The 2013 edition of the Auto Club 400 featured one of the most shocking Sprint Cup finishes in recent memory, so NASCAR's top drivers have a lot to live up to Sunday in Fontana, Calif.
Last year's race was won by Kyle Busch, who took advantage of a spat between rivals and former teammates, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin. Logano and Hamlin took each other out on the final lap of the race, and it will be interesting to see if cooler heads prevail this year.
It is possible that sour grapes remain since Hamlin suffered a back injury in the wreck and was forced to miss several races, but Logano believes it is ancient history, according to Jeff Owens of Sporting News:
I feel like we're fine. A year is a long time. It's over now. I feel like we've moved on. Obviously, people were talking about it this week because it's the one-year anniversary of the whole fiasco, but you move on and forget about things ... You're supposed to forgive and forget and that goes both ways, so we both knew what we had to do and I feel like we've moved on and we're going from there.
You simply never know what might happen in any given NASCAR race, and the stakes this year are even higher than usual. A single victory almost guarantees a place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup this season, so expect plenty of hard racing at Auto Club Speedway.
Here is everything you need to know about the Auto Club 400, including which drivers you should keep an eye on throughout the race.
Where: Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
When: Sunday, March 23 at 3 p.m. ET
Live Steam: Fox Sports Go
Radio: Motor Racing Network
|Auto Club 400 Qualifying Order|
|Start||Driver||Car No.||Best Speed (mph)|
|12||Martin Truex Jr.||78||185.725|
|15||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88||185.290|
|22||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||17||183.861|
Drivers to Watch
Few drivers have had as much success at Fontana across NASCAR's top two series as Kyle Busch. Busch has twice won the California race on the Sprint Cup circuit, and he owns an astounding six Nationwide Series victories there too. While Nationwide dominance doesn't necessarily translate to the Sprint Cup Series consistently, the fact that Busch has taken the checkered flag so many times should give him confidence.
With that said, Busch has struggled through the first month of the 2014 season. He currently sits in 14th place with just one top-10 performance through four races. Busch has had some bad luck thus far in terms of getting caught in wrecks, and it can be argued that the extra pressure to win races this year is weighing on him.
He had an average qualifying run, as he will start 14th, but he wasn't particularly happy with his performance, according to Dustin Long of Motor Racing Network:
That frustration could potentially affect him adversely Sunday, but Busch is a veteran who generally wins races at an alarming clip. He's going to cross the finish line first eventually, and this happens to be one of his better tracks.
Logano's third-place finish in the 2013 Auto Club 400 was solid, but it could have been so much better. The rising star was in position to win prior to his infamous dust-up with Hamlin, so there is no question that he knows what it takes to run well at Fontana.
While his California resume is spotty at best on the Sprint Cup scene, Logano has excelled at that track in the Nationwide Series. In fact, the only driver other than Kyle Busch to win a Nationwide race at Fontana over the past six years is Logano, who has entered Victory Lane on two occasions.
Perhaps the biggest concern when it comes to Logano this weekend is the presence of Hamlin, who obviously hasn't forgotten what happened last year. According to Tom Jensen of FoxSports.com, though, Hamlin is focused on running well rather than revenge:
That means Logano should have a clear path to the front as long as he doesn't make any new enemies. Although that isn't an easy task, expect Logano to be in the mix.
Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is still in search of his first 2014 win. Only four races have been run, but it's quite rare for Johnson to go a month without winning. Like Kyle Busch, a win is waiting in the wings, and it's just a matter of when.
Johnson has had a great deal of success at essentially every track, and Auto Club Speedway is no exception. He has taken the No. 48 Lowe's machine to Victory Lane on five occasions at Fontana, and early returns suggest that he may very well have the best car in the field this week.
In addition to qualifying third, Johnson dominated practice, according to Sunoco Racing:
He even set a track record in terms of speed, per Team Lowe's Racing:
All of that bodes well for Johnson Sunday, not to mention the fact that he is a California native. He will need some luck to swing his way this week, but if it does, he will be extremely difficult to beat.
All of the aforementioned drivers are very much in the running to win Sunday, but the competition certainly doesn't stop there. Matt Kenseth will start on the pole, and while this race has only been won by the pole-sitter on one occasion, Kenseth is a three-time winner at Fontana.
Tony Stewart is still recovering from a broken leg, but he should be a factor as well. Smoke has won two of the past four California races, and he seemed to find his stride last week with a fourth-place finish at Bristol.
In terms of true sleeper candidates, look no further than Kasey Kahne. The forgotten man at Hendrick Motorsports won this race in 2006, and he has finished in the top 10 on 10 occasions. He didn't qualify well, but he'll be a threat.
Ultimately, about 15 or 20 different drivers could realistically win this race, but look for Johnson to finally get on the board with his first victory of 2014.
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