Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing seek 1st win this year
FONTANA, Calif. — Four drivers have earned a victory in the first four weeks of what’s shaping up as a competitive NASCAR Cup Series season.
Only two teams have reached Victory Lane, however. Two other giants of the sport are eager to join them.
Stewart-Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports still are looking for their first wins of the year heading into Sunday’s race at Fontana. Plenty of uncertainty still exists around NASCAR’s new racing rules package as the West Coast Swing wraps up at Auto Club Speedway, but the trailing teams believe they’re starting to figure it out.
While cars fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have made quick adjustments to the new rules, Hendrick and Southern California’s own Jimmie Johnson still are trying to bounce back from a slow start. They’re hoping for a boost on this familiar weathered asphalt one hour east of Los Angeles, where Johnson has won six times.
“There are tracks that a driver can make a difference at,” said Johnson, who hasn’t won anywhere since June 2017. “This track has been one. The one thing that is so different right now is we’re back to a package we’ve run two other times this year. We’re on a high-wear track. I look at Atlanta. It did not go well.
“Atlanta is similar to this place, so I’m hopeful that we’ve made our car better since Atlanta for this type of environment. That’s what I think the whole Hendrick Motorsports crowd is focused on right now.”
Stewart-Haas also appears to be making progress. Kevin Harvick was the fastest in the second practice Saturday in his Ford Mustang, and the California native is counting on his familiarity with Fontana to help Sunday, even while every driver attempts to figure out how his car is working under the rules package.
“I think in the last three weeks, you have seen the veteran guys shine,” said Harvick, who starts second Sunday. “I used to tell Danica Patrick this all the time, ‘I have 25 years on you, and you will never catch up.’ And that is the truth. Experience matters, more so in our sport than maybe any other sport. The knowledge of the race track, things you have been through, things you have done.”
Kyle Busch will be in position to make history Sunday. The 33-year-old arrived at Fontana with 199 career victories after sweeping both races in Phoenix. Richard Petty holds NASCAR’s career record with 200 wins. The King did it all in the top series, whereas Busch’s wins are scattered across NASCAR’s top three series. Differences aside, Busch’s achievement will be praised by his fellow drivers when he crosses the mark.
He took second in Saturday’s Xfinity event, meaning he could tie Petty on Sunday.
Austin Dillon starts on the pole after one of the weirdest qualifying sessions in recent Cup Series history . No drivers completed a lap in the final round of qualifying because every car waited too long to start driving in hopes of being the final car in a group. The singular importance of drafting under the new rules package was the reason for the embarrassing session, but the drivers all realize starting track position isn’t incredibly important in this long race.
Martin Truex Jr. won this race last year by a whopping 11.685 seconds over Kyle Larson, but that was before the new rules package designed to prevent any car from pulling away from the field. Truex qualified in 27th on Friday but was fast in practice Saturday. He also finished second behind Busch last week in Phoenix.
The cars will have tapered spacers to reduce horsepower, and aero ducts will be used along with larger spoilers. Responding to the results of a tire test here in January, they also will have more durable tires on the right side because rubber wears out quickly in Fontana. The rules changes haven’t yet led to frantic racing and constant passing, but it could happen this weekend — particularly on restarts, which usually are entertaining at Fontana because of the five-wide capability on the old track.
Johnson has gone 63 starts without a win, and fellow Californian Larson has gone 50 starts without grabbing a checkered flag. But Larson has seven second-place finishes in that stretch and won here at Fontana in 2017.