What to Watch: Full guide for NASCAR’s return to Auto Club

Everything you need to know for Sunday’s return to Auto Club, the second regular-season NASCAR Cup Series race of the 2022 campaign. 

Race-day info

Where: Auto Club Speedway, a 2-mile D-shaped oval located in Fontana, California
Green flag: 3:47 p.m. ET
Grand Marshal: Andrew Whitworth, LA Rams tackle and 2022 Super Bowl champion
Flyover: F-18s, VFA-122 Flying Eagles
TV/Radio: FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Forecast: Mostly sunny, with a high near 71, according to NOAA.gov
Race Purse: $8,035,061
Race Distance: 200 laps | 400 miles
Stages: 65 | 130 | 200
Pit-road speed: 55 mph
Caution car speed: 65 mph
Auto Club 101: Get the full lowdown
Entry list: See every driver and team

Lineup:
Starting lineup for Sunday | Multiple spins in last round of qualifying | Chase Elliott spins, too
Practice happenings: Results | Kevin Harvick takes damage | Big hit for Ross Chastain
Prepping for pit road: How Next Gen pit stops work | Pit-stall assignments
Pre-race penalties: Kurt Busch to serve pass-through penalty

Five things to watch

1. Sunday will mark 728 days since the NASCAR Cup Series last turned laps at Auto Club Speedway and many key events have happened since then. Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson retired after that farewell season, Clint Bowyer gave up the No. 14 seat for a chair in the FOX Sports booth, Kyle Larson brought the Bill France Cup back to Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR ushered in a new era with the Next Gen car — all among other important changes to the sport’s landscape. Cars took to the track Saturday for practice and qualifying sessions, giving drivers a first taste of the Next Gen on a 2-mile layout. The results? Challenging — just the way drivers like it. “I wasn’t even hardly in the throttle,” Kevin Harvick radioed his No. 4 crew after skidding to a stop following a spin that sent him into the Turn 4 wall, one of several single-car incidents during the on-track activity. It should set up for an unpredictable, frenzy-filled afternoon as drivers engage the Next Gen’s learning curve. | Drivers ready for ‘unknowns’ in long-anticipated Fontana return

2. For years, California-native Jimmie Johnson dominated the grooves of Auto Club Speedway before seemingly passing the baton to Kyle Busch — the active driver with the most wins at the track. Busch’s success here has been consistently dominant, earning an remarkable 11 top fives and 16 top 10s in 22 starts. In fact, Busch has only one finish outside the top eight in more than a decade. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota isn’t surprising anyone as one of the favorites to win this weekend. But another Kyle — Larson, to be exact — tops the BetMGM oddsboard for this weekend. And after the historic 2021 campaign he and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team put together, you’d be hard-pressed to bet against him and Hendrick’s pure speed at a 2-mile track. Larson’s lone win at Auto Club came in 2017 and teammate Alex Bowman rattled off the latest victory in 2020. Sandwiched in between the two, Martin Truex Jr. (2018) and Busch (2019) both found Victory Lane. Sunday may provide us with a way-too-early answer to which driver, or team, has the Next Gen edge. | Battle of the Kyles: Busch vs. Larson

3. Don’t forget, Bowman isn’t the only driver in the current Cup Series field to win in their last stock-car start at Auto Club. Harrison Burton, Wood Brothers Racing’s talented rookie, raced his way to victory in the 2020 Xfinity Series race. For a young driver looking to bounce back after Daytona, heading to a place with its Victory Lane still fresh in the memory is a good remedy. And Burton’s No. 21 Ford flexed speed already this season, with a solid showing in the Clash and front-running ability in the Daytona 500. Cindric’s memorable win last Sunday definitely gave him a leg up on the Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle, but expect Burton to bounce back sooner rather than later.

4. The last six trips to Auto Club have produced six different winners and only six active drivers have ever won at the track — Kyle Busch (four wins), Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman. Busch is certainly aiming to start the Next Gen era with his fifth, but the host of winless drivers is more confident than ever with the increased parity this year’s racer brings — so far. That means, this weekend, drivers will be looking to pounce on the advantage of the unknown. In the 2021 regular season, 14 different drivers picked up wins, securing all but two of the coveted NASCAR Playoffs spots on that basis. This number could easily be a playoff-era record to watch this season, likely starting off two-for-two in Fontana. We didn’t see a repeat winner last season until Truex earned his second in April.

5. With the Next Gen car comes new car configurations. Sunday’s action at Auto Club Speedway will be the highly-anticipated 2-mile speedway debut of the baseline 670-horsepower, four-inch spoiler configuration. The number jumps up from 550 a year ago at intermediate tracks and brings with it a smaller rear spoiler. You’ve seen how Next Gen cars look at the LA Memorial Coliseum and Daytona International Speedway (though this was a seven-inch spoiler), now tune in Sunday to watch them race. | Base rules configurations set | Configurations by track for 2022

A five-wide salute in 2020 for Jimmie Johnson’s last race in Fontana. | Getty Images

Race-day staples

Our biggest pieces of the week — get covered for race day from all angles.

