NASCAR Fontana 2013: Auto Club 400 viewer's guide

USA TODAY Sports

Here is a viewer’s guide for Sunday’s NASCAR race at Auto Club Speedway with storylines to follow and drivers to keep an eye on.

Storylines

Can the Fords go the distance?

After a difficult start to the year where reliability was an issue, Toyota has gotten through the last two weeks without a motor failure. And with its racing headquarters located just down the road from Fontana the timing couldn't be better as this is a home race of sorts for the manufacturer and would like nothing more than to get its first win at the two-mile oval.

However, the engine issues that once plagued Toyota have transformed this weekend to the Ford camp. On Friday both Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski had to make an engine change and there was some concern that problems were related. If that's the case, it's hard to imagine Ford not seeing more of its drivers inflicted with motor problems; especially when you consider that the engines are already be stressed due to the high speeds and high rpms associated with racing at Fontana.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. looking to continue hot start

It hasn't been flashy, but with four consecutive top 10 finishes Dale Earnhardt Jr. is quietly off to the best start of his career. Although he is satisfied with how his year has gone so far, Earnhardt Jr. understands that his team is not operating at the same level as the Keselowski and Johnson teams and that to get there he needs to lead more laps and be in contention for victories.

That could change Sunday, as Fontana represents the kind of track Earnhardt Jr. has excelled on as of late. Last year he was the only driver to finish in the top 10 in every race on a 1.5- to 2-mile oval. And of course there was his win at Michigan, which is almost a carbon copy of Fontana with similar banking and characteristics.

Gordon and Stewart need to get going

A look at the standings shows a few big names well down the championship order. In particular, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart who roll into Fontana 21st and 23rd in points, respectively, and both are in need of a good result to right their year.

For Gordon this is familiar territory. Last season the four-time series champion entered Fontana 23rd overall and had to scramble in the summer months to secure spot in the Chase. And while there are still plenty of races left in the regular season, continued poor performance will put Gordon and Stewart in position where they will have to change their mindset of how they will qualify for the Chase.

Worth Noting
  • Fontana is the only track on the schedule where Joe Gibbs Racing has never won a Sprint Cup Series race. This is in stark contrast to the success the organization has had here in Nationwide as the team has won nine consecutive races with Kyle Busch going to Victory Lane Saturday.
  • Winning the pole at Fontana doesn't guarantee success on race day; only once in 23 races has the pole-sitter gone on to win (Jimmie Johnson, 2008).
  • Six Californians will start the Auto Club 400: Casey Mears, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, AJ Allmendinger, Josh Wise and David Gilliland.
Favorites

1. Kyle Busch

Busch has had a car capable of winning in every race this season, but a combination of mechanical gremlins and driver error has kept him out of Victory Lane. If he can avoid a pit road speeding penalty for the third consecutive week, Busch has an excellent chance to deliver Toyota its first win on its home track.

2. Jimmie Johnson

Any time the series heads to Southern California all eyes turn to Johnson, who has a track-best five wins and has a staggering average finish of 5.4.

3. Brad Keselowski

In practice the points leader was quick on long runs and in a race that typically features prolonged periods of green flag racing, this bodes well. The biggest concern facing Keselowski is overcoming having to start in the rear after an engine change. But on a track with multiple grooves and opportunities to pass, there is plenty of time for him to work his way to the front.

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