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NASCAR Driver Capsules, March 20

By By The Sports Xchange
Published On: Mar 20 2014 09:18:07 AM CDT
NASCAR race

Chris Keane/Reuters

Capsules for the top 20 drivers in the Sprint Cup standings, plus five additional drivers of note.

By Jerry Bonkowski and Bob Moore

2 BRAD KESELOWSKI, Ford

Team: Penske Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Brad Keselowski moved into first place atop the Sprint Cup standings after Sunday's race at Bristol Motor Speedway. He leads points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 10 points and the third-ranked tie of Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards by 11 points.

FONTANA RECORD: 5 career starts, 0 wins, 0 top-5s, 0 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: 18th in 2012. Finished 23rd in this race last year and was 23rd in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Keselowski has been very consistent in the first four races, finishing third in the first two races, winning at Las Vegas and finishing 14th at Bristol. He's off to the best start of his Sprint Cup career. Here's his thoughts about Sunday's race in Fontana: "The win (at Las Vegas) is a feather in our cap without a doubt. The new Chase format dictates that we have to win and we feel better having checked that box early in the season. The points lead shows that we have been consistent and it is always enjoyable to be on top."

LOOKING BACK: Keselowski finished 14th at Bristol, but because Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 24th, Keselowski was able to take over the Sprint Cup points lead.

ETC.: Keselowski has completed 99.8 percent (977) of the 979 total laps contested in five career starts at Fontana. His average start there is 17.4 and his average finish is 22.8. He has zero DNFs there.

88 DALE EARNHARDT JR., Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: After leading the Sprint Cup standings for the first three weeks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fell to second place after Bristol. He trails new points leader Brad Keselowski by 10 points and leads the third-ranked tie between Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards by one point.

FONTANA RECORD: 21 career starts, 0 wins, 5 top-5s, 6 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Second in fall 2006 and last year's race. Finished second in this race last year and was third in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Even with his 24th-place showing at Bristol, Earnhardt is still off to the best start of his 15-year Sprint Cup career. Prior to his win in this season's Daytona 500, his last two wins were at Michigan, a two-mile track virtually identical to this Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway. Here's his thoughts on Fontana: "The last couple of times we've been to California, we've had some good race cars. It's a track where we can move around and change our line. The driver can have a little input on how the car is driving. You can find speed out there. If we are tuning on the car and studying hard during practice, I think we'll have a good weekend."

LOOKING BACK: After remaining in the top 10 for much of the first part of Sunday's race at Bristol, the handling went away on Earnhardt's car and he finished 24th, one lap off the lead lap.

ETC.: Earnhardt has completed 92.3 percent (4,601) of the 4,984 total laps contested in 21 career starts at Fontana. His average start there is 19.7 and his average finish is 19.9. He has five DNFs there.

24 JEFF GORDON, Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: After losing two spots following the Las Vegas race, Jeff Gordon regained those two spots and moved back into third after Bristol (tied with Carl Edwards). Gordon and Edwards both trail new points leader Brad Keselowski by 11 points, second-ranked Dale Earnhardt Jr. by one point and lead fifth-ranked Jimmie Johnson by nine points.

FONTANA RECORD: 24 career starts, 3 wins, 10 top-5s, 11 top-10s, 2 poles. Best career finish: First in spring 1997, spring 1999 and spring 2004. Finished 11th in this race last year and was 26th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Gordon continues to fly under the radar, which is a good thing, thus keeping pressure off him as he bids to win a fifth Sprint Cup championship this year (and if he does so, he's already said he'll retire then). Here's Gordon's thoughts on Sunday's race at Fontana: "I think a lot of drivers like racing at Fontana because the racetrack is so wide and there are so many lines and grooves you can race through the corner. And I think the fans like it because the drivers will race two, three and sometimes four wide."

LOOKING BACK: Gordon had a good car all day at Bristol and came home with a strong seventh-place finish.

ETC.: Gordon has completed 99.2 percent (5,686) of the 5,734 total laps contested in 24 career starts at Fontana. His average start there is 13.2 and his average finish is 11.8. He has two DNFs there.

99 CARL EDWARDS, Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Carl Edwards climbed three positions in the standings after his win at Bristol, from a tie for sixth-place to a tie for third-place with Jeff Gordon. The pair trail new points leader Brad Keselowski by 11 points, second-ranked Dale Earnhardt Jr. by one point and lead fifth-ranked Jimmie Johnson by nine points.

