FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Jimmy John's Chevrolet, passes Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, on the last lap of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images for NASCAR)
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its annual trip to the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California this weekend. Can Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson recreate their epic duels of the last two seasons?
The Auto Club Speedway of Southern California is the site of this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup and NASCAR Nationwide Series battles. NASCAR first invaded the 2-mile D-shaped oval in 1997, with Vallejo, California native Jeff Gordon scoring the win. Gordon, a three-time winner, and fellow Californians Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick have pretty well dominated the venue in Sprint Cup competition, claiming nine victories. El Cajon's Johnson leads all drivers with five victories, while Bakersfield's Harvick won last year's race with a last-turn pass of Johnson.
Ford and Chevrolet split most of the victories during the track's first 18 events, with the Blue Oval Brigade winning 10 times and the Bowties taking seven wins. Dodge's lone victory at the track came with Kasey Kahne in 2006; to date Toyota has yet to win at the track located closest to their US headquarters.
The last four events, however, have all gone Chevy's way, with Johnson claiming back to back wins in October 2009 and February 2010, Tony Stewart winning in October 2010, and Harvick getting the win last year. Ford has not won since Matt Kenseth's February 2009 triumph, which came a week after he won his first Daytona 500.
Despite being shut out of victory lane of late, Jack Roush has had plenty to celebrate in Fontana. He won the track's second race with Mark Martin, and picked up two more with Kurt Busch in 2003 and Greg Biffle in 2005. Kenseth began a brief reign as the track's dominant force, winning the spring race three out of four years from 2006-09. The one he didn't claim went to another Roush driver, Carl Edwards.
Rick Hendrick claimed his share of trophies at the track as well, however. Gordon and Johnson have brought him eight wins, and Kyle Busch grabbed his first career-win in Hendrick's No. 5 car in September 2005. Furthermore, Stewart's win came in a Hendrick chassis with a Hendrick engine powering it.
One team that has yet to pick up a trophy in California despite several strong performances is Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch led late in last year's race before Johnson and Harvick swept by, setting up their thrilling duel. Denny Hamlin had a car capable of beating Johnson in October '09 before a brain-fade on a restart sent him across Juan Pablo Montoya's nose and crashing into the inside pit wall.
This weekend's Auto Club 400 could definitely provide opportunity for Gibbs to finally get that first victory, as Busch needs a rebound after a rough start to the season and Hamlin has struggled in two races since winning at Phoenix. Gordon too needs a turnaround after wrecking at Bristol to continue a disappointing start to the season. Edwards has not had the best start to the season either, and a second Fontana trophy would help him, as it would the defending series champion Stewart.
Biffle, the Sprint Cup point leader, is at his best on big fast race tracks like Fontana, and he certainly has to stand as a pre-race favorite given his start to the year. He didn't have the best showing at Bristol after winning the pole, but that has never been one of his better venues anyway. Bigger, faster tracks are where most of the races are run on the Sprint Cup schedule anyway, and the state of Biffle's team - as well as most of the others - will be displayed this weekend.