Everything has ended with Kevin Harvick in NASCAR lately, so everything naturally starts there, too, when sizing up Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
The Bakersfield, Calif., native’s rarefied run continued Saturday at Auto Club Speedway, where he cruised to his second Xfinity Series victory in three starts (his other finish is a third).
The Stewart-Haas Racing star has been more dominant in NASCAR’s premier series, having won the past two races in the midst of a streak of seven consecutive top-two finishes. The last driver to accomplish that feat in Sprint Cup was Richard Petty, who rattled off 11 straight top twos in 1975.
Harvick still must cover many miles to match “The King,” but the defending series champion seems on track for more excellence in Fontana. He will start a career-best second on the 2-mile oval, where he scored a last-lap win over Jimmie Johnson in 2011.
And if Harvick can’t become the first Sprint Cup driver to win three straight Johnson in 2007, SHR still might keep its victory streak alive. Alongside teammate Harvick, Kurt Busch will start from the pole position in his second start since returning from a three-race suspension because of domestic violence allegations.
A win would cap a “perfect weekend” for Busch, who also has been fastest in every practice session this weekend. He hasn’t won at Fontana since April 2003 but has three consecutive top 10s at the track an hour outside of Los Angeles.
Other storylines to watch Sunday:
California redemption: A victory would deliver it for Toyota and one of its top drivers.
It’s been a year since Kyle Busch won his second consecutive at Auto Club Speedway, and Toyota hasn’t won an unrestricted race during the 35 races since then. The problem was horsepower in 2014, but it seemingly stems from aerodynamics, chassis and suspension problems this season.
Qualifying was encouraging as four Toyotas made the top 10 – including Denny Hamlin in sixth. The most recent Toyota winner (Talladega last May) missed the ’14 race at Fontana because he was sidelined on race morning by an eye injury, a year after he left the track on a stretcher with a broken back from a last-lap crash while racing Joey Logano for the lead.
Hamlin has shown a propensity for statement victories – witness his called shot at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September 2012 – and Sunday certainly would qualify as an opportunity.
Tony Stewart: The results have been disappointing for “Smoke” this season, especially at the bigger, faster tracks such as Auto Club Speedway. The three-time series champion finished a season-best 30th at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he was six laps down. It was just as bad at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he settled for 33rd (five laps behind).
Stewart was running in the top 10 last Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway when he crashed while battling for position with Justin Allgaier. He can’t afford to keep making mistakes such as those, but of greater concern at Fontana is whether he will have the speed to challenge for a decent finish. His No. 14 Chevrolet will be scrutinized heavily from its starting position of 20th.
Tire wear: The asphalt at Auto Club Speedway dates to its June 1997 opening, making it the oldest on the circuit. The abrasive surface chews up rubber like a 200-mph cheese grater, and the 2014 race was marked by a rash of tire problems that affected more than a dozen drivers.
Even if there aren’t as many blown tires in this year’s event, tire wear is guaranteed to have an impact on strategy and also has made this track a first-half highlight. In three of the past four seasons since Fontana was reduced to playing host to a single annual NASCAR weekend, the winner of the track’s Sprint Cup race has emerged on a last-lap pass.
Roush Fenway Racing: “We’re dying a slow death,” is how Greg Biffle described the fortunes of his team Friday when it failed to advance from the first round of qualifying at Auto Club Speedway.
The struggles of RFR weren’t unexpected. During the preseason, team officials had warned it might take two months until its cars turned the corner after a dismal 2014 season. But there have been few glimmers of improvement, and few drivers speak the truth more bluntly than Biffle, who has been with the organization since 1998.
If Roush’s driving dean is sounding the alarm, it doesn’t bode well for a team that desperately needs a turnaround. It’s been six years since its last win in Fontana, but Roush once dominated the track (winning six of 12 from 2003-09). It will need to reclaim some of that magic Sunday with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. leading the team’s three-car charge from a starting spot of 27th.