FONTANA RECORD: 16 career starts, 1 wins, 8 top-5s, 13 top-10s, 1 poles. Best career finish: First in spring 2008. Finished fourth in this race last year and was fifth in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Edwards has become quite proficient at Fontana, with eight top-fives and 13 top-10s in 16 overall starts. He's riding momentum from Sunday's win in Bristol and could make it back-to-back wins this Sunday. Here's his thoughts: "(With not having a win prior to Bristol), concerned is not really a strong enough word, but it definitely got my attention. ... Now we get an opportunity to prove that we deserve to win (he won Bristol under caution) and honestly, it might have been a lot more exciting. With everything like that there's always an opportunity, but I did not want to see that caution, I did not at all, so I'm glad the rain came. There was some higher powers at work there and it worked out great."

LOOKING BACK: Edwards powered to a strong win at Bristol. He was in the right place at the right time when caution fell on the final lap.

ETC.: Edwards has completed 99.6 percent (3,718) of the 3,734 total laps contested in 16 career starts at Fontana. His average start there is 18.8 and his average finish is 8.4. He has zero DNFs there.

48 JIMMIE JOHNSON, Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: After climbing two places in the standings after Las Vegas, Jimmie Johnson gave back what he gained by dropping back two spots after Bristol He trails points leader Brad Keselowski by 20 points, is nine points behind the third-ranked tie between Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards, and leads sixth-ranked Joey Logano by two points.

FONTANA RECORD: 19 career starts, 5 wins, 12 top-5s, 14 top-10s, 1 poles. Best career finish: First in spring 2002, summer 2005, summer 2008, fall 2009 and spring 2010. Finished 12th in this race last year and was 10th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Johnson is still in search of his first win of 2014. Fontana could very well be the place: it's one of his most successful tracks. It's hard to pick against him. Here's his thoughts on Sunday's race: "I love going back to California to race. If I had a home track, Fontana is definitely mine. It was the site of my first win in '02 so it's very special to me. I have some local favorite restaurants I like to hit up and get to see a lot of friends. We have a full day of media on Thursday - which is great to be able to stop in Los Angeles on the way out there and hit that market from a media standpoint. We are doing some cool mainstream media hits it's good for me, good for Lowe's and good for the sport."

LOOKING BACK: Johnson struggled with tire issues and handling at Bristol, ending up with a disappointing 19th-place finish.

ETC.: Johnson has completed an outstanding 100 percent (4,484) of the 4,484 total laps contested in 19 career starts at Fontana. His average start there is 9.6 and his average finish is an excellent 5.7. He has zero DNFs there.

22 JOEY LOGANO, Ford

Team: Penske Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: After climbing four spots following Phoenix and two spots after Las Vegas and into fourth place, Joey Logano gave back two positions in the standings, dropping to sixth after Bristol. He trails points leader Brad Keselowski by 22 points, is two points behind fifth-ranked Jimmie Johnson and leads seventh-ranked Denny Hamlin by one point.

FONTANA RECORD: 7 career starts, 0 wins, 2 top-5s, 2 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Third in 2013. Finished a career-best third in this race last year and 24th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Logano returns to the same track where he not only had issues with Denny Hamlin, he also had a post-race scuffle with Tony Stewart. Here's his thoughts on returning to Fontana: "Last year, we did put on a pretty good show there. There was a lot of passing and back and forth action. We had a shot to win there last year and just missed out on it by a little bit. I'd like to go out there and win this weekend. I feel like our two-mile program is really strong and has been here at Team Penske. Hopefully, we can keep it up on Sunday."

LOOKING BACK: Logano led 12 laps at Bristol but his car progressively went away in the final 100 laps or so, ultimately finishing 20th.

ETC.: Logano has completed 99.9 percent (1,477) of the 1,479 laps contested at Fontana. His average start is 12.3 and average finish is 15.4. He has zero DNFs there.

11 DENNY HAMLIN, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Denny Hamlin climbed one spot in the standings after Bristol, from eighth to seventh. He trails points leader Brad Keselowski by 23 points, is one point behind sixth-ranked Joey Logano and leads eighth-ranked Matt Kenseth by two points.

