Auto Club 400
March 17, 2015
By Micah Roberts
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The three-race West Coast swing for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series comes to an end this week at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, and so far for the west coast boys it's two-for-two. Well, it's two-for-two for Bakersfield's Kevin Harvick who won at both Las Vegas and Phoenix, but we'll take it.
Didn't this sport start in the South?
We’ve come a long way in NASCAR, which traditionally used to be a ‘southern thing’, but the recent greats of the sport have all been coming from the west coast such as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and now Harvick. Yes, the West Coast breeds NASCAR Champions.
Harvick, who won last year's championship, has finished first or second in all four races this season and dating back to last season he’s done it seven straight. The last Cup driver to accomplish the same feat was Richard Petty in 1975 in his Carolina Blue STP car.
Not to take anything away from ’The King’, but Harvick’s accomplishment in this era of parity is much more impressive. Petty had a huge edge in the sport and few equals. He didn’t have to face the multi-car teams and didn’t have such stringent competition rules that are geared towards keeping everyone so equal.
Harvick’s team obviously has a leg up on everyone with the 2015 rules package, but after seeing three races under the package -- and two on tracks that apply this week, you can believe that Harvick will see more competition this week where his top-2 finish streak might be in jeopardy.
While Fontana’s wide two-mile layout races much differently from the 1.5-mile tracks of Atlanta and Las Vegas we’ve seen already, the one common component that is applicable to all three is speed and balance. And there have been quite a few drivers that are near the same plateau as Harvick in those areas.
Granted, Harvick led the most laps on each of those 1.5-mile tracks, but Johnson was able to grab a win at Atlanta. Joey Logano led 84 laps at Atlanta and 47 at Las Vegas. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had top-5 finishes in each, Martin Truex Jr was top-6 in both, Ryan Newman a top-10 in each and Jeff Gordon had good cars but found bad luck to finish poorly.
And we haven’t even really seen the Joe Gibbs Racing team step up yet. Fontana is the site of their last non-restrictor-plate win and that driver -- Kyle Busch -- is on the injured reserve. However, Matt Kesneth was fifth at Atlanta and Denny Hamlin fifth at Las Vegas.
Past history for Fontana doesn't mean as much for this weeks race as much as current form does, and more specifically Atlanta and Las Vegas, but let's take a look at some driver history for the fun of it.
-- El Cajon, CA native Jimmie Johnson is a five-time winner in 20 starts, including his first Cup victory as a rookie. He’s got a track best 6.7 average finish, however, he hasn’t won there since the spring of 2010 when the track still had two dates.
-- Vallejo, CA native Jeff Gordon is the only driver to start all 25 races at Fontana and has captured three wins, including the inaugural race in 1997. He last won there in 2004, but has been runner-up three times since. He’s the one driver you might be afraid to side with this week because of poor finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas, but don’t be. His car will be good, he’s just got stay out of trouble.
-- Kevin Harvick won for the first and only time at the track closest to his home in 2011, but he’s several more bad experiences, including 36th last season despite practicing and qualifying well.
-- Elk Grove, CA native Kyle Larson showed everyone early last season with a second-place finish here that he was going to be a star someday and that wins might be coming soon, but it hasn’t happened yet. He practiced well at both Atlanta and Las Vegas, but it didn’t translate to race day. He is a decent mid-range selection and could present value in match-ups if not priced too high. A top-7 finish could be in the cards.
-- Las Vegas native Kurt Busch had an outstanding first race of the season last week at Phoenix to the point that the car almost looked as good as SHR teammate Harvick. Who knows what’s going on with Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick at SHR, but Busch should be good this week as well. He won there in 2003 and was fifth and third in the past two seasons there.
-- Kasey Kahne, from Washington state, won here in 2006 and has a 16th-place average. He finished 41st last season, but he could turn out to be a decent mid0range choice as he’ll be good just like all his Hendrick teammates.
-- Matt Kenseth (Wisconsin) is a three-time winner that probably should have a couple more there over his career. Still, a 9.8 average finih over 22 starts is only best by Johnson and Edwards, who we can’t touch yet.
-- If you want to wave the Confederate flag for a southern driver, the best chance of winning might be from North Carolina’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. who had top-5 finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas. However, Junior has never won at Fontana, but does have two runner-ups.
-- Martin Truex Jr. doesn’t have any great history at Fontana, but he’s creating great history this season with one great finish after another. And his car has good history there with Kurt Busch bringing home fifth-place in 2013.
So when we look at this weeks race, yes, Harvick will be the favorite again, but more so than last week, there are other great candidates to win and because of the roll Harvick is on, he’ll be overpriced and value will be shifted back to the other drivers.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
2) #48 Jimmie Johnson (8/1)
3) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)
4) #4 Kevin Harvick (9/2)
5) #20 Matt Kenseth (12/1)