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Pepsi Max 400 Preview: Big Oval Duel

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The Sprint Cup Series returns to Fontana, Calif., this weekend for the second and final race at Auto Club Speedway. As before, and as seen at Michigan International Speedway this season, Chevrolet and Toyota will square off in a battle for the checkers at this huge two-mile oval. Ford teams will be left to fight over the table scraps that are the remaining spots in the Top 10. With championship implications in the air, we expect to see some of the top teams in the series step up their performance in a quest for this season's Sprint Cup trophy. The second trip to Auto Club Speedway could easily resemble the last race at the similar oval in Michigan. Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick marched into victory lane during the closing laps at Michigan back in August. We expect him to be strong at this facility as well. The real story this Sunday could be Jimmie Johnson as he attempts to re-write history again this season with an unprecedented fifth consecutive championship. The No. 48 team has been heating up, and these two-mile ovals have been a favorite of Johnson. He has won four of the last six races at Fontana, so look out for the Hendrick Motorsports star in the Pepsi Max 400.

Let's take a look at the last 11 races at Auto Club Speedway for some background on the drivers. This information will be useful and we can even rely on what we saw just a few weeks ago at Michigan International Speedway since the two tracks are very similar. These loop stats cover the last six years of racing at the huge, two-mile oval and should be very reliable for a fantasy racing basis.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Jimmie Johnson4.55474137242,623124.0
Matt Kenseth7.34761173332,236108.3
Kyle Busch9.65621322392,144102.4
Carl Edwards7.35311431212,148102.3
Mark Martin12.0374108241,73899.7
Jeff Gordon12.35961811982,16899.0
Greg Biffle13.84852132691,98099.0
Tony Stewart13.35521401332,00996.8
Kurt Busch13.256486952,01294.2
Kasey Kahne17.84591011521,72092.8
Kevin Harvick14.348369541,96391.5
Denny Hamlin18.238137561,37587.6
Clint Bowyer12.03233041,14086.8
Jeff Burton16.157679681,71086.7
Juan Pablo Montoya21.42366010886380.0
David Ragan14.62715152477.2
Ryan Newman21.5364841,18074.7
Martin Truex Jr.21.631026886873.7
David Reutimann 20.62322470373.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.25.038098241,02672.8


The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick –
Harvick will make his 17th career start at Auto Club Speedway when the green flag falls on Sunday's Pepsi Max 400. Over all those races he's not collected a single victory, but he's managed to maintain pretty good stats at the oval. Harvick had a good car earlier this season at Fontana when he led 27 laps and posted a career-best runner-up finish. He went on to lead 60 laps and capture the win in the season's most recent two-mile oval race at Michigan in August. With the championship on the line we expect the No. 29 team to go for broke this weekend.

Denny Hamlin –
The last two trips to California have been anything but successful for the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 team. Hamlin won the pole for this event one year ago, but did not finish due to a crash. He returned here in February this year and posted a horrible 29th-place finish. This time around should be different for Hamlin. He led well over 100 laps and collected a win and runner-up finish this summer in the two Michigan races, so the team has the setup wired tight. Hamlin will redeem himself in this trip to Fontana.

Jimmie Johnson –
Auto Club Speedway holds a special place in Johnson's heart. It was the site of his first career Sprint Cup Series victory back in 2002. He's gone on to collect four more wins at the two-mile oval in the last couple seasons. With well over 800 laps led for his career at Fontana, how can you not like the No. 48 team this weekend? With another Sprint Cup championship waiting in the wings, it's becoming almost routine for this team to win this time of the season.

Greg Biffle –
Biffle has a very spotty record at Auto Club Speedway. Between the mediocre runs, the No. 16 team has fielded some of the most dominant cars we've ever seen at Fontana. Biffle only has one win in 15 starts at the California oval, but three of his last four trips to the huge oval he's raced with the leaders and finished in the Top 10. Considering that he led 66 laps and factored in the win at Michigan in August and is fresh off the victory this past weekend at Kansas, we get good vibes for the Roush Fenway Racing veteran for the Pepsi Max 400.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are a near lock for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Tony Stewart –
Smoke has had some tough luck at Auto Club Speedway over the years. He's had race-winning cars at the large oval in the past only to see engine failures and bad luck take him out of contention for the win. Despite these mishaps, Stewart has maintained some great stats at the California track. He owns a 56-percent Top-10 rate at the facility and he rides a three-race Top 10 streak into this weekend's event. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet has cracked the Top 10 in all three two-mile oval races thus far this season, so he's batting a thousand coming into this one.

Jeff Burton –
Burton's success at Auto Club Speedway has been more hit than miss over the years, but the performance of the No. 31 team trumps historical stats to a large degree in 2010. The Richard Childress Racing veteran led 46 laps and finished third here in February, and he cracked the Top 10 in one of his two visits to Michigan International Speedway this summer. Burton should be on his game this Sunday afternoon, and we expect to see a performance worthy of a Top-5 finish in this 400-mile event.

