(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

NASCAR 101: Cup’s Best on the West Coast Swing

Let’s talk about NASCAR’s West Coast swing. Or NASCAR Goes West. Or, I dunno, Excuse to Get Some Better Mexican Food Than the East Coast Can Offer.

Is that last part right? Asking for a friend.

Anyway, jump back in time briefly to 2015. That year, NASCAR introduced its string of three races on the West Coast for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and its XFINITY Series counterpart, with races contested at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway and Auto Club Speedway. This followed the previous setup in which the series traveled to the first two, then back to Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, and then all the way back across the country to Auto Club.

The reasoning for the change was simple: it cut costs for teams in that they no longer needed to make several coast-to-coast (or thereabout) trips in order to have entries at all events. Now, barring any massively destructive weekends in which a team wrecks practically half their fleet while in Nevada, Arizona or California, trips back home for crew members and cars aren’t as much of a necessity, if they’re ever needed at all.

The branding and marketing opportunity NASCAR’s taken from it as a result? Icing on the cake, duh.

NASCAR’s third iteration of the trip wraps up this weekend with the most recent visit to Auto Club, giving the Cup Series eight races under the West Coast swing banner under its belt.

Does that mean we can correctly predict the winner of Sunday’s event?

Well… no, probably not. Unless you’re Kevin Harvick, in which case you’re feverishly nodding your head.

In eight races, Harvick’s only finished outside the top 10 once, and that was this year at Las Vegas. In that span, he also has three wins and five top fives, the most of any driver since the series of races began in 2015.

It would be a welcome sight for Harvick indeed, since on the 2017 circuit he’s not only winless but also top five-less. He has one win there, too, in 2011.

Then there’s Brad Keselowski, who needs some good news with crew chief Paul Wolfe suspended for three races. Well, try this on for size: Keselowski has two wins in those eight races, one of which came at Auto Club in 2015. That goes along with four top fives and seven top 10s, his only shortcoming the 2016 Phoenix event.

With four different winners in the first four events of 2017, there’s talk — minimal talk, but it’s there — that simply winning a race might not get a driver into the playoffs this year if the roster of winners exceeds 16. Should that be the case, a Keselowski victory would not only pad his playoff berth, it’d also silence critics who aren’t so sure about his prowess sans Wolfe.

Though he’s without a win on the West Coast swing so far, Joey Logano’s a swell bet to break into the win column this weekend. His swing totals include three top fives and six top 10s. The only caveat? No victories at Auto Club, but with three top fives and four top 10s in 10 starts, he’s due, right?

Other top performers when NASCAR heads goes west for three straight weeks include Denny Hamlin (three top fives, five top 10s) and Jimmie Johnson (one win, two top fives, four top 10s).

There’s even Ryan Newman, who some have written off as a fluke winner at Phoenix but, bear in mind, has three additional top fives in these eight races to go with last week’s victory.

If nothing else, there’s always the old standby known as a hot streak, and if you’re looking for a prime contender in that regard, well, Kyle Larson has two runner-up finishes so far on the West Coast.

And if success in the past two years isn’t quite your cup of tea, that definitely should be.

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Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.

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