NASCAR Cup Series News & Notes – Auto Club Speedway

Next Race: Auto Club 400
The Place: Auto Club Speedway
The Date: Sunday, March 1
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 2:30 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)
2019 Race Winner: Kyle Busch

Busch looks to get back on track

Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch shows up at Auto Club Speedway for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) not only as defending race winner, but also a competitor looking to get back on track early in the 2020 season.

He’s still looking for his first top-10 finish of the season and is ranked 27th in the NASCAR Cup Series standings after two races. He finished 34th with an engine issue in the season-opening Daytona 500 and was 15th last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with only 14 laps out front to date (all at Daytona).

A California race, however, may be exactly what Busch needs to re-set his season and sights on becoming the first back-to-back NASCAR Cup Series champion since Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson won a record five straight titles from 2006-2010.

All that starts with winning a race, however. And the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is certainly a strong favorite on this weekend’s two-miler outside Los Angeles, where he has four career wins. In just the last eight years he’s won three times (2013, ‘14, ‘19), finished runner-up (2012) and earned a pair of third-place (2011, ‘18) showings. Busch has seven top-10 finishes in that eight-year span and tallied nearly 70 percent of his career laps led total at the track (564 of 807 laps).

Last year’s Auto Club Speedway win was significant and historical – his 200th among the three NASCAR national series – NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. And this track contributed mightily to that big total, considering Busch has a record six Xfinity Series wins and two Gander Trucks wins in addition to his four NASCAR Cup Series trophies at Auto Club Speedway.

The “West Coast Swing” – as this three-week race journey at Las Vegas, Auto Club Speedway and Phoenix Raceway is referred to – has typically been a dependable trophy haul for the Las Vegas native. He is ranked second – only to six-time race winner Jimmie Johnson – in driver rating (114.0), average running position (8.144) and laps led (807) at Auto Club Speedway.

And perhaps if nothing else, this venue remains a sentimental favorite for Busch because he scored the first of his 56 career NASCAR Cup Series wins there in 2005.

Blaney filches Cup Series points lead

For the first time in his young career, 26-year-old Ryan Blaney is the NASCAR Cup Series driver points standings leader. The pilot of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford answered his runner-up finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 with an 11th-place run at Las Vegas on Sunday and now holds a three-point edge on his Penske teammate and Las Vegas winner Joey Logano heading into Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) .

Blaney had a chance to win both races and heads to Auto Club Speedway feeling as motivated as ever to turn a good season start into a race winner’s trophy.

He has three top-10 finishes in four previous starts at the California track. His best showing – fifth place – came in the trip here in 2019, when he led a pair of laps as well.

This weekend Blaney’s No. 12 Ford will be one of three cars (see note below) to carry a special Kobe Bryant tribute in its paint scheme. The car will honor all the victims of the helicopter accident that claimed the NBA superstar Bryant’s life. Blaney met the retired Los Angeles Lakers star and even gave Bryant a racing suit as part of his BODYARMOR sponsorship deal, posting photos of the two on social media.

This week Blaney also revealed the look of his Auto Club Speedway car – done in the Los Angles Laker’s purple and gold colors. The car will carry the numbers 24 and 2 in homage to Bryant and his 13-year old daughter Gianna –  who was also on board the helicopter – as well as a sticker honoring the MambaOnThree.org charity organization designed to raise money for the other seven victims of the accident.

Blaney plans to donate sales of the special merchandising to the MambaOnThree.Org organization.

I wish they all could be California… drivers?

This week six California natives – Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Matt DiBenedetto, Jimmie Johnson, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer – will be in the field for the Auto Club 400 at California’s Auto Club Speedway. And there has always been a distinctive “home-state” vibe at the track located in Fontana, Calif. – about an hour due east of Los Angeles.

Three of these drivers – Bakersfield’s Kevin Harvick, Elk Grove’s Kyle Larson and El Cajon’s Jimmie Johnson – have won this race. Johnson’s six victories is the most all-time. And Custer, of Ladera Ranch, is the defending winner of the NASCAR Xfinity Series race this weekend.

Johnson, who is in a three-way tie for ninth place in the series driver standings, is the top-rated driver at Auto Club Speedway, besting his competitors in driver rating (114.0), average running position (7.271), laps in the top-15 (88.3 percent), laps led (880) and fastest laps run (533).

Perhaps NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, who is from Vallejo, Calif., set the tone in winning the first ever race at the track in 1997. In the first 10 events, only twice was the race winner from somewhere east of the Mississippi River.

In Auto Club Speedway’s 30-year history, 21 race winners have come from towns west of the Mississippi River – including the track’s three most successful drivers, six-time winner Johnson, four-time winner Kyle Busch of Las Vegas and the three-time winner Jeff Gordon.

Two of the last four Auto Club Speedway races have been won by Californians – Johnson in 2016 and Larson in 2017.

Logano wants to keep up the winning ways

Joey Logano wasted no time establishing himself as a 2020 frontrunner, winning last Sunday’s race at Las Vegas and climbing to within three points of NASCAR Cup Series driver standings leader Ryan Blaney – his Team Penske teammate. It sure is a positive sign for the three-car Penske group which swapped driver and crew chief pairings this season.

This week’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) presents a very real Sunday challenge for the 2018 Cup champion. He has three Xfinity Series victories but is winless in 13 NASCAR Cup Series starts. In fact, his 57 career laps led at the track is the second lowest laps led total to Dover International Speedway (26 laps led) among tracks the series races in the first half of the season.

Although Logano hasn’t spent much time out front, he has earned encouraging results of late. The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has six top-10 finishes in the last seven races and four top-5 finishes in the last four. His best finish – runner-up to Kyle Busch – came last year.

“Auto Club Speedway has been a great race track for me in the past,’’ Logano said following his Las Vegas victory. “Yet to get a win; that’s the part that stinks. There’s a big goose egg in the win column over there and I got to try to get to the other side of that.’’

New names are bubbling to the top of the series standings

There are a number of new names topping the NASCAR Cup Series driver standings heading into the third race of the season the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Sixteen different drivers have earned a top-10 finish to date and only Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson have scored top 10s in the opening two races.

For several drivers, this is a career best start to their season. Roush Fenway Racing’s Chris Buescher, for example, was third in the season-opening Daytona 500 and 14th at Las Vegas resulting in an eighth-place position in the NASCAR Cup Series points – his highest ever after two races.

Similarly, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won the pole position for the Daytona 500 and finished 20th in the race, also finished third at Las Vegas last Sunday earning a fifth place ranking in the series standings – only 19 points behind championship leader Ryan Blaney.

Bubba Wallace, driver of the famed No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet, is ranked 12th in the Cup Series points, thanks to runs of 15th at Daytona and sixth at Las Vegas. This is his highest ever points position after two races.

Austin Dillon, whose Richard Childress Racing team will mark its 3,000th start this weekend at Auto Club Speedway, is ranked seventh in the standings, only 22 points off the leader Ryan Blaney. It’s the best the former Daytona 500 winner has ever been ranked after two races – thanks to a 12th-place finish in this year’s Daytona 500 followed by a fourth-place effort last Sunday. He is the defending pole-winner at Auto Club and finished 10th in last year’s race.

Another name getting a lot of attention this week is last Sunday’s Las Vegas runner-up Matt DiBenedetto. The California native equaled his career-best finish at Vegas and the driver of the famed No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford is tied with fellow Californian Jimmie Johnson and Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin for ninth place in the series standings – a career best mark for DiBenedetto.

Sunoco Rookie Update: Nemechek leads talented class after Vegas

Second-generation NASCAR standout John Hunter Nemechek continues to lead a crowded and talented Sunoco Rookie of the Year class. The driver of the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford was the top-finishing rookie (11th-place) in the Daytona 500 and answered with a 24th-place finish Sunday in Las Vegas. He is currently 18th in points, 46 behind leader Ryan Blaney and the only 2020 Sunoco Rookie contender currently in the top 20 in the NASCAR Cup Series driver standings.

Just 10 points behind Nemechek is second in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, Brennan Poole, currently 25th in the series driver standings. Poole wheeled the No. 15 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet to a 16th-place finish at Daytona and then a 29th-place finish last weekend at Vegas.

