NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN)

Is This Like An Inaugural Race?

Prior to COVID, the plan for the future of the Auto Club Speedway was supposed to be that the 2-mile track gets demolished following the 2021 race and for 2022, the track become a half-mile short track.

Unfortunately, the pandemic halted those plans. They were put on the backburner. Due to the rules put in place last year for the Golden State, NASCAR couldn’t visit Fontana. By virtue of that, it also made it difficult to start demolition.

So, the focus then began to shift to 2022 and to leave things alone for now. Why start something you may not be able to finish and risk not only not having a date in 2021, but for 2022 too. With what’s needed to do, it costs a lot of money and without having a race weekend for two years in-a-row, it could have been the death blow to the track.

So, this weekend will what many thought was going to be the final race on this 2-mile layout. Then, track and NASCAR officials said on Saturday that maybe those plans were on the backburner for now. It didn’t sound as if they were going to push forward with redeveloping the track anymore.

But, after what we witnessed earlier this month in the Coliseum, maybe they’ll start discussions again for a redevelopment process.

“I think after what we saw today, the answer is probably yes,” Kyle Busch said of Fontana being moved to a half-mile again. “I would prefer the two mile, but I guarantee you it’s getting cut up, no question, after what we saw today.”

Austin Dillon agreed.

“Kyle and I both know that Fontana is an awesome track,” he said. “It’s a driver’s track. I mean, I think they’d have to go through a repave to keep it that way for these cars. They’ve already grinded it to nothing pretty much down the backstretch. Obviously this car puts on a good show at short tracks, so that’s good.”

He’s right. Something eventually needs done anyways. Fontana is one of the oldest racing surfaces in the sport now as they’ve not touched it since 1997. It’s going to need a repave soon.

Atlanta, went through one and they completely altered that track in the sense that it went from a worn out aged surface to a superspeedway. If you put the money into repaving Fontana, why not go all out?

“I think that’s fair,” Steve O’Donnell said when asked about Kyle Busch’s comments on with how well the Coliseum went that there’s no way Fontana doesn’t go back to the half-mile plan. “I think that’s one of the things we’re looking at you look at the long-term schedule.

“California as a racetrack, we’re looking forward to getting back there. I guess, pretty quick. Looking forward to the racetrack they have now. We’ve historically put on some pretty good races there. First time for Next Gen, so we’ll see how that plays out.”

The last time we went to Fontana, COVID really wasn’t really a thing here yet. That came a few weeks later. We’ve not been back since and between then and now and the talks pushing forward are what are the future plans for this track?

With a new car and no real past notes to go along with a short practice session, is this like an inaugural race this weekend? Does this really change everything?

Fontana has been on the schedule every year with the exception of 2021 since 1997 so this track isn’t a stranger. But, this weekend it very well may be with a new car, limited practice and no laps turned since 2020.

How does this factor into how Sunday’s race will look?

Will We See A 7th Straight Different Winner On Sunday?

Oddly enough, we’ve had a lot of domination and a lot of parity at the Auto Club Speedway. The last six races in Fontana have been won by five different drivers from five different teams: Brad Keselowski (2015), Jimmie Johnson (2016), Kyle Larson (2017), Martin Truex Jr. (2018), Kyle Busch (2019) and Alex Bowman (2020).

Does this trend continue this weekend?

Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola, Chase Briscoe, Cole Custer, Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, Kurt Busch, Bubba Wallace, Chase Elliott and William Byron would be the top picks to do so.

Why Has There Been So Much Dominance Here?

Fontana has been a track that in order to win, you must hit the setup right. That in turn has led to some dominating performances over the years. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch combined to lead 187 of the 200 laps in the 2018 edition. Busch and Brad Keselowski combined to lead 176 of 200 laps in 2019. Alex Bowman led 110 of 200 laps in 2020. Ryan Blaney led 54 of the other 90. Will we see a similar domination in this weekend’s race?

Truex, won by 11.685 seconds in 2018. Busch, won by 2.354-seconds in 2019 and Bowman by 8.904-seconds in 2020. Will this race tighten up?

Long Run Pace vs. Short Run, Which Do You Focus On?

We have a return to practice this weekend albeit a very short session. That leads to the question, which do you focus on – long run or short run speed? We’ve seen these races come down to a late race restart many times before including just last year at Michigan which is Fontana’s sister track.

If you don’t have a good short run car or a good burst of speed, you have no shot. But, we’ve also seen some long runs to the end here too which if you have a better long run car, you have a better shot of a win.

So, what do you focus on this weekend and how do you get your car dialed in for both?

I mean, Fontana is an aged surface so handling is key. With more downforce to help you on these cars, it makes passing more challenging and therefore track position is a big part of this equation.

With qualifying, short run speed helps and also gets you closer to the front at the start of the race and in turn gives you a better shot at a win too.

The 2018 races saw the top three qualifiers finish there too. Four of the top five starters that day came from a top six starting spot.

In 2019, three of the top four finishers came from a top five starting spot.

Two of the top three in 2020 came from the top 2 Rows.

The worst spot that an eventual race winner came from over the last four years in Fontana is fourth with two of those three coming from the pole. Five of the last six came from the top 4 Rows.

But, what if you have a good short run car to qualify well but not good on long runs and can’t stay there for long?

There’s a balance to be had but how hard is it to find it?

Who Are The Top NASCAR Drivers From California?

With a return to Southern California, it got me thinking – who are the best drivers to come out of the Golden State? There are a lot of drivers to have raced in NASCAR who also hail from there. Then, when you really think about it, and nothing against the other 49 states, but California can make a very valid case to have the best drivers in the sport to have come out of there.

Overall, nearly 50 drivers have called California home. Here are my top five.

5. Ron Hornaday Jr. 

He’s won four championships in the Truck Series which made the Palmdale native a NASCAR Hall of Famer. Also, Hornaday’s 51 career Truck Series wins rank him second on the all-time wins list. He’s also won four times in the NASCAR XFINITY Series as well.

4. Kyle Larson

I know it’s early to have him here but he’s also the defending Cup Series champion, led the most laps in a single season a year ago and has 16 wins, 10 of which coming last season alone. Now that he’s with HMS, he can have a Gordon/Johnson type of career. It’s staggering to see where his numbers may end up a decade from now.

3. Kevin Harvick

How can you not have the Bakersfield native on here. Harvick, has won on all three levels of NASCAR. He has 14 Truck Series victories, 47 XFINITY wins and 58 trips to victory lane in the Cup Series. Combined, that’s 119 wins in total.

He’s also won a Cup title (2014) and two XFINITY Series championships (2001, 2006) to go along with a Daytona 500 triumph (2007), two Brickyard 400 wins (2003, 2019), a two-time Coca-Cola 600 winner (2011, 2013) a Southern 500 win (2014) and a win in the All-Star Race (2018).

2. Jeff Gordon

This may be controversial, but I have Gordon as second best. Gordon, brought NASCAR into the mainstream media. But, this isn’t a popularity award, but a list of on track achievements.

He won 93 times on the Cup Series circuit to go along with four championships. Like Harvick, Gordon has won everything. He’s a six time Southern 500 winner, five time Brickyard 400 champion, three time Daytona 500 as well as Coca-Cola 600 and All-Star race winner. He most recently was voted into the Hall of Fame too.

He’s my all-time favorite driver, but I have to rank him second.

  1. Jimmie Johnson

I can’t overlook a seven time Cup champion. I know many debate his titles, but you can’t debate history. He’s won 83 times in Cup and once in the XFINITY Series. He has 11 Dover wins, nine Martinsville victories, eight wins at Charlotte including four in the ‘600, seven trips to victory lane at Texas, four Brickyard 400’s and two Daytona 500’s. How do you deny him as being the best ever from California?

Honorable Mention-

Marvin Panch (216 starts, and reached victory lane 17 times. He was the 1961 Daytona 500 winner and in 1998 was named one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers)

Ernie Irvan (18 NASCAR wins) *1991 Daytona 500 winner

Dick Rathman (13 NASCAR wins)

Dan Gurney (5 NASCAR wins in just 16 tries)

Parnelli Jones (4 NASCAR wins in only 34 tries)

Mike Skinner (29 NASCAR wins, 28 in the Truck Series)

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