Auto Club 400 Preview
March 14, 2018
By Micah Roberts
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Kevin Harvick has won the past three races in a season that is only four weeks old. Only 28 other drivers have won three straight races in the modern era, but winning four straight goes even further into rarified air with only eight drivers doing so, the last coming in 2007 with Jimmie Johnson. Harvick will try to join that select group Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA which happens to be his home track.
Can any team beat his No. 4 Ford?
"They’re certainly good," said Kyle Busch, who has finished second behind Harvick the past two weeks. "They have kind of picked up right where they left off and we beat them at Homestead. They’ve been right there each and every week, so far. You’ve gone to three of arguably his best racetracks these past three weeks. They got the job done where they needed to. Ask me again in August, but not next week.”
Sounds like Busch is tired of finishing second to him, and that's good. In fact every other team should feel the same way and get some pressure on their entire garage to find speed like Harvick's team has. They were good to close out 2017, but not this good.
Harvick has a 2011 win at Fontana and while it hasn't been one of his best tracks during his career, there's not much reason to believe he won't be fast this week simply because he dominated at Las Vegas at Atlanta, downforce tracks that require lots of horsepower, just like Fontana.
But somebody else has to step up soon. Martin Truex Jr. won on seven of the 11 1.5-mile tracks last season, but he had nothing for Harvick at Atlanta or Vegas. His fourth-place finish last season was his first top-five finish at Fontana.
“I feel Fontana has been a good track for us over the years but we just haven’t capitalized on our performance there,” Truex noted. “We’re right there. It’s like when you’re out fishing and you catch a bunch of fish and you feel like you’re throwing the right lure, but maybe it’s just not the right color – we need to get it dialed in. We’re so close.”
Truex is definitely one of the few drivers that can slow the Harvick freight train.
Three-time Fontana winner Kyle Busch is one of the others on a short list of candidates just because of his past success on what is a difficult track to figure out.
“That place is tough," Busch said. "It’s really a hard racetrack to get a hold of, now, especially when it’s hot and the sun is out. There are two completely different types of racing when you run the top versus the bottom groove. You can run from the top to the bottom but, when you run the bottom, you really feel like you’re puttering around the racetrack. You feel like you aren’t making up any time on the bottom. But when you are running the top groove, you feel like you’re getting the job done. The guys who run the bottom have a little bit more patience and handle it better than the guys who are on the gas on top.”
Yes, Busch has the place figured out with a 10.7 average finish and he's been solving it since arriving in the series with his first career Cup win there in 2005. His last six Fontana starts go like this: third-place, runner-up, winner, winner, 25th and eighth last year. Only Jimmie Johnson has been better than Busch's three wins and 611 laps led.
Johnson isn't a candidate to win this week, which I've never said about him at Fontana. His 25/1 odds to win Sunday are the highest he's had there since 2002 when he was a rookie and won his first career Cup race. The El Cajon native has won at his home track a record six times and led a record 980 laps over his 23 starts.
“Yes, we have had a lot of success at California and our expectations are really high," Johnson said. "We went to Atlanta having a ton of past success and had a tough day. We are chipping away every week and finding speed. Last week wasn’t the result we wanted, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. Huge props to my Lowe’s for Pros team. You never forget the site of your first win, I love going ‘home’ and seeing familiar faces.”
Get better champ! We need some more candidates to hunt down Harvick.
Johnson's teammate Chase Elliott is always a candidate to win on downforce tracks and the 2-mile layouts like Fontana and Michigan has been kind to him in all series. He has never finished outside the top-10 in 10 starts on those tracks. In his two previous Cup starts at Fontana, he has finished sixth and 10th.
“It’s just such a fun place," Elliott said. It reminds me a lot of Atlanta in some ways. It looks way different, but just the surface is old and worn out. The lines are very sensitive and you can move your car a foot or two up or down the racetrack and find a massive amount of grip that isn’t there two or three feet away from that, which is pretty cool. That is what makes the difference.”
Elliott didn't do well at Atlanta or Vegas, but got his first top-five of the season last week at Phoenix (third-place). He's had seven runner-up finishes in the Cup Series during his first two seasons and it would be nice to see him join Johnson and Busch as first-time winners at Fontana.
The story of the week if Harvick wasn't rolling would have been Elk Grove, CA native Kyle Larson going for his fifth straight win on 2-mile tracks. He's won the last three at Michigan and his Fontana win last season is sandwiched in between. He's won only five races in his career (Richmond is the other). It's so bizarre that he hasn't won on a 1.5-mile track, but Truex hogged them up last year and Harvick is 2-for-2 this year.
The good news for Larson this week besides loving the wide sweeping layout is that he's been the fastest of the new Camaro's this season. He was ninth at Atlanta and third at Las Vegas and led 54 laps at Phoenix last week.
The best long shots to win this week are Harvick's Stewart Haas Racing teammates, beginning with Clint Bowyer who was third at Fontana. Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola should also find themselves winning somewhere this season. They know Harvick's secret to finding speed, or at least have read a few chapters of the book.
Also, expect the Team Penske gang to be fast here. It suits Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney's style well.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #18 Kyle Busch (5/1)
2) #42 Kyle Larson (4/1)
3) #4 Kevin Harvick (3/1)
4) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (7/1)
5) #14 Clint Bowyer (40/1)