FONTANA RECORD: 13 career starts, 0 wins, 1 top-5s, 4 top-10s, 3 poles. Best career finish: Third in summer 2008. He finished 25th in last year's race and was 11th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Hamlin returns to the place where he suffered the worst wreck of his Sprint Cup career, suffering a compression fracture in his lower spine, causing him to miss the next four races. He's looking to make a triumphant return this weekend and finally earn that first win that has eluded him up to this point there.

LOOKING BACK: Hamlin bounced back from a 12th place finish at Las Vegas to lead four laps and finish sixth this past Sunday at Bristol. Here's his thoughts about his showing: "It was alright. We weren't very good on the short run and got beat pretty bad on restarts. Other than that, a solid day. It's not what we want when we come to Bristol. Obviously, it's win or nothing."

ETC.: Hamlin has completed 92.9 percent (2,769) of the 2,980 total laps contested in 13 career starts at Fontana. His average start there is 12.2 and his average finish is 19.0. He has three DNFs there.

20 MATT KENSETH, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: After climbing from seventh to sixth after Las Vegas, Matt Kenseth dropped two places in the standings after Bristol to eighth. He trails points leader Brad Keselowski by 25 points, is two points behind seventh-ranked Denny Hamlin and leads ninth-ranked Ryan Newman by 13 points.

FONTANA RECORD: 21 career starts, 3 wins, 8 top-5s, 14 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: First in spring 2006, spring 2007 and spring 2009. Finished seventh in this race last year and was 16th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Kenseth loves racing at Fontana and has one of the best overall records of drivers that will be competing there Sunday. He's still looking for his first win of 2014 and has a better than average chance of doing that this Sunday.

LOOKING BACK: Kenseth backslid slightly at Bristol, finishing 13th after finishing sixth in Daytona, 12th at Phoenix and 10th at Las Vegas. Here's his thoughts on how his day was at Bristol: "I told Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) that I feel like a high school kid in my first race today. I felt like I bounced off of everything. It was definitely an eventful night, certainly not the result that we wanted. There was a lot of positives that came out of tonight. I thought we performed really well on the race track, the strongest we've been so far this year."

ETC.: Kenseth has completed 99.9 percent (4,982) of the 4,984 total laps contested in 21 career starts at Fontana. His average start there is 19.6 and his average finish is a much better 10.1. He has zero DNFs there.

31 RYAN NEWMAN, Chevrolet

Team: Richard Childress Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: After climbing six places following Las Vegas, Ryan Newman remained in ninth-place in the standings after Sunday's race at Bristol. He trails points leader Brad Keselowski by 38 points, is 13 points behind eighth-ranked Matt Kenseth and leads 10th-ranked Ricky Stenhouse Jr. by three points.

FONTANA RECORD: 19 career starts, 0 wins, 4 top-5s, 8 top-10s, 1 poles. Best career finish: Third in spring 2004. Finished 10th in this race last year and was seventh in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Newman is enjoying great success early on in his first season with Richard Childress Racing, and is actually the highest-ranked driver in the RCR stable coming into Sunday's race at Fontana. Here's his thoughts on Sunday's race: "California is the flip-flop race on our schedule. It used to be the new asphalt track with one groove. Now if you look at the way everything has been repaved, Auto Club Speedway is one of the oldest tracks on the schedule where you can sometimes see four- and five-wide racing on the straightaway. I look forward to it. It's a fun place to race. It is a lot more fun to race now in comparison to the way it used to be because of the age of the asphalt."

LOOKING BACK: In his 25th career start there, Newman wound up as the last driver on the lead lap of Sunday's race at Bristol, finishing 16th.

ETC.: Newman has completed just 91.5 percent (4,104) of the 4,484 total laps contested in 19 career starts at Fontana. His average start there is 14.2 and his average finish is 17.2. He has three DNFs there.

17 RICKY STENHOUSE Jr., Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made the biggest upward climb in the standings, jumping six places from 16th to 10th after Sunday's race at Bristol. He trails points leader Brad Keselowski by 41 points, is three points behind ninth-ranked Ryan Newman and leads 11th-ranked Kasey Kahne by two points.

FONTANA RECORD: 1 career starts, 0 wins, 0 top-5s, 0 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: 20th in 2013. Finished 20th in this race last year. It was his first and only Sprint Cup start there to date.

