[media-credit name=”Auto Club Speedway” align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]This weekend, NASCAR shifts from one of its smallest tracks – Bristol Motor Speedway – to one of its biggest – Auto Club Speedway. Auto Club Speedway, a two-miler, which offers the fifth different track-size in as many weeks, a challenge to each driver’s skill and versatility. Up first this weekend is the NASCAR Nationwide Series, running the 13th Annual Royal Purple 300 on Saturday and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing wraps up the weekend, with Sunday’s 15th Annual Auto Club 400 – a race that’ll see a ratcheted-up sense of urgency. This one’s 50 laps — 100 miles – shorter than past spring races at Auto Club Speedway.
And for the first time since 2005, there have been four different winners in the first four races. Competitive balance is high, especially when you consider that last year’s top winners – Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson – have yet to triumph. This weeks race schedule:
NSS Practice 3 p.m. ET Fri. Speed
NNS Practice 4:30 p.m. ET Fri. Speed
NSS Qualifying 7:30 p.m. ET Fri. Speed
NNS Qualifying 1:00 p.m. ET Sat. Speed
NSS Practice 2:30 p.m ET Sat Speed
NSS Final Practice 4:00 p.m ET Sat Speed
NNS Royal Purple 300 5:30 p.m. ET Sat ESPN
NSS Auto Club 400 2:30 p.m ET Sun FOX
Can Kyle Busch driver of the NO. 18 M&M’s Toyota comes into the Auto Club 400 with a sweep the previous week at Bristol Motor Speedway winning both the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races. Busch has a driver rating of 100.7 the fourth-best at ACS with an average finish of 12.7. He has one win, four top fives, eight top tens, and a pole in his career at ACS. I would pay close attention to the NO. 18 this week in both races at Auto Club Speedway.
*A New Day: After Sunday, 2011 Points Decide Top 35. For the first five races, the 2010 owner points are used when awarding top 35 teams guaranteed status to each race.
Auto Club Speedway hosts race No. 5. After Sunday, the 2011 points will be used.
That presents some interesting angles all around the top-35 bubble. Casey Mears and his No. 13 Germain Racing Toyota has had to qualify on speed for the first five races, and now sits directly on the bubble, in 35th. Mears is one point ahead of Dave Blaney and the No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet, in 36th.
A few marquee teams are perilously close to the bubble. Jeff Burton and the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet sit 30th, 23 points ahead of the cut-off. Joey Logano and the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota are also 23 points up. Brian Vickers and the No. 83 Red Bull Racing Toyota are just 18 points ahead of the cut-off
*Paul Menard Finds Perfect Fit at RCR. Paul Menard’s first full seasons were with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. He finished 34th in 2007, and 26th in 2008.
A year later, with Yates Racing, he finished 31st. That was 2009.
A year after that, last season, Menard enjoyed the best finish of his career, 23rd. That was in Richard Petty Motorsports equipment.
Now, with his fourth team in as many seasons, Menard has gotten the break of his career. He joined Richard Childress Racing, an operation that houses six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships, and last year landed all three of its drivers – Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer – in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
This year, shirking predictions of another subpar points finish, Menard might be the next RCR driver in the Chase.
He currently sits fifth – the best points position of his career, and the best of any RCR driver. He has been the top-finishing Richard Childress Racing driver in three of the four races this season.
And at Bristol, he led 35 laps, the highest single-race total of his career.
But this weekend presents another new challenge for Menard. In eight career Auto Club Speedway races, Menard has just one finish in the top 20 – an 18th last February.
*Point Standings through Race 4 of 36:
Position Drvier Points
1 Kurt Busch 150
2 Carl Edwards 149
3 Tony Stewart 138
4 Ryan Newman 138
5 Paul Menard 136
6 Kyle Busch 133
7 Jimmie Johnson 130
8 Juan P. Montoya 126
9 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 124
10 Martin Truex Jr. 123
11 Mark Martin 123
12 Kasey Kahne 122
13 Matt Kenseth 117
14 Bobby Labonte 115
15 Kevin Harvick 110
16 AJ Allmendinger 107
17 Denny Hamlin 106
18 Marcos Ambrose 105
19 Jeff Gordon 104
20 David Ragan 89