No surprise: Jimmie Johnson leads halfway in Auto Club 400 at Fontana

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When you already have a record five wins there, it’s no surprise that Jimmie Johnson was the race leader at the halfway point (100 laps) of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 Auto Club Speedway.

Johnson appeared headed for not only another win there, but looked as if he was ready to dominate the second half of the race.

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, was second at halfway, but it wasn’t easy. Gordon fell back to near the back of the field not once but twice before rallying back.

Pole sitter Matt Kenseth was scored in third, while Joey Logano was fourth and Greg Biffle had the fastest Ford, sitting in fifth place.

Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. had tire issues early in the race and was forced to go to pit road, falling one lap down, but his team quickly repaired the damage and he was able to not only get back on the lead lap but also up to sixth by midway.

Kyle Busch appeared to have issues with his motor, seemingly not having maximum power, but he was able to overcome that and worked his way back up to seventh.

Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick was eighth at midway, followed by Bristol winner Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray in 10th.

Outside pole sitter Brad Keselowski led 38 of the first 100 laps, but fell back to 15th at the midpoint of the race.

Sam Hornish Jr. was a late replacement behind the wheel for Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Hamlin was suffering from a sinus infection that was affecting his vision.

As a result, Hornish was forced to start at the back of the field.

Auto Club Speedway was also the site of Hamlin’s serious crash in last year’s Sprint Cup race that forced him to miss four races recovering from his injuries.

Several drivers had mechanical and tire issues, while others had issues with spins or wrecks, including Tony Stewart, Aric Almirola and Brian Scott.

And Parker Kligerman continued to have the worst luck of everyone in the series, being forced out of the race after 85 laps due to a wreck.

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Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”