LOOKING AHEAD: Stenhouse is a surprise to be in the top-10 after the fourth race. The big question is now that he's there, can he stay there? Fontana was not very kind to him in his first start there last year (started 31st, finished 20th). Here's crew chief Mike Kelley's thoughts on Sunday's race: "This is one of the tracks that we marked at the beginning of the season that we felt like we could have a good run at. Bristol was a great weekend for our No. 17 team and gives us extra confidence going into Fontana. We felt like we learned some things at Vegas that will transfer to Fontana. I feel strongly that we will have another strong run this weekend."

LOOKING BACK: Even though he didn't lead any laps, Stenhouse drove an outstanding race at Bristol, earning a career-best runner-up finish behind Roush-Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards.

ETC.: Stenhouse has completed 100 percent (200) of the 200 total laps contested in one career start at Fontana. His average start there is 31.0 and his average finish is 20.0. He has zero DNFs there.

5 KASEY KAHNE, Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: 11th, only two points out of the top 10. Gained four spots last week.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Three top-nine finishes in the last four races. Overall has one win and 10 top-10 finishes in 17 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Over the years, the intermediate tracks have been real good to Kahne with nine of his 16 career wins and 15 of his 26 pole positions coming on the l.5- and two-mile speedways. For that reason, he is quite anxious to get to California. "We just seem to run better at the intermediate tracks," said Kahne. "The track has been good to Hendrick Motorsports over the years, and we hope that continues on Sunday."

LOOKING BACK: Kahne was pleased with his eighth-place finish at Bristol for his second straight top-10 finish of the young season, but after winning the spring race a year ago and finishing second in the night August event he had hoped for a little better day. "We had a pretty good car, but track position is so important here we were just not able to show all we had," said Kahne, who did lead twice for 16 laps. With teammate Jeff Gordon finishing just ahead of him, Kahne's top-10 finish gave Hendrick Motorsports its 1,500th career top-10 finish.

ETC.: Kahne has moved up 18 spots in the Sprint Cup standings in the last three weeks and is now only two points out of the top 10. He hopes that trend continues at California this weekend. "We've had some good runs at California in recent years, and we expect another one this weekend," said Kahne. "To get into the top 10 this early will make everyone on the 5 team feel good."

16 GREG BIFFLE, Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 12th, only four points out of the top 10.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Has finished sixth in the last two races. Overall has one win and seven top-10 finishes including four top-five's in 19 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Biffle said, "I'm really excited about California. It's one of my favorite places to race and we seem to run really well there. It's very similar to Michigan and we run really well at Michigan." Biffle won the first race at Michigan last year and finished ninth in the second event. "I can't wait to get on the track this weekend," adds Biffle.

LOOKING BACK: Despite being forced to use a back-up car after an accident in practice on Friday and battling tire problems throughout the race, Biffle was able to come home in 12th place. "Boy, that was a long day - and night," said Biffle. "Actually, it has been a long weekend. But we were able to get a decent finish out of it so we can't complain too much."

ETC.: There have been four different winners in the first four races this year. Biffle feels this might be the weekend he makes it five for five. "We just seem to run well on the two-mile tracks," said Biffle. "Before the season began, most people said there would not be 16 different winners in the first 26 races, but the way this season is starting who knows. I just know I want to win a race in the very near future." There will be 16 drivers in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and a win is supposed to all but guarantee a driver a spot in the Chase.

3 AUSTIN DILLON, Chevrolet

Team: Richard Childress Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 13th, only five points out of the top 10.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Will be making his Sprint Cup debut. Finished fifth in both of his Nationwide Series starts at the two-mile track.

LOOKING AHEAD: Dillon said, "Auto Club Speedway is definitely a fun place, there are a lot of options (on where to run). I think you'll see the groove come and go. The top of the race track right up by the wall might be as fast as the very bottom. It was a heck of a race last year between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin. Hopefully, we can go there and slice and dice a little bit."

LOOKING BACK: Dillon and fellow rookie Kyle Larson spent the last 20 laps racing side-by-side for the 10th spot with Larson winning the battle by inches. "I really wish we could have gotten the 42 (Larson) so we could have finished inside the top-10 and earned Rookie of the Race honors, but overall we really have to be happy with a performance like that our first time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Bristol," said Dillon. "The car changed a lot during the race with the weather and rubber build-up on the track, but (crew chief) Gil Martin and the team were well-prepared with chassis adjustments on pit road."

