Denny Hamlin the pole man for Auto Club 400


FONTANA, Calif. — It’s clear with better performance comes higher expectations.

Because of that, the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season raised the bar for Toyota and Michael Waltrip Racing.

Both are finding out early this season that with the successes enjoyed in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series in 2012 come a lot of closer scrutiny, particularly when the perception is you haven’t picked up where you left off.

For instance, Friday’s qualifying prowess by Toyota teams raise the possibility the manufacturer’s victory drought at Auto Club Speedway will come to an end this weekend.

Denny Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, won the pole for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 with an average lap speed of 187.451 mph.

His fellow Toyota drivers won’t be far behind.

Hamlin’s JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth start fourth and fifth, respectively, while MWR’s Martin Truex Jr. starts seventh, Mark Martin eighth and Bowyer 12th.

Bowyer had been fastest in Friday’s practice session.

“It was fast. I told my crew I could pretty much guarantee the pole had we qualified (in the order) anywhere 20th or later,” Hamlin said. “I knew our car was just ridiculous fast in qualifying trim.

“I love this race track. A lot of the reason is because it’s bumpy and it’s worn out, and we got tire fall off — like three seconds between the beginning of a run and the end of a run. That always makes for good racing.”

Expectations aside, Bowyer is actually in a better position than he was at this point one season ago.

He ended 2012 second in the series standings and with three victories. Yet Bowyer was eighth in points after that season’s first four races.

He enters Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway fourth in points but has led just a single lap.

“That’s the one thing that we’re behind on is leading laps and a win, but if you really look at where we were at last year this time, it’s just a different set of circumstances,” said Bowyer, who will start fourth in Sunday’s race. “I think we’re running exactly the way we did last year.

“It’s just the expectations of what happened to MWR at the end of the year competing for a championship and being right there in the running catapults people into thinking — us included — that we need to be at least second in the points and contending for wins.”

It’s not that MWR teams have not been fast — they have. It’s just that they have not been in the hunt for wins at the end of races, in part hampered by some early-season engine issues.

Since Bowyer closed last season knocking on the door for the No. 1 spot in the Cup series, media and fans are looking there for him to start the new year.

“It’s just that’s what you expect after the way that the season ended last year, so I just think expectations are a little bit different,” Bowyer said.

“They should be.”

Some of those could be met Sunday with a win.

“Our speeds are fast with our Toyotas on these big race tracks. A Toyota (Kenseth) won at the only mile-and-a-half we’ve had (on the schedule) so far,” Bowyer said. “That speed will carry over, I believe on this race track.

“We’ll be just fine.”

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