Fontana Primed to Produce Fireworks, Fun on Track

NASCAR Goes West concludes this weekend from Auto Club Speedway, a track that has morphed itself into one of the most competitive and enjoyable races to watch on the schedule, much in part due to the high speeds, multiple grooves and varying strategy throughout.

The Auto Club 400 will be the third and final of the annual NASCAR Goes West campaign. After compelling races at Las Vegas and Phoenix earlier this month, Fontana (per usual) is primed to bring a great race to 39 of the best in the business.

WHAT: Auto Club 400 (200 laps, 400 miles, stages of 60, 60 and 80 laps)

WHEN: Sunday, March 26, 2017. Green flag just past 3:30 p.m. ET. TV on FOX, radio on MRN

WHERE: Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California (2-mile tri-oval)

FAVORITES: Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick (13-2) and Kyle Busch (8-1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Jimmie Johnson claimed the checkered flag over Kevin Harvick, who dominated and led 145 of the 205 laps. Yes, the race finished in overtime, and Johnson–in the Superman car–fended off the kryptonite to pull his No. 48 car into victory lane for the first of five times in 2016.


THE LINEUP

Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

Kyle Larson won the pole for Sunday’s event with a speed of 187.047 mph (38.493 seconds). It is his second career pole. Denny Hamlin narrowly missed out on the top spot. Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman will round out the top five starters, with Matt Kenseth, Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch and Daniel Suarez completing the top ten.

Joey Logano, Matt DiBenedetto, Gray Gaulding and Trevor Bayne did not even attempt a lap, as their cars did not make it through inspection in time for the first session. Johnson did not attempt a lap either. The No. 48 car sustained damage in a practice crash and will begin the race in a back-up car. Crew chief Chad Knaus opted to forgo the qualifying session altogether.

Some other notable starters include Kasey Kahne in 12th, Chase Elliott in 13th, Kurt Busch in 15th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (making his 600th career start) in 17th and Ryan Blaney in 19th.


JIMMIE’S HOUSE

Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Johnson is known for dominating the Monster Mile in Dover, Delaware—for good reason. He has 10 wins there, most all-time. But Fontana is a close second for the driver of the No. 48.

The seven-time champion has six career wins at Auto Club and five second-place finishes. JJ has the top driver rating at ACS at 119.7 (10 over second place), leads the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with an average starting position of ninth, is the only driver to win from the pole (2008) and has finished inside the top two in 11 of his 22 starts (50 percent). Mic drop. Safe to say he’s pretty good here.

Despite starting last, the No. 48 will make its way to the top of the leaderboard in no time. No driver has won from the last starting spot at ACS. But records were made to be broken, right?


IS THIS LARSON’S TIME?

Not only is Kyle Larson the pole sitter for Sunday, not only is he one of the hottest drivers in the sport, not only is he 24-years-old and just hitting stardom, but he’s also the points leader.

Larson’s three consecutive runner-up finishes have led the No. 42 to the top of the standings. The last time a Chip Ganassi Racing car was P1 in the standings? You’d have to go back to 2002, when Sterling Marlin, then in the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge, was leading the field.

“It’s really, really cool to be the points leader right now,” Larson said following his second-place run at Phoenix last weekend. “That was a goal of mine going into today. So thanks to everybody at Chip Ganassi Racing for all your hard work. We’ll hopefully continue to have this speed in our race cars and maybe close some of these races out.”


NO. 2 WITHOUT WOLFE

Earlier this week, NASCAR announced a penalty for the No. 2 team due to the car failing post-race inspection on the heights and measurements station. Because of the upper-tier L1 penalty, crew chief Paul Wolfe has been suspended for the next three MENCS races and fined $65,000. The team and driver lost 35 championship points in the standings.

The No. 4 team of Harvick, who was taken to the NASCAR R7D center as a ”random” car post-Phoenix, was also penalized for a track bar slider assembly. The penalty for that lower-tier L1 violation is a one-race suspension for crew chief Rodney Childers, a fine of $25,000 and the loss of 10 championship owner and driver points.

However, Stewart-Haas Racing is appealing the penalty, meaning Childers is at the track this weekend. Harvick has led 176 laps in the past two races at ACS, finishing second in both. The appeal is expected to be heard within two weeks.

Both Harvick’s and Keselowski’s finishes were labeled as encumbered, meaning if the car would have finished first, the win would not have counted towards the playoffs. Any playoff points the driver accumulated throughout the race will not count towards the playoffs.


WHO SNAPS THEIR DROUGHT NEXT?

Ryan Newman did it last weekend and so did Justin Allgaier in the XFINITY Series. So, who’s next?

Trevor Bayne hasn’t won in 219 races (Daytona, 2011), Paul Menard hasn’t won in 200 races (Brickyard, 2011), Clint Bowyer hasn’t won in 153 races (Charlotte, 2012) and Jamie McMurray hasn’t won in 116 races (Talladega, 2013).

Out of those drivers, I think Bowyer and McMurray have the best chances to find victory lane again. The No. 1 has been surprisingly strong, along with Chip Ganassi Racing as a whole, and Bowyer is in phase one of resurrecting his career.


PREDICTION

As stated on this week’s episode of Victory Lane, I think Larson will git ‘er done this weekend. It’s his home track, a track that has historically rewarded running the high lane and a place that he’s finished second at in both Cup and XFINITY multiple times. Driver No. 42: mark it down, take it to the bank, do whatever you want with it.


NOTES

Here are some noteworthy pieces of news of the week that was in the NASCAR world:

  • Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the XFINITY Series will run restrictor plates to try out a new package to increase the quality of the racing.
  • 1970 Daytona 500 winner and four-time MENCS winner Pete Hamilton passed away at the age of 74. He was the only man without the last name Petty to win in a Petty car.
  • Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway are reportedly receiving a decrease in seating capacity. Both tracks are owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc.
  • JeffGluck.com now has hats … unofficially. This is getting a bit out of control.

This week is another doubleheader, as well. The XFINITY Series’ Service King 300 goes green on Saturday afternoon just past 4 p.m. Kyle Busch is in the show, so he’ll probably win and lead 99 percent of the laps *sigh* BUT CRAZIER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED! Plus, the ending of that race last season was one of the strangest/most exciting things ever.

Be sure to subscribe to the Victory Lane podcast on iTunes, leave a rating and review, and follow Impact Sports and myself on Twitter for updates throughout the weekend and 2017 season. Enjoy the races this weekend, everybody!