Auto Club Speedway Weekend Preview: Luck of the Californians

FONTANA, CA - MARCH 26: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, takes the green flag to start the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 26, 2017 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

As NASCAR competitors arrive on the final leg of their popular #NASCARGoesWest swing, there are two drivers in particular, who acknowledge Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway (at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), that can historically extend a streak of luck.

For Kevin Harvick, it’s good luck. He comes into the race looking to become the first person in 11 years to win four consecutive Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races.

For fellow Californian Jimmie Johnson, the weekend is about ending a streak of tough luck. The seven-time champ and all-time winningest driver at Auto Club Speedway is hoping to snap a career-long 27 race winless streak.

During Harvick’s three-race season-opening mastery he has led 433 laps – that is 47.8 percent of the 904 total laps run this season. The Bakersfield, Calif. native has led nearly half the laps of competition even though his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was sidelined in a crash early in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Only 12 drivers in NASCAR Cup Series history have won four consecutive races – Billy Wade (1964), David Pearson (1966, 1968) Richard Petty (1967, 1971), Bobby Allison (1971), Cale Yarborough (1976), Darrell Waltrip (1981), Dale Earnhardt (1987), Harry Gant (1991), Bill Elliott (1992), Mark Martin (1993), Jeff Gordon (1998) and Johnson (2007).

And no one has swept all three races – Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, Calif. – on NASCAR’s Western Swing.

“Auto Club Speedway is by far one of my favorite tracks we go to,” said Harvick, who has finished runner-up at Auto Club Speedway in two of the last three races there (2015 & 2016).

“There are so many things that come into play, but it has become a great race and a great racetrack to race on. The crowd has been great over the last few years since we went from two races down to one. It has changed the whole vibe at Auto Club Speedway.

“It’s in my home state. I’m going to get to race on Thursday night at Kern County [Calif.], then head down to Auto Club Speedway for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It’s a big week and I know, from a driver standpoint, Auto Club Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway are right up there at the top of everybody’s list because there is so much fall-off and the asphalt is so worn out.”

Johnson, of El Cajon, Calif., finds himself in an unfamiliar and arguably, over-dramatized situation.

Yes, the seven-time champion is hoping to end a career long winless streak. But that streak is 27 races – a fraction of one season.

Johnson has nearly as many Auto Club Speedway trophies (six) as he does Cup drivers championships and has five more runner-up finishes at the track – meaning he’s finished first or second in 11 of his 23 starts at the track. His No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has led a series-best 980 laps at the track and he’s run among the top-15 in races there, an incredible 88.9 percent of the time.

And Johnson’s average finish at California – 7.13 – is his best at any track on the circuit.

“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.”

CHAMPIONSHIP CASE

Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell are involved in a tight Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, but these two drivers are so talented, they are also very much in the championship hunt as well.

Reddick, the 22-year old California native, won the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway and trails his JR Motorsports veteran teammate Elliott Sadler by only one point in the early season standings.

Bell, 23, who has three top-five efforts in the last three races for his Joe Gibbs Racing team and won back-to-back pole positions at Atlanta and Las Vegas, is fourth in the championship, only eight points behind Sadler.

Last year, William Byron won the Xfinity title as a rookie. In 2014, Chase Elliott did the same.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

Next Race: Auto Club 400

The Place: Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.)

The Date: Sunday, March 18

The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET

TV: FOX, 3 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)

What to Watch For: Kyle Larson has split the four-race season start with a pair of top-10s to go with a pair of top-20s, but the Elk Grove, Calif. native is hugely popular at Auto Club Speedway and is the defending winner of this race – winning from the pole position in 2017. … Three-time Auto Club Speedway winner Kyle Busch joins six-time winner Jimmie Johnson as the only other multi-time winners of the race in the field. … Kyle Busch scored both his first career Busch Pole Award (February, 2005) and first career Monster Energy Series victory (September, 2005) at the track. … Since the advent of electronic scoring (1993), the closest margin of victory in the race was 0.144-second when Kevin Harvick won over Jimmie Johnson in 2011.

NASCAR Xfinity Series

Next Race: California 300

The Place: Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.)

The Date: Saturday, March 17

The Time: 5 p.m. ET

TV: FS1, 4:30 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 300 miles (150 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 35),

Stage 2 (Ends on lap 70), Final Stage (Ends on lap 150)

What to Watch For: A JR Motorsports driver – Tyler Reddick or Elliott Sadler have led the points standings all season. Veteran Elliott Sadler currently holds a one-point advantage on his rookie teammate Tyler Reddick. … John Hunter Nemechek returns to the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet hoping to follow up on an impressive fourth-place in his first series start at Atlanta three weeks ago and Ryan Preece is back to drive the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota in what will be his Auto Club Speedway debut. Nemechek’s father Joe won the very first Cup Series pole position at the track in 1997. … There are four native Californians entered in the race, including Cole Custer, of Ladera Ranch; Ryan Reed, of Bakersfield, Dylan Lupton, of Wilton; and Reddick, of Corning. … Austin Dillon and Joey Logano are the only two Cup regulars entered in the California 300 and also the only former winners in the field.

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