Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – FONTANA, CA – Martin Truex Jr. quickly erased any doubts that he would mightily pursue a defense of his 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series trophy when he convincingly won from the Busch Pole position last March at this week’s venue, Auto Club Speedway.
Although Logano ultimately won the 2018 series championship, Truex returns to California for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as motivated as ever in his debut season driving for the Joe Gibbs Racing team.
He’s already earned two runner-up finishes through the first four races of the 2019 season and that statement-making performance in California last year is on the minds of Truex and his competitors.
The New Jersey native will be inducted into the track’s Walk of Fame on Friday morning before opening practice – a nod to his triumphant past. And when opening practice begins hours later – the focus will shift to a triumphant present.
He and his longtime crew chief Cole Pearn – who also moved from Furniture Row Racing to lead the Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota Camry effort – were optimistic following a preseason Goodyear tire test at the two-mile California track back in January. Two of his teammates – Denny Hamlin in the season-opening Daytona 500 and Kyle Busch at ISM Raceway last week – have victories already and Truex is ready to join the trophy hoisting.
His win at California last year was the first of four victories in a season, where he strongly answered his 2017 title ultimately with a runner-up championship finish.
“Our team is really looking forward to getting to California this week,” Truex said. “It’s one of my favorite tracks and I felt good about the test back in January.
“Obviously, the weather is going to be different and there will be more than three cars like at the test, but we feel like we’ve learned a lot about the package since then. We need to go in there Friday and unload strong and carry that through the weekend.
“I’m excited to see if we can go back-to-back there because it’s really turned into one of the most fun tracks on the circuit.”
Truex has three top 10s – including the two runner-up showings at Atlanta and last week at Phoenix. The only mar on the season a 35th-place finish in the Daytona 500 after his Toyota was collected in a multi-car wreck.
Truex has top-10 finishes in three of the last four races at Auto Club Speedway and led a total of 224 laps in that time. He led a dominating 125 of the 200 laps and won every stage last year. And his 11.6-second margin of victory over former race winner Kyle Larson was among the most dominating efforts of the season.
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES
Auto Club Speedway has traditionally been a mighty test of horsepower and willpower for Xfinity Series regulars, but this season, in particular, there is reason to believe that a 17-year string of Cup winners in the Xfinity race there may be stopped.
Fulltime Xfinity drivers Michael Annett started the year with a victory at Daytona and Christopher Bell answered at Atlanta – the first time a season has opened with back-to-back Xfinity Series regulars winning since 2012 when James Buescher won the Daytona season-opener and Elliott Sadler won the next week at Phoenix.
In particular – and with good timing – a pair of California drivers are leading the way in the series. Defending Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick, of Corning, Calif., leads the championship by four-points over Christopher Bell heading into Saturday’s Production Alliance Group 300 (at 5 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Reddick has two top-five and three top-10 finishes in the opening four races and has led the third-most laps (75) this season. A second championship would make him the first to earn back-to-back titles since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2011-12.
Fellow Californian Cole Custer, of Ladera Ranch, finished runner-up to Reddick in the 2018 Xfinity Series Championship and trails his rival by only 11 points heading to their “home” track. As with the Richard Childress Racing driver Reddick, Custer has a pair of top-fives and three top-10s through the opening four races with a best effort of runner-up to in Atlanta.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has the second best average finish this season (7.2) and a top-10 (sixth place in 2018) in two previous Xfinity starts at Auto Club Speedway.
The field will undoubtedly face a major challenge from Toyota driver Kyle Busch who begins the first of his two opportunities to score a historic 200th NASCAR national series win in this Saturday race. Busch leads all drivers with six previous wins in the Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway.