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NASCAR

This Week in Auto Racing March 23 - 25

NASCAR heads to Southern California, with the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series running at Auto Club Speedway. Formula One travels to Malaysia, while the IZOD IndyCar Series kicks off its 2012 season in St. Petersburg, FL.

NASCAR

Sprint Cup Series

Auto Club 400 - Auto Club Speedway - Fontana, CA

When the Sprint Cup Series has come to Auto Club Speedway lately, it's been the Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick show. The last two spring races at the two-mile racetrack have featured epic duels between the two California natives.

In February 2010, Johnson, who hails from nearby El Cajon, claimed his track- record-extending fifth win at California, but this one didn't come with ease. Harvick, a Bakersfield-native, chased down Johnson and battled him for the lead after a late-race restart, but Harvick scraped the wall with just four laps to go, allowing Johnson to drive away for the victory.

Harvick finished second in that race but got payback the following year when he passed Johnson for the lead between turns three and four on the final lap and then held off Johnson at the finish line by just 0.14 seconds for his first win at California.

"The last two years, the race has pretty much come down to us and the No. 48 team [Johnson]," Harvick said. "The year before I ran into the wall and last year we won. That was good to come back and rebound from the mistake from 2010 and being able to race with Jimmie was a lot of fun."

Johnson has finished no worse than ninth in the last nine races at California. He has also led a lap in each one of those events.

"I've been really successful at Auto Club Speedway," he said. "It's my home track. We got our first Sprint Cup career win there in 2002, so it's a special track to me. I definitely always see some friends and family while we are out there. I remember last year, we were very close to victory lane, about three- quarters of a mile away from the trophy, but Kevin Harvick found a way around the outside. So I know we'll go there and be very competitive this time."

Earlier this week, Hendrick Motorsports won its final appeal to have hefty penalties assessed by NASCAR to Johnson's No. 48 team overturned. The penalties stemmed from an illegal part (C-post) found on Johnson's Daytona 500 car during last month's opening-day inspection at Daytona International Speedway.

National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook rescinded the six-race suspension for crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec. Middlebrook also removed the loss of 25 points for driver Johnson and car owner Jeff Gordon.

The addition of 25 points moved Johnson from 17th to 11th in the standings.

From 2004-10, the series competed at California twice during the season, but last year, the track lost its fall race to make way for a second date at Kansas Speedway. The race length at California was also trimmed from 500 miles to 400.

Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle heads to California as the points leader. Biffle began the season with third-place finishes in each of the first three races but placed 13th in last Sunday's 500-lapper at Bristol.

"Bristol didn't turn out quite the way we planned it, but we do feel better about our finish since we found something wrong with the car after the race," he said. "The right-front bump stop failed, so it was down on the splitter for the last 17-lap run. We wondered why we weren't going forward. We were going backward and unfortunately finished 13th but kept the point lead."

Biffle currently holds a nine-point advantage over Harvick, while Biffle's teammate and Daytona 500 winner, Matt Kenseth, is 12 markers behind.

"We are looking forward to California," Biffle said. "We've got the best car to ever come out of the Roush Fenway shop. Our California car has the best downforce numbers. It's the lightest, badest, newest thing the guys can build. It's a good track for me."

Forty-six teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Auto Club 400.

Nationwide Series

Royal Purple 300 - Auto Club Speedway - Fontana, CA

Elliott Sadler has been on a tear in the Nationwide Series lately, and he's showing no signs of letting up.

Sadler has won two of the first four races this season. He ended a 91-race winless streak in NASCAR's second-tier series earlier this month at Phoenix. Sadler had been a competitor in the Sprint Cup Series from 1999-2010 before returning to Nationwide full-time for the 2011 season.

With two victories and a pair of third-place finishes, Sadler has built a 25- point lead over defending Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Sadler drove for Kevin Harvick Inc. last year, but KHI ceased operations and sold its equipment to Richard Childress Racing when the season concluded. Team owner Richard Childress paired Sadler with crew chief Luke Lambert, and the two have stormed out of the gate.

"This sport is built on momentum, and I think getting two quick wins here at the beginning of the season is really good for our team," Sadler said. "Luke Lambert is a young, smart crew chief, and he is as hungry as I am to continue to improve and continue to grow stronger as the season continues. Our team is experienced. There is a lot of talent on our team, and I think that we are going to continue to remain focused each and every week on the goal of winning this Nationwide Series championship."

Sadler is hopeful his momentum will continue this weekend at Auto Club Speedway. One year ago, he competed in a Nationwide race at California for the first time since 2008. Sadler started 34th but quickly moved up into the top-10. He went on to finish fifth.

"I feel like I ran pretty well there last season with a top-five finish," he said. "I feel like we are a little better prepared this season, because we know what kind of setup we need to be able to get there and unload quickly."

Remarkably, the four Nationwide races so far this season have been won by non- Sprint Cup regulars. James Buescher, a Camping World Truck Series competitor, won the season-opener at Daytona, and Stenhouse picked up the victory at Las Vegas.

Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are those Sprint Cup regulars competing in this race.

Busch has won the last three Nationwide events at California but all of those victories came while he was driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. He is now in his first year as driver/owner of the No. 54 Toyota. Busch has finished no better than 11th this season.

"We recognize there is still work to be done though to have all the parts we need internally and to apply what we know, as a group, at the racetrack and really perform well together," he said. "We have to minimize our mistakes too which is part of growing."

Forty-two teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Royal Purple 300.

