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In one sense, Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway might as well be the first race of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Sure, the biggest race of all — the Daytona 500 — took place last weekend and was the official kickoff, but as one of only two superspeedways on the schedule, Daytona isn’t a fair barometer of what fans can expect over the vast majority of the 2023 campaign.

Unlike Daytona’s 2.5-mile high-banked layout, Auto Club Speedway is a 2-mile track with modest banking in the corners, and it offers a brand of racing that will be seen throughout the year at tracks of a similar length and configuration.

Therefore, if a driver runs well this weekend, it’s likely a pretty good sign that he’ll be strong over the course of the season — and maybe even contend for the championship. So, who are the guys to beat at ACS?

Let’s take a peek at the five drivers with the best opportunity to go to Victory Lane, starting at No. 5 and working our way down to No. 1.

5. Austin Dillon

Still seeking his first win at Auto Club Speedway, Austin Dillon might not be on most folks’ shortlist of drivers who have the goods to go California dreamin’ this weekend.

Dillon is no Auto Club Speedway slouch, however, and his record proves it. In eight starts at ACS, the Richard Childress Racing driver has finished 11th or better five times.

His best result? A second-place finish here one year ago. 

“I’m hoping we can add one spot to that on Sunday and get the trophy,” Dillon said in a Team Chevy news release. “Auto Club Speedway is a fun place to race. There’s a lot you can do with that track with the multiple lanes you can race.”

Now, Dillon’s got four-time Auto Club winner Kyle Busch in the RCR camp, which only helps his chances.

“Kyle Busch is good there, and he will bring something to the table this weekend to help RCR as a whole,” Dillon said.

4. Martin Truex Jr.

In hot pursuit of his first points-paying NASCAR Cup Series win since 2021, Martin Truex Jr. will look to capture his second triumph at Auto Club Speedway but first with his current team at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Truex’s maiden victory at the fast oval track was a dominant one in which he led 125 of 200 laps with his former team — the since disbanded Furniture Row Racing — in 2018. Truex’s ACS record hasn’t been stellar since joining JGR — he has one top-10 in three starts — but he hasn’t finished worse than 14th.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the vibes around the 2017 Cup Series champion and his team are still positive after Truex’s P1 result in the preseason Clash at The Coliseum held in early February. The veteran driver is no less hungry now, however, to put a regular season win on the board.

3. Alex Bowman

Alex Bowman’s overall record at Auto Club Speedway isn’t that impressive, but the Hendrick Motorsports driver enjoyed quite the day at the Southern California track in 2020 when he led 110 of 200 laps en route to a commanding triumph.

It doesn’t hurt anything that Bowman — who missed five of last season’s final six races with a concussion — has started 2023 off on a strong foot both on and off the track. Just hours before Bowman won the pole last week for the Daytona 500, Hendrick Motorsports announced it had reached a multi-year contract extension for the Tucson, Arizona native to remain with the organization for 2024 and beyond.

Bowman went on to later score a career-best Daytona finish of fifth, leading 12 laps in the process. All this, coupled with his success from Auto Club three years ago, should give Bowman every reason to feel confident heading into Sunday.

“Auto Club is a track that Alex has won at and dominated in 2020,” said Blake Harris, Bowman’s first-year crew chief, in a Team Chevy news release. “I have had a lot of success there in the past with other drivers, and it’s honestly one of my favorite tracks on the schedule. … This weekend will start the foundation for the 2023 season.”

2. Kyle Larson

A native of Elk Grove, California, Kyle Larson is no stranger to Victory Lane at the Cup Series’ only oval track in his home state. He’s been there twice — with Hendrick Motorsports last season and with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2017, when he won from the pole and led over half of the race.

So, to say Larson is comfortable and confident at Fontana would be an understatement.

“We seem to be really good on that style race track,” the 2021 Cup Series champion — who has triumphed a total of 13 times over the past two seasons — said in a Team Chevy news release. “It’s a place that I really love with the line changes and the (way the) tires wear out. 

“I remember last year you could draft pretty well down the straightaways. It was a fun race. Hopefully, we can be fast again and win in my home state again.”

1. Kyle Busch

No one has been a more consistent frontrunner at Auto Club Speedway than Kyle Busch, who owns four victories at the facility that joined the Cup Series tour in 1997 and will host its final race with its current 2-mile configuration this weekend before transforming into a short track in a future season still to be determined.

One of Busch’s wins at ACS was his first career Cup Series triumph, which he recorded in his rookie season of 2005 with Hendrick Motorsports. The other three have come with Joe Gibbs Racing, where he won two championships and 56 Cup races over the past 15 seasons.

“I think Auto Club Speedway has been a really good track for me over the years just because I like the track,” Busch said in a Team Chevy news release. “I like going out there, I like the West Coast, it’s a fun track. It’s a driver’s track. You can really move around. There’s five lanes, and you can run all of ‘em. But one of my favorite lines to run is obviously up against the wall, that fifth lane. 

“It’s a really cool track to be able to do that, and you’re always trying to set yourself as fast as you can right up against the wall as close as you can, and that’s where you get to make your most time. It’s really a fun track for the drivers.”

Now in his first season with Richard Childress Racing, Busch expects to continue his trademark excellence at ACS, where he’s claimed 16 top-10 finishes — including 11 top-fives — in 23 outings. 

“I love Auto Club Speedway. I’ve known it as California Speedway for a long, long time since I was a kid,” Busch said. “I obviously love the layout. I like the 2-mile oval. I think it’s unique, I think it’s special. … I would certainly love to win the last one on the big track. That would be awesome.”

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