ETC. Every Wednesday Dillon is using his twitter account @austindillon3 to challenge race fans on the "Allin-Challenge." Dillon might ask for the best poker-race photo or he might ask the fans to help crew chief Gil Martin's son Ford find a date for his upcoming prom. Dillon said each challenge will be unique and the winner, as determined by Dillon himself, will win race tickets and/or memorabilia.

18 KYLE BUSCH, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 14th, 11 points out of the top 10. Lost four spots last week to fall out of the top 10.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Won the race a year ago for his second win at the two-mile track. Has finished third, second and first respectively in the last three races. Overall has 11 top-10 finishes including seven top-five's in 16 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Busch hopes for another performance this weekend like he had at California a year ago. "We had the best car there all day (leading 125 of the 200 laps), but we ended up getting some late cautions and had to make some hard decisions on whether to stay out on old tires or lose our track position," said Busch. "We ended up getting passed by Joey (Logano) and Denny (Hamlin). They got caught up racing each other, and I was coming even if they didn't end up wrecking. I was digging on the high side and they got together. It was a crazy finish, one I won't forget for a while, and I'm sure the fans won't forget anytime soon, either."

LOOKING BACK: Following the sixth caution flag of the evening, Busch took control of the race as he led 73 straight laps before running into tire problems that forced an unscheduled pit stop. As a result, he returned to the track two laps down. Busch still had hopes of a top-10 finish when the car got "real loose" as he bounced hard off the fourth-turn wall with 105 laps to go. Despite sitting sideways in the middle of the track, all of his compatriots missed Busch as he was finally able to limp back to the pits. He ended the night in 29th place.

ETC.: Busch won his third consecutive NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Bristol on Saturday. The win was the 65th of his Nationwide career, a series record. It was also his 16th national series victory at Bristol, which is more than any driver at any track in NASCAR national series history. Busch has won five Sprint Cup races, seven Nationwide events and four Camping World Truck Series races at Bristol. "I just enjoy coming to Bristol," said Busch. "This reminds me of one of my favorite race tracks - Winchester Speedway in Indiana that I raced late models at and just a real high speed race track. It takes guts to go fast I guess, especially at Winchester for sure. This is a place that's just like it and now with the top side being what it is versus the bottom, it seems like guts prevail here little bit more as well."

9 MARCOS AMBROSE, Ford

Team: Richard Petty Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: 15th, 14 points out of the top 10. Gained four spots last week.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Still looking for his first top-10 finish. Best finish in eight starts is 21st.

LOOKING AHEAD: Ambrose said, "We have a lot of confidence that we can continue this level of performance (following his top-five run at Bristol). California is a tough track, really fast with a lot of grooves, but we're ready to step it up there and get a good finish. We haven't had the results we wanted there, but we've put in a lot of work with these new rules to get better."

LOOKING BACK: Ambrose finished fifth at Bristol for his second straight top-eight finish at the track and third in the last four races. "It was a great night for Richard Petty Motorsports," said Ambrose. "My teammate Aric Almirola was a couple of spots in front of us, so we're really proud of our team tonight. These cars go a lot faster around this track than the old style cars and we had to really dig in our feet. The groove went to the very fence and we had to really watch ourselves there and keep adjusting on the car all night."

ETC.: Because of the new Chase format this year, Ambrose is quick to say, "You just don't know how it's going to shake out, but if we get ourselves a win, it takes care of a lot. At the same time, we need to put ourselves in the best points position too so we can possibly grab a spot that way. Right now, we're really close. There is still a lot of time (before the Chase for the Championship begins), and a lot of things can happen, but we're not in a bad position after Bristol."

1 JAMIE MCMURRAY, Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates

WHERE HE STANDS: 16th, 22 points out of the top 10. Lost five spots last week.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Five top-10 finishes including three top-five's in 18 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: McMurray said, "The give-up on tires is the first thing that comes to mind (at Auto Club Speedway) as far as qualifying goes with this new format. I think teams will only be able to make just one run to advance to the next rounds. As far as racing at Fontana, it's a really fun track. It's so wide, you will see guys running the bottom, the second lane and the third lane all the way up (against the wall). It's a really good track."

