Championship Hunt has New Outlook After California's Harvick Wins First Race of "The Chase"
West Coasters Johnson and Busch Have Troubles
The top-10 drivers in NASCAR's coveted "Chase for the NEXTEL Cup" have rearranged their order after the first of 10 race playoff. With his victory this weekend, Bakersfield, Calif., native Kevin Harvick sits atop the points leader board, 35 points ahead of second place Denny Hamlin.
"It's really awesome to be able to capitalize on the racecar that we had this weekend," said the driver of the No. 29 Reese's Chevrolet. "To sit on the pole and have (the car) run as well as it did from the time we unloaded it is something that is hard to do."
Harvick took the top starting spot during qualifying on Friday and continued his dominance through Sunday as he held onto the lead through 196 of 300 laps, a total of 65.3-percent. In fact, Harvick never ran lower than seventh place for the entire race and earned himself 190 points in the first leg of the Chase for the NEXTEL Cup - all of which boosted him to the top of the points standings.
RCR teammate and fellow Chase contender Jeff Burton earned the second most laps led with 52 but could only muster a seventh place finish when the checkered flag was waved.
Tony Stewart, who missed the Chase by just 16 points, finished the race in second place and is now the number one contender for the $1 million consolation prize for finishing the season in 11th place.
Fellow Chevrolet drivers Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers finished the race third, fourth and fifth, respectively, and helped Chevy to clinch the manufacturer's points championship for the 2006 season. Chevrolets have won 16 of this year's 27 races so far and have now secured their 30th title overall.
Sixth place belonged to Elliott Sadler; Burton was seventh; J.J. Yeley finished eighth; Dave Blaney finished ninth, his second top-10 finish in as many races; and Auto Club Speedway Auto Club 500 winner Matt Kenseth rounded out the top-10.
Things were not as easy going for the remainder of the Chase contenders. Mark Martin finished the day in 11th place; Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 13th; and Auto Club Speedway SONY HD 500 winner Kasey Kahne finished the day in 16th place. West Coast natives Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson finished the day in 38th and 39th, respectively and will have to overcome an early deficit in order to triumph in the 2006 Chase for the NEXTEL Cup.
Stock car racing's most elite competitors thunder back into Southern California in February for the 2007 West Coast premiere of NASCAR. The roaring engines and screeching tires of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series will travel 500 miles around the 2-mile, "D" shaped oval of Auto Club Speedway for the first time in 2007. Along with the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, the NASCAR Busch Series will also be making its first of two appearances at Auto Club Speedway for the new season. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series will make their one and only stop at the West Coast's premier sports and entertainment venue, Auto Club Speedway, in February. For tickets, hospitality packages or for more information, call 800-944-RACE  or log on to www.autoclubspeedway.com.