NASCAR Wire Service: Auto Club Speedway Preview

By NASCAR Wire Service

Being away from your job, no matter your profession, for 15 weeks can make it extremely difficult to get back in the swing of things upon your return.

When your job happens to be that of a full-time driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returning to the race track after an extended absence can be even more difficult. In the case of three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, who also had to tack on a three-month offseason to his 15 missed races before getting back into his No. 14 Chevrolet SS, the first three races of 2014 didn’t go exactly as he had hoped.

In the fourth race at Bristol Motor Speedway, however, Stewart was all smiles after finishing fourth. For the first time since breaking his leg in a sprint car accident in early August last year he was back to his normal ways – finishing near the front of the field.

“It was something I needed, for sure,” Stewart said. “If you come out of Bristol with a top-five, you’ve had a good day. Obviously, for Chad (Johnston, crew chief) and I to work together for the first time and four races into the season be able to get a top five at Bristol – that’s pretty big for us. So it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

This Sunday in the Auto Club 400 (3 p.m. ET on FOX) at Auto Club Speedway, Stewart hopes to continue that trend and possibly end the day by celebrating in Victory Lane.

A victory this weekend in California would do a couple things for Stewart: 1. It would more than likely secure his spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup; 2. Extend his stretch of 15 consecutive seasons in the series with a win; and 3. Serve notice to his fellow competitors that he’s back and gunning for a fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship trophy.

In addition to his two wins at ACS, the Columbus, Ind., driver has six top fives, 12 top 10s and an average finish of 13.9 in 22 starts. Over the last seven ACS races, Stewart finished in the top 10 five times.

Stewart’s return to competition and how he would fare wasn’t the only thing on his mind when the 2014 season began. He had to also worry about the growing pains associated with working with a new crew chief and finding that right balance in the driver-crew chief relationship that would breed success.

Johnston, who sat atop Martin Truex Jr.’s war wagon for the past three seasons, came over during the offseason to serve as Stewart’s new crew chief, replacing Steve Addington.

Pay close attention to the NASCAR Nationwide Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings. You may be looking into the future of NASCAR.

And right now there’s a tie in the NASCAR Nationwide Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year race that is as intriguing and compelling as they come.

With the series headed west to Auto Club Speedway for Saturday’s 300 (5 p.m. ET on ESPN), Ty Dillon and Chase Elliott both have 51 points in the rookie standings. Dylan Kwasniewski is third, 14 points back.

Dillon started his first full-time season strong, finishing in the top 10 three times through the first four races. His best finish (sixth) came last week at Bristol. His lowest finish – a still solid 11th – was at Las Vegas.

Saturday’s race, however, presents a fresh challenge for the North Carolina driver.

“It’s a new place for me, I’ve never actually raced there – only just one test earlier this year in a Cup car,” Dillon said. “I had a great test and had a lot of fun, definitely looking forward to the new challenge of a new race track and what the Nationwide Series will bring as far as a challenge there.”

Fortunately for Dillon, he’s not the only rookie making his inaugural start in Fontana. Both Elliott and Kwasniewski have never made a national series start at the track.

Dillon, who took over the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet from his older brother Austin, is third in points behind leader Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne.




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