle Busch's wreck into the infield grass.
So teams had less than half the normal preparation time for qualifying, which is scheduled to take place at 5:10 p.m. local time (8:10 p.m. Eastern time) this evening.
What did teams do in terms of strategy to prepare, given the very short practice window? Let's look at the example of how Tony Stewart's No. 14 team handled the situation.
In an ordinary pre-qualifying practice, Stewart said he likes to spend the first 45-to-60 minutes on race trim (the setup the team will use during the actual race). If Stewart feels satisfied with how the car feels after the first hour of practice, he'll switch over to qualifying trim and make one or two mock qualifying runs.
The delayed practice at Fontana caused Stewart's team to scramble, though. He missed the first few minutes of practice because his team had initially started in race trim; they had to spend time switching over to qualifying setup before he could hit the track.
Most teams were in the same boat in terms of only practicing for the qualifying session and not the race. Crew chief Darian Grubb told Stewart that he saw only one car making more than one lap at a time.
The practice session was tricky for Stewart, he said, because it was like starting "cold turkey" with no laps to get a feel for the track before making qualifying runs. The two-time Cup champion said that was something he was "terrible" at.
Ultimately, the team had time to make three qualifying runs before the session ended, leaving Stewart 13th on the speed chart (David Reutimann was fastest).
"I apologized to (Grubb) because I don't think I did a very good job that session," Stewart said. "I normally like to start off in race trim and get some laps under our belt. (Then) when we switch over for qualifying, I've got a better idea on what the track is doing and where we need to be and where my marks are and all that.
"I didn't feel like I did a very good job there, just going out cold turkey in qualifying trim like that."
Because of the shortened session, Stewart and the rest of the Cup drivers have only a few laps of data to help them guess which changes will work in the upcoming qualifying session. Stewart's first lap was his fastest, so that will guide his team's decision-making, he said.
"I think we're actually going to go back to what we started with," Stewart said. "The second and third runs didn't feel as good as the first one, so we're going to go back to where we started and just kind of tweak off that a little bit."
Kyle Busch has appeared to be more mellow and relaxed this year, and there's still debate about why. Is it because he got married? Is it because he's suddenly matured? Or is it because of something else?
To hear Busch tell it, much of the reason is due to a realization that he could no longer afford to be NASCAR's bad boy, which could potentially push away new sponsors and fans.
"You listen to some of the people that say, 'Well, don't change' and 'Stay the way you are and get in trouble' and all that stuff," he said. "I can't do that anymore. I'm more about just trying to make do with what I can do and make things right."
Busch said his happiness with new wife Samantha is part of the reason, along with "some things that we're doing together in our lives that we're happy with."
But he also said he's committed to truly changing and growing as a person this time, showcasing the positive side of his personality rather than dealing with the headaches that come from weekly drama.
"I think maybe last year or the year before, (the change) was maybe a little more fabricated," he said. "People were telling me what to do and how to act, rather than me doing the work and actually becoming the person inside."
Naturally, there will be skeptics about a changed Busch – but he said he's pleased that some people have "taken a little bit of notice."
"We just continue on moving forward and doing what we're doing," he said.
If you're waiting on qualifying results today from Fontana, you'll have to be patient for an extra hour – at least.
Overnight rain that continued into the morning hours at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California has pushed back all of Friday's on-track activity. If everything goes well with the track drying – and that's a big "if," because ACS is notorious for problems with so-called "weepers" – practice and qualifying will only be delayed by one hour today.
Currently, the Sprint Cup Series teams are waiting for the track's jet dryers to finish their duties. As soon as they do, Sprint Cup practice will begin and last until 2:30 local time (5:30 Eastern).
After that, the Nationwide Series cars will have a two hour and 20 minute practice from 2:40 until 5 p.m. local time.
Then Sprint Cup qualifying will finally take place at 5:10 local time (8:10 p.m. Eastern time).
Make sure to check back here for results and the starting lineup afterward.
Carl Edwards isn't backing down from his very public plans to get payback on Kyle Busch for their incident at Phoenix last month – even after Busch apologized and said it was unintentional.
"The deal is I am just going to go race how I need to race – it is nothing personal," Edwards said. "That deal at Phoenix cost me 28 points – at least – in my opinion. So, the least he can give up is one spot."
Edwards said he informed Busch "I owed him one" and said Busch "asked for me to give it back to him at the All-Star race," when drivers don't have any points on the line.
"You never know," Edwards said. "Maybe that is how it will go. This is racing, guys."
