Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at California

Bob MargolisContributor IIMarch 21, 2014

Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at California

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Surf City, it is not.

    You can’t even see the ocean from Auto Club Speedway, which is located about a two-hour drive east of Santa Monica in Fontana, Calif. But this is NASCAR’s sole outing in Southern California, and it allows for plenty of photo opportunities with celebrities, beautiful women in bikinis, custom hot rods and has very little chance of Mother Nature interrupting the proceedings.

    In fact, the weather in Southern California this time of year is quite springlike, with temperatures expected to be in the mid- to upper-70s with little to no chance of rain.

    This week, the Sprint Cup teams go from the claustrophobic feel of Bristol Motor Speedway to the wide-open, full-throttle, four-wide racing that Auto Club Speedway (ACS) has to offer. Drivers love this place because it's one of the few tracks on the schedule where they don’t need a car that’s perfect. There is so much room on the straightaways and in the corners that drivers can make up for a car’s lack of good handling by moving a few feet one way or another.

    What a driver does need at ACS, though, is plenty of horsepower. The Gen-6 car will drive into Turn 1 at well over 200 miles per hour from one of the sport’s longest front straightaways. That’s a lot of engine rpm, so you might expect to see a few lethal clouds of smoke from expired engines before the weekend is over. Remember, an engine change prior to race time means the team starts at the rear. 

    Kyle Busch, who holds the track qualifying record at 188.245 mph (set in 2005), is the defending race winner. California native Jimmie Johnson has five wins at the track, highest among active drivers. Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth both have three wins apiece.

     

    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

Auto Club Speedway by the Numbers

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Auto Club 400

    The Place: Auto Club Speedway

    The Date: Sunday, March 23

    The Time: 3 p.m. ET

    TV: Fox, 2:30 p.m. ET

    Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN), Sirius XM Ch. 90

    Distance: 400 miles (200 laps)

    Last year’s Race Winner: Kyle Busch

    Youngest Pole Winner: Kyle Busch (02/27/2005—19 years, 9 months, 25 days)

    Oldest Pole Winner: Mike Skinner (04/30/2000—42 years, 10 months, 2 days)

    Youngest Winner: Kyle Busch (09/04/2005—20 years, 4 months, 2 days)

    Oldest Winner: Rusty Wallace (04/29/2001—44 years, 8 months, 15 days)

    Races Won From Pole: 1

    Last Race Won From Pole: Jimmie Johnson (08/31/2008)

    Race Record: Tony Stewart 160.166mph (03/25/2012)

    Qualifying Record: Kyle Busch 188.245mph (02/27/2005)

    All-Time Race Winner: *Jimmie Johnson  (5)

    *Note: This is where Johnson won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race (4/28/2002)

    Fontana, Calif., weather

    Things to do in Fontana

About the Speedway Formerly Known as California Speedway

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    Les Richter, Roger Penske, Greg Penske (circa 1997)
    Les Richter, Roger Penske, Greg Penske (circa 1997)JON SOOHOO/Associated Press
    • Built on the site of a former Kaiser Steel mill, it is located a stone’s throw from the site of the former Ontario Speedway, which was a twin to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 
    • Construction, which required major environmental work and removal of hazardous waste at the site, began in 1995 and was completed late 1996. 
    • The track was originally called California Speedway. Auto Club of Southern California bought the naming rights in 2008 and renamed the track Auto Club Speedway.
    • The original owner was Roger Penske. The head of development and design was former NASCAR official and NFL player Les Richter. The first track manager was Greg Penske.
    • The track's first event was a NASCAR West Series race Jun 21, 1997.
    • The first Sprint Cup winner was Jeff Gordon (6/22/1997).
    • The track’s Sprint Cup race date was moved multiple times from its original date in June, first to May and then April. Fans were up in arms when it took the Labor Day weekend from Darlington while adding a date in February. The track made an appearance in the Chase (2009 and 2010) before finally becoming the fifth race on the schedule. 
    • The granstands hold 91,000.
    • Auto Club Speedway also has an NHRA-sanctioned quarter-mile dragstrip (Auto Club Dragway) that is located behind the back straightaway.

     

    For more information, see Auto Club Speedway's website.

Storylines to Follow

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    Chad Knaus (l) and Jimmie Johnson
    Chad Knaus (l) and Jimmie JohnsonRobert Laberge/Getty Images

    Several big-name drivers will come to Auto Club Speedway (ACS) seeking their first win of the year. At the same time, one of the drivers who is a member of the the exclusive club of four 2014 race winners would love to add to his tally and solidify himself in the Chase field. 

