NASCAR finishes up its three-race tint out west with what it hopes will be the sport’s own version of March Madness at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The 2-mile oval will host the Auto Club 400 in what should be the most aggressive test of NASCAR’s new rules package designed to make racing better on intermediate ovals. The old pavement here combined with passing-friendly changes is expected to make one of the best racetracks in recent years a “can’t miss” event.
The last two Sprint Cup champions, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick enter this race tied atop the standings, although Busch has yet to win so far this season. Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, and Carl Edwards round out the top 5 in driver points and each of them are poised for a strong weekend. They’re all former winners at Fontana.
2016 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
Stewart-Haas Racing. In a year filled with parity, SHR’s two best drivers, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch have picked up where they left off during an impressive 2015 season. They comprise two of the three drivers to post top-10 finishes in every race this season (Kyle Busch is the other) and have combined to lead 364 laps. Kurt doesn’t have a win yet but his consistency so far is a sign he won’t just make the Chase but be a serious contender down the stretch. And for Harvick? It’s great bargaining power with his contract up for renewal, SHR’s pending move to Ford in 2017 and other potential Chevrolet suitors interested in snagging him away.
Who’s at the Back
Ryan Newman. For years, this Richard Childress Racing driver has made the Chase and contended through consistency. Top-10 finishes, not wins is what launches his No. 31 car into the playoffs. But after a handful of bad-luck moments to start 2016 Newman may need to get more aggressive. He has yet to record a top-10 finish, sits 25th in the standings and crashed out at Phoenix, finishing dead last. Newman’s contract also is up in 2016 and with young Ty Dillon, the grandson of owner Childress, looming it may be a make-or-break stretch coming up for NASCAR’s 2002 Rookie of the Year.
Who’s Making News?
Tony Stewart may be cleared to drive a street car but his return to NASCAR remains unclear. Stewart, out since January with a burst fracture in his L1 vertebra, says he can drive a street car but hasn’t been given the “thumbs up” for clearance to return to a race car. Best guess estimates remain centered around the Charlotte races in mid-May.
While NASCAR’s finishes have been close, save for Harvick and Carl Edwards locked in a side-by-side battle at Phoenix last week, the regular season so far seems devoid of any, well... drama. While four drivers from four different teams have won the first four races, trumpeting parity, only a handful of major names (Kyle Larson, Newman, Chase Elliott) are on the outside looking in on the Chase. NASCAR’s playoff system, when you add in the fact that there is one less major team (Michael Waltrip Racing) competing, Jeff Gordon is now retired and Stewart’s injury, becomes rather forgiving as nearly 50 percent of the field that runs full-time will make it in this year. Without a dramatic upset, the size we’re seeing in college basketball’s March Madness it may make NASCAR a bit, well... irrelevant the next few weeks.
NASCAR by the Numbers
The combined margin of victory (in seconds) of NASCAR’s three races that have ended under green-flag conditions.
Lead changes through four races this season – six fewer than last year. It’s a weird quirk in a season where NASCAR’s new rules have caused more competitive racing throughout the pack.
Odds currently for Tony Stewart to win the 2016 Sprint Cup title. Stewart, out since the beginning of the season with a fractured vertebra, hasn’t even made the Chase since 2012.
Odds currently for Clint Bowyer to win the Auto Club 400 this weekend. Bowyer, the championship runner-up in 2012 and Stewart’s replacement behind the wheel of the No. 14 car in 2017, has found it tough sledding this year in a temporary ride for underdog HScott Racing. His best finish is 22nd and he’s finished just once on the lead lap.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Johnson is nearly as reliable at Fontana as Kevin Harvick was at Phoenix; he’s won five times, led 955 laps and posted 15 top-10 results in 21 career starts. That’s an astonishing 71 percent finish rate inside the top 10. It’s hard to get a higher number in this sport.
Busch, the 2003 winner at Fontana, feels like he’s owed one after dominating the race last year only to have a “debris caution” result in a green-white-checkered finish. Busch lost the restart on that to Brad Keselowski, slipped to third in the final running order and had to wait a few more weeks to post his 2015 comeback victory after a season-opening three-race suspension. Busch hasn’t forgotten that call, heads into the weekend with a strong intermediate track program and is motivated to right that wrong. Don’t discount emotion here.
Larson, 13th in Friday practice, has been a bit of a disappointment so far in 2016. However, Fontana is a track that’s been kind to him; a runner-up result two years ago remains the best of his career in the Cup Series. The No. 42 is in need of a momentum boost and Larson’s tendency to run the high line should serve him well with this racetrack’s old pavement.
Biffle used to feast on the competition at both Fontana and Michigan. He won out here in 2005 and has led 297 career laps at this track. That history bodes well for him in a bounce-back year for Roush Fenway Racing. Treat his last two finishes in this race (40th and 32nd) as an anomaly.
Fifth in Friday practice, the Front Row Motorsports rookie hasn’t done much to write home about so far in 2016. That said, he was fifth at Fontana last year in the XFINITY Series, driving Roush Fenway Fords and his FRM team has access to RFR notes that used to be quite good around this racetrack. Considering how well some of his “teammates” have done in recent weeks it’s worth a flier.
What Vegas Thinks
Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick were tied with 5-1 odds heading into Friday’s practice session. As for last year’s winner, Brad Keselowski? He’s a distant 12-1, behind teammate Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
What I Think
Fontana has always been Johnson’s time to shine. I think the No. 48 team becomes the first two-time winner this season, as Hendrick Motorsports flexes their muscle before the Easter Break. That said, keep an eye on Austin Dillon, fastest in Friday practice and having a career year in his third season driving Richard Childress Racing’s No. 3 Chevrolet
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photos by ASP Inc.)