In A Zone: Kyle Busch looks to scratch another record in the books
Kyle Busch takes a six-point edge over Joey Logano in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points standings as the series continues its “West Coast Swing.” And this week may be especially significant in the milestone category as Busch faces two chances to claim a historic 200 combined NASCAR national series wins. It could come in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – if he doesn’t earn it in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Saturday.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Auto Club 400
The Place: Auto Club Speedway
The Date: Sunday, March 17
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 3:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400 miles (200 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 60),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 120), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)
2018 Winner: Martin Truex Jr.
Busch’s historic work at the two-mile California track indicates the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota will again be a factor in deciding the trophy. His three wins are second only to six-time winner Jimmie Johnson and the two drivers are the only competitors in the field with multiple wins at the track.
In fact, Busch and Johnson are the only drivers to score their first career Monster Energy Series victories at Auto Club Speedway – in 2005 and 2002, respectively. And they are the only two drivers to ever win consecutive races at the track – Johnson in 2009-10 and Busch in 2013-14.
In 20 races, Busch has nine top-five finishes and is averaging a 10.4 finish – second only to Johnson among drivers with more than three starts at the track. He has six Xfinity Series wins and is a perfect 2-for-2 in NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series starts there, too.
He comes to California on a roll, sweeping last week’s Xfinity and Cup races at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway, making it easy to understand why he likes his chances in California.
“I’d assess it as pretty good, I guess,’’ Busch said following his 199th NASCAR national series win. “It would certainly be nice to get it (200th win) done on the West Coast swing, but it’s not a necessity. It will happen when it happens, and you can’t push too hard and do stupid things or make mistakes in order to think too much about that number.
“You just have to let the race kind of play out and let it come to you and we’ll see where we are at. Really looking forward to Fontana, it’s been a great place for me over the years and would love to get the Interstate Batteries Toyota back to Victory Lane there again no matter what number win that it ends up being.’’
Back At It: Truex returns to defend Auto Club Speedway victory
Martin Truex Jr. arrives at Auto Club Speedway as the defending race winner and he’ll gladly take the good vibes. Since moving from the Furniture Row Racing team, where he won the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship, to Joe Gibbs Racing this year, Truex is still looking for his first win.
Last season, it came on these Southern California high banks. Truex won the 2018 race from the Busch Pole position, leading 125 laps. He has three top-10 finishes in the last four races at the track and led 224 laps in that timeframe.
Since moving to the Joe Gibbs Racing operation, Truex has come close to winning twice already. He finished runner-up at both the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway three weeks ago and last week at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway one-miler. He has three top-10s in four races this season and is ranked fifth in the standings entering the weekend’s race.
Truex ran his first test – a Goodyear tire test – with his new No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team at California in January and was encouraged by the time on track.
“Our team is really looking forward to getting to California this week,’’ said Truex. “It’s one of my favorite tracks and I felt good about the test back in January.
“Obviously the weather is going to be different and there will be more than three cars like in the test, but we feel like we’ve learned a lot about the package since then. We need to go in there Friday and unload strong and carry that through the weekend. I’m excited to see if we can go back-to-back there because it’s really turned into one of the most fun tracks on the circuit.’’
If Truex were to win this weekend he would become just the third drivers in series history to win consecutive races at Auto Club Speedway, joining Jimmie Johnson (2009-2010) and Kyle Busch (2013-2014).
The Champ: Auto Club Speedway is mountain still left to summit for Logano
Reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano scored his third top-10 finish through the season’s four opening races last week at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona. He has results of fourth (Daytona 500), first (Las Vegas Motor Speedway) and 10th (ISM Raceway). He had led the points standings up until Kyle Busch’s win at Phoenix last Sunday.
This weekend may prove to be a challenge for the reigning champ. Logano is winless in 12 starts at Auto Club Speedway, but half of those have resulted in top-10 finishes. In four of his last six starts at the 2-mile raceway he has finished inside the top five. His best career showing is third in 2013. His driver rating (87.8) is 10th-best at the track.
Right place, right time for California native Jimmie Johnson
Seven-time Monster Energy Series champion Jimmie Johnson (El Cajon) is hoping a return to his home state of California, along with some positive season momentum and a history of success there, will be the key to snapping an unprecedented 21-month winless streak.
Johnson earned his second top 10 of the season last week at Phoenix (eighth) and turned his first laps (four) in front of the field. He’s ranked 15th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver points standings heading to the two-mile Auto Club Speedway where his six victories (2002, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016) is most all-time.
In fact during the loop data era (2005-Present), Johnson boasts the top driver rating (115.6), best average finish (7.0), laps in the top 15 (3,988 laps, 88.5%) and most laps led (880 laps) of any active driver at the track. His 13 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes are tops in the field too – as are his five career runner-up finishes.
And two of those are among the closest five finishes in history at Auto Club Speedway. He lost to Kevin Harvick by 0.144-second in 2011 in the closest finish in track history. Greg Biffle edged him by 0.231-seconds in 2005 – for the third-closest margin of victory.
Johnson (2002) and current championship leader Kyle Busch (2005) are the only two active drivers to have scored their first Cup victory at Auto Club Speedway. If Johnson wins this weekend, he will tie NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for fourth on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series all-time wins list.
Hometown California Heroes: Harvick and Larson
California natives have traditionally fared well at Auto Club Speedway in the Monster Energy Series. Three of the top-10 ranked drivers in pre-race loop data at the track hail from California, including Jimmie Johnson (El Cajon), who boasts the best driver rating (115.6), Bakersfield’s Kevin Harvick (95.5) and Elk Grove native Kyle Larson (91.9).