Californian Tyler Reddick, a two-time Xfinity Series champion, is third-best among the first-year drivers. The driver of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet answered a 28th-place finish at Daytona with a rookie class best 18th-place showing at Las Vegas. He’s ranked 26th in the standings.

Another California native, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer is ranked 28th in the championship standings with finishes of 37th (Daytona) and 19th (Vegas). He is the only member of this talented rookie contingent with a previous national series win at Auto Club Speedway – earning the Xfinity Series race trophy last year.

Christopher Bell, driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota, and the winningest Xfinity Series driver in each of the past two years, is hoping to get his inaugural NASCAR Cup Series season heading in the right direction this week after finishes of 21st (Daytona) and 33rd (Las Vegas). He’s ranked 31st in the series driver standings.

Quin Houff, driver of the No. 32 StarCom Racing Chevrolet is last when it comes to the rookie standings, but is ranked 35th in the series driver standings with finishes of 39th at Daytona and 37th at Las Vegas.

All six rookies in the 2020 Sunoco class will be making their series track debuts this weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

NASCAR drivers to honor Kobe Bryant at Auto Club Speedway

Three cars and one additional driver in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) field will carry tributes to the late Los Angeles Laker, Kobe Bryant, who along with his daughter and seven others were killed in a helicopter accident on Jan. 26 in California.

NASCAR Cup Series championship leader Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford will be colored in the Laker’s purple and gold. Blaney and Bryant met as part of a sponsorship function for BODYARMOR drinks and Blaney gifted the basketball great a driver’s suit. He posted a photo of the two of them on his Twitter account.

Blaney’s car will carry Bryant’s number 24 and Bryant’s daughter Gianna’s basketball number 2 on the car as well as a logo for MambaOnThree.org – a fundraising charity set up by Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, to support the families of the seven others who perished in the aviation accident that day.

Joining Blaney in the Bryant tribute will be Hendrick Motorsport’s William Byron, who drives the No. 24 Chevrolet and Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick, who drives the No. 8 Chevrolet. Bryant’s jersey number was 8 and then 24 during his Hall of Fame playing career with the Lakers.

Byron’s Chevrolet will be painted in Lakers’ purple and gold. His Hendrick Motorsports team released an image of the car saying, “Honored to be driving for Kobe, Gianna, Payton, Sarah, Alyssa, Keri, John, Christina and Ara. Continued prayers for their families.’’

Reddick, who is from Corning, Calif., will carry a decal on his No. 8 Chevrolet that shows the number 8 next to Bryant’s name.

“This weekend in Fontana, RCR and the No. 8 team will honor the life and legacy of one of the all-time greats, Kobe Bryant, with a memorial decal on the b-post,’’ the team said in a statement.

And Daniel Suarez will be sporting shoes and gloves in the well-known purple and gold, as well as the numbers “8” and “24.” He will also be auctioning off the attire in an online auction to benefit the MambaOnThree Fund.

Parade Laps: Insights ahead of this week’s driver media rotations

Eight drivers from the NASCAR Cup Series – Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski, Hendrick Motorsport’s William Byron, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson, Wood Brothers Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto and Gaunt Brothers Racing’s Daniel Suarez 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).

Martin Truex Jr., 39, of Mayetta, N.J., arrives at Auto Club Speedway ranked 16th in the NASCAR Cup Series driver standings after finishes of 32nd (at Daytona) and 20th (Las Vegas) to start the 2020 season. It’s the toughest start to a year for Truex since 2014 when he was ranked 35th in points after the opening two races. California’s Auto Club Speedway, however, may be just the lift his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team could use. Truex won from pole position there in 2018 and has a pair of top fives and seven top 10s in 19 races. He has been especially good on the 2-miler of late – leading 224 of his career 233 laps led (96.1 percent) in the last four races there.

