Fontana, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - Last Sunday, Carl Edwards became the fourth different winner in as many Sprint Cup Series races this season when he scored the victory at Bristol Motor Speedway, an event that featured five hours of rain delays.
Edwards joined Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Daytona 500), Kevin Harvick (Phoenix) and Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas) as those drivers who have all but guaranteed themselves a berth in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
The series is racing at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California this weekend. It's the fifth race on the 2014 schedule.
This year, NASCAR has expanded the field of drivers/teams in the Chase from 12 to 16. The top-15 drivers with the most wins during the 26-race regular season will become eligible for the playoffs, provided they have finished in the top-30 in points. The 16th and final position will go to the driver who is the highest in points without a victory.
If there were more than 15 winners when the regular season concluded, a race winner could be left out of the Chase. But that's unlikely. The 2013 season had 13 different winners after the 26th race (Richmond).
There were five different winners to the start the season last year. The record for most different winners to begin a season is 10, set in 2000.
Six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has yet to drive into victory lane this season. Johnson, who hails from nearby El Cajon, Calif., has won at his home track five times, which is more than any other driver. His first career victory in the series came at this two-mile racetrack during his 2002 rookie season.
Johnson finished two laps behind in 19th at Bristol, which dropped him from third to fifth in the point standings. He started off the season with a fifth- place run in the Daytona 500 and then finished sixth at both Phoenix and Las Vegas.
"There is nothing to be concerned about yet, one because the year is early and two I feel like at least one or two positions will go in via points," Johnson said.
Keselowski, Earnhardt and Edwards are currently first through third in points, respectively. Jeff Gordon is ranked fourth after finishing in the top-10 in each of the first four races. Gordon is a three-time race winner in Fontana, including a victory in the inaugural event here in 1997.
Kyle Busch is the defending race winner.
Last year's event at ACS ended in dramatic fashion. One week after Denny Hamlin and his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Joey Logano, clashed at Bristol, both drivers were battling for the lead and the win on the final lap here. Hamlin and Logano made contact and spun in turn 4, allowing Busch to drive to the outside of them and grab the lead en route to victory.
While Logano managed to finish third, despite scraping the outside wall, Hamlin skidded down the track and then slammed hard into the inside retaining wall. Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his lower back during the accident, which forced him to miss the next four races. He failed to make the Chase for the first time in his eight-year Cup career.
"We had the best car there all day, but we ended up getting some late cautions and had to make some hard decisions on whether to stay out on old tires or lose our track position," Busch recalled from last year's win in Fontana. "We ended up getting passed by Joey and Denny and thought they had the race won.
"They got caught up racing each other, and I was coming even if they didn't end up wrecking. I was digging on the high side, and they got together. I hated it for Denny since that was really a tough circumstance for him. It was a crazy finish, one that I won't forget for a while, and I'm sure the fans won't forget anytime soon either."
After the conclusion of last year's race here, Tony Stewart got into a physical altercation with Logano on pit road. Stewart was furious with Logano for blocking him multiple times during a restart in the closing laps.
When confronting each other on pit road, Stewart pushed Logano around, while Logano threw a water bottle at him before crew members from both teams intervened. Stewart later said that he's "going to bust (Logano's rear)." The two have not been in an altercation since then.
Logano is presently sixth in points, followed by Hamlin.
"Fontana is a place where I have been looking forward to returning to," Hamlin said. "We were leading the race on the last lap last year and never made it to the finish. The accident happened and I missed a few races, but I think I'm a better driver because of it and a better person because of it.
"Being forced out of the car with the injury really gave me some perspective. Every driver obviously wants to win every race they are in, but this one means a little bit more to me. I would love another chance to be out front on the last lap, and this time, finish it off."
Matt Kenseth, who is Hamlin and Busch's teammate at JGR, sits eighth in the standings. Kenseth has three victories at this track. He also won a series- season-high seven races this past year.
Forty-three teams are on the entry list for the Auto Club 400.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, March 23. Race: Auto Club 400. Site: Auto Club Speedway. Track: 2-mile oval. Start time: 3 p.m. ET. Laps: 200. Miles: 400. 2013 Winner: Kyle Busch. Television: FOX. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.