Kyle Busch relishes NASCAR Cup Series return to Auto Club Speedway

For the first time in two years, NASCAR is returning to Auto Club Speedway.

The 2-mile Fontana, California, track hosted the next-to-last NASCAR Cup Series race before the coronavirus pandemic brought professional sports in the United States to a sudden halt.

Alex Bowman was the winner of that race, picking up the second of his six career victories.

Sunday’s WISE Power 400 (3:30 p.m. on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will constitute the first competitive full-field test of NASCAR’s new Next Gen race car on a downforce track.

Kyle Busch, for one, is looking forward to the experience. With four wins, the last coming in 2019, the two-time series champion is the only active driver with more than one victory at Fontana.

“I love going out to California,” Busch said. “It’s a driver’s track, and it’s aged over time… You can run all over it. Typically, recently you run up around the wall in the turns, but you can still move around a bit. I hope the Next Gen car will also allow us to move around and be pretty racy.”

With 59 career victories, Busch leads active drivers in that category. His first came at Fontana on Sept. 4, 2005, when he drove the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to a .554-second win over Greg Biffle.

“We ran in the top-five all day long, but we really didn’t think we had a winning car,” recalled Busch, who has claimed his three most recent Auto Club Speedway victories since joining Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008. “When we got the lead a few times throughout the race, we just pulled away and led by quite a bit.

“It was really cool to have a really dominant race car. I remember having to drive the car really loose. That was the loosest I think I’ve ever driven a race car that was still moving forward.”

For Bowman, a pandemic and the development and debut of the Next Gen race car have occurred since his victory in 2020.

“It feels like it’s been forever,” Bowman said. “I feel like our mile-and-a-half program had gotten pretty good at that point… I felt like we had a really good car there and were really good from the time we unloaded.

“As far as applying that to this year’s car a couple of years down the road, I don’t think you can drive this year’s car as loose as you could with the previous gen car. I was really loose that whole weekend—it was just really fast.”

Track position should be an important factor in Sunday’s race, and that will put a premium on qualifying.

In 2005, Busch claimed the first pole position of his career at Fontana for the second race of the season. The driver of the No. 18 JGR Toyota will have a chance to earn a second Auto Club pole, with NASCAR implementing a two-hour-long session that incorporates both practice and qualifying on Saturday.

The 36-car field will be divided according to performance metric rank into two groups, each of which will get 15 minutes of practice before time trials. After a knockout single-lap qualifying session, the fastest five cars from each group will compete for the pole in a subsequent Round 2.


NASCAR Xfinity Series race promises to be a wide-open affair

Before Cole Custer and Harrison Burton won back-to-back NASCAR Xfinity Series races at Auto Club Speedway in 2019 and 2020, respectively, the annual Xfinity Series event at the 2-mile track was a playground for moonlighting NASCAR Cup Series stars.

In a six-year stretch from 2008 through 2013, Kyle Busch powered his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to victory no less than six times, a track record. That was part of a nine-race winning streak for JGR Toyotas, all accomplished by drivers competing full-time in the Cup Series.

Custer, who graduated to the Cup Series in 2020, is the only former Fontana winner competing in Saturday’s Production Alliance 300 (5 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). He’s racing in in the No. 07 Ford fielded by SS Greenlight Racing, a technical partner of Stewart-Haas Racing.

There are 41 cars on the entry list for Saturday’s race and just 38 spots available in the field. The event also marks the return to Xfinity Series competition for Trevor Bayne, who hasn’t driven in the series since 2016 and hasn’t run a NASCAR race since 2020, when he entered eight NASCAR Camping World Truck Series events.

Bayne hopes to parlay a limited schedule in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into a full-time NASCAR ride.

In talking about the potential opportunity, Bayne told JGR executive vice president Steve DeSouza, “I know you have the best Xfinity program and I want to come back to win. I want to come back and make a statement and show what I can do as a driver, and if I can’t get it done, I want to know that I was in the best ride possible, and it just didn’t work out.”