After a shaky start to the season, Jimmie Johnson is back on the brink of being one of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ front-runners. With his home track looming on the schedule, another big move isn’t out of the question.
Johnson and the rest of the Cup tour head west to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., the site of some of the five-time champion’s most meaningful victories, including his first Cup win in 2002. Three late-season triumphs at the 2-mile track were springboards to title runs from 2007 to 2009.
Last season, Johnson was a lap away from a sixth victory at the track, just a two-hour drive north of his hometown of El Cajon, Calif. But Kevin Harvick, another Golden State native, slipped by Johnson just before the checkered flag.
“I remember last year, we were very close to victory lane, about three-quarters of a mile away from the trophy, but Kevin Harvick found a way around the outside,” Johnson said. “So, I know we’ll go there and be very competitive this time.”
If past successes are an indicator, Johnson will certainly be a factor in the Auto Club 400 (FOX; Sunday, 3 p.m. ET). He has finished no worse than third in eight of the last nine races there, and has led multiple laps during each race in that span. Over the course of his career, Johnson has a stellar average finish of 5.1 and has completed all 4,155 possible laps in his 17 starts.
The home-state swing is a welcome sight for Johnson, who opened the season with a second-lap crash in the Daytona 500 and a 25-point penalty that left him in negative numbers in the standings. Since then, he’s logged three consecutive top-10 finishes and had the points penalty rescinded, leaving him 11th in the standings, just on the fringe of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason field.
A Johnson victory would also be the 200th for Hendrick Motorsports, which leads all teams with nine wins at the California track.
NATIONWIDE REGULARS HOLDING THEIR OWN
Turf wars are nothing new in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. So far this season, the tour’s regulars have prevented their circuit from becoming a playground for moonlighting Sprint Cup stars.
For the first time in 17 years, the season’s first four races have been won by non-Sprint Cup drivers. That includes two victories by points leader Elliott Sadler, one by defending series champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and one by James Buescher, who is vying for the title in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
If the trend is to continue in Saturday’s Royal Purple 300 at Auto Club Speedway (ESPN, 5:30 p.m. ET), a Nationwide regular will have to foul up Kyle Busch’s recent run of success at the 2-mile track. Busch has won five of the last six Nationwide races at Fontana, but will be trying to secure victory No. 1 for his own Kyle Busch Motorsports organization.
Busch’s main competition figures to be his former Nationwide team, Joe Gibbs Racing, which will field entries for Joey Logano and Brian Scott at California. Between Busch’s five wins and one each from Logano and Tony Stewart, Gibbs cars have a seven-race Nationwide winning streak at Auto Club Speedway.
“I think if you look at the stats, we’ve been very dominant there for sure,” Logano said. “We’ve been pretty good in the new car, but not as good as we want to be. We’re trying to get these cars a little bit better on the speedways and it looked like from the Vegas race that they’ve done a good job with that.”
Race # 5 of 36
Track Size: 2 miles
Race Length: 200 laps/400 miles
Banking/Corners: 14 degrees
Banking/Frontstretch: 11 degrees
Banking/Backstretch: 3 degrees
3 p.m. ET SPEED
7 p.m. ET SPEED
12:30 p.m. ET SPEED
3:30 p.m. ET SPEED
2:30 p.m. ET FOX
2011 Auto Club 400 Winner: Kevin Harvick – 03/27/11