Earnhardt Jr. leads points; Rusty 13th

Updated: April 30, 2004, 9:40 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

Take off two-thirds of a mile of racing surface from Talladega and get rid of the restrictor plates and space cars out so that there aren't any "big one" crashes and you have a recipe for Sunday's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway.

Since holding its first Cup race in 1997, the Fontana oval has quickly become a fan and driver favorite, not only for its proximity to Los Angeles, but also because it's a track that doesn't play favorites. Old (Mark Martin) or young (Kurt Busch), experienced (Jeff Gordon) or not (Jimmie Johnson), it seems everyone has had a good chance at taking the checkered flag there.

It was in 2001 at California that Rusty Wallace earned his last win prior to breaking a lengthy winless streak two weeks ago at Martinsville. It was also in that same race that Dale Earnhardt Jr. came in third, his best-ever finish there.

A year later at California, Earnhardt suffered a concussion in a crash. He kept the injury from NASCAR officials and fellow drivers alike for nearly six months before coming clean and drawing the wrath of many.

Now, Earnhardt and Wallace return to Southern California with the same goal: to put Talladega behind them with a win on Sunday.

Wallace is looking to rebound from a disappointing 33rd-place finish at Talladega, which dropped him five places in the standings.

Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Wallace (2) and Earnhardt Jr. will each be gunning for the win at Fontana.

"I was eighth in the points and now I'm 13th," said Wallace, who was taken out in the wreck which began when Tony Stewart turned Kurt Busch on Sunday. "I'm not a happy camper right now."

Still, sitting 13th in points with a recent win under his belt isn't all that bad.

"I feel like I'm driving the best I've drove in a long time," Wallace said. "I feel great. Our team is pulling for me. I'm glad I won the race (at Martinsville) and the monkey is off my back. People can quit hounding me about that. I'm all excited right now about getting to California.

"There was so much made of the fact that until our big win at Martinsville, (California) was the place where we last won. But the fact is that it's one of the best tracks for us overall. We were in a good position to win the race there last year and still posted our best finish of the season (third) in that race."

Wallace led late in last year's race at Fontana after a two-tire pit stop, but he couldn't hold off race-winner Busch or runner-up finisher Bobby Labonte. Still, the third-place finish marked Wallace's sixth top-14 finish in seven starts at the track.

"There's just something about that track that clicks with the great horsepower our engines make. Even in our worse finish to date at California (34th in 1998), we were running second and catching (eventual winner) Mark Martin when the engine blew with eight laps to go."

Based on past success, California Speedway is clearly one of Wallace's favorite venues. And with the role horsepower plays at NASCAR's bigger tracks, Wallace is feeling good about his chances on Sunday.

"I feel real good about the car we've got," said Wallace. "The guys are telling me in the wind tunnel it's the strongest car we've had all year, so you think that's great. I know I'll go out with good horsepower. I'm feeling real strong about the team, and based on my record out there, it's always been good so I don't expect anything less than that."

Meanwhile, Earnhardt, who finished runner-up to Gordon -- the only two-time winner at California -- as the 'Dega race ended under caution, is looking to earn his first career win at Fontana and his third overall triumph this season.

"We're looking at the big picture here," Earnhardt said. "It would've been nice to go to California with our third win, but it seems pretty ridiculous to be upset about a second-place finish, especially when you've just increased your points lead (from five to 94 points) and had as much fun as we did on Sunday. I felt like we handled ourselves well, we accepted what was given to us, and we moved on."

Both drivers have added incentive to do well in Sunday's event. While it's far from a commanding edge, Earnhardt's 94-point edge over second-place holder Johnson (who won at California two years ago) is the biggest points lead of Little E's Cup career. He not only wants to maintain that edge, he also hopes to add to it in Sunday's race.

What's more, Earnhardt, who has been the points leader after four of the first nine races thus far this season, also leads all drivers with six top-five finishes (including his last three races) and seven top-10 starts -- and his seven top-10 finishes are equaled only by Gordon. Earnhardt is also the only driver to lead seven of the first nine Nextel Cup races. Overall, he's led 439 laps this season -- more than any other driver.

And as much as Earnhardt has dominated this season, Wallace has been equally dominant at California Speedway. He has four consecutive top-10 showings there, including his 2001 win, most of any driver. His 10.1 average start there also is tops of all drivers.

"This weekend at California, it'll be about bouncing back from the little letdown at Talladega and getting back full steam ahead in our championship run," Wallace said. "Even with the Talladega setback, we're less than 50 points out of the top 10 and we'll be relentless in our mission to make up the ground we lost."

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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