LOOKING BACK: McMurray ran in the top 10 for most of the race and was running fifth when he got caught up in an accident with 78 laps to go. The car was damaged severely enough that McMurray was unable to continue as he ended up 38th. "Such a disappointing end to a strong run for our team," said a dejected McMurray. "Our car was really good and the guys on this McDonald's team had great pit stops to keep us up front throughout the night, until our misfortunate in the closing laps. I ran into some oil from the car (Kevin Harvick) in front of me. I couldn't turn and just went straight to the wall. It was such a tough way to end a race when our car was so good."

ETC.: Even though Bristol didn't end well for McMurray, he thought it was another example of how far his team has come in 2014. "We had another great car," said McMurray. "We've had good cars everywhere we've been. That is why I feel good about California and why I feel good about this season as a whole."

27 PAUL MENARD, Chevrolet

Team: Richard Childress Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 17th, 23 points out of the top 10. Gained one spot last week.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Finished eighth last year for his best career finish at Auto Club Speedway in 11 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Menard said, "Auto Club Speedway is a track where you need to have a good motor package because of its size (two miles). The speeds we reach going into turn three seems to be creeping up there higher and higher, which puts more demand on our ECR (Earnhardt Childress Racing) engines. With the way the bumps are, you need to put a good enough set-up in the car to either race through them or around them. It will be interesting to see what changes we need to make to keep up with the track's changes since the last time we were there."

LOOKING BACK: After changing engines on Saturday, Menard was forced to start at the back of the field. But it didn't take long for Menard to show that he had a real good car as he quickly moved into the top 15 when the race was halted for rain after 124 laps. After a three-hour and 19-minute delay, Menard seemed headed for a top-10 finish when he ran into tire problems forcing an unscheduled pit stop. As a result, he had to be content with a 21st-place finish. "We had a really strong race car," said Menard. "Bad part was we got trapped laps down when we pitted under the green there in the middle of the race. The finish doesn't show how good we really were out there."

ETC.: Menard will be racing a new car this weekend. "With the new rules package, we are building a lot of new cars," said Menard. "It is always a challenge to stay ahead of the game and we are confident we are doing that with these new cars."

55 BRIAN VICKERS, Toyota

Team: Michael Waltrip Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 18th, 23 points out of the top 10. Gained two spots last week.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Finished eighth in his last start at Auto Club Speedway.

LOOKING AHEAD: Vickers hopes the team's ability to rebound from a disastrous start to the Bristol weekend will carry over to this weekend. "The team did a great job last week turning a bad qualifying performance into a top-10 run," said Vickers. "This week we just need to start off better and finish it like we did last week. If that is the case, it will be a real good weekend."

LOOKING BACK: Vickers finished ninth for his fifth consecutive top-10 finish at Bristol. "Just really proud of everyone on this Aaron's Dream Machine team," said Vickers. "They made the most out of this Toyota Camry. I'm ashamed to say, we legitimately qualified 37th on Friday - we just really missed it. It's uncharacteristic of this team, but it happens to the best of them. I've seen it happy to Jimmie (Johnson) and Chad (Knaus, crew chief) - they've won six championships. You have to keep fighting and never give up. All the guys on this team hustled and did an incredible job. Completely wholesaling the car on Saturday and gave me a really fast car today."

ETC.: Vickers missed most of the 2010 season with blood clots in his legs and around his lungs. And then last year, he was forced to sit out the final four races after doctors discovered a blood clot in his right calf. So it is no surprise that team is running a special paint scheme this weekend to promote greater awareness about the dangers of blood clots. "I want people to be mindful of what the signs and symptoms are," said Vickers.

13 CASEY MEARS, Chevrolet

Team: Germain Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 19th, 25 points out of the top 10. Lost two spots last week.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Two top-10 finishes in 17 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Mears said, "I always enjoy going to Fontana because I'm from Bakersfield (Calif.) and family and friends usually come out to support us at the race. We had a strong car at Bristol until the tire issue got the best of us late in the race, so Fontana is our opportunity to rebound and have a good run. The guys on this Germain team have worked hard, so I know we'll have something for them when race day comes around."

LOOKING BACK: Mears finished a disappointing 27th in the rain-delayed Food City 500 at Bristol. "Coming into the race, we were really confident in our race set-up," said Mears. "We were gaining early on and if we could have stayed green I really think we would've been good. But after the delay (three hours and 19 minutes for rain), the track just didn't respond the same. And then we had a bad vibration and had to make an unscheduled stop. Just not the day or night we thought we would have."