• Power Rankings: Chase Briscoe starts sophomore season with a spark | Latest rankings
• Paint Scheme Preview:
Next Gen cars arriving in style at Auto Club | See the schemes
• Preview Show:
 2-mile Kyle Larson or Busch? | Watch the show
• Fantasy Fastlane:
Ready to roll with Blaney at Auto Club | Top plays, sleepers

Catch the pack

Daytona 500 Next Gen cars
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Read up on the top headlines from the week leading up to Sunday’s race.

• Busch vs. Larson: Both Kyles have strong Auto Club potential | Full analysis
• Key to SHR turnaround:
Two team veterans point to one person as the key to a rebound in 2022 | Read more
• Penalties:
Two Cup Series teams penalized for lost wheels, statement issued | Official statement
• ‘Candy Man’ in Cali:
Kyle Busch relishes return to Auto Club | Read more
• Hollywood calling?:
Netflix docuseries ‘Race’ starring Bubba Wallace launches worldwide | Sneak preview
• Path to success:
O’Donnell says Next Gen car ‘performed really well’ at Daytona | Hear more
• Trust the process:
NASCAR’s Scott Miller gives update on wheels, other Daytona developments | See details
• Behind the scenes:
Darwin Patterson runs the show in NASCAR Victory Lane | Inside look
• Watering the roots:
NASCAR, NBC Sports announce grassroots racing coverage on USA Network | More info

Get in on the action

NASCAR Fantasy Live
NASCAR Creative Design

Think you know NASCAR? Put your mettle to the test with gaming, fantasy.

• Play it LIVE: Full guide to 2022 NASCAR Fantasy Live game | Get the FAQ
• Don’t sleep on No. 8:
Is Tyler Reddick a fantasy darkhorse at Fontana? | Making the case
• What are the odds?: Betting odds for Auto Club | See the favorites
• BetMGM:
Betting insights for features matchup at Auto Club | Expert tips
• The Action Network: Why Ryan Blaney is a bet to make right now for Auto Club | Find out why
• The Action Network:
Bowman over Byron? | Which Hendrick Motorsports driver wins Fontana battle?
• Backseat Bettors: Which drivers are flying high at Fontana? | Which bets are best?
• Going all the way: Updated 2022 Cup Series championship odds | See them here

Arriving at Auto Club

The California speedway has had its share of incredible moments — take a look back at the race’s history and track features.

• Pace out front: Top 10 lap leaders at Auto Club Speedway | See the list
• Club conquerors:
All-time wins at Auto Club Speedway | Every winner
• Cherish the times:
Memorable moments from Auto Club | Relive the moments
• How wide?:
Breaking down Auto Club’s wide pit road | Watch breakdown
• Take me back:
Recap of Alex Bowman’s 2020 victory | Read more
• Press rewind:
All of the best 2020 race highlights | Watch them here

Fast facts

Hard-hitting, race-relevant statistics, brought to you by the experts at Racing Insights.

West Coast drivers have won 19 of 31 Auto Club Speedway races, including 11 wins by drivers from California.
• Alex Bowman is the only driver without a Cup Series championship to win in the last 15 races at ACS (2020).
• Kyle Busch has led laps in nine of his last 11 starts at Auto Club Speedway, totaling a series-leading 579 in that span.
The last driver to win the first two races of the season was Matt Kenseth in 2009.
• Kyle Larson‘s No. 5 crew had the fastest four-tire stop in the Daytona 500 at 11.501 seconds. The fastest in 2021 was 11.611 seconds by Kevin Harvick‘s No. 4 crew.

Say what?

Notable quotes from the stars of the sport heading into Sunday’s race.

Martintruexjr
Martin Truex Jr. | Getty Images

“I think Fontana is probably gonna be one of the toughest ones we go to just because of the seams, the bumps, the camber changes in the road.  I feel like Vegas will probably be a more predictable race for us.  I think Fontana is definitely more of a wild card and I wouldn’t say doesn’t suit the car, but we haven’t raced there in two years and I’m sure it hasn’t gotten any grippier, and I’m sure the seams haven’t gotten any better, so I’m very curious to see what that’s like.  We have a very limited amount of practice, so look for a lot of comers and goers in the race, I think.” — Austin Cindric, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, on preparing for Fontana after winning the Daytona 500

“We think we know what to expect based on the testing that we’ve done and just previous experience at the track, but it’s a new car with a new tire, so a lot of it is based on simulations, and you just hope you’re making the right assumptions. This will definitely be one of the bigger unknowns that we’ve faced in a long time because we’re not getting a ton of track time for practice and once you practice and qualify, it’s impounded until Sunday. Hopefully we unload where we need to be and can qualify up front and run well. It’s a very unique situation, but it’s the same for everyone so we just need to be able to take advantage of the opportunity.” — Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota