Jimmie Johnson is supposed to be red hot favourite for Sunday’s PepsiMax 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup series race at Fontana, Ca. but with the resurgent Fords taking three of the top five spots in qualifying nothing is guaranteed for him.

As the FR9 engine really comes on song fastest of the Ford drivers is Elliott Sadler, ironically looking for a drive next year and considering dropping down to the Nationwide series with Kevin Harvick‘s team as his time with Richard Petty Motorsports comes to an end. Joining him in the top five are Roush Fenway driver Matt Kenseth, highest of The Chase contenders, in the #17 Crown Royal car in third place and Kasey Kahne, another driver seeing out his time at RPM, fifth in the Budweiser #9.

Top spot in the line-up is held by Jamie McMurray in the #1 McDonalds Chevrolet with his fellow Earnhardt Ganassi teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya‘s Target Chevrolet in fourth. Martin Truex Jr. and last week’s winner at Kansas, Greg Biffle, take the next two places followed by the Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the #48 and 88 respectively. Joey Logano in the Home Depot Toyota takes the final top ten spot.

The remaining contenders in The Chase ended up in little groups scattered throughout the line-up with Clint Bowyer 13th, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon in 15 to 17th respectively, then a bit further back Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart sitting in 20th to 22nd places. Both Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch have given themselves it all to do starting in 34th and 38th places.

With five wins and 11 top ten placings here Jimmie Johnson in the Lowe’s/Jimmie Johnson Foundation Chevrolet is easily the top driver here statistically and has to be considered the best bet for a trip to victory lane but Matt Kenseth is another multiple (3 times) winner at Fontana, as is Jeff Gordon, so maybe this year’s Chase will keep the pattern of a different driver winning each race going for a little longer.

Meanwhile, in the Nationwide series with Brad Keselowski having a 374 point lead over second place Carl Edwards and a full 500 over Kyle Busch in third it would seem the title chase could be all but over but there is plenty of interest elsewhere in today’s Camping World.com 300, also at Fontana.

Having just his second race in the Nationwide series former motocross and supercross ace Ricky Carmichael finished second practice in third spot driving the Monster Energy Toyota. In his first race in Kansas last week he qualified twelfth and finished in 18th. So far he seems to qualify better than he races – but only just – and could well figure in the top fifteen this week or possibly even top ten.

Another driver to keep an eye on is Trevor Bayne who was having a respectable season in the Diamond-Waltrip Racing team when a contractual problem brought an early end to his ride. There are most definitely two sides to this, both blaming the other party so you pays your money and takes your choice which you believe but the outcome is Bayne has been immediately installed in the #17 car at Roush Fenway Racing. He says it is going to take time to become familiar with the car and the team but that didn’t stop him from ending second practice in 14th place.

And, finally, the driver that so many people love to hate, Danica Patrick, is back this time with Tissot, the Swiss watch maker, as her primary sponsor for the #7 car. Read the comments to anything written about her or look at the forums and there seems to be so much disdain for Patrick with a lot of people believing she lucked into the best rides and hasn’t lived up to the hype.

What were these people expecting, top fives in the first half a dozen races? Is that a realistic expectation with the change of disciplines from IndyCars to NASCAR? Should a winner in karts be expected to win from the get-go in Outlaws?

Patrick is learning her craft in the full glare of the media spotlight and, by her own admission, is finding it tough going. But she isn’t too proud to ask for help and has enlisted veteran Sprint Cup driver Mark Martin to coach her. I don’t know whether his coaching has started yet but a fourth place in yesterday’s second practice has to respresent some kind of turn around, although clearly a good practice session doesn’t guarantee good qualifying or even a respectable finish in the race.

It will be interesting to watch how the #7 car improves in the remainder of the season as Danica gets her first chance to concentrate solely on the Nationwide series.  One thing is for sure – all the media attention she brings to the sport can only be good for it and bring in new fans and new television viewers and NASCAR and its fans should be grateful for that much.