ETC.: Although Mears is driving for a single-car team, he believes his chances of surprising a lot of people and making the Chase are "a lot better than people think. We are just a better team this year, and the help we are getting from RCR (Richard Childress Racing) and Chevy is making us even better."

43 ARIC ALMIROLA, Ford

Team: Richard Petty Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: 20th, 27 points out of the top 10. Gained four spots last week.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Finished 14th last year for his best finish in six starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: After a 25th-place finish at Las Vegas, Almirola knows the team must have a much better intermediate package for this weekend if he hopes to continue the momentum from his great run at Bristol. "We weren't happy with our result at Vegas for sure, but I know Trent (Owens, crew chief) and the guys have been working really hard to bring a car that will race well on Sunday at California," said Almirola. "I'm confident our team can put together a package that will make us competitive on Sunday."

LOOKING BACK: Almirola finished a career-best third at Bristol. "It's a great day for us and I'm not disappointed at all with third, but when you see it and you can taste it and it's that close, you wonder what you could have done different," said Almirola. "It's frustrating because I had one shot to race Carl (Edwards) for the lead (on the restart with 38 laps to go) and these races are so hard to win, obviously. If our car would have taken off a little bit better, things might have gone different, but, all in all, it was a great day."

ETC.: Almirola hadn't expected to run that well at Bristol. "We changed every part and piece on our race car (Sunday morning) because we weren't very good in practice, so I'm really proud of Trent and all our guys. We thought when we brought Trent over that he would come up with some new ideas. We were not very happy with how our season went last year and we've made a lot of changes and all of those changes seem to have been positive."

4 KEVIN HARVICK, Chevrolet

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 21st, 33 points out of the top 10. Lost seven spots last week.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: One win and five top-10 finishes in the last six races.

LOOKING AHEAD: Harvick said, "I enjoy how the track has really spread out and the groove you can run is from the bottom to the top. It's a lot of fun to move around, you can go four or five wide in the corners and down the straightaways. It's become pretty worn out over the last several years. You have to really pay attention to what your car is doing, to try and get it balanced throughout the whole run because there is so much fall off (in time) from start to finish."

LOOKING BACK: Harvick led once for 28 laps and was running fourth with 50 laps to go when he ran over something on the track and cut an oil line and slammed hard into the turn two wall. He drove the battered Chevrolet back to the garage area with the right-front wheel on fire where safety crews put out the blaze. Harvick escaped unhurt. "We had another strong car tonight," said Harvick. "Our luck just hasn't been too good the last two weeks."

ETC.: Harvick believes he could have won two or maybe three of the first four races of the season. "This team has done a great job all year," said Harvick. "They have given me great cars in all four races. We had a tough Friday (at Bristol), but everybody just sits down and we are all new together and trying to figure out what I like and all the new rules and everything that goes into everything we have going on with the new team as well. They just do a great job at figuring what we need in the car. We just haven't had any luck the last two weeks (after winning the second race of the year at Phoenix)."

42 KYLE LARSON, Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates

WHERE HE STANDS: 22nd, 33 points out of the top 10. Gained one spot last week.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Will be making his Sprint Cup debut. Finished sixth in the Nationwide Series race last year.

LOOKING AHEAD: Larson, an Elk Grove, Calif., native, has high hopes for this weekend after his good run at Bristol. "It's definitely a good feeling going into California, my home state," said Larson. "We've had really fast cars all year long. Just haven't really caught the right breaks to those top-10s. I feel at Phoenix and Vegas both we had top-10 cars. I think with the good finish at Bristol, it's really going to hopefully turn things around, hopefully bring a lot of consistency."

LOOKING BACK: Larson finished a career-best 10th at Bristol. "We had a really good run today," said the rookie driver. "Started off the race in 20th place and got to the top 10 pretty easily in the beginning and then pretty much stayed in the top 10 for the whole race and inched our way to the front. Ran in second and third for a long time. It's crazy to think it's kind of a disappointing finish for the way we ran most of the race. Just got a little bit too tight in the center (of the corners) and ended up 10th."

ETC.: Larson, in his rookie Sprint Cup season, admits there are "a lot of adjustments" in the move from the Nationwide Series to the Cup Series. "Maybe the one that stands out is trying to get your feedback right to your crew chief from Happy Hour to the race," adds Larson. "That's something we've struggled with at Phoenix and Vegas both were making the right adjustments on the car to start out the race good. We got behind a little bit in the beginning of both races and it's hard to come back from those. These really are the first four races I've got to work with Chris Heroy (his Cup crew chief). The communication part has been a big adjustment."

