The Sprint Cup Series makes its lone 2011 trek to the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California this weekend for the Auto Club 400.
This marks the first year since 2003 that the 2-mile Fontana, California race track is only hosting one event. After five rather maligned years holding the Labor Day Weekend spot, where it succeeded the legendary Southern 500 at Darlington to the chagrin of most NASCAR fans, and two as the fourth event of the Chase, the track's late-summer event is no more.
It also marks the first time that a spring event at Fontana will be 400 miles. Since the facility hosted it's first Cup race in 1997, it's 500-milers have been criticized for being boring, drawn-out affairs that left casual fans plenty of time to knock one or two activities off their weekend to-do list but had diehards fighting from nodding off.
Though the track sits in the shadow of Los Angeles, it has mostly failed to catch on with the locals. A handful of Hollywood stars have attended races at the track and are an annual fixture of pre-race ceremonies, but NASCAR's goal of tapping it's largest race-market has been largely unfulfilled.
The racing at Fontana has gradually improved over recent years, however, and hopes are high amongst track administrators and NASCAR that the shorter distance will promote a more compact, exciting event, as was seen with last October's 400-miler.
When predicting a winner at Auto Club Speedway, two organizations stand above the rest. Hendrick Motorsports and Roush-Fenway Racing each have their own inner-team Fontana favorite, however.
Jimmie Johnson, a native of El Cajon, California, just outside San Diego, has always been right at home at Auto Club Speedway. He is the defending champion of this race and won the track's second event three consecutive times, dominating each race from 2007-2009. In addition, his very first Cup win came at the then-titled California Speedway in April 2002. His five victories account for more than half of owner Rick Hendrick's track-record nine wins. Jeff Gordon has three wins there, including the inaugural race in 1997, while current Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kyle Busch scored his first-career win at Fontana in September 2005 as driver of Hendrick's No. 5 Chevy.
Just as Johnson dominated the late-summer race, Matt Kenseth had a similar stranglehold on the track's spring event, winning in 2006, '07, and '09. Jack Roush has seven wins at the track, with Mark Martin (1998), Kurt Busch (2003), Greg Biffle (February 2005), and Carl Edwards (February 2008) all visiting victory lane once in addition to Kenseth's three triumph.
Auto Club Speedway is one of only four current tracks that Richard Childress Racing has never won on. Kevin Harvick nearly broke that drought last year, pulling to Johnson's rear bumper before brushing the wall exiting the fourth turn with just a couple of laps remaining. He held on to finish second. After an up-and-down start for Harvick and a miserable open to the season for Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, only one RCR driver - Paul Menard, in his first year with the team - is currently in the top-ten in Sprint Cup points. If one of the four - particularly Burton or Bowyer - could take Childress to Fontana's victory lane for the first time, it could jump-start the organization.
Tony Stewart is the most-recent winner at Auto Club Speedway. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver recorded his first Cup win at the track last October, edging out Bowyer and Johnson for the victory.
Only 43 teams are attempting this weekend's race, meaining that no one will fail to qualify. One notable change is that Dawsonville's Bill Elliott, who had driven the No. 09 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet, will step aside in favor of Landon Cassill beginning this weekend. Elliott completed his goal of locking the James Finch-owned machine in the top-35 in 2011 owner points, which go into effect after this weekend. The car is currently 26th in points, 31 points ahead of the 36th-placed Tommy Baldwin Racing entry. With NASCAR's new point system, where the margin between each position from second through 43rd is just one point, the 09 likely safe for the remainder of the 2011 season.
See the entire entry list at Jayski.com.