Of course, Edwards actually had the opportunity to make Busch pay up at Bristol last week. Busch was winning late in the race, and had Edwards on his back bumper.
But Busch pulled away without incident, and Edwards never got close enough in the final laps to make anything happen.
So why didn't Edwards take Busch out when he had a chance?
"It boils down to this: I had my shot to pass him and I couldn't, because I wasn't fast enough," Edwards said. "When things got going, his car was just faster. I couldn't get back to him.
"If I could have got to him with one or two laps to go, then maybe I could have made something happen. I know that is what all the fans wanted to see. Trust me, nobody wanted to see it more than me. I would have loved to be in that position. As it went, I wasn't even in position to consider that."
Edwards said he's thought a lot about Bristol since the race and concluded "I did the best I could." So he'll have to wait until a future date to get payback on Busch.
And if anyone has a problem with that, Edwards doesn't care.
"People can say whatever they want," he said. "I am going to do what I have to do and say whatever I am going to say. That is me."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. told reporters Friday at Fontana that the difference between last season and this one extends further than just the chemistry with new crew chief Steve Letarte.
Though Earnhardt Jr. said Letarte has certainly helped things – particularly in the way he continues to improve the cars during the race – the cars themselves have been a bit easier for Earnhardt Jr. to drive this season.
Earnhardt Jr. said he can "definitely see a difference" in his ability to be more aggressive with the cars, thanks to increased grip.
"Everything in practice and everything about the team, I don't feel like we're a ton different than last year," he said. "But when I get in the car in the race, I just feel like I've got a little more grip, a little more ability to be aggressive and challenge people. At least that's how it's been for three weeks."
Earnhardt Jr. wasn't sure why the cars were improved, but he speculated it was something company-wide with the Hendrick Motorsports cars. He said he didn't think it had much to do with the redesigned nose on the front of his Chevrolet this year.
"It's just something about the car, being able to race a little more, race around guys," he said. "Normally, man, you're just trying to hang on to your car, just keep your car underneath you – you're not really able to race other guys. You can't really even consider racing another competitor, you're so consumed with trying to control your own car.
"This year, that seems to be a little different, where we can go, ‘Alright, the car is kind of under us. Let's race this guy real hard where we can take some risks and make some passes.'"
So far, it seems to be paying off for Earnhardt Jr. The sport's most popular driver is ninth in points, his highest ranking since Talladega last April.
Since Daytona, he's recorded three straight top-11 finishes.
Everyone seems to be jumping to conclusions about the 2011 NASCAR season heading into Fontana, even though only four races have been marked off the schedule so far.
People are talking about Jimmie Johnson (he hasn't won a race yet!), Kyle Busch (he looks like a championship contender!), Carl Edwards (unstoppable!) and Paul Menard (a Chase driver!), just to name a few.
And while some of those notions may eventually become a reality, it's far too early to assume anything at this point. Especially if you consider the makeup of the new schedule so far.
Since the meat of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is played out at the so-called "intermediate" tracks (the 1.5-mile and 2-mile ovals), those are where we can make our conclusions about the season.
In the past, the first four races of the season had three intermediate track races: Auto Club Speedway (Fontana), Las Vegas and Atlanta.
So last year, we could have made some major judgments after four races. But we can't do that this year, because there has been only one intermediate track race so far (Las Vegas).
Daytona? Only applies to Talladega. Phoenix? Maybe applies to New Hampshire, if anything. Bristol? Entirely its own animal.
So aside from Las Vegas, what evidence to we have to make any conclusions about the season right now?
That's why, when Carl Edwards was asked after Bristol if he thought the championship would come down to himself, Busch and Johnson, he seemed incredulous.
"Are you seriously asking me that question right now?" he said.
It's simply too early to make any judgments. But coupled with the Vegas results, 400 miles at Fontana will go a long way toward telling us which drivers are headed for an up or down season.
Here's the schedule for the Fontana weekend, which marks NASCAR's lone trip to the 2-mile oval in Southern California this year (all times Eastern):
3 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series practice (1 hour, 30 minutes)
4:40 p.m. – Nationwide Series final practice (2 hours, 40 minutes)
7:10 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series qualifying
1:10 p.m. – Nationwide Series qualifying
2:30 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series practice (45 minutes)
3:50 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series final practice (1 hour)
5:30 p.m. – Nationwide Series race (150 laps, 300 miles)
3 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series race (200 laps, 400 miles)
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