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Podium Preview: WISE Power 400 at Auto Club

Chase Elliott seems like a strong contender for the WISE Power 400 at Auto Club. (Photo: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Chase Elliott seems like a strong contender for the WISE Power 400 at Auto Club. (Photo: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Following a year absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR Cup Series action returns to Auto Club Speedway with Sunday’s WISE Power 400.

Since their most recent visit in 2020, a lot has changed in the Cup Series. Namely, the cars are a far cry from their somewhat boxier Gen 6 counterparts. More than that, the faces in the Cup ranks prove quite different.

For the first time since 2002, a rookie leads the Cup championship standings with red hot Austin Cindric parlaying a Daytona 500 win with the pole at Fontana. However, he’s got plentiful competition like Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Kyle Larson ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.

Will stats prevail or will the new variables, as The Cars sang, shake it up? If practice and qualifying were harbingers for the race, it’s anyone’s guess just like in this preview.

This weekend, Ashley HobbsCody ShoppeJasmine SharpeKobe Lambeth, Luis TorresMatt SisolerMichelle RaynorMolly GastineauNathan SolomonSam DraissSean FolsomStephen Conley, Taylor Kitchen and yours truly consider those rallying from Daytona debacles to those ready for the new Next Gen package!

Podium Preview: WISE Power 400 at Fontana
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Question 1
Can Kyle Larson and his No. 5 rebound from a Daytona setback? (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

Can Kyle Larson and his No. 5 rebound from a Daytona setback? (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

Of the drivers who had a disappointing finish at Daytona, who’ll likely rebound with a win or a strong result at Fontana?

Lambeth : The real season begins at Auto Club Speedway. Last weekend’s superspeedway style of racing is often unpredictable and requires luck to put yourself in the right position to win. Therefore, it’s difficult to determine who’ll be the strongest drivers throughout the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season based on Daytona.

Although the Daytona 500 didn’t go as planned for the Hendrick Motorsports drivers, look for them to bounce back this weekend in Fontana. Alex Bowman won the last time NASCAR raced here in 2020. However, I think Kyle Larson is a driver from the HMS stable who could have the best day. The defending Cup champion isn’t necessarily the best superspeedway racer, so I’m sure he’s relieved to return home to California!

Kitchen : Hendrick Motorsports did not have the Daytona 500 they had hoped for. However, I believe they have the opportunity to turn it around this weekend.

Hendrick Motorsports has two past Auto Club Speedway winners in Alex Bowman (2020) and Kyle Larson (2017). Chase Elliott also brings fire to the equation holding the best average finishing position at the track of 9.40.

So, if the numbers don’t lie, I think Hendrick Motorsports has a fair shot at a rebound this weekend.

Torres : No question the Hendrick Motorsports stable will bounce back after a rather frustrating Speedweek. They had the pace, but when Ford outnumbered and outsmarted them, they were irrelevant. Out of the quartet, Kyle Larson is likely to bounce back.

Old track surface suited him well last year but bear in mind, that was the Gen-6 car. We’re now in the seventh generation Cup car. Yet, I’m still confident Larson will adapt and continue his dominance and it begins in Fontana.

William Byron is another competitor I see bouncing back in a big way. It’s hard to tell how he would’ve fared had he not got taken out at the end of Stage 1. But Byron is a raw talent that just needs to have stronger results. He was solid last year, but I need him to deliver greater results. 

More so that he’s one of the drivers I have in my Championship 4 this year. This will be the race where Byron should have a statement run where he can really say that he will be a threat in 2022.

Gastineau : Looking back at the people who had disappointing finishes at Daytona and the people who spun during qualifying/practice, it’s almost the same people! I’d like to put my money on Kurt Busch for a few reasons though.

While he didn’t qualify, I think his experience in the series will be helpful for him at a track like this with the new cars. Kurt Busch finished 19th at Daytona, definitely not where he wanted to finish or where he could have, but that’s Daytona for you. I think his experience could help him a lot, so that’s why I’m choosing him. 

Raynor : The Daytona 500 is always a unique race because drivers have to rely on each other and draft to get ahead and win the race. Any driver can have a disappointing race regardless of how good they are.

We saw a first time winner with Austin Cindric. Fontana will be a better test of which drivers will start to contend for wins. With the new car we may start to see an even playing field and new winners. With that being said, I expect to see Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch to rebound and have a strong finish or win the race. 

