The 14-degree banks of Auto Club Speedway of Southern California will be home to what’s become one of the most celebrated races of the season among drivers and fans.
Sunday’s Auto Club 400 falls during the West Coast Swing of the NASCAR Cup Series and comes as yet another test of who will be successful this season.
Three of the last four Auto Club 400 winners have gone on to make the Championship Four. In two of those years, 2016 with Jimmie Johnson and last year with Kyle Busch, the race winner not only made the Championship Four but also won the Cup championship.
Early in the season, we’re already seeing that 2020 is shaping up to be more competitive than previous seasons with Chevrolet showing improvement as they compete neck-and-neck with longtime rival Ford while Toyota seeks to find speed going into the Auto Club 400.
Clint Bowyer: Veteran pole-sitter looking to snap a year-plus winless streak
For the fourth time in his now-15-season Cup career, Clint Bowyer will start on the pole. The pole is Bowyer’s first since the September Las Vegas race last season.
Bowyer’s best finish at Auto Club Speedway is a second-place finish in October 2010, a race where he led 40 laps before ending up second.
Bowyer will be looking for his 11th career Cup win. If Bowyer were to win Sunday’s Auto Club 400, he would snap a 59-race winless streak, dating back to the June Michigan race.
Jimmie Johnson: Swansong season takes him back to being home
Just being shut out of the pole is Jimmie Johnson who, with a top 5 at Las Vegas last Sunday, showed what speed he and other Chevrolet teams are capable of. However, that speed will be just one factor that could play into his success.
Auto Club Speedway is Johnson’s hometown track where he holds the record for most wins (6) of any driver. With his wife and their daughters wave the green flag plus the incentive of a Playoff spot and building on an impressive legacy with family in attendance, Johnson will easily be the most-driven competitor in the field and a prime contender to win Sunday.
If Johnson were to win on Sunday, he would snap a 97-race winless streak en route to his 84th career win which would put him into a three-way tie for fourth on the all-time wins list.
Alex Bowman: Winner of both practice sessions and Las Vegas contender starts third
Alex Bowman has made a statement lately, having been fastest in both practices for the Auto Club 400 and the fastest in the 10-lap average category in both practices.
This is all coming after Las Vegas where, with six laps to go, Bowman was about to pounce on an opportunity to get his second win and to battle then-leader Ryan Blaney for it, until a caution came out that dropped both Bowman and Blaney back.
Bowman winning everything except the pole this weekend is a bold statement for a driver who has yet to have a breakout weekend or race like he had done filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr at Phoenix in November 2016.
Last season’s Chicago win was important for Bowman but the type of race this weekend’s shaping up to be, where Bowman goes out and has the best car all day, could be big for Bowman in elevating his status within the Cup Series.
Kyle Busch: Nearing another all-time mark as he goes for two in a row at Auto Club Speedway
Kyle Busch led 134 of 200 laps en route to winning last year’s Auto Club 400; his second consecutive win and fifth top 10 in as many races. So far in 2020, Busch has been shut out of a win and any top 10 finishes.
Busch needn’t worry too much with the season being only two races old but the no. 18 team must be thinking of what can be done to live up to the hype of being defending Cup champions.
This weekend, Busch will have the chance to achieve one Auto Club Speedway record while getting closer to another.
A Sunday win would be Busch’s fifth at the track, putting him just one win behind Johnson’s six wins, a track record.
Busch would also make track history by being the first driver to win two Cup races in a row there two different times (Busch also won two in a row in 2013 and ‘14).
Joey Logano: Looking for his second win of 2020 and redemption from close 2013 loss
Following his first win of 2020, Joey Logano returns to a track where his record speaks for itself. Excluding a 39th place finish in 2014, Logano’s worst finish in the last seven Auto Club 400s is a seventh in the 2015 race and Logano is on a four-race top 5 streak at the track.
What may give Logano an extra drive toward victory Sunday is finishing second last year and a hard-fought loss in 2013, which resulted from a battle with Denny Hamlin that came down to the final turn of the final lap.
Although Logano lost, the battle established himself as a serious weekly threat in the Cup Series. While a win on Sunday wouldn’t be necessary to validate Logano, who won the 2018 Cup title, it sure would be sweet redemption for the driver of the no. 22 AAA Ford.
Toyota: Looking to get back to where it once belonged at the scene of recent success.
Throughout last Sunday’s Las Vegas Cup race, Toyota’s performance appeared to not be firing on all eight cylinders in the same way that rivals Ford and Chevrolet were.
Even before the race, top drivers Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin were already disadvantaged with inspection issues forcing them to fall to the back from their first and fourth place starting positions.
Although Busch would run in the top 15 most of the day and Toyota teammate Martin Truex Jr. would be one of the race’s prime contenders until a Lap 177 incident, Hamlin and other Toyota drivers wouldn’t even crack the top 15 for much of the race.
Meanwhile, the Fords of Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick mixed it up throughout the day with the Chevrolets of Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron, even as the race neared its final laps; all with no more than a single Toyota in sight.
The race was a blemish for Toyota, especially having 15th place finisher Kyle Busch being the best-performing Toyota in a race where four Toyotas finished in the top 13 a year prior.
Auto Club Speedway is a welcome sight for Toyota as the track’s been favorable for them recently, with the last four of the last seven Cup races there being won by a Toyota, including the last two races.
Truex Jr. and Hamlin were seventh and 12th fastest respectively in first practice while Christopher Bell and Busch were among the top 10 fastest while Truex had the third-best 10-lap average of any driver.
However, adversity will once again face Toyota come Sunday. Truex failed pre-qualifying inspection three times, causing him to not be able to post a lap. Meanwhile, the highest qualifying Toyota was 17th place starter Kyle Busch.
Qualifying isn’t everything but as we saw last weekend at Las Vegas, it’s certainly important. Toyota’s character will once again be proven Sunday at Auto Club Speedway as the six Toyota drivers will look to rebound from no luck in Vegas.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Corey LaJoie, Darrell Wallace Jr. and John Hunter Nemechek having surprise successes after two races
Coming into the Auto Club 400, no. 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. sits fifth in Cup points, 18 points above the Playoff cutline, following his third-place finish at Las Vegas.
Stenhouse has led 54 laps this season and earned points in both stages of the Daytona 500 where he won the pole and finished 29th due to a late-race woes.
No. 43 Darrell Wallace Jr. sits 12th in Cup points, 11 points above the Playoff cutline, following a sixth-place finish at Las Vegas and a 15th place finish in the Daytona 500.
No. 32 Corey LaJoie sits 15th in Cup points, two points above the Playoff cutline, following a 16th place finish at Las Vegas and a harrowing eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500.
No. 38 John Hunter Nemechek currently leads the rookie points by ten points over no. 15 Brennan Poole and rookie title favorite no. 8 Tyler Reddick.
Nemechek is currently 18th in points, 11 points behind the Playoff cutline, after finishes of 24th at Las Vegas and 11th in the Daytona 500 to start the season.
Coverage of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway of Southern California begins at 3 PM EST (TV: FOX; Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).