After 2,322 Cup races, NASCAR will debut unleaded fuel in its premier series. The sanctioning body used the fuel in 2006 in selected races in the Busch Series and Craftsman Truck Series and is mandating the change to help power plant reliability. The effect remains to be seen. “This is a big race and the unleaded fuel is a big change for these engines,” said Doug Yates, who oversees the Roush-Yates engines for the Ford teams. “The only way (fans) will see a difference if there’s attrition. “The fuel mileage is yet to be determined. It may be a little bit less for everybody just trying to get acclimated to the new fuel, trying to be conservative at first. “This usually comes down to a fuel mileage race. We’re conscious of that and we’re trying to adjust and get as close and as good of mileage as we can.” A year ago, only four engines expired before the finish. The fuel change has created some concern on that front. “The greatest concern we have with the fuel change is the durability consideration,” said Mark McArdle, director of Evernham Engines. “Tetraethyl lead, while environmentally unsafe, has the desirable property of self-lubrication. Our greatest concern is with value guide and value seat wear.” FONTANA – In its 56th year of competition, NASCAR has exhausted most of its historic firsts. But for today’s 11th running of the Nextel Cup Series Auto Club 500 at California Speedway, the exhaust will be cleaner than ever before. Jeff Gordon, the pole sitter for the 14th Cup race at the Fontana track, has a fuel-mileage victory among his three Auto Club wins. Gordon’s team owner, Hendrick Motorsports, has won this race four times, as has Jack Roush Racing. The remaining two races belong to former track owner Roger Penske. That’s the good news. The bad news is that no driver has ever won the Auto Club 500 from the pole. “Any time you can start up front, it’s a plus,” Gordon said. “Does it guarantee you anything? No, it doesn’t. We’ve had some good race cars here in the past where we’ve started deeper in the field and were able to get to the front. “But if I had my choice, I’d rather start up front and on the pole.” Jimmie Johnson, whose victory for Hendrick in 2002 was the first in his Cup career, was fastest in the final practice session Saturday. Johnson, who will be on the 12th row, reached 182.523 mph, slightly faster than outside pole sitter Kasey Kahne, who won here last fall. “It seemed like we got our car pretty balanced for a long run,” said Kahne, who ran 33 laps in the Happy Hour. “We were fast at the start and still fast at the end.” While unleaded fuel is one of the great unknowns in the first race of the “real” Cup, there are other factors. The 250-lap race around the Fontana D-shaped oval is run without restrictor plates, creating a premium on horsepower and car balance. Still, the reliability factor is a real concern. “Any time you run 500 miles somewhere, especially a two-mile race track, it is a lot of miles,” said Jeff Burton, who will start eighth. “It’s a lot of wear and tear on your engine so reliability is a major issue.” Aside from those issues, the Fontana race is the first opportunity for those who finished poorly at Daytona. Six who made the Chase in 2006 are at least 100 points behind Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick. That list includes Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Johnson, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth. “The points season starts now,” said Busch, who won in ’03 for Roush. “We’re behind. We’ve got some work to do, but we’ve got a lot of time to do it. Some of the guys had negative points, so at least we don’t have to overcome that.” Elliott Sadler, who won the inaugural Labor Day Sunday race in 2004, knows it can turn out to be another fuel mileage race, even though the fuel cells are 17.75 gallons. “It’s big and spread out,” Sadler said of the track. “Cars get separated a lot. It makes it that way. We’re going to do the best we can with adjustments.” Team owner Ray Evernham will call the shots atop the pit box as team director Kenny Francis sits out the second of a four-race suspension for rules violations at Daytona. This afternoon’s crowd also will see the first Toyota in Cup competition at Fontana. Leading the charge from the seventh row is Dave Blaney, one position ahead of Brian Vickers. Also driving a Toyota will be David Reutimann, who put team owner Michael Waltrip on the hauler, and Dale Jarrett, via past champion provisional. Harvick won the season opener at Daytona, but few have been able to carry the momentum through the season to the title. Only four drivers in NASCAR’s modern era (post-1972) have achieved that feat: Johnson (2006), Gordon (1997), Richard Petty (1974, 1979) and Cale Yarborough (1977). 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!