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Denny Hamlin wins the California Pepsi 500 pole, and second-fastest David Reutimann gets busted by NASCAR inspectors and booted to the rear

  Surprise! Usually mediocre in qualifying, 'chaser' Denny Hamlin sneaks off with a big one, winning the pole for the fourth race of the 10-race championship playoffs (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

    FONTANA, Calif.
    Yes, we're in the heart of the championship chase, but there are more than just those 12 drivers out on the NASCAR tracks this fall…though most of those others have been running as though they were just so much cannon-fodder for the title challengers.
    Will Sunday's California 500 be any different?
    Well, Denny Hamlin took the pole Friday at California's stunningly fast Auto Club Speedway, and four of the five fastest are chasers, Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya surrounding 'outsider' David Reutimann.
  However in post-qualifying inspection the gas pressure in Reutimann's rear shocks was found to be excessive, and his time was disallowed. He will start 42nd. Pumping up the rear shocks raises the rear of the car and thus increases downforce, making it turn better in the corners. It is unclear if NASCAR will apply any further penalties; those are not usually announced until Tuesday after a race.
   "This definitely comes at a good time," Hamlin said after his run at 183.870 mph. "Qualifying has just been so bad for us this season. If we end up 15th on Fridays, we're happy. So we're more confident in our 1-1/2-mile and two-mile program."
   But far, far behind is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will start 38th.
   Earnhardt has had some good runs lately, though, only to be fouled up by misfortune. Whether crew chief Lance McGrew and the crew are all back with Earnhardt next year, well, car owner Rick Hendrick still hasn't decided.
   Dale Earnhardt Jr. turns 35 Saturday…and when his late father was 35 he was on his way to the second championship of the seven he would win during a legendary career.
    But Junior's season hasn't been a great one so far. In fact this may have been the toughest season of his career. Winless so far…with only one win over the past three years…mired deep in the standings, 22nd going into Sunday's California 500, while his three teammates – Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon – and two more 'teammates,' Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, are all battling for the Sprint Cup championship.
    Back in May Hendrick shook up Earnhardt's team, took long-time crew chief Tony Eury Jr. out of the equation, plugged in McGrew.
   With Tony Jr. in charge for 12 races, Earnhardt led 90 laps, had a best finish of second (Talladega), had three top-10s, and had an average finish of 21.3.
   With McGrew in charge for 17 races, Earnhardt has led 47 laps (41 last week at Kansas), had a best finish of third (Michigan), has had two top-10s, and an average finish of 22.9.

   Dale Earnhardt Jr. turns 35 Saturday...and hopes things start turning for the better (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Gordon says he understands the pressure Earnhardt is under.
   "I'm really proud of him," Gordon says. "He takes a lot of heat…as well as gets a lot of praise from his support group and fans. 
    "It's tough to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. 
    "A lot of people look from the outside and go 'Oh, man, I would like to be him. He's got it so good.'
    "But it's not necessarily the case. He puts a lot of pressure on himself to be a great driver. But he also does a great job not trying to live within his dad's shadow…he wants to be his own person.  
    "He is at one of the best organizations, and he feels that pressure, like the rest of us do. And when the results aren't there, he beats himself up, like the rest of us do. 
    "He's a normal guy; he just has different situations to deal with -- that are sometimes pretty extreme. And I give him a lot of credit for handling it the way he does."    

   Hmmmm....wonder if crew chief Mike Ford (L) has found some chassis tricks for Denny Hamlin....maybe enough corner speed to take some of the wind out of Jimmie Johnson's sails in the title chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Meanwhile, back in the championship chase, the line this weekend looks like this – eight guys still in the running for the title, with eighth-place Greg Biffle only 114 points behind leader Martin.
    However Carl Edwards, though 165 points down, insists he's not out of it yet. And he's confident he has a shot at winning Sunday's 500 miler.
   "The thing about racing is that anything can happen," Edwards says. "Witness these crutches I've been walking around on for the last month.
   "You just never know what can happen. On the race track, off the race track.
    "So we've just got to go out there and do what Jack (Roush, his team owner) says – Focus…dig hard…try to win the championship. And take whatever we can get.
    "If Jimmie Johnson goes out and wins this weekend, then that's what happens.
     "But if he has a terrible week, you have to be out there gaining every point you can, to capitalize.
     "We've got seven races left. A lot can happen.
    "Until it's a mathematical impossibility, we fight for the championship.
      "Yes, I'd love to be leading Jimmie and Mark by 165 points….but in 2006 at this point, Jimmie was the exact number behind the leader that we are, and somehow he managed to pull it off.
    "We're the same team that won more races and scored more points than anyone else last season. So I still hang on to the fact that we can do it."
    And Edwards is finally off those crutches, though his foot, broken playing Frisbee, still hasn't healed. "It feels great to be off my crutches. But I'm not in the clear yet.
     "As long as I don't mess this thing up, I'm good. And I'm allowed to walk on my heel, so that's good."

  David Reutimann: busted by NASCAR inspectors and kicked to the rear of the field for Sunday's start, after qualifying second fastest. NASCAR says his rear shocks 'exceeded gas pressure limits.' Pumping up the rear shocks raises the rear of the car and increase downforce. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Also something to consider in the championship chase from here on out – Talladega. It can be a great equalizer….and remember what happened to Edwards and teammate Greg Biffle at Talladega in last fall's chase: they crashed into each other while bump-drafting toward a win, and that not only took both men out of the race but out of the chase, killing their championship hopes.
   Gordon says Talladega is the big unknown in the title race: "The crash is going to happen; it's just whether or not you are going to get caught up in it.
    "I think what's going to happen is there is going to be a little more pressure on the guys that are really in the heat of the battle for the championship. That's what's going to make you decide how you approach that race. 
    "You can go into Talladega being aggressive, or you can go into Talladega being extremely conservative…and both ways can  be good, and both ways can be bad.  I've never found any real set way of making it work.
   "And things are changing at Talladega -- we saw that this last race, with the bump-drafting, these guys pushing one another around…being able to take two cars and drive to the front. That (two-man breakaways, as strategy) is only going to grow this next time and possibly change the outcome of the race, and how it's run this time. 
    "The fact that Talladega is in the final 10 is the biggest unknown factor there is."
The revised starting grid for Sunday's California Pepsi 500 at Fontana's Auto Club Speedway



ok mike, explain this one to

ok mike,
explain this one to me...
D. Reutimann's crew has to submit 2 rear shocks to nascar with the correct gas pressure pre qualifing.
mind telling me how too much gas pressure was added, after submiting nascar approved shocks ?
knowing how its handled at the track, dont really see how this could have happened. something funny is going on here. just like it always is with nascar...

Gotcha covered right

Gotcha covered right here:

California: NASCAR says the David Reutimann case is now closed. http://bit.ly/154JOM

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