NASCAR returns to Southern California this weekend with a new race format, a new series sponsor and most of the sport’s biggest names looking for their first win of the season.
Stock-car racing’s top circuit is now called the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after energy drink maker Monster Beverage Corp. took over title sponsorship this year from Sprint Corp.
The Auto Club 400 on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, which is 23 miles from Monster’s headquarters in Corona, will be the fifth race of the Cup Series’ 36-race season.
The winners so far this year are Kurt Busch, the 2004 Cup champion who won the season-opening Daytona 500, along with 2012 champion Brad Keselowski (Atlanta), Martin Truex Jr. (Las Vegas) and veteran Ryan Newman (Phoenix).
That means drivers seeking their first season win include seven-time and defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, former champions Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch (Kurt’s younger brother), and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Johnson also is the best NASCAR driver in the 20-year history of Auto Club Speedway, a two-mile, D-shaped oval originally called California Speedway that is 50 miles east of Los Angeles and seats 68,000.
The El Cajon native holds the records for most wins, six, including last year’s Auto Club 400 when a late caution enabled Johnson to outsprint Harvick in a two-lap overtime finish. Johnson also has the most top-five finishes (13) at Fontana and the most top-10 finishes (16).
The 42-year-old Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports and a Johnson teammate, will be making his 600th career Cup start Sunday. Earnhardt has never won a Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.
Two other longtime fan favorites in Southern California, former champions Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, have retired from driving. Stewart remains a co-owner of the Stewart-Haas Racing team and Gordon is a NASCAR analyst on Fox Sports, which is televising Sunday’s race.
NASCAR has struggled with declines in attendance and TV viewership, and to help boost its appeal the sport this year began breaking each of its races into three stages to enhance the racing throughout the event.
The top-10 finishers in the first two stages are awarded points toward a possible championship playoff berth. The idea is to give drivers more reason to be aggressive earlier in a race.
The points leader heading into Fontana is 24-year-old Kyle Larson of Elk Grove, Calif. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing hasn’t yet won but has finished second in the last three consecutive races.
The crew chiefs for Harvick and Keselowski, meanwhile, will miss Fontana because they were suspended by NASCAR for car-rules violations at last Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway. Keselowski crew chief Paul Wolfe was suspended for three races and Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers was suspended only for the Fontana race.
Auto Club Speedway is a fast, expansive track where the cars often race three or four abreast — especially on restarts — and reach speeds topping 200 mph as they come across the front straightaway into Turn 1.
“The track is so wide, so big and you have all kinds of racing room,” Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick, said in notes released by his team. “The last few years it’s been one of my toughest tracks just to understand where to put the car.”
Qualifying is scheduled Friday at 4 p.m. and Sunday’s race starts at 12:30 p.m.
NASCAR’s second-tier series, the Xfinity Series, will race at Auto Club Speedway on Saturday at 1 p.m.
And one of NASCAR’s minor league circuits, the K&N Pro Series West, will hold two races — the Twin NAPA 100s — on Saturday night at the half-mile Irwindale Speedway starting at 7 p.m.