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Podium Preview: Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club

It's the swan song of the 2-mile version of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

It’s the swan song of the 2-mile version of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

FONTANA, Calif. – Following a riveting and Dallas-like Daytona 500 last Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series turns to Auto Club Speedway for the Pala Casino 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Unlike prior visits to the 2-mile superspeedway, this is a bit of a bittersweet weekend. For starters, it will likely be the final race on this version of the 26-year-old track originally built and spearheaded by Roger Penske.

From its mixed reception with fans from 1997 to its status as a beloved superspeedway a few years later, the track once considered a clone of Michigan International Speedway became a venue of its own. Sweeping corners and invitingly wide straights are about all that Auto Club and Michigan share in common with the aged asphalt serving as the distinct factor.

In some ways, Auto Club is a bit of “Darlington of the West” with an asphalt surface that consumes tires like sports fans enjoying buffalo wings during Super Bowl Sunday. Among those reasons, this track is a favorite among drivers and fans.

With an uncertain future, it will be a race day in stark contrast to its 1997 inaugural weekend. However, one thing that has not changed is Hendrick Motorsports’ grip of this venue as Kyle Larson looks to defend his victory with teammate Chase Elliott and rivals like Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Tyler Reddick ready to rip it up.

Once the flag waves the green flag to kick off this new season, it is anyone’s guess as to who will prevail in this year’s Pala Casino 400. For the time being, come along for the ride this and each race weekend with Podium Preview.

This weekend,  Cody Shoppe, Jasmine SharpeKobe LambethLuis TorresMatt SisolerNathan SolomonSean FolsomTeresa Bennink and yours truly recall our favorite Auto Club Speedway memories and a driver and team ready for some California calling.

Podium Preview: Pala Casino 400 at Fontana

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Question 1

And the sun will shine. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

And the sun will shine. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

As of press time, it is the final race on the 2-mile version of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. What is your favorite memory of this 27-year-old track?

Sisoler : Without a doubt, it comes from 2002 when I turned 9. On my birthday, Jimmie Johnson scored his first career victory, and just thinking back to the sight of one of my favorite drivers of all time getting his first career win on my birthday at a favorite track of mine is a treasured memory.

Sharpe : The reason I fell back in love with NASCAR was because of my weekend at the track in 2017. I was at Wounded Warrior, recovering and healing from various injuries I had sustained while in the Marines. Brandon Jones arrived at our unit, bright-eyed and thrilled to meet everyone. He was given a tour of the grounds and was overall a great person to hang out with.

When the weekend arrived, a group of us were given VIP passes and a weekend full of behind the scenes access. Everything from the driver’s meeting to pit box entry during the Xfinity and Cup races, it sparked something within me. I realized the bond that teams in NASCAR have is like the bonds that are in the military. 

The race season full of up and downhill struggles brings a group together in so many different ways. To be able to witness that close up and to hear their perspectives was something that made me want to get back into NASCAR. I’m still a Brandon Jones fan to this day, even if he’s in a different seat for a different racing team.

Lambeth : The one race at Fontana that I’ll never forget is the 2013 Auto Club 400. Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin were battling hard for the win on the final lap and the two drivers tangled as Kyle Busch soared around them on the outside, ripping the fence to steal the win. The finish was so dramatic like you’d expect in Hollywood. This incident was one of many run-ins we’ve seen between Logano and Hamlin in a feud that remains alive an entire decade later, after Hamlin suffered a serious injury in that wreck 10 years ago.

On the other hand, Tony Stewart also had a few choice words for Logano after this race on pit road and tried to fight him for throwing a big block. Stewart gave one of the most memorable interviews of his career after coming to blows with Logano. In classic “Smoke” fashion, we received some excellent sound bites of Stewart wanting to bust up Logano for racing him very aggressively on that day in 2013. This race was the perfect race at Fontana, which included a spectacular finish and all the drama that makes NASCAR great to follow!

Shoppe: My favorite memory at this great 2 mile version of the auto club speedway has to be the 2013 finish. After the build up about a Hamlin vs Logano rivalry from the Bristol race a week before, that finish was an exciting continuation. From That day on it seemed the Fontana track seemed to have more excitement. As the surface aged, it became a great track and I’ll miss it for sure.

Question 2

Kyle Busch hopes for a better outcome this weekend at Auto Club Speedway. (Photo: Cornnell Chu | The Podium Finish)

Kyle Busch hopes for a better outcome this weekend at Auto Club Speedway. (Photo: Cornnell Chu | The Podium Finish)

Of the drivers who had a poor finish in last Sunday’s Daytona 500, which is the most likely to win the Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway?

Solomon :  Definitely look at someone like Martin Truex Jr. to have a bounce back result on Sunday at Auto Club. He’s always thrived on intermediates and seems to have new energy after a disappointing 2022 season. Maybe his Hollywood luck from the Busch Light Clash can carry over to Auto Club.

Torres : Hendrick Motorsports didn’t have the greatest outcome due to crashes, but they looked sporty. Fortunately, Fontana is one of the team’s stronger circuits. Out of the Hendrick camp, I expect both Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, who were among last year’s top competitors. It shouldn’t be surprising if we see both be up front throughout Sunday’s swan song in Fontana.

