11th-place finish a victory for Speed

FONTANA, Calif. -- The sunglasses were propped on his head, and a smile easily crossed his face. For once, Scott Speed not only looked California cool, but also felt it.

Relief, happiness -- no one in the garage Sunday felt better than Speed after the Auto Club 500. Not even race winner Jimmie Johnson.

Speed, the Californian from Manteca beginning his second full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, is in a situation where he must prove himself. A refugee from Formula One, but without the credentials of Juan Pablo Montoya, Speed needs to show he belongs. Otherwise, he could go the way of other open-wheel drivers such as Dario Franchitti.

Out of the series.

But as long as Speed continues to show the kind of results he posted Sunday, when he finished 11th, he will continue to climb into his Red Bull Racing Toyota for crew chief Jimmy Elledge.

"If we have another year like we did last year, it doesn't make sense to keep going," Speed said after he was robbed of a top-10 finish when he was passed by Greg Biffle in the final corner of the final lap of the 250-lap race. "We sort of expected this progression, but I don't think we expected it this much."

Speed has had only one finish better than the one that came at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway: He finished fifth last season in a race at Talladega.

Coupled with his 19th-place finish a week ago at Daytona, Speed is 15th in the standings.

"We were in circumstance in Daytona," Speed said, referencing his being out of pit sequence and it lending itself to a good finish at the restrictor plate race. "But this time it's for real. When you're running up here like this in California, it's no disputing. For everyone that's up there [at the front], it's for real, absolutely."

Finishing 11th, he said, "means a ton." And he might have cracked the top 10 -- he had been running ninth with 10 laps to go -- but he says he "burned off" the front tires trying to pass Tony Stewart for eighth early in the stint.

Speed finished 35th in the series as a rookie last season while teammate Brian Vickers -- in his fifth full season -- finished 12th. Vickers, 26, grew up in stock cars; he was 25th as a rookie in 2004 with owner Rick Hendrick's team.

On Sunday, Vickers finished 12th, giving Red Bull Racing one of its best days ever.

"It's not easy for us open wheel guys," the 27-year-old Speed said. "We made a lot of progress in the offseason. What's cool for me is how much I've learned. When I'm out there I'm doing stuff and I'm like, 'Man, I felt so dumb last year because I'm taking stuff for granted now.' I'm just learning with time and experience, and that makes the whole process easier."

Jay Frye, vice president and general manager of Red Bull Racing, said that Speed has always reached a point, in whatever series he is in, when he "gets it." And when Speed reaches that point in Cup, Frye expects his driver to take off. It just needs to happen this season.

"Circumstances probably had us put him in a car a year earlier than what we originally planned," Frye said. "Last year was tough, and we knew it would be tough, and we threw him to the wolves."

However, "the Mulligan we had last season is over and it's time to go," Frye continued. "We had great expectations for him, great confidence in him. We certainly think he can do it, but now's the time to prove it. Now's the time to go.

"As long as the curve is pointed in the right direction, I think we'll be fine. He continues to do things in the car this year that he wasn't necessarily able to do last year."

Like perform the way he did on Sunday. And, with any luck, he will click the way he did in the 2008 ARCA RE/MAX Series, when he won four races and moved up the standings to finish third.

Speed himself says he is probably a year away from reaching that point where it all clicks for him, "but to be where we are now and to be able to run where we are … it feels pretty fantastic."