California to feature usual suspects

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It's an important weekend not just for the Chasers but also for the circuit itself (more on that here), the powers that be will be watching closely as the action unfolds this weekend -- both on and off the track. As for your fantasy lineups: At this stage of proceedings, the same old faces are dominating the competition; last weekend, a record nine Chasers finished in the top 10 while David Reutimann, the honorable exception, finished 8th. More of the same this weekend is extremely likely.

Matt Kenseth: In the heady euphoria of a second straight victory to open the season, Kenseth exclaimed in unusually optimistic style that the season was going to be fun. Just a week later at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the engine of the No. 17 Ford Fusion expired after a scant six laps, proving that at Sprint Cup level momentum can, at times, be nothing more than an eight letter word. Following the third race in Nevada, Kenseth's season lurched from disappointment to mediocrity, recording just eight top-10 runs in the next 26 races, and missing the Chase for the first time in six years. Still, it's not all bad news for the Wisconsin native, as his third-place effort at Dover two weeks ago shows he hasn't forgotten how to run well at tracks he favors, and Auto Club is just such a track. In 15 attempts at the Californian two-miler, Kenseth has three wins (equal best with Gordon and Johnson), 11 top 10s and 468 laps led. Expect a strong run this Sunday for the 2003 champion.

By the numbers: Kenseth has an average finish of 9.0 at Auto Club Speedway and hasn't finished lower than 7th since the first race of the 2005 season.

Jimmie Johnson: Another week, another Johnson pick; it's getting boring, right? It's fair to say statistics can be both misleading and meaningless, but in the case of Double J at Auto Club Speedway they're hard to ignore. In 13 attempts, Johnson has 3 wins, five further top fives, and one additional top-10 effort: an average finish of 6.2. In short, he's been close to perfection at what is essentially his home track. Just 18 points back from points leader and Hendrick teammate Mark Martin, Johnson remains the prohibitive favorite to garner an historic and unprecedented fourth title. Barring a failed post-race inspection or a snafu not of his own making, Johnson should once again underline his impeccable title credentials this weekend.

By the numbers: Johnson's worst finish at Auto Club Speedway is 16th (twice) and he has finished on the lead lap in all 13 attempts.

Jeff Gordon: Somewhat lost in the shuffle last week was a solid second place run for old four-time. After a ho-hum 15th-place effort in the Chase opener at Loudon, Gordon was sixth at the Monster Mile and despite the runner-up spot in Kansas, still sits some 103 markers in arrears of first-place Martin. "We got a little bit behind in New Hampshire. We've got to make sure that's the worst finish that we have in the Chase," said Gordon post-race. "That's the only chance that we have, and that's asking a lot, but that's now our goal. It's the position we put ourselves in." The good news for the California native is he has typically run well at the Auto Club Speedway. Gordon won the inaugural race back in 1997 and has two more wins and six further top five runs. A repeat of his second place run back in February would suit the 24 team perfectly, as they gear up for the stretch run and that elusive quest for a fifth Championship.

By the numbers: Gordon has shown remarkable consistency at ACS, with an average starting spot of 10.7 and an average finish of 10.9.

Juan Pablo Montoya: All season long, the feisty Colombian steadily accrued the points he needed to qualify for his first Chase; racing with a hitherto unseen (and unpredicted) calmness and sensibility. The reward was a spot in the coveted top 12 and in the first three races of the Chase. Montoya has shown he's not just making up the numbers. The only driver to record a top five in all three races, Montoya has made a mockery of his historical statistics, recording his highest ever finish at Loudon, Dover, and Kansas. A glimpse at the numbers this week would suggest mediocrity for Montoya at Auto Club Speedway (he has zero top tens and one lap led in five attempts) but since the Chase began, he's ripped up his personal record books. Don't be surprised to see the dialed-in Montoya pull off another top ten (or better) this weekend.

By the numbers: Montoya has more top fives (3) in the Chase than he had in the entire "regular season" where he scored 2 in 26 attempts.

David Reutimann: The "Franchise" has had a tremendous season, including a maiden rain-affected win in the Coke 600 at Charlotte and a first ever checkered flag for the previously much-maligned Michael Waltrip Racing. Yes, he narrowly missed out on a coveted Chase berth, but the fact that he was in contention right to the denouement of the setting of the field speaks volumes for the incremental year-on-year improvement. All season long, Reutimann has shown his prowess for wheeling his Aaron's Dream Machine around the cookie cutter circuits, and Sunday's race at the two-mile circuit is another chance to do just that. Reutimann's not a lock to run well, but with the season winding down and especially for those leagues with a set number of races allowed per driver, Reutimann is a driver you might have ignored previously but is well worth a look this weekend.

By the numbers: Reutimann finished 9th at the second Auto Club Speedway race last season and 14th in the first race of 2009.

Ryan Newman: After a pair of top tens in the first two Chase races, Newman's championship challenge hit the skids with a 22nd place run at Kansas. Some 164 points back in ninth place, Auto Club Speedway would not be the first venue the 10-year veteran of some 289 races would pick to resurrect his fleeting title chances. Newman has snagged two top fives and two additional top 10s in 13 races, but has only one top ten finish in the last eight races. "I don't have the best record at California, and it has never been one of my favorite tracks," said Newman earlier this week referencing his poor record. Don't expect this to change this weekend. Regardless, just making the Chase has been an immense victory for the second driver in the Stewart-Haas stable.

By the numbers: Newman won the pole in his first ever qualifying attempt at Auto Club, but has led just 11 laps in his 13 races at the 2-mile track.

Next Up: Lowe's Motor Speedway -- the only night race on the Chase schedule and a rare weekend at home for the hardworking teams, as they prepare for the final five races of the 2009 season.