As NASCAR visits Auto Club Speedway for its annual spring race in Southern California, here are the storylines and drivers you need to be mindful of Sunday.
Fresh tires are everything at Fontana
It’s an old adage in NASCAR that excessive tire wear creates great racing. And due to the abrasiveness of a surface that has never been repaved since opening its doors in 1997, few tracks create tire wear like Fontana, which explains why the 2-mile oval has evolved into one of the more popular circuits among drivers and fans alike.
Drivers enjoy the racing at Fontana because the onus is on them to preserve their tires and those who do will be significantly quicker over a long run. And at a track where extended stretches of green-flag racing are common, this can — and often is — the game-changer in deciding who will win Sunday.
“(Fontana is) really just a lot of fun,” Ryan Newman said Friday. “It’s got a lot of character. So many race tracks now are repaved and have no character so to speak with bumps and things like that. We can move around the race track a good bit and have some fun.”
After years of scorn, fans have come around on Fontana because of the abundance of side-by-side racing the track produces. As drivers who burned off their tires fade and slide backwards, those who saved their tires charge to the front often racing two- and three-wide.
The result is often something to behold, much like during Saturday’s Nationwide Series race where Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch staged a spirited battle over the closing laps that harkened back to the NASCAR of yesteryear.
Tire management will also be key Sunday following the events which unfolded during practice. According to Goodyear, 10 tire-related incidents have occurred as teams struggle to adjust setups to NASCAR’s new suspension and chassis rules.
Most affected is Team Penske, which saw Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski suffer five flat left-rear tires between them. Logano will have to start the Auto Club 400 in a backup car after hitting the wall, as will Martin Truex Jr., who had a similar problem with his left-rear tire.
Teams not following the tire pressures recommended by Goodyear were seen as the culprits for the rash of failures, according to the tire manufacturer.
“I am definitely concerned about tomorrow,” Logano said. “I think Goodyear should be more concerned than I am. There are 43 of us out there that can have the issue. The 41 (Kurt Busch) had a problem, the 78 (Truex) had a problem, lots of guys had problems.”
Determined Denny Hamlin on a mission
It’s likely there will be no more motivated driver Sunday than Denny Hamlin, who in a last-lap wreck with Logano broke his back here a year ago. The injury knocked Hamlin out of four races and snapped a streak of having qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup every year of his career.
Hamlin isn’t entering Sunday with thoughts of revenge, as time has slightly thawed the once icy cold relationship he had with Logano. Instead, Hamlin, who said he has had this race circled on his calendar for some time, wants to get his revenge by winning the Auto Club 400.
“It would be nice — instead of retaliating — to end in Victory Lane,” Hamlin said. “… There’s a little bit of added focus for sure. There’s more drive, there’s extra motivation. Everything you can think of could put you at a competitive edge, you’ve got this weekend when you come to a track that you really want to perform well at.”
But unlike last year when Joe Gibbs Racing dominated NASCAR’s intermediate-sized tracks winning eight of 14 races, its Toyotas have lagged a bit in 2014. At the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway two weeks ago, the highest finishing JGR car was Matt Kenseth in 10th.
Don’t forget about the defending champ
Jimmie Johnson is winless. Surely his season is doomed and he won’t repeat as Sprint Cup champion and tie Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty’s mark of seven NASCAR titles. Oh wait, that’s right the season is just four races old. While Johnson hasn’t been an overriding factor it’s not as if he’s fallen off the map either.
In three of four races Johnson has finished sixth or better, and he had one of the fastest cars last week at Bristol before a cut tire knocked him three laps off the pace. And if there is a place where the No. 48 could be expected to breakthrough, it would be Fontana, where Johnson owns a track-best five victories and an average finish of 5.7.
“This is a good track for us,” Johnson said. “It would be great to get the win and get ourselves locked in to the Chase. But I think we are in a good spot, we’ve been very competitive. We have had a shot to win a couple of races. … All in all things are well and we will hopefully get a win before long.”
1. Kevin Harvick
The winner at Phoenix three weeks ago, Harvick could have just as easily won at Las Vegas and Bristol were it not for mechanical failures. A native of Southern California and former Fontana winner (2011), Harvick has been fast all weekend and will be in contention Sunday — assuming of course his car stays in one piece.
2. Kyle Busch
Always strong here, Busch finally was able to deliver and give JGR its first Fontana victory last year. The win carried extra importance because it was also the first checkered flag for Toyota at the track located closest to its U.S. motor sports headquarters.
3. Brad Keselowski
Can Keselowski become the first two-winner of 2014? The answer is a resounding yes. He starts on the outside of the front row and was among the fastest in final practice. This is contingent, of course, on Penske solving the tire problems that plagued them Saturday.