Tiongson : Kyle Larson has to be ready to go after it on Sunday after a disappointing finish at Daytona. While Larson survived the Lap 118 crash in Turn 4 and advanced as far into a Daytona 500 since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2021, he got swept up in a Turn 2, last lap crash not of his doing. I look for Larson, starting 15th, to make a statement with a victory to kick off the West Coast Swing.

Folsom : I think Richard Childress Racing didn’t have a very good run last weekend with both drivers getting caught in wrecks, But I think RCR is going to do well this weekend with Kyle Busch behind the wheel of the No. 8 car. He was looking good last weekend at Daytona but he just got caught up at the wrong place at the wrong time. He has done well in the past and will probably do great this weekend!

Bennink :  The Chevys performed well at Auto Club Speedway last February claiming the top four finishing spots. One Chevy driver that did not get the opportunity to show his potential was Erik Jones who ended the day with a 37th place finish at the 500.  Jones did have a good finish earlier in the week with a 12th place finish in Duel No 1.

With the addition of Jimmie Johnson to the team and renewed excitement with not only a name change, but an entire change in team dynamics, I think we will be predicting a lot of good things to happen with Legacy Motor Club.  Erik Jones is the driver who had a poor finish in the Daytona 500 that has the best chance to win the Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

Two hold your breathe laps around Auto Club will be in our memory banks forever. Now, let’s rewind to last Sunday’s Daytona 500 and review our race and points reports for Race No. 1 of 36!
Conley earns a top five following a wild Daytona 500.

Conley earns a top five following a wild Daytona 500.

As a result, he leads the points heading into Fontana.

As a result, he leads the points heading into Fontana.

Let’s look at our starting lineup for Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway!
It will be a race of movers and shakers at Auto Club Speedway. (Photo: NASCAR Media)

It will be a race of movers and shakers at Auto Club Speedway. (Photo: NASCAR Media)

It’s the moment we’ve all waited for aside from the actual start of the race. Here’s our winning picks for Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway!
So many panelists, so many race picks. (Photo: Luis Torres and Cornnell Chu | The Podium Finish)

So many panelists, so many race picks. (Photo: Luis Torres and Cornnell Chu | The Podium Finish)

Sharpe : William Byron has grown considerably the past year. He’s become competitive, proving he’s more than capable of snagging a win for Hendrick Motorsports. Watch for the No. 24 as he lays low and strikes at just the right moment.

Lambeth : In the final race on the 2-mile version of Auto Club Speedway, I think Denny Hamlin will take the last bow when the curtain closes on this era in Fontana.

Torres : No question, Kyle Busch will have a huge chip on his shoulder following in what he felt was highway robbery during last Sunday’s Daytona 500. While the overtime rule didn’t exist in 1998, it does in 2023 but such agony could make him very dangerous in terms of how strong he’ll be in Fontana.

He’s driving for a team that had a superb showing last year with Tyler Reddick, who might’ve had a chance of winning earlier than he ended up doing in 2022. With Busch in an RCR car, it could spell trouble for the rest of the field. That alone is enough for me picking Busch.

Folsom : With his bad luck last weekend at Daytona, I see Kyle Busch turning that bad luck around and coming out with a win this weekend!

Sisoler : It’s a tough one to call, not just because of the rainout of practice and qualifying meaning we don’t get to see how everyone’s cars are gonna drive until they’re on the track today (hopefully we don’t have any other weather delays). Going off of the guys who had really strong runs last year, I’m saying that the last winner at Auto Club’s 2-mile configuration will be Daniel Suárez, considering he seems to do well when he races on the 2-mile ovals.

Solomon : Ross Chastain started last season consistently before heading to victory lane at COTA. Fresh off a run to the Championship 4, I think Chastain will nab an early spot in the Playoffs with a win at Auto Club.

Shoppe : The low grip surface and wall to apron grove options that Auto Club Speedway provides suits Tyler Reddick. Sunday will be the first win for Reddick at his new 23XI team!

Tiongson : Kyle Larson is no stranger with starting outside of the top 10 at Fontana. In fact, last year, Larson, who qualified 13th, started toward the rear of the field for unapproved adjustments.

So what did he do? He finished fifth in Stages 1 and 2 before winning the race. Look for Larson, starting 15th on Sunday, to emerge victorious in what will certainly serve as the final Cup race on the 2-mile configuration of Auto Club Speedway.

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into the race? Who are your favorites to win? Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week as we celebrate our 15th anniversary of operations!

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization and its staff.

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Rob Tiongson is a sports writer and editor originally from the Boston area and resides in the Austin, Texas, area. Tiongson has covered motorsports series like NASCAR and INDYCAR since 2008 and NHRA since 2013. Most recently, Tiongson is covering professional basketball, mainly the WNBA, and women's college basketball. While writing and editing for The Podium Finish, Tiongson currently seeks for a long-term sportswriting and sports content creating career. Tiongson enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson is an alum of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and St. Bonaventure University's renowned Jandoli School of Communication with a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism.

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