This weekend, the stars of NASCAR descend upon Tinseltown, the land of celebrities and movie stars that brought us such racing classics as Cannonball Run, Days of Thunder and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:00 p.m. ET, FOX) at Auto Club Speedway.
Leading the charge into Fontana, Calif., is none other than reigning champion Brad Keselowski, who sits atop the standings for the first time this season and has blossomed into one of NASCAR’s headlining acts.
Keselowski has consistently climbed the charts each week. After a fourth-place finish in the season opener at Daytona, he left the Sunshine State tied with Mark Martin for third (six points back). He followed that up with another fourth-place finish the following week at Phoenix, putting him eight points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, tied for second with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
By the time Keselowski and the Penske Racing No. 2 Miller Lite Ford team left Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he had claimed sole possession of second in the standings (-5) on the strength of a third-place finish in the third race of the season.
During last weekend’s race at Bristol, Keselowski couldn’t quite catch race-winner Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch. However, the third-place finish elevated Keselowski to the apex of the standings, nine points in front of Earnhardt. The previous points leader, Johnson, fell to third after a 22nd-place run.
That’s four top-five finishes in the first four races to start the 2013 season, a rare feat.
The last time this was accomplished was in 2005 when Johnson rattled off one win, two second places and one fifth-place finish in the first four races.
If Keselowski finishes in the top five this Sunday, he would be the first driver since Rusty Wallace in 1998 to finish in the top five of the first five races of a season. The record number of consecutive top-five finishes to start a season is nine by Cale Yarborough in 1974.
After looking at Keselowski’s past performances at the Southern California two-mile track, finishing in the top five might be a little more difficult than first thought for the Michigan driver. In four races at the track, his best finish is 18th. In the other three races, he’s finished 21st and has a pair of 26th-place finishes.
Of all the active drivers eligible for points in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Keselowski has the 26th ranked driver rating at Auto Club Speedway (64.5). Only one driver currently in the top 10 has a lower rating at the track — Paul Menard (57.8).
“We’ve run really well with the Nationwide car at Auto Club Speedway over the last couple of years,” said Keselowski. “We don’t have a win to show for it, but it gives me a boost of confidence because Fontana has been one of the tougher tracks for me over the years.”
Race fans should never count Keselowski out, especially this season. Through four races, he has a driver rating of 110.0 (second among all drivers and one of only five above 100) and ranks first in “Fastest Driver on Restarts” and “Fastest Driver Late in a Run” NASCAR Loop Data categories. He’s also one of only five drivers to have completed every lap in the first four races.
FANTASY FOCUS: If you’re looking for three other options this weekend for your fantasy NASCAR team, Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth aren’t bad choices. In 18 starts, hometown favorite Johnson has five wins, 12 top fives, 14 top 10s and a driver rating of 122.37 at the track. Busch has one win and 10 top-10 finishes, along with a driver rating of 106.39 after 15 starts at Auto Club. With three wins, 13 top 10s and driver rating of 105.24 in 20 starts, Kenseth could vie for his second win of the season. Go to fantasygames.nascar.com/live to play NASCAR Fantasy Live. Players can join or create a League at any time throughout the season.