AP Photo/Alex Gallardo
The clearest thing in Cup after only two races -- the restrictor-plate Daytona 500 and the unrestricted Auto Club 500 -- is that Richard Childress Racing is back.
Kevin Harvick has had the best car in both races, only to be beaten by breaks -- an insurmountable drafting line late at Daytona, and Jimmie Johnson's split second of luck in the pits at Fontana, Calif.
"I think the 29 [Harvick] has had a shot to win both races, for sure," RCR's Jeff Burton told reporters Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, after finishing third to Harvick's second. "I think the 29 by far, the first two races of the year, has been the best car."
Their remaining teammate, Clint Bowyer, finished eighth Sunday. Bowyer had the highest-finishing RCR car at Daytona, fourth, after Harvick got shuffled back in the draft at the end.
All three RCR cars led at times at Fontana.
Oh, and add the preseason Bud Shootout sprint at Daytona, which Harvick won.
The old NASCAR adage is that if you're consistently around at the end of races, strong enough, you'll break through to Victory Lane and go on to get your share of wins.
Now, clearly, "It's not [a matter of] catching up," Harvick said. "We did that. It's just getting in front of everybody else."
No reason to think one of them won't, as early as next Sunday at Las Vegas.
Their 2-3-8 finish Sunday, on top of their fourth (Bowyer), seventh (Harvick) and 11th (Burton) at Daytona, left all three in the top five in points -- Harvick first, Bowyer second and Burton fifth.
Told by TV reporters he's leading the points, Harvick deadpanned, "Oh. Great. Only 34 [points races] to go."
On the other hand, race winner Johnson professed to "hate being in a hole this early pointswise," 12th, mainly due to a bad run of flat tires at Daytona.
This time Johnson's luck turned 180 degrees: He pitted just moments before Brad Keselowski's spin brought out the race's final caution with 26 laps remaining.
After the restart with 20 to go, Harvick and Burton, even racing each other side by side at times, began to reel in Johnson. Harvick caught the leader, but scraped the wall after Johnson moved up to block him with four to go. From there, Harvick lost momentum with a crunched right-front fender and Johnson got away.
Johnson maintained he won because he and his team were both lucky and good.
"We were lucky today," he admitted. "But you don't get lucky and win four championships and 48 races [his career totals so far]."
The resurgence of RCR hasn't caught Johnson's branch of Hendrick Motorsports napping.
"We knew those guys were coming on strong towards the end of last year," said Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus. "They found some significant gains in the horsepower area. That's obvious. They definitely found some gains in the handling of their cars."
In turn, "We're doing everything we can at Hendrick Motorsports to continually evolve what it is we've got," Knaus said.
So if this season is to be a Chevrolet team runaway as last year was, it's shaping up as a duel, no longer dominated by Hendrick.
Nationwide Series: Logano blames Biffle for Cali stumble
Now we know what Joey Logano looks like without that goofy grin we thought was permanent.
He was stone-faced serious, without a hint of golly-gee, feeling wronged and disappointed after leading 130 of the 150 laps of Saturday's Stater Bros. 300, only to lose it -- or be robbed of it by Greg Biffle, as Logano saw it.
"I got hit again by Biffle," on the final restart, Logano told ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch afterward. "I don't know what his deal is with me. ... I know we were racing hard there at the end. But I think he could have done it a little bit cleaner."
The Biff blew that one off, after losing the race to Kyle Busch at the flag.
"The 20 car [Logano] just -- you know, rookie mistake [Logano is in his third year in the Nationwide Series], spun his tires and couldn't get going."
Whatever the truth about the detonating moments, the finish snuffed the notion that Auto Club Speedway always produces lousy racing. This finish was as good as they get in NASCAR.
Danica Patrick wasn't a factor, finishing 31st, three laps down, in a race that was a learning experience for her but clearly frustrated her.
"You've progressed a lot, girl," crew chief Tony Eury Jr. told her via radio during the final caution period. "I'm proud of you this race."
But afterward, Patrick marched to her transporter without speaking with reporters, and gave herself 20 minutes of cooldown time before speaking in generalities.
Before the final caution, Busch had notified his crew that he really had nothing left for Logano, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. But on the double-file restart, Busch pulled alongside leader Logano -- and more importantly, Biffle tucked in on Logano's rear bumper.
