With four different winners of each of the four races so far this season – the last of which was a fairy-tale victory for Ryan Newman thanks to crew chief Luke Lambert’s brave call to leave his driver out on old tires for the green-white-checkered finish, which snapped a 127 race streak without a win – and all of the manufacturers having visited Victory Lane already, the checkered flag up for grabs on Sunday is anyone’s to take.
Fontana, with its multiple grooves that will see the drivers three and four wide at times – especially on restarts – always provides exciting races and this year, with the lower downforce package, and an apparent evening out of power between the three manufacturers’ engines, it promises to be one of the best races yet.
Jimmie Johnson picked Kevin Harvick’s pocket for the win there last year, with the latter having led for 142 of the 205 laps.
It was Johnson’s power move on the overtime restart that pushed Harvick to the lead before the seven-time champion out-muscled the Stewart-Haas driver to pass him for the win.
Harvick has not had the best of luck so far this season
That race could be a metaphor for how Harvick’s season has panned out at the start of this year. He has run up front, led laps, and looked on course for victory in the opening races of this season, but has been beset by misfortune.
A speeding penalty in the closing stages at Atlanta cost him a win, having led for 292 of the 325 laps, a burst tire put him out of the race early at Las Vegas and, despite dominating at Phoenix over the years, he never quite looked like winning there last weekend.
Yet, with the new points system and stages, Harvick still sits seventh in the standings, with three playoff points thanks to three stage wins. He will certainly be wanting to guarantee his spot in the post-season and put those playoff points to good use, and he is sure to be driving with the bit between his teeth this weekend.
It would be a surprise to no one if Harvick is doing donuts on the infield come late afternoon in the California sunshine.
Having finished second in each of the last two races at Auto Club Speedway, he will definitely be a driver to watch this week. But, of course, those two finishes were in a Chevrolet, and it will be interesting to see if he hits the set-up in his Ford this weekend, having clearly missed it a fraction at Phoenix last week.
Young guns will be aiming to shoot their way to Victory Lane
Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott have both looked mightily impressive so far this year. Larson leads the points standings in his Chip Ganassi #42 Chevy, with Hendrick’s second-season youngster Elliott lying third.
Elliott, who won the pole for the second year straight at the Daytona 500 and also won his heat of the Can-Am Duels, is yet to win a Cup race proper, but his turn will undoubtedly come sooner rather than later.
The young star in the making from Dawsonville, Georgia looks more impressive every time he takes to the track, and it is a good bet that he will finish higher than the sixth place he achieved at this track in his rookie season.
Larson will be hoping for better luck at Fontana this year, having finished dead last in the corresponding race last season, when he blew a left rear tire which propelled him across the track and led to a head on impact with the inside wall.
But he has looked every inch a championship contender this season. After finishing 12th in the Daytona 500, Larson has finished second in the three races that followed it.
Yet, incredibly, Larson is yet to win a single stage in this season’s new format, and he will be hoping to put that right this weekend.
It would be fair to say that, even without a win to his name so far in 2017, Larson is starting to look like the driver to beat.
What has happened to Joe Gibbs Racing?
Joe Gibbs Racing have been one of the surprises of the season so far... but for the wrong reasons.
Having been the class of the field for most of the races last year, JGR look stuck in reverse gear this term.
Without a race win to their name or a driver inside the top 12 of the standings, the Toyotas that looked supreme throughout 2016, seem a shadow of their former selves in 2017.
Without Carl Edwards this time round, the team look completely out of sorts. It is perhaps a bit unfair to expect rookie Daniel Suarez to be challenging for wins week in week out, particularly when his opportunity to replace Edwards in the #19 car was so sudden and unexpected.
But for Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Matt Kenseth, their season has been one of frustration. Busch’s 114 laps that he led at Phoenix last week were the only laps that JGR have led all season.
Kenseth has struggled to find pace in each race, and with him in a contract season – his current deal at JGR is due to expire at the end of 2017 – his performances this year to date have not been those of someone hoping to get an extension.
Of course, maybe he knows something we do not. The talk in the garage over the last couple of weeks was a return to the track for Edwards, and who knows, maybe he is already being eyed for a JGR return in the #20 car?
With the rumor-mill in full flow, Edwards has stated publicly that he has no current plans to return to racing, with ‘current plans’ being the key words. He, again, stressed that he has never said he is retiring , and has always insisted that if he was to come back, Coach Gibbs would be his first phone call.
It would be a logical choice, should Kenseth not stay with the team in 2018, and any plans to offer him an extension may be being placed in the bottom drawer if there are many more under-achieving performances from the amiable 45-year-old Wisconsin native.
The form of the Gibbs Toyotas is a fascinating sub-plot to keep an eye on during Sunday’s race.
The green flag at Fontana is due to wave at 3.30pm ET, and will contain two segments of 60 laps, and an 80 lap final segment.