Tiongson : I think Hendrick Motorsports is looking at this and the next several races as a benchmark for their Next Gen program. Daytona is an outlier despite their great speed and not so decent results.

I look at someone like Kyle Larson, who’ll start 13th, and not too far from the frontrunners who excelled in Saturday’s qualifying round. Did Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels focus more on race trim than qualifying? Time will tell. I’m also curious to see how Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch rebound from their Daytona debacles.

Question 2
Dare to decide who'll succeed at Fontana. (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

Dare to decide who’ll succeed at Fontana. (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

After a year’s absence from the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, Auto Club Speedway returns to the circuit. Given the resin applied to the track and the drivers having the new 670 horsepower package on hand for this weekend, who stands the best chance with excelling at Fontana?

Sharpe : Well, after Saturday’s grueling practice and qualifying sessions all bets are off on who can snag the win. Rookie Austin Cindric snagged the pole for the race, but, to my shock, Erik Jones was able to steal second. 

So many drivers spun and wrecked during Saturday’s sessions that normally would excel at this type of track. Veterans like Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick are just a couple who pushed their cars too far as both received damage.

I picked Ryan Blaney to win, but only after recalling his 2020 performance. He stayed out front for most of that race, only to run into issues late in the run. My fingers are crossed that he’ll have better luck this time around.

Shoppe :  I don’t care what the package is or what’s applied to the track, Kyle Larson is the favorite to win no matter what! Larson was so strong at these sized tracks before he joined Hendrick Motorsports. I expect Larson to pick up where he left off last year winning the return to Auto Club 

Sisoler :  It really depends on who gets their setups right. Auto Club is a tricky track as we’ve seen this weekend already. I think the Fords have the best shot at doing something this weekend in what could be the swan song for the 2-mile oval configuration at Auto Club. Fingers crossed it isn’t though, I like this version.

Conley :  New car, old track, new tricks, similar results. I think the resin going down on tracks has been step in the right direction over the “sticky goop.” It seems to give more consistency over the race.

But who stands the best chance with everything being thrown their way? I’m going to have to stay in the Penske camp. They’ve been showing speed and keep winning. And I feel they may be the team that has more of a handle on this Next Gen car than most.

Draiss : One manufacturer really sticks out in the new car thus far, that being Ford. They were the cars to beat at Daytona and have brought that speed to California. That being said, Austin Cindric followed up his Daytona 500 win with a pole position in Fontana for Team Penske. So who will excel in Fontana? The Penske fords, that’s who.

Folsom : With the new car and the resin being put down, I think the Ford drivers stand a good chance at winning this race. After seeing how the Fords fared at Daytona, I think Brad Keselowski might find his way to the front and show the Ford camp has figured something out with these Next Gen cars.

Solomon : I think Kyle Larson has a great chance to succeed at Auto Club with his dirt racing background. But, be on the lookout for guys Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney. Ford had a rough year in 2021, but with a new car and increased horsepower, they should be able to contend on Sunday.

Two laps around Fontana may mean a visit to the dentist’s office for some mouthguards! Nevertheless, our Next Gen ride is one piece. Let’s consider how we all fared in last Sunday’s Daytona 500 with our race and points reports!
A trio of panelists scored top 10 results.

A trio of panelists scored top 10 results.

Meanwhile, we've got a tie for the points lead.

Meanwhile, we’ve got a tie for the points lead.

Next, let’s consider Ashley Hobbs’ stats for Fontana with Crunching the Numbers: WISE Power 400 style!
First, consider how your favorite team fares in the WISE Power 400 at Auto Club.

First, consider how your favorite team fares in the WISE Power 400 at Auto Club.

Since 2004, the WISE Power 400 winner at Auto Club has an average starting spot of 12.0, led an average of 72.2 laps, started within the top five 35.29% of the time and started within the top 10 58.82% of the time.

Since 2004, the WISE Power 400 winner at Auto Club has an average starting spot of 12.0, led an average of 72.2 laps, started within the top five 35.29% of the time and started within the top 10 58.82% of the time.

Kyle Busch loves Fontana.

Kyle Busch loves Fontana.

Now, let's consider the trends at Auto Club in the past 10 races since 2011.

Now, let’s consider the trends at Auto Club in the past 10 races since 2011.

