Auto Club Speedway Weekend Preview: Close finishes define young season – but none involve Kyle Busch … yet

Kyle Busch (Getty Images)

Kyle Busch (Getty Images)

First, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin beat Martin Truex Jr. to the line by .010 seconds to win the Daytona 500.

Then, Kevin Harvick edged Hamlin’s teammate Carl Edwards at Phoenix – by that same .010 seconds margin.

Two races, both ranking in the top 10 among the closest finishes in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history. In fact, the average margin of victory this NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is 0.232 seconds – the closest MOV since NASCAR implemented electronic timing and scoring in 1993.

Oddly, despite top-five finishes and laps led in each of the first four races, none of those finishes have involved Kyle Busch, another member of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable.

Count on that changing this weekend.

When Brad Keselowski visited Victory Lane at Auto Club last year after leading only the last lap, Busch – who took the checkered flag there the previous two seasons – did not get to race for his third straight win because he missed the contest with a broken right leg and fractured left foot.

Sidelined no more, Busch will get the chance to unseat Keselowski and bring home his third win in as many starts at Auto Club victory in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

“The finishes of both of those races were pretty exciting,” Busch said about his last two Southern California starts. “Of course, I won both so that makes it even better for me. The track is just down the road from Toyota Racing Development (TRD) headquarters and our wins there were the first two Sprint Cup wins for them at their hometown track.”

Prior to his two wins, Busch finished second at Auto Club in 2012 and third there in 2011. He enters Sunday’s contest on an eight-race top-five finish streak. The 2015 NSCS champion leads the points standings, but is still searching for his first win of the season.

“(Auto Club is) a fast racetrack and you just have to be able to carry a lot of speed through the corners,” Busch said. “You’re in the corner for a long time, but the more speed you carry through the turn, the better it makes your straightaways. It’s a big, fast racetrack and I’m hoping we can get M&M’S their first win during their 75th anniversary celebration year.”

Keselowski, who two weeks ago passed Busch with five laps remaining to capture his first win of the season at Las Vegas, has similar plans.

“I’m looking forward to coming back as the defending race winner,” Keselowski said. “That’s always an honor, something you take a lot of pride in, and you think about last year’s events throughout the weekend. I’m excited about that.

“Of course I want to win it again, so we have to keep our heads down and stay focused as well.”

JR Motorsports hopes to continue strong start

JR Motorsports has two new drivers running full-time schedules, but continues to post strong results four races into the 2016 season.

The Dale Earnhardt Jr.-owned organization, which saw Chase Elliott and Regan Smith move on to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rides, has not missed a beat with new drivers Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier.

Elliott Sadler (Getty Images)

Elliott Sadler (Getty Images)

The duo will try to continue its early-season success in Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series TreatMyClot.com 300 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California (4 p.m. ET on FOX).

Currently second in the series standings (eight points behind Daniel Suárez), Sadler owns three top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 11 Auto Club starts. The No. 1 Chevrolet driver and Suárez are the only XFINITY Series competitors with a top-10 finish in the first four races.

“It’s the last week of the West Coast swing and we have high expectations for this weekend,” Sadler said. “We have a nice top-10 streak going and our cars have a lot of speed. We’re going to keep working hard to get into Victory Lane.”

Allgaier ranks fourth in the series standings, a mere 12 points behind Suárez, on the strength of an 8.2 average finish. He has struggled at Auto Club with only two top-10 showings in seven starts there, but believes he can get to Victory Lane on Saturday.

“So far this West Coast swing has treated us well,” said Allgaier, driver of the No. 7 Chevrolet. “We got our first top five last weekend and we really just want to keep that positive momentum going. We’ve had fast cars and Jason (Burdett, crew chief) has made great calls in the pits. A win this weekend at Fontana would be the perfect way to wrap up our time out west before we head into this break.”

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Race: Auto Club 400

Place: Auto Club Speedway

Date and Time: Sunday, March 20 at 3:30 p.m. ET

Tune-in: FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 400 miles (200 laps)

What to Watch For: Brad Keselowski attempts to win at Auto Club for the second straight season. His car owner, Roger Penske, constructed Auto Club Speedway and has two wins there as an owner. … Jimmie Johnson, who leads all drivers with five wins at Auto Club, tries to surpass Dale Earnhardt in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series record books with his 77th career victory. … Phoenix race winner Kevin Harvick goes for his second straight checkered flag. … The average margin of victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is 0.232 seconds – the closest margin of victory since NASCAR began keeping the stat in 1993. Click here for an infographic detailing this stat. … Last weekend’s runner-up, Carl Edwards, claims the second-best average finish at Auto Club (8.8).

NASCAR XFINITY Series

Race: TreatMyClot.com 300 by Jannsen

Place: Auto Club Speedway

Date and Time: Saturday, March 19 at 4 p.m. ET

Tune-in: FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 300 miles (150 laps)

What to Watch For: Daniel Suárez looks to extend his eight-point standings lead over Elliott Sadler. … Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Erik Jones goes for his fourth straight top-three finish. … Kyle Busch will attempt win his fourth consecutive NASCAR XFINITY Series race, tying a series record set by Sam Ard in 1983.

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