Jacksonville Sports Day

NASCAR NOTES: Bush Looks to Get Back on Track

Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch shows up at Auto Club Speedway for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 not only as defending race winner, but also a competitor looking to get back on track early in the 2020 season.

He’s still looking for his first top-10 finish of the season and is ranked 27th in the NASCAR Cup Series standings after two races. He finished 34th with an engine issue in the season-opening Daytona 500 and was 15th last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with only 14 laps out front to date (all at Daytona).

A California race, however, may be exactly what Busch needs to re-set his season and sights on becoming the first back-to-back NASCAR Cup Series champion since Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson won a record five straight titles from 2006-2010.

All that starts with winning a race, however. And the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is certainly a strong favorite on this weekend’s two-miler outside Los Angeles, where he has four career wins.

In just the last eight years he’s won three times (2013, ‘14, ‘19), finished runner-up (2012) and earned a pair of third-place (2011, ‘18) showings.

Busch has seven top-10 finishes in that eight-year span and tallied nearly 70 percent of his career laps led total at the track (564 of 807 laps).

Last year’s Auto Club Speedway win was significant and historical – his 200th among the three NASCAR national series – NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. And this track contributed mightily to that big total, considering Busch has a record six Xfinity Series wins and two Gander Trucks wins in addition to his four NASCAR Cup Series trophies at Auto Club Speedway.

The “West Coast Swing” – as this three-week race journey at Las Vegas, Auto Club Speedway and Phoenix Raceway is referred to – has typically been a dependable trophy haul for the Las Vegas native. He is ranked second – only to six-time race winner Jimmie Johnson – in driver rating (114.0), average running position (8.144) and laps led (807) at Auto Club Speedway.

And perhaps if nothing else, this venue remains a sentimental favorite for Busch because he scored the first of his 56 career NASCAR Cup Series wins there in 2005.

Blaney filches Cup Series points lead

For the first time in his young career, 26-year-old Ryan Blaney is the NASCAR Cup Series driver points standings leader. The pilot of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford answered his runner-up finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 with an 11th-place run at Las Vegas on Sunday and now holds a three-point edge on his Penske teammate and Las Vegas winner Joey Logano.

Blaney had a chance to win both races and heads to Auto Club Speedway feeling as motivated as ever to turn a good season start into a race winner’s trophy.

He has three top-10 finishes in four previous starts at the California track. His best showing – fifth place – came in the trip here in 2019, when he led a pair of laps as well.

This weekend Blaney’s No. 12 Ford will be one of three cars (see note below) to carry a special Kobe Bryant tribute in its paint scheme. The car will honor all the victims of the helicopter accident that claimed the NBA superstar Bryant’s life. Blaney met the retired Los Angeles Lakers star and even gave Bryant a racing suit as part of his BODYARMOR sponsorship deal, posting photos of the two on social media.

This week Blaney also revealed the look of his Auto Club Speedway car – done in the Los Angles Laker’s purple and gold colors. The car will carry the numbers 24 and 2 in homage to Bryant and his 13-year old daughter Gianna –  who was also on board the helicopter – as well as a sticker honoring the MambaOnThree.org charity organization designed to raise money for the other seven victims of the accident.

Blaney plans to donate sales of the special merchandising to the MambaOnThree.Org organization.

I wish they all could be California… drivers?

This week six California natives – Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Matt DiBenedetto, Jimmie Johnson, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer – will be in the field for the Auto Club 400 at California’s Auto Club Speedway. And there has always been a distinctive “home-state” vibe at the track located in Fontana, Calif. – about an hour due east of Los Angeles.

Three of these drivers – Bakersfield’s Kevin Harvick, Elk Grove’s Kyle Larson and El Cajon’s Jimmie Johnson – have won this race. Johnson’s six victories is the most all-time. And Custer, of Ladera Ranch, is the defending winner of the NASCAR Xfinity Series race this weekend.

Johnson, who is in a three-way tie for ninth place in the series driver standings, is the top-rated driver at Auto Club Speedway, besting his competitors in driver rating (114.0), average running position (7.271), laps in the top-15 (88.3 percent), laps led (880) and fastest laps run (533).

Perhaps NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, who is from Vallejo, Calif., set the tone in winning the first ever race at the track in 1997. In the first 10 events, only twice was the race winner from somewhere east of the Mississippi River.

In Auto Club Speedway’s 30-year history, 21 race winners have come from towns west of the Mississippi River – including the track’s three most successful drivers, six-time winner Johnson, four-time winner Kyle Busch of Las Vegas and the three-time winner Jeff Gordon.

Two of the last four Auto Club Speedway races have been won by Californians – Johnson in 2016 and Larson in 2017.

Logano wants to keep up the winning ways

Joey Logano wasted no time establishing himself as a 2020 frontrunner, winning last Sunday’s race at Las Vegas and climbing to within three points of NASCAR Cup Series driver standings leader Ryan Blaney – his Team Penske teammate. It sure is a positive sign for the three-car Penske group which swapped driver and crew chief pairings this season.

This week’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) presents a very real Sunday challenge for the 2018 Cup champion. He has three Xfinity Series victories but is winless in 13 NASCAR Cup Series starts. In fact, his 57 career laps led at the track is the second lowest laps led total to Dover International Speedway (26 laps led) among tracks the series races in the first half of the season.

Although Logano hasn’t spent much time out front, he has earned encouraging results of late. The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has six top-10 finishes in the last seven races and four top-5 finishes in the last four. His best finish – runner-up to Kyle Busch – came last year.

“Auto Club Speedway has been a great race track for me in the past,’’ Logano said following his Las Vegas victory. “Yet to get a win; that’s the part that stinks. There’s a big goose egg in the win column over there and I got to try to get to the other side of that.’’

New names are bubbling to the top of the series standings

There are a number of new names topping the NASCAR Cup Series driver standings heading into the third race of the season the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

Sixteen different drivers have earned a top-10 finish to date and only Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson have scored top 10s in the opening two races.

For several drivers, this is a career best start to their season. Roush Fenway Racing’s Chris Buescher, for example, was third in the season-opening Daytona 500 and 14th at Las Vegas resulting in an eighth-place position in the NASCAR Cup Series points – his highest ever after two races.

Similarly, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won the pole position for the Daytona 500 and finished 20th in the race, also finished third at Las Vegas last Sunday earning a fifth place ranking in the series standings – only 19 points behind championship leader Ryan Blaney.

Bubba Wallace, driver of the famed No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet, is ranked 12th in the Cup Series points, thanks to runs of 15th at Daytona and sixth at Las Vegas. This is his highest ever points position after two races.

Austin Dillon, whose Richard Childress Racing team will mark its 3,000th start this weekend at Auto Club Speedway, is ranked seventh in the standings, only 22 points off the leader Ryan Blaney.

It’s the best the former Daytona 500 winner has ever been ranked after two races – thanks to a 12th-place finish in this year’s Daytona 500 followed by a fourth-place effort last Sunday. He is the defending pole-winner at Auto Club and finished 10th in last year’s race.

Another name getting a lot of attention this week is last Sunday’s Las Vegas runner-up Matt DiBenedetto. The California native equaled his career-best finish at Vegas and the driver of the famed No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford is tied with fellow Californian Jimmie Johnson and Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin for ninth place in the series standings – a career best mark for DiBenedetto.

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