Harvick won the race in 2011 and has two runner-up finishes in the last four years at Auto Club Speedway. Larson won from the pole position in 2017 and has three top-five finishes in five starts at the track, including a runner-up last year on the heels of his victory.
There are four Californians in the race, also including Matt DiBenedetto, of Grass Valley, who led a race-high 49 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500. His best finish at Auto Club Speedway is 27th in 2016.
Three of the sport’s popular young drivers arrive at Auto Club Speedway in California this weekend looking for their first top-five finish at the western two-miler – all of them with solid experience at the track, just not a trip to Victory Lane quite yet.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones, 22, has a best showing of seventh place (2018) in two starts at Auto Club Speedway. He has good precedent, however, with two top-five finishes in three Xfinity Series races, including a best of third place in 2015. Jones is currently ranked 14th in the points standings – his first week outside the top-10 following a 29th-place showing in Phoenix last week. He opened the year with a career-best third place in the Daytona 500 – the first of two top 10s so far.
Ryan Blaney, 25, righted his season start last week, earning the Busch Pole position at ISM Raceway, winning the first stage and finishing third – unbelievably, his first top-20 of the season. California has proven to be a positive place for Blaney. The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford Mustang has back-to-back top-10 finishes in his last two starts there.
Chase Elliott, 23, is also still working on his first top-five finish, or possible win, at Auto Club Speedway. The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 has a pair of top-10 finishes in three starts, including a career-best of sixth in his first race there in 2016.
Last year’s three-race winner and Playoff favorite, Elliott, has one top-10 in four starts in 2019
Sunoco Rookie Preview: Auto Club Speedway
Richard Childress Racing driver Daniel Hemric’s 18th-place finish at ISM Raceway, coupled with Ryan Preece’s 34th-place finish, turned over the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookie standings lead for the first time this season.
Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric earned his first top 20 of the season (18th) at Phoenix while Preece was involved in an incident and suffered his second DNF in four races and now trails Hemric by six points heading into Auto Club Speedway this weekend.
Front Row Motorsport’s Matt Tifft remains ranked third among the 2019 rookie class, 23 points behind Hemric. Following Tifft is Rick Ware Racing’s Cody Ware in fourth, 18 points behind Tifft.
All four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookies will be making their series track debut this weekend. Hemric’s career best showing at the track is a fifth-place finish in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race there last year. Tifft was eighth in that Xfinity Series race.
Parade Laps: Insights ahead of this week’s driver media breakouts
Seven drivers from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, JTG Daugherty Racing’s Chris Buescher, Front Row Motorsport’s Matt Tifft, Roush Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Leavine Family Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto – will be participating in this week’s media rotations at Auto Club Speedway in advance of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Jimmie Johnson, of El Cajon, Calif., is a seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, tying him with NASCAR Hall of Fame members Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most season titles in the history of the sport. Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, leads all drivers with six wins and five runner-up finishes at Auto Club Speedway. His 13 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes are most all-time as well. He arrives for Sunday’s race ranked 15th in the standings with a pair of top-10 finishes (ninth at Daytona and eighth last week in Phoenix) in the season’s opening four races.
Kevin Harvick, of Bakersfield, Calif., is the 2014 Monster Energy Series champion. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang earned a career-best eight victories in 2018, finishing third in the championship. He’s finished third or better in the final standings in six of the last seven seasons. Auto Club Speedway is located a little more than two hours from Harvick’s hometown of Bakersfield. He won at the track in 2011 and has finished runner-up in two (2015 and 2016) of the last four races there. He is currently ranked third in the standings with three top-10 finishes in the four races to date, including a ninth place in Phoenix last weekend.
Chris Buescher, of Prosper, Texas, is the 2015 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion. The driver of the JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 has one victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, earning it at Pocono, Pa. in his 2016 rookie season. He has one top-10 so far in 2019 – a ninth-place finish at Atlanta three weeks ago. His best showing at Auto Club Speedway is 20th, in his first start there in 2015.
Matt Tifft, of Hinckley, Ohio, has never made a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start at Auto Club Speedway. In his four series races this season, the 22-year old rookie turned in his best effort last week finishing 20th at Phoenix in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford Mustang.
Alex Bowman, of Tucson, Arizona, is in his second year driving the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. In three previous starts at Auto Club Speedway, Bowman’s best finish is 13th, last year in his first race at the track with Hendrick Motorsports. He has had a solid start to his 2019 season with a pair of 11th-place finishes in the opening three races (at Daytona and at Las Vegas), and is looking to get back on track after being involved in an accident last week and finishing 35th at his home track, Phoenix.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., of Olive Branch, Mississippi, comes to Auto Club Speedway ranked 10th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver standings – the third time in his six-year career he’s been ranked 10th after the first four races of the season. He’s had four solid top-18 finishes so far, leading laps in three races and highlighted by a sixth-place finish in Las Vegas two weeks ago. His best finish at Auto Club Speedway is fifth (2016).
Matt DiBenedetto, of Grass Valley, California, is enjoying the best season start to his four-year full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup career. He led a race-best 49 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 only to be collected in a crash with 17 laps remaining in the race. He’s still looking for his first top-20 since moving to the Leavine Family Racing team this season. His best showing is 21st at Las Vegas two weeks ago. His best finish in four Auto Club Speedway starts is 27th with BK Racing back in 2016.