NASCAR’s three-race west coast swing ends this weekend at Auto Club Speedway’s wide 2-mile layout in Fontana, Calif.
Through four races this season, we’ve seen four different aero packages. But the last three races will be the packages we’ll see for the remainder of the season. They’ll be using the Las Vegas package this week with the cars having aeroducts and engines producing 550 horsepower.
If the racing at Las Vegas two weeks ago is any indication, we should get another highly competitive race with a fantastic finish. While the cars are supposed to be slower from last year’s engines that produced 750 horsepower, the downforce with the taller spoiler allows for faster speeds through the corners.
The cars stick to the asphalt better now. They stuck so well in the corners at Las Vegas, not one driver got loose. No cautions for the entire race except for the mandatory stops at the end of each stage. We should expect something similar in Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
We can also reference the Feb. 24 race at Atlanta, even though NASCAR didn’t use the aeroducts for that race, but the effects of the taller spoiler were similar to Las Vegas, as was the engine. In both cases, a Penske Mustang won with Brad Keselowski taking Atlanta and Joey Logano finishing just ahead of Keselowski at Las Vegas. They each led laps in both races. In Atlanta, the third Penske driver Ryan Blaney led 41 laps.
The main betting strategy this week should be to focus on what happened at Atlanta and Las Vegas more than what has happened in the past at Fontana. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a Penske Mustang will win again. What I saw in Las Vegas was several cars having a legitimate chance to win. The top-six finishers all led laps, including Kevin Harvick, who finished fourth and led a race-high 88 laps. He also finished fourth at Atlanta and led 45 laps.
Harvick is an interesting look this week on his home track. The Bakersfield native won at Fontana in 2011 and has been runner-up three times. At this juncture last season he had three wins already, but he’s been shut out so far in 2019 despite looking very fast.
Kyle Busch, who won last week at Phoenix, is a three-time winner at Fontana. That includes his first career Cup win as a rookie in 2005. He was sixth at Atlanta and third in Las Vegas, although a speeding penalty on pit road at Las Vegas probably cost him the win which would have completed the triple after winning the Truck Series race and Xfinity Series to start the weekend on his home track.
The thing to admire about Busch is that he gets greedy after a win. His confidence rises and he almost becomes unstoppable. Last season, he won three straight. In 2017, he won two straight twice. In 2016, he also went back-to-back did and in 2015 he won three straight.
You get the idea. He’s hungry and extremely focused. He also has 199 career wins between the top three NASCAR series. Last season, he was third at Fontana, leading 62 laps, and in 20 Cup starts there he has averaged a 10th-place finish.
The King of California is Jimmie Johnson with six wins on his home track. The El Cajon native won his first career Cup race Fontana as a rookie in 2002 in a classic battle with Las Vegan Kurt Busch who finished second. He holds the track record for wins, top-fives (13), laps led (980) and average finish (7.2).
He was very competitive at Phoenix last week finishing eighth but was slow at Atlanta and Las Vegas which is what matters most this week. The crazy part about Johnson is that he was fastest during a pre-season test at Las Vegas using the new package.
One of the most pleasant surprises this season has been the elder Busch brother, Kurt, having strong runs in his first season driving the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Camaro. He was seventh last week at Phoenix, but what matters most for handicapping this race is him finishing third at Atlanta and fifth at Las Vegas and leading laps in both.
Keselowski, Harvick, and Busch are the only drivers to have top-fives at both tracks that apply for Fontana, a place Busch won at in 2003.
Busch’s teammate Kyle Larson has one of his four career wins at Fontana and has two other second-place finishes between five starts. Two of his other wins came on Fontana’s 2-mile sister track in Michigan. He rides the high-line inches from the wall to maximize speed; he does it better than anyone in the series. That’s his move.
He’s also won two Xfinity Series races there. He was 12th at both Atlanta and Las Vegas but had issues in each. However, he actually dominated the Atlanta race, leading a race-high 142 laps, winning in Stage 1 and second in Stage 2. He’s also a California kid from Elk Grove.
Martin Truex Jr. won this race last season leading a race-high 125 laps and he’s looked almost as good as Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch so far in 2019. He was second at Atlanta and eighth at Las Vegas. He’s led laps in his last four Fontana races.
As for Keselowski and Logano, both have been steady at Fontana. Keselowski won there in 2015 leading just one lap — the last one — and was fourth last season and runner-up in 2017. Logano has finished fifth there the past two seasons and has three Xfinity Series wins, including winning last season.
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