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by March 21, 2014 0 comments

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FONTANA, Calif. — NASCAR’s brief visit to the east coast ends as the series heads back west for the 300 at Auto Club Speedway.

Located in Fontana, California, the track’s two-mile long configuration will allow the cars to reach speeds of well over 200 miles per hour before darting off into Turns 1 and 3 and is wide enough to have the cars comfortably run four abreast while doing it.

If any team has figured this track out, it’s Joe Gibbs Racing.

JGR is going for their 10th straight Nationwide Series win in Fontana, a streak that stretches back to when Tony Stewart won the track’s 2008 Spring event. Elliott Sadler, Matt Kenseth, and Kyle Busch will drive JGR’s three entries for the weekend, and all three drivers have strong records that make them all contenders to win the organization’s 10th consecutive event here.

Busch is a six-time winner at Auto Club Speedway in the series and is also the defending winner of the event. Of drivers with more than two starts at the track, Busch possesses the most dominant record of all entries for this weekend’s race – in 15 starts, Busch has finished in the top-five on nine occasions and has only finished outside of the top-10 in three of his starts at Auto Club.

The greatest challenge to Busch this weekend comes from within the JGR organization in the shape of Kenseth.

Kenseth is a four-time winner at Fontana in a Nationwide Series car; his last victory at the track coming in the same year as his last start at the track, 2007. Kenseth will be making his first-ever start at the track behind the wheel of a Joe Gibbs-owned Camry. The driver of the No. 20 Camry¬†has an average finish at Auto Club that is nearly identical to Busch’s figure, a 7.4 to a 6.8 held by Busch. Kenseth, like his teammate, is also very consistent at the two-mile track – in 13 starts he has only finished outside of the top-10 in three of those starts.

Nationwide Series regular and JGR driver, Elliott Sadler, is a consistent performer at the Southern California track as well. Sadler will be making his 10th career start at Auto Club this weekend; he has two top-fives and five top-10s in his previous starts here, finishing in the top-10 in his last three starts at the track. Currently fifth in the standings and 16 points out of the lead, Sadler will be looking to claw his way up the standings with a strong finish on Saturday.

To do so, he’ll have to beat the current top-two drivers in the standings – Trevor Bayne and current points leader Regan Smith.

Bayne possesses the lowest average finish in Fontana out of all Nationwide Series regulars, an average finish of 11.7. In six starts, he has finished in the top-10 on two occasions – in 2011, and in last year’s event when he placed ninth.

Smith, like Bayne, has finished in the top-10 twice in six starts; however Smith’s best-ever finish here was a third place finish in last year’s event. The driver of the No. 6 Mustang has been digging into Smith’s lead more and more over the past several weeks, if Smith can build on last year’s performance he can start to build that points gap back up.

Brian Scott, currently in seventh place in the drivers’ standings, is another Nationwide Series regular looking to make an impact in the 300. Scott holds a record at the track that is better than both Bayne’s and Smith’s. In six career races at the track, Scott has finished in the top-10 three times with a best finish of fourth coming in 2012. In each of his starts, the driver of the No. 2 Camaro has finished each of his races here on the lead lap.

Making his second ever start in Fontana in the Nationwide Series, Kyle Larson is riding high on momentum heading into Saturday’s race. If you look at his results over the past several weeks, it appears that Larson is taking baby-steps to get to victory lane – the driver of the No. 42 finished fourth at Phoenix, third in Las Vegas, and second last week at Bristol. In Larson’s maiden race at Auto Club last year, he started ninth and finished sixth.

Fellow Sprint Cup driver Kevin Harvick will also be a factor in Saturday’s race. While the Bakersfield, California, native has never won in his home-state in the Nationwide Series; he does have an excellent record of 14 top-10s in 17 races with an average finish of 7.2 to his name in Fontana.

Qualifying for the 300 will take place on Saturday morning prior to the race. Starting position will be a major factor in deciding who the race winner will be. In the past 15 races at Auto Club Speedway, the winner has come from a starting position within the top-10; in 14 out of those 15 races, the winner started from within the top-five.

These statistics are rather surprising considering that the track’s configuration allows for a lot of passing. Considering the straights are long enough to allow for drivers to draft off of one another to pass heading into the corners, it would seem easier for a driver to come from the back to the front to win the race. After all, this race has had plenty of passing for the lead in recent years, the average number of lead changes in the last five events is 15.

Will a driver be able to buck the trend and win from a farther-back starting position? More importantly, will anybody be able to stop Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance at this race track?

The 300 will air live on ESPN this Saturday with coverage beginning at 4:30p.m EST.

Kyle Pokrefky
Follow Kyle Pokrefky on Twitter at @KPokrefky

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