Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Previewing the Auto Club 400

By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor

After stops in Las Vegas and Phoenix to kick off the Western swing, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wraps up their venture to the West Coast this weekend as they roll into Southern California to do battle on the two mile Auto Club Speedway in Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Built on the site of an old steel mill featured in the movie “Terminator”, the two mile oval has been a part of the NASCAR schedule since opening in 1997. The track has gone through ownership changes throughout its history, as well as expanding to two race dates in 2004 and then moving back to one race in 2011 due to attendance problems.

As the track has never been repaved since opening, the aged surface has come to provide some of the best intermediate track racing on the circuit. With the lack of grip that the drivers are faced with, they will race from the apron of the track all the way up to the wall looking for speed and the best line to suit their needs. On restarts especially, drivers will fan out three and four wide as they battle for position, leading to some great racing, as evidenced by the finishes at the track in the last few years.

By the Numbers

Opened: 1997

Track Size: Two-mile D-shaped oval (Banking: 14 degrees in turns; 11 degrees on frontstretch)

Race Length: 200 laps, 400 miles

Stage Lengths: Stage 1 and 2: 50 laps; Final Stage: 100 laps

Pit Road Speed: 55 mph

Pace Car Speed: 60 mph

2016 Race Winner: Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – Started 19th, 25 laps led

Track Qualifying Record: Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 188.511 mph, 38.194 seconds – March 18, 2016

Top-10 Driver Ratings at Auto Club Speedway:

  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 119.7
  • Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 109.0
  • Chase Elliott – No. 24 Chevrolet – 105.1
  • Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 105.0
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 99.4
  • Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 92.3
  • Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 90.0
  • Kasey Kahne – No. 5 Chevrolet – 88.6
  • Clint Bowyer – No. 14 Ford – 88.3
  • Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 84.0

From the Driver’s Seat

“I always enjoy Fontana,” AJ Allmendinger said. “Auto Club Speedway has been a great racetrack for us.  I always look forward to going back there because it’s slick, it’s a tough race track.”

“With this aero-package I think it’s going to be like Atlanta Motor Speedway. You are going to be using the tires up quick and slide around a lot. It’s four or five lanes wide. It’s a place that is enjoyable, but real tricky. The seams are tough there. It’s challenging to get around.”

“The track is getting old. As we’ve taken away downforce, the tires go away and there are so many grooves that you can run.  It’s kind of weird because it flip-flopped in a year it seemed like, year-and-a-half period to where it was a terrible race and all of a sudden it’s great racing.  I don’t see anything different now with lower downforce. We are going to be sliding around even more and it’s going to be a great race.”

Last Time at Auto Club Speedway

The 2016 running of the Auto Club 400 turned into a battle of the California drivers down the stretch, with Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick dueling it out for the win.

Johnson, who was driving a special Superman themed No. 48 Chevrolet, started the day in 19th, but methodically worked his way to the front, taking the lead for the first time at lap 78, where he would be a fixture for the remainder of the race.

Though Johnson seemed to have found his kryptonite in Kevin Harvick, who led a race-high 142 laps and looked to have the race in the bag, the final caution of the day gave Johnson and his No. 48 team one final shot at showcasing their superpowers.

That caution came as a result of Kyle Busch blowing a tire on lap 198, which sent his car into the Turn 3 wall and pushed the race into overtime.

Restarting third on the final restart after the leaders made their final pit stops, Johnson flew by Harvick and Denny Hamlin like they were standing still, leading the final two laps en route to his sixth win at Auto Club Speedway and his 77th career win, breaking his tie with the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. on the all-time wins list.

“Man, this is cool,” said Johnson.  “First off all, ‘hi’ to my family at home, I can’t wait to see you guys.  I knew we had great car and that caution fell at a bad time the run before.  I just didn’t have the tires on the car to race with those guys.  To go there at the end and have good tires on the car, Harvick and I got by I guess Joey there at the start.  I got a great run off of Turn 2 and I thought ‘man I’ve got a shot at this thing’.  Which I didn’t expect to have, Harvick has been so fast.  I cleared him and kind of got away.  We saved our best for last for sure.  I told everybody Superman kicked Batman’s butt and it happened.  I’m very thankful for Lowe’s and the amazing relationship we have had over the years, Chevrolet, everybody at Hendrick Motorsports, this is going to be a good time.”

With Johnson, Harvick, and Hamlin finishing in the top-three, the remainder of the top-10 was rounded out by Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Chase Elliott, Carl Edwards, AJ Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski, and Jamie McMurray.

Who to Watch

  • Chase Elliott – Making his second Auto Club Speedway start. Elliott will be looking to back up his top-10 finish from last season in which he started eighth and finished sixth, leading one lap on the day.
  • Jimmie Johnson – Johnson could very well be California dreaming once again this weekend as he will be gunning for his first win of the season and his seventh win at Auto Club Speedway, where he is already the all-time wins leader. Along with those six previous wins (2002, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2016), Johnson has 13 top-five finishes, 16 top-10 finishes, two poles, 980 laps led, and an average finish of 6.5 in 22 starts.
  • Kyle Busch – In this race last season, Busch was well on his way to a fifth straight top-three finish before a blown tire with two laps to go relegated him to a 25th place finish. With redemption on his mind, Busch heads to California looking for his fourth win at the track. His previous wins came in 2005, 2013, and 2014, along with eight top-five finishes, 12 top-10 finishes, one pole, 604 laps led, and an average finish of 10.9 in 18 starts.
  • Matt Kenseth – Though Kenseth has struggled in his last two outings at Auto Club Speedway with finishes of 31st and 19th, there is no reason to panic for the No. 20 team as he has had success in the past on the two-mile oval. In 24 starts, Kenseth has three wins (2006, 2007, and 2009), nine top-five finishes, 15 top-10 finishes, one pole, 571 laps led, and an average finish of 11.1.
  • Kurt Busch – Busch may have finished 30th in this race one year ago, but that doesn’t mean this year’s Daytona 500 champion won’t be in the mix on Sunday. Busch has finished in the top-10 in seven of his last 10 starts at the track and has visited victory lane there in the past (2003). Career-wise, Busch has the one win, seven top-five finishes, 12 top-10 finishes, four poles, 298 laps led, and an average finish of 12.3 in 23 starts.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, March 24

  • MENCS Practice (1:30 to 2:55 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Qualifying (7:05 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Saturday, March 25

  • MENCS Practice (11:30 am to 12:25 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Final Practice (2:30 pm to 3:20 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Sunday, March 26

  • MENCS Auto Club 400 (3:30 pm – 200 laps, 400 miles – FOX)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.