Five things to watch in today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway


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.

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COTA Xfinity starting lineup: AJ Allmendinger takes pole


AJ Allmendinger, who won this race a year ago, will start on the pole for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas.

Allmendinger earned the pole with a lap of 92.173 mph Friday on the 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course.

MORE: COTA Xfinity starting lineup

He will be joined on the front row Sammy Smith (91.827 mph).
Ty Gibbs (91.665) will start third. Sheldon Creed (91.652) qualified fourth. Parker Kligerman (91.195) will start fifth.

Cup driver William Byron will start ninth. Byron’s time was disallowed for cutting the esses. Cole Custer, who will start 10th, didn’t make a lap in the final round of qualifying.

Cup driver Aric Almirola (91.269) qualified 13th. Truck Series racer Carson Hocevar (90.669) will start 17th. Alex Labbe (90.476) will start 23rd. He’s filling in for Josh Williams, who is serving a one-race suspension for parking his car at the start/finish line of last weekend’s race at Atlanta.

COTA Truck starting lineup: Ross Chastain wins pole


Ross Chastain will start on the pole for Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas.

Chastain earned the top starting spot in Friday’s qualifying with a lap of 91.877 mph. He’ll be joined on the front row by Kyle Busch (91.490 mph).

More: COTA Truck starting lineup

Ty Majeski qualified third with a lap of 91.225 mph. Rookie Nick Sanchez (90.993) will start fourth, and Christian Eckes (90.937) will complete the top five.

Alex Bowman failed to make the race. Bowman had a flat right front on his qualifying lap.

Tyler Reddick leads Cup practice at COTA


Tyler Reddick posted the fastest lap in Friday’s Cup practice at Circuit of the Americas.

Reddick, who won two road course races last season, topped the field in his 23XI Racing Toyota with a lap of 92.989 mph. Kyle Larson was next, posting a lap of 92.618 mph around the 3.41-mile road course.

MORE: COTA Cup practice results

Ross Chastain, who won this race a year ago, was third on the speed chart in practice with a lap of 92.520 mph. He was followed by Kyle Busch (92.498 mph) and Daniel Suarez (92.461 mph).

Jordan Taylor, subbing for the injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 car for Hendrick Motorsports, was 10th on the speed chart in practice after a lap of 92.404 mph.

Former world champion Jenson Button, driving for Rick Ware Racing, was 28th in practice with a lap of 91.759 mph. Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen, driving the Project 91 car for Trackhouse Racing, was 32nd in practice after a lap of 91.413 mph.

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, driving in his first race for Legacy Motor Club since the Daytona 500, was 36th in practice after a lap of 91.072 mph. IndyCar driver Conor Daly was last among the 39 cars in practice with a lap of 90.095 mph.

Cup qualifying is Saturday. The series races Sunday.


Saturday COTA Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather


Austin Hill, the dominant driver in the NASCAR Xfinity Series through the early weeks of the season, will be looking for his first Xfinity road course win Saturday.

Hill has won three of the season’s first five races, scoring victories at Daytona, Las Vegas and Atlanta.

Hill has been close in previous road course runs. He has a second at COTA, a third at Portland, a fourth at Road America and a ninth at Indianapolis.

MORE: Dr. Diandra takes a look at top Cup road course drivers

Kyle Busch and AJ Allmendinger own wins in the previous Xfinity races at COTA.

Allmendinger and three other Cup Series regulars — Aric Almirola, William Byron and Ty Gibbs — are scheduled to race in the Xfinity event.

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 5:08 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled at 5:19 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 2 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Jordan Thiessen of Pit Boss Grills at 5 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by recording artist Payton Keller at 5:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 46 laps (156 miles) on the 3.41-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 14. Stage 2 ends at Lap 30.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 5 p.m. … NASCAR RaceDay airs at 4 p.m. on FS1. … Performance Racing Network coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. and can be heard at …SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Mainly sunny. Temperature of 82 at race time. No chance of rain.

LAST TIME: AJ Allmendinger won last March’s Xfinity race at COTA. Austin Hill was two seconds behind in second place. Cole Custer finished third.