On the restart, with Biffle banging on his bumper, Logano drifted high on the track and lost momentum, allowing Biffle, Busch and Brad Keselowski to slip underneath him and settle the race among themselves.
Biffle didn't seem to be surprised at being outrun down the homestretch by Busch, saying, "It seems like those [JGR] guys just have a little better steam than us."
After one dive at the lead, Keselowski fell back, and was being repassed by Logano when he tapped Logano's left-rear quarterpanel and spun him coming to the start-finish line.
But Logano said nothing about Brad K, the most blatant repeat offender in Nationwide, going back to last season, and spoke only of Biffle: "I always remember that stuff."
See? Chronic grinner to no-nonsense gunslinger for payback, in only two laps' time.
Camping World Truck Series: Truckers gearing up for Atlanta
The Trucks were off last weekend. Their next race is March 6 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Racing Resources Says
Sprint Cup Series
- Jimmie Johnson won the Auto Club 500 Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. It was his 48th series victory in his 293rd career start, tying Herb Thomas for 12th on NASCAR's all-time wins list. It was his fifth Cup victory at California in 15 starts, the most wins by any driver. He has posted victories in four of the past six California races.
- Johnson led eight times for a race-high 101 laps, including the final 24. He has led the most laps in four of the past five races at California.
- Johnson's first career Cup win came in his 13th start at Auto Club Speedway on April 28, 2002.
- Kevin Harvick (second) led only one lap in the five previous races at California. He led 27 laps in Sunday's race.
- Harvick took the points lead for the first time in 109 races, since he led after his 2007 Daytona victory.
- Jeff Burton (third) posted his first top-10 finish in his last five races at California.
- Both Harvick (second) and Burton (third) were penalized on Lap 94 for speeding on pit road.
- Mark Martin (fourth) scored his ninth top-10 finish in 18 races at California.
- Joey Logano (fifth) posted his best finish at Auto Club Speedway.
- Four drivers have scored top-10 finishes in the first two races of 2010: Greg Biffle (third and 10th), Clint Bowyer (fourth and eighth), Kevin Harvick (seventh and second) and Matt Kenseth (eighth and seventh).
- Three Richard Childress Racing cars are ranked among the top five in points after two races: Harvick (first), Bowyer (second) and Burton (fifth).
- Pole winner Jamie McMurray finished 17th.
- It was the 189th victory for Hendrick Motorsports. It was the ninth victory at Auto Club Speedway for Hendrick Motorsports, most by any owner.
- Chevrolet scored its ninth Cup victory at Auto Club Speedway. Ford has 10 California victories, Dodge has one and Toyota has never won there.
- Kevin Conway (31st) was the only rookie contender in the Auto Club 500.
- There were two first-time starters in the Auto Club 500: Brad Keselowski (21st) and Conway.
- Three drivers failed to qualify: No. 90 Casey Mears, No. 35 Johnny Sauter and No. 46 Terry Cook.
- The top four finishers were Chevrolets.
- The top 10 consisted of six Chevrolets, two Fords, one Dodge and one Toyota.
- Kyle Busch won the Stater Bros. 300 at Auto Club Speedway. It was his 31st series victory in his 175th career start, tying him with Jack Ingram for third all-time. It was his 63rd career NASCAR win across all three major series.
- It was Busch's third Nationwide win at California, where he's won three of the last four.
- Busch led twice for four laps, the fewest by a California race winner. The previous record was 11 by Hank Parker Jr. in 2001.
- It was the 43rd win for Joe Gibbs Racing, which has won 38 races since 2007. It was JGR's fifth straight win at ACS.
- Gibbs drivers led 134 of the 152 laps Saturday. JGR drivers have led 643 of the 754 laps raced at California in the past five races.
- Carl Edwards finished fourth after two penalties for speeding on pit road.
- Joey Logano (fifth) led a career-high 130 laps, only the second time he's led more than 100 laps. The 130 laps is the most led by a nonwinner at ACS.
- Steve Wallace (sixth) recorded his fourth straight top-10 finish, the best streak of his career.
- Brian Scott (10th) was the best of the five rookie of the year contenders in the race.
- Six of the last seven races at California have been won from the front row.
- Six drivers made their first Nationwide start at California, including Danica Patrick (31st).
- The top 10 consisted of five Toyotas, one Chevrolet, two Fords and two Dodges.
- The race was slowed by caution four times for 18 laps.
-- Racing Resources