    Since the introduction of the Chase in 2004, there hasn't been 16 different race winners in any given Sprint Cup season. With four different winners in the Sprint Cup Series already in 2014, there is talk in the Cup garage that the statistic could be under serious pressure.

     

    Emergence of the Blue Oval Gang

    After capturing four of the top-five finishing positions in Bristol, Ford Racing execs in Dearborn, Mich., have been passing around cigars all week. It was the manufacturer's first solid outing of the young season. But can it keep it up?

    Chevrolet holds a narrow edge in wins at ACS (12 versus 10), and Toyota, which is based in nearby Torrance, Calif., would love to steal the spotlight.

     

    Holy Smoke!

    His online parody of Smokey and the Bandit, done for sponsor Mobil 1, has been a YouTube sensation for the past two weeks. But can Tony Stewart (sans mustache) deliver a win for the company this weekend?

    He was the sole bright spot for Stewart-Haas Racing last weekend, which apparently has trouble getting more than one of its four cars to do well on any given weekend. 

    Maybe the folks in the shop got that “special” pep talk from Smoke this week so they will be positioned to deliver a true Hollywood ending Sunday afternoon for their Hoosier boss.

     

    Was Junior Even Off-Track?

    Nothing sent cheers through the NASCAR media last week more than Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s poor showing at Bristol. It gave reporters something new to write about NASCAR's most-written-about driver. Problem is, Junior never went “off-track,” he doesn’t have to “bounce back” and he's doing just fine, thank you.

    Bristol has always been a challenge for the No. 88 team, so leaving with a 24th-place finish was more a blessing than curse for Earnhardt Jr.  

    ACS is exactly the kind of place where Junior can clean house and remind those naysayers who said it would never happen that the son of NASCAR’s Elvis is still a genuine contender for the Sprint Cup title.

     

    Is There Anybody Out There

    According to Sports Media Watch, NASCAR’s television audience this season has been down compared to last season at every race thus far. Admittedly, Mother Nature has taken her share of the audience, with weather affecting Daytona and Bristol.

    Still, per Sports Media Watch, the 2014 Daytona 500 was the lowest-rated 500 ever, and both Phoenix and Las Vegas saw the lowest viewership total since 2010 (Phoenix was also the lowest-rated second race of the season since 2000). 

    Audience numbers for the Sprint Cup race at ACS have traditionally been less than spectacular, as the race falls during March Madness. The later-in-the-day start leaves the door open for NASCAR fans on the East Coast to focus on doing something else early in the day and then possibly pick up the final laps of the race, prior to the dinner hour.

Drivers to Watch

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    Clint Bowyer
    Clint BowyerTodd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Clint Bowyer

    The season is still young, yet, somehow, this writer can’t shake the feeling that the Michael Waltrip Racing driver is overdue for a win. Auto Club Speedway hasn’t been one of Bowyer's better tracks, but you have to put desire and talent together and come up with a win once in a while, don’t you?

     

    Jimmie Johnson

    It would be foolish not to give the utmost of consideration to the No. 48 team this weekend given that Johnson is the winningest active driver at Fontana. But picking Johnson to win at just about any track is like betting your dog will pick up a Milk Bone you’ve just thrown on the ground. It's virtually guaranteed!

     

    Jeff Gordon

    Three wins at ACS should place Mr. Four-Time Champion solidly in the “serious” column to win. The only problem is, this team seems to be missing something, something that has kept it out of Victory Lane so far this year. I just can’t put my finger on it, but when I do, you’ll be the first to know. Until then, keep Gordon as a favorite.

     

    Kyle Busch

    Rowdy needs this win, like, like...well, it can’t be printed here. But Busch will do just about anything to get his team in the win column this early in the season. Then, he and crew chief Dave Rogers can spend the rest of the season figuring out why they always seem to screw things up during the Chase so that it doesn’t happen again this year.

     

    Greg Biffle

    The Biff hasn’t heard his name mentioned much when it comes to potential race winners so far this year, so maybe it’s time to change his luck and make a trip to Victory Lane this weekend. After all, he likely deserves to be there as much as anyone. With seven top-10s in 19 outings at this track, there is certainly potential with the No. 16 team. Can Biffle show the speed needed to finish up front?