Next, let's consider the trends at Auto Club since the past five races starting from 2016.

Next, let’s consider the trends at Auto Club since the past five races starting from 2016.

It's the Candy Man.

It’s the Candy Man.

Now, we’ll consider the top 10 starters for Sunday’s WISE Power 400!
Row 1
Austin Cindric and Erik Jones (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Austin Cindric and Erik Jones (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Row 2
Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Row 3
Daniel Hemric and Ryan Blaney (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Daniel Hemric and Ryan Blaney (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Row 4
Joey Logano and Chase Elliott (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Joey Logano and Chase Elliott (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Row 5
Brad Keselowski and William Byron (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Brad Keselowski and William Byron (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Last but not least, here’s our picks for Sunday’s WISE Power 400 at Fontana!
Quite a bevy of potential race winners. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images)

Quite a bevy of potential race winners. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images)

Torres : While Fontana is still a huge unknown as to which driver will really stand out. But I’ll base my decision on tracks that had a blend of worn out surface and two-mile ovals. In this scenario, it applies to Ryan Blaney quite well as he won at Michigan last summer and the first Atlanta race last spring. Kyle Larson may challenge him, but I still see Blaney taking the frustrations of losing another Daytona 500 and capitalizing with a strong win in SoCal.

Conley : Penske is on a roll, and Blaney has been as close as you can be without winning. Plus, getting that win out of the way early should help settle him for a title run.

Tiongson : After a disappointing Daytona debacle, Kyle Larson rebounds in grand fashion by taking his second Auto Club Speedway win. With the “real” racing season kicking off in terms of more of the norm, Larson and the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevy team will remind us all why they won the Cup last year.

Solomon : Larson and Hendrick Motorsports have always performed well at Auto Club Speedway. The rough, multi-groove surface fits Larson and his dirt background well, so expect him to snag his first 2022 victory on Sunday.

Shoppe : Kyle Larson was a top pick here before he even joined Hendrick. Now, in his first attempt at Auto Club with his new team, he will sure to be a dominant force on Sunday!

Lamabeth : The Daytona 500 wasn’t meant to be this year for Kyle Larson, but I expect him to kick off his title defense in proper fashion on Sunday afternoon at home in Fontana!

Kitchen : With Auto Club Speedway being the first “true race” of the season with the Gen 7 car, I have no clue who we will see succeed. So, I think it is safe to go with the numbers on this one and pick Kyle Busch to take the checkered flag this weekend.

Along with demonstrating excellent speed early on this season, Busch also has the second best average finishing position at the track of 9.59. He also holds the title for most track wins in the field with four.

Sisoler : Rowdy seems to do well when a new situation presents itself, and these Next Gens are tricky to handle. I wanted to pick Erik Jones, but Petty GMS needs to prove itself first before I pick the 43 to win on anything but a superspeedway. Kyle Busch had good speed on the weekend, qualified 3rd and was 2nd in practice Saturday. Expect Wild Thing to take the checkers at Fontana (again)!

TPF Stats : Even though the guys have not seen Auto Club Speedway since 2020, that won’t stop Kyle Busch from getting back to his stellar ways there. With an average finish of 7.8 the past 5 races, and podium finishes the last three races, Rowdy is poised for success.

Hobbs : They say this is when the NASCAR season really starts. Last year’s visits to superspeedways left Kyle Busch the cream of the crop. Now, being back at Auto Club Speedway, where he is very strong, I look for Rowdy to find victory lane.

Raynor : He struggled at Daytona and I think he will find his way back to Victory Lane. Martin Truex Jr. is really good at this track.

Folsom : I’m picking Brad Keselowski because at Daytona, he showed some real dominance in the car and show he can push his way to the front!

Draiss : It is hard to vote against Penske given the speed they and the Fords have had in the new car. Joey Logano has always seemed to fair well at Fontana, so he is my pick for Sunday.

Gastineau : He was the best in qualifying. I’m going with Austin Cindric.

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!  Stay safe and wash your hands often. Help yourself, your family and friends by getting the COVID-19 vaccine!

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.

Also, if you are shopping for NASCAR or racing die-casts, be sure to check out our friends at Circle B Diecast! If your order is $20 or more, use coupon code TPF2022 for free shipping! Tell them we sent you and buy some new die-casts now!

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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