FONTANA — More than 100,000 are expected at Auto Club Speedway this weekend for a pair of NASCAR races, Saturday’s Production Alliance Group 300 Xfinity race and the featured Auto Club 400 for Cup drivers on Sunday.
In Sunday’s 200-lap main event, there is plenty of Cup competition as four teams occupy the top 10. Joe Gibbs Racing is represented by Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.; Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski fly the Team Penske colors; Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola are part of Stewart-Haas Racing, and Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch race for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Truex, last year’s Auto Club 400 winner, is in his first year with JGR. Although he is winless thus far, he is fifth in points, trailing leader Kyle Busch by 37 after four races.
He was one of many praising the track this week.
“Our team is really looking forward to getting to California,” Truex said. “It’s one of my favorite tracks and I felt good about the test back in January. Obviously, the weather is going to be different and there will be more than three cars like at the test, but we feel like we’ve learned a lot about the package since then. We need to go in there Friday and unload strong and carry that through the weekend.
“I’m excited to see if we can go back-to-back there because it’s really turned into one of the most fun tracks on the circuit.”
Harvick agreed with that assessment of the two-mile superspeedway.
“It’s a great example of lessons that a lot of people who run racetracks don’t pay attention to. Sometimes, if you take one really great thing, you can easily make them into two mediocre things”, said Harvick of Bakersfield. “This one has come full circle. When you look at the crowds that we’ve had over the last couple of years, they’ve been really good. The racing has been really good as that track surface has aged.
“As a driver, you look forward to going there now because it’s one of those tracks where you can run all over the place, the cars slide around, and you’re going to have fun from the driver’s seat. That bleeds over into the perception that the fans get because everybody is talking about enjoying racing on this particular track. Some markets are just one-race markets.
“The crowd has been great over the last few years since we went from two races down to one. It has changed the whole vibe at Auto Club Speedway. It’s in my home state. It’s a big week.”
Although he has not won in his past 64 Cup starts, Johnson has to be among the favorites at Fontana since he has the best overall numbers. He has 24 starts at the track and is the all-time leader in wins (six), runner-up results (five), top-five finishes (13), top 10s (17) and laps led (980). Johnson’s average finish of 7.2 is also the best all-time and his best at any track in his career.
An added note about Johnson’s Fontana numbers: Five of the six times Johnson has won the race, he has gone on to win the Cup championship.
This will also mark Johnson’s first race at ACS without crew chief Chad Knaus. The two split during the off-season after a long relationship, with Johnson being paired with Kevin Meendering and Knaus with William Bryon. Johnson is 15th in points and Bryon 18th.
“He’s a very competitive individual, obviously — I feel like our personalities mesh relatively well,” Byron said. “It’s early in the season, so we’ve got to work through and continue to progress and keep setting that bar a little bit higher. We’re in a decent spot in points. We’ve had some decent finishes.”
The not-so-underlying theme to the week, however, is can Kyle Busch become the second to win 200 NASCAR races, tying him with the great Richard Petty? Since he started racing within the sanctioning body in 2000, Busch has taken 199 checkered flags in the three national series: Monster Energy Cup, Xfinity and Gander Trucks. Eleven of those wins, including six in Cup, have come at Fontana.
Richard Petty holds the all-time NASCAR win record with 200, all in Cup, a number that includes four on the road course at old Riverside International Raceway. Petty’s final victory was on July 4, 1984, in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona.
Kyle Busch and Johnson are the only drivers with multiple wins at ACS, although previous Fontana winners also include Kurt Busch (2003), Harvick (2011), Keselowski (2015), Larson (2017) and Truex (2018). Keselowski has already won a race this season, finishing first at Atlanta three weeks ago, and teammate Logano, second in points to the younger Busch, won at Las Vegas. The other Cup winner this season is Hamlin, who took the season opener in Daytona.
“It would certainly be nice to get it done on the West Coast swing, but it’s not a necessity. It will happen when it happens, and you can’t push too hard and do stupid things or make mistakes in order to think too much about that number,” Kyle Busch said after his win Sunday at Phoenix. “You just have to let the race kind of play out and let it come to you and we’ll see where we are at.
“Really looking forward to Fontana, it’s been a great place for me over the years and I would love to get the Interstate Batteries Toyota back to Victory Lane there again no matter what number win that it ends up being.’’
Tyler Reddick will lead the field in the Xfinity race Saturday. He leads Christopher Bell by a point, with Ladera Ranch driver Cole Custer in third place. Kyle Busch is also entered and one of the favorites.
“It’s obviously high expectations. Anything less than wins is a pretty big disappointment, to be honest with you,” said Ben Bashore, Busch’s Xfinity crew chief. “Right now, with Kyle in the car, he expects to go out there and just stomp everybody. We have to be on our game and give him an iK9 Toyota Supra capable of doing that and not make any mistakes or let the team beat itself, and just let Kyle go out there and do what he’s best at”.
Louis Brewster can be reached at [email protected]