     

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Ah ha! Did you think I’d forget Junior on the list of drivers to watch? Of course not. I’ve saved the best for last. So, Junior, don’t make me look stupid after I’ve said you didn’t begin a slump last week and that you’ll pick up exactly where you left off from Las Vegas—as if Bristol never even happened!

And Watch These Drivers Too

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    Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
    Ricky Stenhouse Jr.Will Schneekloth/Getty Images

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

    When we last left Stenhouse Jr., he was still trying to figure out why it was his teammate, Carl Edwards, celebrating the win and not himself. That could all change this weekend, as long as Stenhouse Jr. gets one of the “good” Roush-Yates motors, like the kind in the No. 2 of Brad Keselowski and the No. 22 of Joey Logano, both of whom are likely to do better at their boss’ (Penke) former track than they did last weekend in Bristol.

     

    Brad Keselowski

    Someone just needs to tell Bad Brad that this place is really Michigan International Speedway and not California...er, Auto Club Speedway, it’s evil twin brother. Kez likes going fast, and that’s ACS in a nutshell. Plus, like I said, his boss used to own this place.

     

    Matt Kenseth

    Our pole winner needs to show that he’s not in the midst of a sophomore slump with his team. Surely last year’s Cinderella season is repeatable, isn’t it? Maybe he’s just been distracted since the start of the season given that his wife, Katie, is due to give birth?

     

    Kyle Larson

    This kid needs to win a couple of races, shut up those who are still whining about how he’s “too young” and then make everyone forget, once more, that the guy who stunk up the joint in this car last year (Juan Pablo Montoya) is an IndyCar racer this season. Larson is the real deal. Ask those who know about these things; they will tell you so.

     

    Brian Vickers

    Like his teammate at MWR, Clint Bowyer, this driver is in dire need of a win. He’s one of the sport’s best-kept secrets, he nearly died from blood clots a few seasons ago and he is a Mac guy and a techno geek. I like him as a person too. Sometimes, it just gets personal, you know?

     

    Danica Patrick

    Ha! I put her name here to see if you were paying attention. But seriously, Patrick runs particularly well on fast race tracks like ACS. There’s no reason to rule out a top-15 finish, as long as the guys back at the SHR shop gave her a car as good as team owner Stewart’s ride.

Qualifying Notes

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Matt Kenseth won the pole for the 2014 Auto Club 400 with a lap of 38.438 seconds, 187.315 mph.

    He told the media after qualifying, “They gave me the car and really all I did was not mess it up, so they did a great job and glad we got it.” 

    Kenseth credited crew chief Jason Ratcliff for figuring out the right strategy for NASCAR’s new knockout qualifying, which placed the Wisconsin native in the right position to run a quick lap. 

    He also admitted that he has serious concerns about track position for the start of the race.

    “I tell you, track position is important everywhere,” Kenseth added. “There’s a lot of options here. This place is really wide, it’s very challenging as a driver. Track position is important, but I feel it is a track you can come from anywhere if you have the best car and get up through there and get some passing.”

    Keselowski will start second (38.481/187.105), posting his fourth consecutive front-row start. Five-time race winner Johnson will start third. It is his third top-10 start in five races this season.

Cali Boys Take Center Stage

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    Casey Mears
    Casey MearsKevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Could there be a California native standing in Victory Lane Sunday night? One out of every five drivers entered in the Auto Club 400 is from California.

    Johnson leads a pack of nine California drivers entered for Sunday’s race. Besides him (El Cajon), there's Gordon (Vallejo), AJ Allmendinger (Los Gatos), Larson (Elk Grove), Casey Mears (Bakersfield), David Gilliland (Riverside), Cole Whitt (Alpine), Kevin Harvick (Bakersfield) and Josh Wise (Riverside).

    Of this group, Johnson and Gordon have to be considered favorites. But Larson could deliver a breakthrough performance Sunday.

And the Winner Is...

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Jeff Gordon

     

    Who am I to let my feelings about another staged television commercial get in the way of predicting that Sunday’s race winner will be Jeff Gordon?

    “This is traditionally a great track for us at Hendrick Motorsports,” Gordon told the media after the final session of the knockout qualifying ended. “I love this track; this is so much fun to drive with all the different grooves and lanes you can run on. 

    “We’re just enjoying the season so far with the momentum that we’ve been able to have and then to come here and have a strong car like we have here just really gets me excited about Sunday’s race.”