Austin Dillon, 29, of Lewisville, N.C., is enjoying one of the best season starts of his career thanks to finishes of 12th (Daytona) and fourth (Las Vegas) in the last two weeks. He’s ranked seventh in the Cup standings, 22 points behind the leader Ryan Blaney. When it comes to Auto Club Speedway, Dillon would love to finish races the way he starts them. He’s won the pole position twice (2016 and 2019) in the last four races and finished 11th or better in four of his six starts at the track, including a career best 10th in the last two races. Despite the two front row starts in the famed No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, Dillon has not led a lap at the track yet.

Brad Keselowski, 36, of Rochester Hills, Mich., has got his season trending in a better direction with a seventh-place finish at Las Vegas last Sunday. He finished 36th in the season-opening Daytona 500 and is ranked 19th in the championship standings – tied with William Byron and Erik Jones. It’s one of the toughest one-two race tallies in recent seasons. The last time Keselowski was outside the top 15 after the season’s first two races was 2015. Ironically, that’s also the year the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford won at this week’s venue, Auto Club Speedway. He was runner-up in 2017 and third place last year leading a career best 42 laps. He’s only led laps in three of his 11 starts at ACS but has no DNFs.

William Byron, 22, of Charlotte, North Carolina, came into the season with high expectations after a career best 2019 sophomore year in the NASCAR Cup Series. The opening two races haven’t been kind to the driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. He finished 40th in the Daytona 500 and 22nd last weekend at Las Vegas and shows up at Auto Club Speedway ranked 21st in the series driver standings. Byron has been consistent in his two previous Cup starts at the two-mile California track – finishing 15th in both and leading laps in both outings. His career best finish at Auto Club Speedway is fifth place in the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series race.

Ryan Blaney, 26, of High Point, North Carolina, is enjoying the best season start of his young career. For the first time in his four fulltime seasons, the Team Penske driver is officially the NASCAR Cup Series championship points leader. He holds a three-point edge on Sunday’s Las Vegas race winner and teammate Joey Logano in the standings. Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, finished runner-up in the season-opening Daytona 500 and was 11th Sunday at Las Vegas, looking very competitive again. He shows up at Auto Club Speedway this week looking for his first victory at the track. He has three top-10 finishes in four starts. He hasn’t finished worse than ninth since being collected in an accident during his 2016 rookie start. He scored a career-best fifth in 2019 and led two laps.

Kyle Larson, 27, of Elk Grove, California, has fond memories of Auto Club Speedway scoring a NASCAR Cup Series victory from the pole position there in 2017, leading a dominating 110 of the 202 laps. He was runner-up in his first start in 2014 and runner-up again (to Martin Truex Jr.) in 2018 plus Larson also has a pair of Xfinity Series victories – including his first NASCAR national series win in 2014 and another in 2017 that started a weekend sweep. Larson is one of only two drivers (also Kevin Harvick) to earn top-10 finishes in the opening two 2020 season races. The driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet is coming off a ninth at Las Vegas on Sunday and was 10th in the Daytona 500. He’s tied a career-high mark after two races – fourth in the championship, only 15 points behind leader Ryan Blaney.

Matt DiBenedetto, 28, of Grass Valley, California, returns to his home state feeling optimistic and ready to get after it. He scored a runner-up finish at Las Vegas on Sunday in only his second start as driver of the legendary No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. Add that run to a 19th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and DiBenedetto is ranked a career-best 10th in the driver standings – tied with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson at 60 points each. It marked only the third top-five finish for DiBenedetto in five full-time seasons. His best previous finish at this week’s Auto Club Speedway venue is 18th (2019). It’s his only top-20 finish at the track.

Daniel Suárez, 28, of Monterrey, Mexico, is an especially popular driver at Auto Club Speedway where he has a large fan club base. And the driver of the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota will take all the good vibes to re-set his 2020 season. He missed the season-opening Daytona 500 field after an accident in the Duel 150 qualifying race. And last week, he rallied to a 30th-place finish after his car initially had an issue on the opening lap of the Las Vegas race. Suarez has a solid track record in California, finishing seventh in his NASCAR Cup Series debut on the Auto Club two-miler. Last year he was 13th in the Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. The former Xfinity Series champion won the pole and finished fourth in the 2016 Xfinity race there as well.

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