Denny Hamlin full speed ahead

"I expected it -- we're close in points," he said. "Really, for us, it really doesn't matter too much. It really doesn't change anything. I spoke the same amount of words to Joey [Logano] as my teammate Matt [Kenseth], and he's on the other side of me. It really doesn't matter. You're so focused on what you have to do to get better. It really is just a year."

Auto Club Speedway has been a house of horrors for Hamlin, who has finished 25th or worse in four of his previous six Fontana races -- including three DNFs.

California dreamin'? Hardly.

Perhaps a solid start to the season -- he finished second at Daytona and sixth at Bristol -- will provide some momentum Sunday.

"I've taken this race and circled it as one where you really would like to get a win and obviously be competitive when it comes Sunday," Hamlin said. "It's nice to, instead of retaliating, to end in Victory Lane."

The California Kid

Jimmie Johnson panic?

Four races in and zero wins for the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion?

What gives?

C'mon. Six-time champ Johnson wants to win as badly as anyone, but he's not willing to stray from a game plan he and crew chief Chad Knaus have worked to near perfection.

"We have been able to win multiple races a year with a certain mindset," Johnson said Friday. "I am not going to chase home runs. I'm looking at a smooth and consistent 26 races, and when we get a look at a home run, we are going to swing for it. But we are not stepping up to the plate every time trying to hit it out."

If Johnson delivers a grand slam, it's likely to happen at Auto Club Speedway, the California native's home track. Johnson is the career leader in wins here with five. He's also the leader in top-5s (12), laps led and average finish (5.7).

"Yeah, this is a good track for us," said Johnson, who qualified third. "It would be great to get the win and get ourselves locked into the Chase. But I think we are in a good spot -- we've been very competitive. We have had a shot to win a couple of races."

Indeed. It's not as if Johnson hasn't performed through the season's first four events. He opened with three consecutive top-six runs before a tire issue at Bristol left him with a 19th-place finish.

The worn 2-mile oval at Fontana is a welcome sight for Johnson & Co., who excel on low-grip-level racetracks.

"The character in the track continues to change, and the bumps," Johnson said. "Last year especially, the bumps were as big as I've ever seen them. The paving seams are very sensitive to run your right-side tires on. We have seen that in the NASCAR vehicles and also IndyCar. So I think those challenging elements are good for the No. 48."

Rookie fight

This year's rookie battle is shaping up to be a good one.

Rising stars Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson have exceeded early expectations. After four races, each driver already has a top-10.

But it hasn't been a joy ride. Far from it.

"Nothing has really been easy. It's all been tough," Larson said. "Everything is tough in the Sprint Cup Series. I got a glimpse of it last year being able to run four races, so I understood how tough it was going to be this season. So nothing has really surprised me at all to start this season. Everybody races extremely hard all race long."

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