The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series continues its west coast swing, this time heading to Auto Club Speedway for the Auto Club 400.
After a strong showing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend, ratings are up for the second straight week, and NASCAR is riding a wave of momentum as it makes the second of three stops out west.
This week, the attention turns to Jimmie Johnson, who will retire from full-time racing at the end of this season, making his final start at his home track. Leading nearly every category at the two-mile oval, the seven-time champion has six previous wins and narrowly missed starting on the pole by a slim 0.007 seconds.
Johnson is one of six California natives in Sunday's field, along with Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Matt DiBenedetto, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer. Just three of those drivers — Johnson, Harvick and Larson — have won at their home track.
The top 10 in the starting lineup is an even split of Ford and Chevrolet at five apiece, while Toyota was completely locked out of the top 15 in qualifying. In fact, the Toyotas, in general, were a bit of a surprise last weekend and failed to finish inside the top 15. While a couple of races isn't quite time to panic for fans of the manufacturer, it's definitely something to keep an eye on as the series moves into the season.
Auto Club 400
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Hendrick Motorsports
All four of the organization's drivers showed speed last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and if not for a late-race caution, Alex Bowman was fully in the conversation for the victory.
Who's at the Back: Toyota
Last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, three of Joe Gibbs Racing's cars were found with illegal nose modifications and forced to start at the rear of the field. It didn't get better from there as the manufacturer's highest finishing driver (Kyle Busch) placed 15th. Fast forward to this weekend where Toyota was once again locked out, this time in qualifying where Busch posted the 17th-quickest lap.
It's somewhat alarming for the manufacturer and the team but not a certainty that Toyota won't turn things around.
After last week's buzz surrounding the $100,000 bounty offered by Kevin Harvick for a full-time Cup Series driver to beat Kyle Busch in one of his remaining four Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series starts, two Cup drivers have thrown their hats in the ring. Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson will run for GMS Racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway, respectively.
And if that's not enough, the stakes have been raised for series regulars as well. Chris Larsen, from Halmar International, has put up $50,000 for a full-time Truck Series driver if they beat Busch.
“We love Kyle. He is a true warrior! But, we have so many talented truck series regular teams, and we know firsthand the level of work they put in," Larsen said in his statement. "We want to give the drivers and teams, who are the bedrock of the series, a bounty to shoot for. We are looking forward to seeing how Stewart Friesen performs behind the wheel of the Halmar International #52 Toyota Tundra during these upcoming races as well. We are confident in our Halmar team!”
NASCAR by the Numbers
Michael McDowell's qualifying position for Sunday's race. It's his first top-10 starting spot this season and just the eighth time McDowell has started inside the top 10 in 323 career races.
The number of races this season where the winner matched the outcome from 2019. Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500 and Joey Logano won at Las Vegas last year and this year. To keep the trend going, Kyle Busch will need to win Sunday.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Joey Logano is fresh off of a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and he's been strong at Auto Club in the past. He's got seven top 10s and six top fives at the two-mile oval, but perhaps what's more important about this pick is that he hasn't finished worse than seventh in his last five starts.
Another strong pick would be Alex Bowman, who was in the conversation for the win last weekend at Las Vegas before a late-race caution. This week, he topped both Cup practices on Friday before backing it up with a third-place qualifying effort.
Winless in two-plus years, Jimmie Johnson finds himself in unfamiliar territory as a middle-tier driver, but he just might have the speed in his No. 48 Chevrolet this week. Leading nearly every statistical category at Auto Club Speedway, the driver who's starting second is a solid pick for a strong performance this weekend, especially after the promise Hendrick Motorsports, as a whole, showed last weekend.
Part of what you need with a driver in this tier is someone that will manage to stay out of trouble to maximize points earned for the money spent. Bubba Wallace turned out to be a strong pick last week at Las Vegas when he finished an impressive sixth.
Meanwhile, John Hunter Nemechek currently leads the rookie standings and has been decent thus far. Sure, the rookie isn't in the discussion for race wins just yet, but he's been impressive in his first two starts this season. He quietly survived the Daytona carnage for an 11th-place finish and followed up with a 24th in Vegas.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick lead the way with 4/1 odds for this year's race. Last week's winner Joey Logano is right behind at 5/1.
Looking for a longshot? What about Alex Bowman, who led both practice sessions, was a threat to win last week and starts third? He's sitting at 20/1.
What I Think
While I would normally point toward Kyle Busch, who won this race a year ago, Toyota hasn't left me with much confidence. Jimmie Johnson hasn't found victory lane in a long time, but the No. 48 team has shown a ton of speed this early in the season, and a front-row starting spot gives him the track position to pull a victory out of his final start at Auto Club.
— Written by Beth Lunkenheimer, who is the Content Director for NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. She can be reached at beth.lunkenheimer or on Twitter @NASCARBeth.