14 TONY STEWART, Chevrolet

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 23rd, 34 points out of the top 10. Gained four spots last week.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Won the 2010 and 2012 races. Has five top-nine finishes in the last seven races.

LOOKING AHEAD: Stewart said, "It's nice knowing that as a driver you can help yourself out and you're not relying so much on the car (when racing at California). Regardless of what everyone else is doing, you can find a way to help yourself out. It makes you feel good knowing that because the place is so wide, you can move around, and basically, earn your money that day. If you feel like you're slower than the pace you need to be running, you're going to move up the race track and find a place that helps balance your race car."

LOOKING BACK: Stewart was all smiles after finishing fourth at Bristol, a season-high best. "To start 37th and end up fourth, I'm pretty excited about that," said Stewart. "Everybody just worked hard all weekend. We had a long way to go from Friday when we weren't very good, and every day we just got better and better. So, I'm really proud of Chad Johnson (crew chief) and everybody on this Bass Pro Shops/Mobile 1 team."

ETC: After missing the last 15 races of the 2013 season with a broken right leg, Stewart had struggled in the first three races of the season. "To come to Bristol and run 500 laps here and get a top-five is just what the doctor ordered," said a beaming Stewart. "It's big. This is such a physical place. If you look at the lap times we were running - mid-15 second laps around here all day - it's no walk in the park, by any means. It's not a win, I know that, but it feels like a win."

78 MARTIN TRUEX JR., Chevrolet

Team: Furniture Row Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 29th, 61 points out of the top 10; Lost four spots last week.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Three top-10 finishes in 13 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Truex believes "it's time for our Furniture Row Racing team to showcase what we really have. We just haven't been able to close the deal in the first four races. We've had mechanical woes and other issues to contend with. Auto Club Speedway is one of the best races of the year and I am looking to be in the mix on Sunday with our Chevrolet SS."

LOOKING BACK: Truex seemed headed for a top-10 finish when he got clipped on the right rear late in the event. The impact damaged the car's track-bar mount that eventually broke, causing the left-rear tire to go flat as Truex spun and hit the wall. As a result, he ended up 36th. "I felt we had a shot for a top-10 and then all that stuff happened," said a dejected Truex. "Very disappointing - we've had some tough luck this year, but it will change."

ETC.: Truex feels "Auto Club Speedway is a difficult track because it eats the tires off the car so fast and it's really hard to get your car dialed in there. The good news about the track is that it's wide - probably the widest track we go to - and you can run all over. It's a venue that I really like to compete at."

41 KURT BUSCH, Chevrolet

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 31st, 65 points out of the top 10. Lost three spots last week.

CALIFORNIA RECORD: Finished fifth a year ago for his second straight top-nine finish. Overall has one win and 10 top-10 finishes including five top-five's in 20 starts. His three poles are tied for the top spot in that category with Denny Hamlin.

LOOKING AHEAD: Busch calls the California speedway "a cool race track. They have cool people and it's just a different atmosphere. It is just a little different feel than everywhere else we visit and it helps break things up a little bit. The track itself is a fast track. You have to be able to balance drafting down the straightaways and the handling in the corners. I enjoy going to southern California and the race track has been good to me over the years."

LOOKING BACK: As Busch said, "we had an up-and-down day. The car was good on the short run (leading three times for 28 laps), but we struggled on the long runs. Daniel Knost (crew chief) and everyone on this 41 team worked hard to dial the car in, but we never could get it to where it needed to be. We were able to lead laps, and at times had a race car capable of running up front, but it (the track) went through numerous changes as the race went on, and we found ourselves chasing the correct adjustments to make." Still, Busch had hopes of a top-10 finish until he went high to miss the spinning car of brother Kyle and bounced hard off the wall with just over a 100 laps remaining. Kurt was forced to go behind the wall for repairs as he ended the night in 35th place.

ETC.: While the year has not started out too well for Busch, he is still convinced his new team will be a winner before too long. "Everyone has to remember that this is really a new team," said Busch. "It was built almost from scratch. It just takes time to get everything going in the right direction. We've had a few bumps along the road, but I am confident we are going to be a very good team before too long."