IZOD INDYCAR SERIES

Honda GP of St. Petersburg - Streets of St. Petersburg - St. Petersburg, FL

The 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series not only gets underway this weekend in St. Petersburg, FL, but it's also the series' first race to be held since the death of Dan Wheldon last October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

IndyCar has endured a long and difficult five-month offseason following the horrific 15-car crash that claimed the life of the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and former series champion. But IndyCar is ready to race again with its new "DW12" car, named in honor of Wheldon, new engine suppliers -- Chevrolet and Lotus -- and a host of safety improvements.

It's only fitting that St. Petersburg be the first event since the passing of Wheldon. The Englishman had resided in the area.

St. Petersburg will indeed be an emotional race, with Wheldon on the minds of all of the competitors.

"I think it's going to be emotional for a lot of people, and it's going to make it a special event that we are all going to remember him," said Dreyer and Reinbold Racing driver Oriol Servia. "It's just a different way to start the season but not the way anybody wanted. It's going to make the event even more special."

Drivers, teams and race officials will pay tribute to Wheldon in many different ways during Sunday's 100-lap race on the 1.8-mile St. Petersburg street circuit. Andretti Autosport driver Marco Andretti will wear a special helmet in honor of his late-friend. The paint scheme on Andretti's helmet will feature a special "Lionheart" design, much like the one Wheldon had worn.

"Obviously, we're going to be driving with very heavy hearts because of Dan Wheldon," Andretti said. "But he was proud to call that place home, so we're going to go there and try to enjoy ourselves, and we're going to compete because Dan was a competitor."

Earlier this month, the city of St. Petersburg dedicated a section of the street circuit to Wheldon. The corner of Bayshore Drive and Albert Whitted Park, which is turn 10 during the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, was named "Dan Wheldon Way."

In addition, city officials and event organizers unveiled plans for a two- panel monument to celebrate Wheldon's life and St. Petersburg's role in IndyCar racing.

"Dan loved St. Petersburg; our city loved him," St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said during the March 7 dedication ceremony. "This monument will stand for generations to come as a remembrance to a great and humble man who left an indelible impression upon the sport of racing and upon the city he called home, St. Petersburg."

Wheldon's sister, Holly, will wave the green flag to start the race. She will also present the first-place trophy to the event winner.

When IndyCar competed at St. Petersburg for the first time in 2005, Wheldon passed Ryan Briscoe for the lead in turn 10 late in the race and then held it for the win. Wheldon also won his first Indianapolis 500 and series title that year, driving for then-Andretti Green Racing.

Dario Franchitti, who captured his record third consecutive and fourth overall series championship last year, is the defending St. Petersburg race winner. Franchitti put on a dominating performance by leading 94 of 100 laps. He passed Will Power, the pole sitter, just after a restart on the fifth lap and then took command from there. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver finished more than seven seconds ahead of Power.

Even though the win looked easy, Franchitti claimed it was a difficult task.

"That was the first day of the double-wide restarts, and we kept having carnage," he said. "I managed to use the second restart to my advantage by passing Will on the outside of turn one and turn two and managed to lead it to the end. That was a great way to start the season."

Franchitti won at St. Petersburg for the first time in six attempts there.

"I'm glad I could finally win one, because I found a few ways to lose them around here," he added.

Power has been dominant on the road and street courses the past two IndyCar seasons. In 2010, he won at Sao Paulo Brazil and St. Petersburg for a 2-0 start to the season. Of the last 19 road/street course races, Power has won 10 of them.

He has finished no worse than eighth in four starts at St. Petersburg.

"I guess it's like your typical street course," Power said. "The thing about this track is there's really no fast corners. The fast corners we do, you're flat out on so you don't really consider them as corners. It seems to suit me, and I enjoy it a lot."

Twenty-six teams are on the entry list for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

FORMULA ONE

Malaysian Grand Prix - Sepang International Circuit - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

After the first grand prix of the season last weekend in Melbourne, Australia, it appears that Sebastian Vettel's bid for another Formula One world championship might be a much tougher task than last year.

Jenson Button from McLaren had an impressive win in the Australian Grand Prix. Button started second but grabbed the lead from pole sitter and teammate Lewis Hamilton on the opening lap and then took command from there in the 58-lap season-opener.

Vettel qualified a disappointing sixth but rebounded with a strong second- place finish.

F1 now heads to Malaysia, where Vettel has won the last two years.

"It's good to go there off the back of Australia, and I hope we get another strong result," he said.

Vettel was untouchable during the 2011 season, as he led in the championship point standings from start (Australia) to finish (Brazil). At age 24, he became the youngest double champion in F1 history. Vettel ended his title season with 11 wins, 17 podium appearances and a record-breaking 15 poles.

Entering the second round of this season -- the Malaysian Grand Prix -- Vettel finds himself in an awkward position. He's not the points leader, which is the first time that's happened since the penultimate race of the 2010 season in Brazil.

"I think the [Australian GP] showed that there are several top teams in Formula One, and I think we can expect them to be fighting for victory in Malaysia," Button said. "Both Red Bull drivers were very quick in the race, and I think we can expect further strong challenges from Mercedes AMG and Lotus this weekend."

Button has performed well on the tricky 3.44-mile (5.543-kilometer) Sepang International Circuit, located near Kuala Lumpur. He won the Malaysian GP in 2009 and finished second in this event last year.

"Sepang is more of a high-speed circuit [than Melbourne]," Button said. "There are some fantastic sweeping corners here and, if the car's working properly, it's a real joy to drive.

"It's one of the toughest circuits on the calendar, because there's a real range of corners, cambers, a couple of blind apexes and a little bit of gradient. If the car's working against you, then it becomes painful, but when it's all switched on, it's just a great circuit to drive."

Button enters the race with a seven-point advantage over Vettel.