Auto Club Offers Young Drivers a Chance to Win


By Jerry Bonkowski

Kyle Larson, Danica Patrick, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Michael McDowell, Landon Cassill, Michael Annett, Matt DiBenedetto, Chris Buescher, Josh Wise and Cole Whitt.

Tell me, what do all those drivers have in common?

They are all still looking for their first career Sprint Cup win.

Some have been waiting longer than others. Patrick and Stenhouse are in their fourth season of waiting. Larson is in his third. The others have varying amounts of time spent waiting to take that elusive first checkered flag.

They make up roughly one-third of the regular drivers in the Sprint Cup Series.

Some have come close to winning their first Cup race, most notably Larson. Others are in their first full season of Sprint Cup competition, but many feel they’ll take a checkered flag in their rookie campaigns, most notably Elliott, Blaney and Buescher.

And then there’s Patrick, Stenhouse and most of the others that remain who may have to continue waiting a long time to reach victory lane – if they ever do in their careers, that is.

Which brings me to the reason for this column. If you look at the next racetrack on the schedule, this Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, it has a history of being very generous to young drivers either seeking their first career win – or maybe their second or third.

And while we’ve seen Denny Hamlin (Daytona 500), Jimmie Johnson (Atlanta), Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas) and Kevin Harvick (Phoenix) earn the first four victories of the 2016 season, don’t be surprised if the massive 2-mile oval just outside Los Angeles continues its trend of being friendly to winless drivers.

As a rookie, Larson almost won two years ago in a head-to-head battle with Kyle Busch at Fontana.

It’s the kind of track that plays to the strengths of young drivers like Larson: wide open to the point cars can go four- and even five-wide in the turns, has plenty of room to maneuver both down low and up high on the track, and is one of the best facilities when it comes to drawing the most unadulterated speed out of a NASCAR stock car.

That’s why I’m not going to be surprised to see a young driver break through this Sunday. I’m especially going to keep my eyes on Larson, Dillon and Elliott – and maybe even Blaney.

Sure, a first win anywhere is important. But a first win at Fontana ratchets up the significance a bit more than at other tracks like maybe Atlanta or Richmond or Chicago or Kansas.

The Fontana track was made for true racing, for both NASCAR and IndyCar competition. Last year’s IndyCar race there was arguably one of the most intense and closest races I’ve seen in at least a decade.

And to see guys like Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and others having cashed in at Fontana in their Cup cars illustrates that this track favors the young and the fast.

Or maybe we should say NASCAR’s answer to the movie franchise Fast and The Furious. The action at Fontana is non-stop, drivers are more than willing to take chances there that they likely wouldn’t even think of taking at other venues.

Plus, Fontana is so large that it is also very forgiving when drivers make a mistake like solo spinouts (which are very common when you’re close to exceeding 200 mph) – unless that mistake winds up collecting one or more fellow competitors.

So, while you may be hoping for one of the Busch brothers or Johnson or Harvick or Joey Logano or Keselowski to win Sunday, don’t forget about the young winless guys.

I can guarantee their more seasoned and experienced competitors won’t.