Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – FONTANA, CA – As NASCAR competitors arrive on the final leg of their popular #NASCARGoesWest swing, there are two drivers in particular, who acknowledge Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway (at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), that can historically extend a streak of luck.
For Kevin Harvick, it’s good luck. He comes into the race looking to become the first person in 11 years to win four consecutive Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races.
For fellow Californian Jimmie Johnson, the weekend is about ending a streak of tough luck. The seven-time champ and all-time winningest driver at Auto Club Speedway is hoping to snap a career-long 27 race winless streak.
During Harvick’s three-race season-opening mastery he has led 433 laps – that is 47.8 percent of the 904 total laps run this season. The Bakersfield, Calif. native has led nearly half the laps of competition even though his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was sidelined in a crash early in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Only 12 drivers in NASCAR Cup Series history have won four consecutive races – Billy Wade (1964), David Pearson (1966, 1968) Richard Petty (1967, 1971), Bobby Allison (1971), Cale Yarborough (1976), Darrell Waltrip (1981), Dale Earnhardt (1987), Harry Gant (1991), Bill Elliott (1992), Mark Martin (1993), Jeff Gordon (1998) and Johnson (2007).
And no one has swept all three races – Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, Calif. – on NASCAR’s Western Swing.
“Auto Club Speedway is by far one of my favorite tracks we go to,” said Harvick, who has finished runner-up at Auto Club Speedway in two of the last three races there (2015 & 2016).
“There are so many things that come into play, but it has become a great race and a great racetrack to race on. The crowd has been great over the last few years since we went from two races down to one. It has changed the whole vibe at Auto Club Speedway.
“It’s in my home state. I’m going to get to race on Thursday night at Kern County [Calif.], then head down to Auto Club Speedway for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It’s a big week and I know, from a driver standpoint, Auto Club Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway are right up there at the top of everybody’s list because there is so much fall-off and the asphalt is so worn out.”
Johnson, of El Cajon, Calif., finds himself in an unfamiliar and arguably, over-dramatized situation.
Yes, the seven-time champion is hoping to end a career long winless streak. But that streak is 27 races – a fraction of one season.
Johnson has nearly as many Auto Club Speedway trophies (six) as he does Cup drivers championships and has five more runner-up finishes at the track – meaning he’s finished first or second in 11 of his 23 starts at the track. His No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has led a series-best 980 laps at the track and he’s run among the top-15 in races there, an incredible 88.9 percent of the time.
And Johnson’s average finish at California – 7.13 – is his best at any track on the circuit.
“Yes, we have had a lot of success at California and our expectations are really high,” Johnson said. “We went to Atlanta having a ton of past success and had a tough day. We are chipping away every week and finding speed. Last week wasn’t the result we wanted, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. Huge props to my Lowe’s for Pros team.
“You never forget the site of your first win, I love going ‘home’ and seeing familiar faces.”
Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell are involved in a tight Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, but these two drivers are so talented, they are also very much in the championship hunt as well.
Reddick, the 22-year old California native, won the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway and trails his JR Motorsports veteran teammate Elliott Sadler by only one point in the early season standings.
Bell, 23, who has three top-five efforts in the last three races for his Joe Gibbs Racing team and won back-to-back pole positions at Atlanta and Las Vegas, is fourth in the championship, only eight points behind Sadler.
Last year, William Byron won the Xfinity title as a rookie. In 2014, Chase Elliott did the same.