Auto Club Speedway, Fontana, CA — February 26, 2023
With the announcement that this weekend’s race from Fontana will be the last NASCAR Cup Series race on the 2-mile configuration, the anticipation for a spectacular final event is steadily growing. Planning continues for a proposed half-mile short track located on a portion of the speedway’s current property, but the timing for the commencement of that project remains uncertain, making this weekend that much more special.
The 2023 Pala Casino 400 will be the 33rd time the NASCAR Cup Series has competed at the paved 2-mile oval located in Fontana, California. The first NASCAR Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway took place on June 22, 1997, and was won by NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon.
Jimmie Johnson leads the series in wins at Auto Club Speedway, with six (2002, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016). He is not racing today. Kyle Busch is the active driver with the most wind at Fontana.
|Active Auto Club Race Winners||Wins||Seasons|
|Kyle Busch||4||2005, 2013, 2014, 2019|
|Martin Truex Jr||1||2018|
Daytona 500 Champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Fontana
There is no more significant race to win than the Daytona 500, and JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. found this out firsthand on Sunday and the following days. Not only did Stenhouse grab the third victory of his career, snapping a 199-race winless streak, but also secured his spot in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs – which will be his first appearance in the postseason since 2017.
Stenhouse heads to Auto Club Speedway looking to become the sixth different driver to win the first two races of a NASCAR Cup Series season. The five drivers holding that distinction are Marvin Panch in 1957 (Lancaster, Concord), Bob Welborn in 1959 (Daytona, Champion), David Pearson in 1976 (Riverside, Daytona), Jeff Gordon in 1997 (Daytona, Rockingham), and Matt Kenseth (Daytona, Auto Club).
In nine career starts at Auto Club Speedway, Stenhouse has posted one top-five and two top-10s. His average finish on the 2-mile track is 17th. Not a betting favorite today.
JTG Daugherty Racing’s Daytona 500 Victory
JTG Daugherty Racing accomplished a few feats this past weekend at Daytona International Speedway.
First, owner Brad Daugherty became the first African American car owner in the NASCAR Cup Series to win the Daytona 500.
Secondly, JTG Daugherty Racing grabbed their second NASCAR Cup Series career victory with the Daytona 500 win last weekend, snapping a 482-race winless streak dating back to 2011 when the organization got its first victory with driver A.J. Allmendinger at Watkins Glen International. With the win, they became the first single-car team to win the Daytona 500 since the Wood Brothers in 2011.
And last but not least, with the win to open the season, JTG Daugherty Racing has earned a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series Owner Playoffs, and it is just the second time the organization has qualified for the postseason (2011, 2023) in the series.
Ford Off to a Fast Start
Two Ford drivers lead the NASCAR Cup Series standings after the first week as Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Roush Fenway Keselowski’s Chris Buescher hold down the first and second spots, respectively. Logano finished second to race-winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Sunday’s Daytona 500, while Buescher scored points in all three stages before ultimately finishing fourth. Ryan Blaney is seventh in the point standings, with Kevin Harvick one spot behind, as Ford features four drivers in the top 10.
Team Penske’s Joey Logano finished the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season as the champion on top of the point standings, and following the season-opener of 2023 at Daytona, the 32-year-old finds himself back atop the points right where he left off. Following Daytona, Logano holds a two-point lead over RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher in second.
Logano finished a close second to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the 2023 Daytona 500, earning 42 points on the day. The Connecticut native managed to win the Duel he was in last week and, in doing so, earned an additional 10 points to catapult him to the standings lead heading to Auto Club Speedway.
Logano will look to keep the early season success flowing this weekend at Auto Club Speedway, where he has made 15 series career starts, posting seven top fives and eight top 10s. He finished fifth in the NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club Speedway race last season.
The Pala Casino 400 is set to run 200 laps around the 2-mile speedway. Stages are 65/65/70 laps. Kyle Larson is the defending champion of the race. He returns to his home state to try for two in a row at Fontana, about 420 miles south of Larson’s hometown of Elk Grove.
Should Larson take the checkered flag today, he will become the third different driver to win back-to-back victories at Auto Club Speedway. Joining Jimmie Johnson (2009-2010) and Kyle Busch (2013-2014). Larson has made eight career starts at Auto Club Speedway, posting one pole, two wins, and four top-fives. His average finish at Fontana is 13th.
Another California native (Bakersfield), Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, will reach a career milestone. Harvick will be making his 750th consecutive NASCAR Cup Series career start at Auto Club Speedway, becoming just the third different driver to accomplish the feat.
That record will come to an end when he retires at the end of the 2023 season. Among active drivers, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. has the next longest active streak of consecutive starts in the NASCAR Cup Series behind Harvick with 613.
Harvick has made 28 series career starts at Auto Club Speedway, posting one win (2011), seven top fives, and 14 top 10s.
With practice and qualifying rained out, Christopher Bell(20) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.(47) start on the front row based on the formula outlined in the NASCAR rule book. Joey Logano(22) and Alex Bowman(48) line up behind them.
Bowman led lap one as drivers fanned out four wide on the start. Bell held onto the second spot briefly until Ross Chastain(1) and Logano blew by as the high side of the track proved to be the fast way around the speedway.
Kyle Larson, one of the favorites, came to pit road on lap 13, telling his crew he had blown up. The hood went up, but no repairs were made. The crew sent him back on the track while they tried to determine what the issue might be.
NASCAR scheduled a competition caution for after lap 15 due to the rain and snow that plagued the speedway Friday and Saturday. The yellow flag allowed Larson’s crew to take another look under the hood of his misfiring race car.
Everyone pitted during the caution for fresh tires. Larson was forced to the garage so his crew could address an electrical problem with the car. Martin Truex Jr.(19) was penalized and sent to the rear of the field after his crew had a tire get away and roll out of his pit.
Chastain and Bowman led the field back to the green flag. Again restarts at Fontana are a mad scramble with cars four and five wide racing for positions. Kyle Larson spent 16 laps undergoing repairs in the garage but was able to return to the track.
On Lap 41, Corey LaJoie(7) slid up the track on the backstretch and made contact with Brad Keselowski(6). Keselowski went for a long spin down the track, and the caution waved for the second time.
During the stops under caution, Kyle Busch(8) was penalized for being too fast on the pit road and sent to the rear of the field.
Ryan Blaney(12) was first off pit road, and he lined up next to Chastain for the restart. Some new names appeared on the leaderboard after 50 laps. Daniel Suarez(99) moved to second behind Chastain. Chase Elliott(9), Denny Hamlin(11), and Bubba Wallace(23) held spots in the top ten.
As the laps wound down to the conclusion of Stage One, Chastain held onto the top spot. Blaney finished second, Suarez third, Bowman fourth, and Denny Hamlin in the fifth position.
Stage One Results
|9||19||Martin Truex Jr||2|
*Ford Mustang Drivers
Daniel Suarez was penalized under caution and sent to the rear of the pack.
Chastain and Hamlin led the pack back to green flag racing, with Logano and Byron right behind. Kyle Busch had made up his deficit from the earlier pit road penalty and was jockeying for a spot in the top five.
Just three laps in, Corey LaJoie got stacked up in the position shuffle, made contact with AJ Allmendinger(16), and AJ spun out of turn four hitting the inside wall at the entry to pit road. Damage to the left front of Allmendinger’s car may result in him having to take the car to the garage.
Truex’s crew failed to get the left front wheel tight on his car. He was smoking badly as he reached the exit of the pit road. His crew told him to try and make it around so they could take care of the problem. Unfortunately, the wheel came off on the backstretch. NASCAR had multiple issues with wheels last year and changed the rules for 2023 so that if a car lost a wheel on the track, it would result in the car being held for two laps in the pits as the penalty.
A few cars stayed on the track during the caution, and Noah Gragson(42) led for a lap when they resumed racing. A lap later, Logano, Hamlin, and Byron blew by Gragson with fresher tires.
Corey LaJoie was involved in another incident on the next lap. Tyler Reddick(45) sent LaJoie sliding through the front stretch grass, and the caution displayed again.
Logano and Hamlin sat on the front row, coming to the green. Cars began wrecking before the start/finish line as the field checked up with a slower-than-normal restart. The yellow waved again.
Nine cars were involved, some with severe body damage. Aric Almirola(10), Blaney, Bell, Justin Haley(31), Todd Gilliland(38), Ryan Preece(41), Reddick, Cody Ware(51), and Ty Dillon(77) all dealt with some damage.
Hamlin led the first lap back to green flag racing as they approached the halfway point of the race. Allmendinger’s crew was unable to repair his car in the time allotted time and pushed the #16 back to the garage.
As a result of the multi-car accident, Almirola, Bell, Preece, and Reddick were all forced to retire from the event with unrepairable damage.
At lap 100, the top five were Chastain, Hamlin, Logano, Byron, and Kyle Busch.
With five laps to go to the end of Stage Two, Kevin Harvick(4) and Suarez joined the top five battle for Stage points. Chastain was safely out front as positions were swapped among the leaders.
Stage Two Results
*Ford Mustang Drivers
The Final Stage
Positions changed on pit road as Harvick was first off and into the lead. Busch, Logano, Chastain, and Chase Elliott(9) followed.
Busch outraced Harvick into turn one and began to pull away. However, Ty Dillon bounced off the wall with 60 laps to go and came to rest at the bottom of the track. The caution was a bonus for Truex as he got the lucky dog and returned to the lead lap.
The Fontana track is so abrasive on tires that everyone returned to pit road for fresh Goodyear rubber. This time Busch beat Harvick out, and Suarez returned to the track in third. They were followed by Chastain and Logano.
Busch, Logano, and Chastain all held the lead through the first two laps. Drivers in the top ten drove four wide to try and grab whatever positions could be gained on the restart. When things settled out, Chastain led, and Busch hung on onto his bumper as the pair put ten car lengths on Logano in third.
Crews indicate that everyone should be able to finish the race on fuel. Can tires last for 50 laps? Is the question no one has the answer for. Clean air seems to benefit the car out front. It takes a lot out of a set of tires to make a pass for the lead. So, Busch seems content to follow Chastain’s tire tracks to separate them from the rest of the pack. If Chastain makes a mistake, Busch is ready to pounce.
Crews decided a stop for tires was going to be necessary. Logano was the first to pit with 34 laps remaining, and that opened the door for the other leaders to also get fresh tires. Every lead lap car pitted, with the exception of Michael McDowell. After stops cycled through, Busch ran second to McDowell. With 20 laps to go, Busch caught and passed the leader.
Chase Elliott made a strong late-race run but could not catch Busch. It was the first win for him with his new team, Richard Childress Racing. The victory gave Busch the record for most consecutive seasons with a win, 19. The former record holder? The King, Richard Petty.
Results of the Pala Casino 400 from Auto Club Speedway
|11||19||Martin Truex Jr||17.105||200|
|12||47||Ricky Stenhouse Jr||23.231||200|
NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Standings
|1||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||73||In Win|
|2||Kyle Busch||58||In Win|
|10||Martin Truex Jr.||58||+20|
|NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Cut Line|
*Ford Mustang Drivers