As NASCAR visits Fontana, Kevin Harvick is blazing, Tony Stewart isn't

NASCAR returns to Auto Club Speedway, which could be where struggling Tony Stewart turns things around

Kevin Harvick already knows he's in NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup playoff in the fall, when he'll try to defend his title.

The question now, as NASCAR returns to Southern California this weekend for the Sprint Cup Series' fifth race of the season, is: Can anyone slow the Bakersfield native down at all?

Harvick has won the last two races, in Las Vegas and Phoenix. Sunday's Auto Club 400 at Fontana is the third and final leg of the series' Western swing.

Here are four other trends after the first four races this season in stock-car racing's premier circuit:

Smoke but no fire

Tony Stewart is known for often starting slowly each season and then picking up steam, but this year the three-time Cup champion is off to a dreadful start.

The best finish so far for the driver nicknamed "Smoke" was 30th in Atlanta. That followed a 42nd-place finish at the season-opening Daytona 500, in which Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet got loose and hit the wall.

Stewart then finished 33rd in Las Vegas and, last weekend, he was 39th in Phoenix when he again hit the wall — this time twice.

The result: Stewart is 36th in the Cup point standings, the lowest of any driver who's raced in all four events.

His struggles follow a trying year and a half for the 43-year-old veteran. He shattered his right leg in a racing crash in 2013. Then, last August, he struck and killed a fellow driver who was on foot on a dirt track during a non-NASCAR race in upstate New York.

But Fontana could be just the place for Stewart to turn things around. He won the Cup race on the two-mile oval in 2010 and 2012.

What's wrong with Toyota?

A Toyota driver hasn't won a Cup race since Denny Hamlin won last May at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway, one of two tracks (the other is Daytona International Speedway in Florida) where the cars' horsepower is restricted and the cars race in big packs.

If you toss out the Talladega race, Toyota is coming up on the anniversary of its last win at an unrestricted track. That was Kyle Busch's win at Fontana a year ago. Busch is now sidelined with a broken leg and foot suffered in a Daytona crash last month.

The two main Toyota teams are Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, with a combined six drivers, and their engines are built at Toyota's plant in Costa Mesa.

Gibbs driver Denny Hamlin griped about Toyota's shortcomings after he finished 23rd at Phoenix, telling NBC Sports: "All of our cars suck right now."

Toyota racing executives said they're working to give the cars more speed and better handling. Some of NASCAR's top drivers — Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards among them — are counting on it.

Truex bounces back

After a dismal 2014, Martin Truex Jr. has been strong in his No. 78 Chevrolet, the one car fielded by Furniture Row Racing.

Truex has finished eighth or better through the first four races — including a second-place finish in Las Vegas — and he's third in the title standings.

It's the first time a Furniture Row driver has posted four consecutive top-10 finishes since the Denver-based team began racing in the Cup series full time in 2010.

Last year Truex had only one top-five finish, was 24th in the point standings and missed the Chase playoff.

As for Auto Club Speedway, "I feel it's a place we could be strong," Truex told reporters in Phoenix. The team tested there last fall and "really liked what we saw," he said.

Roush Fenway's slow start

The early season has been rough for the Ford team of Roush Fenway Racing, which has a strong record at Auto Club Speedway.

The team's Greg Biffle is 16th in the Cup standings, while Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are mired in 26th and 27th, respectively.

Roush Fenway has seven career Cup victories at the Fontana track but its last win there was six years ago. Kenseth won the spring race in 2009 when he drove for Roush Fenway and when the speedway hosted two Cup races a year.

Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports holds the record for career Cup wins at Fontana with five.

james.peltz@latimes.com

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

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