Joey Logano –
While no Logano is still learning the ropes, its clear that he's gaining an understanding of the Sprint Cup Series car that should pay big dividends in 2011. The Joe Gibbs Racing prodigy has been coming on of late with Top 5's at both Richmond and Dover. The two-mile ovals have been kind to Logano and this team this season. He owns Top 10's in all three races at these style ovals in 2010, and he finished a stellar fifth in the February race at Auto Club Speedway. It's time to roll the trend and the hot streak in your fantasy racing lineups at Fontana.

Matt Kenseth –
While 2010 in general has been forgettable season for Kenseth and the No. 17 team, things are looking up for the veteran driver coming to Auto Club Speedway. He's a three-time winner at this huge oval, and Kenseth has workmanlike Top-10 finishes in two of three starts at Fontana and Michigan thus far this season. The Roush Fenway Racing star could be off the fantasy radar screen this weekend, but that could mean huge rewards in the Pepsi Max 400.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Fontana who can provide a solid finish

Carl Edwards –
While a serious run at the championship for Edwards and the No. 99 team is not probable, the Roush Fenway Racing star can still post a few good runs down the stretch. Edwards' record at Auto Club Speedway is simply too good to ignore. In 12 career starts he has one victory, one pole and 10 Top-10 finishes. That's about as close to flawless as one can get. This hot race team should be a no-miss proposition this weekend.

Kurt Busch –
The one-time Fontana winner also boasts three career poles at the two-mile oval. Busch has been running well lately and looks to finish in the Top 5 of the final championship standings this season. He rides a three-race Top 10 streak at this facility into this event. This streak has boosted his career Top 10 rate at Auto Club Speedway to a respectable 50 percent. Busch won the pole and finished third at Michigan in June, so the No. 2 Dodge should be fast on Sunday afternoon.

Kasey Kahne –
Kahne's recent results at Auto Club Speedway are a bit discouraging, but he caries a very high ceiling into this event. The Richard Petty Motorsports star has over 250 laps led at the two-mile oval and he's a one-time winner at the facility. Kahne won one pole and posted one runner-up finish in the two Michigan races this summer, so the upside to this fantasy racing play is pretty sizeable.

David Reutimann –
Reutimann's only career Top 10 at Fontana occurred in this event in 2008. While that by itself isn't great news, the fact that the No. 00 tam has been a fixture in the Top 15 at this oval ever since, is great news. Reutimann has collected Top-20 finishes in all three two-mile oval events this season. The Michael Waltrip star may not be spectacular but he carries little risk in this event.

Regan Smith –
The Furniture Row Racing driver posted his best career finish at Auto Club Speedway in February of this season with a 19th-place finish in the Auto Club 500. We expect similar things for the No. 78 team this Sunday given how well Smith raced at Michigan this summer. He cracked the Top 25 in all three two-mile oval events this season. If you're looking for deep help off the fantasy racing bench this weekend, you could do much worse than Smith.

Elliott Sadler –
His fantasy racing worth has been measured in inches rather than feet the last few years, but this is a weekend to roll the Richard Petty Motorsports veteran. Sadler has spotty career numbers at the two-mile oval with one win and two Top 10's in 18 career starts. However, he's been somewhat improved on the two-mile ovals this season. Sadler owns finishes of 24th, 21st and ninth in these events in 2010, so you can obviously see the trend heading into this weekend.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
The NASCAR icon owns a mere four Top 10's in 17 career starts at Auto Club Speedway, and prospects for improvement this time around are pretty slim. Earnhardt has cracked the Top 20 only once in his five starts for owner Rick Hendrick at Fontana. That's an ominous number heading into this event. Earnhardt sports an average finish of 19.3 at the three two-mile oval races of 2010.

Sam Hornish Jr. –
The Penske Racing driver has been hamstrung over his brief Sprint Cup Series career at Auto Club Speedway. Hornish has failed to crack the Top 10 in five starts at the two-mile oval, although his last two trips were somewhat acceptable Top-20 finishes. His 26th- and 32nd-place finishes this summer at Michigan International Speedway are Hornish's most recent sampling on two-mile ovals. Those numbers don't instill confidence heading into the Pepsi Max 400.

Brad Keselowski –
The driver of the No. 12 Dodge has received a lot of publicity, media attention and has been the scrutiny of many driver feuds this season. However, Keselowski has done little to endear fantasy racing players in 2010. He enters this event ranked 26th in the championship standings, and with no Top-10 finishes yet this season. Keselowski will be making just his second career start at Fontana this weekend, so his 27.3 average finish on two-mile ovals this season will be indicative of what to expect.

Ryan Newman –
While Newman has been one of our favorite “go to guys” leading up to and during the Chase, we have to take a pass on him this week. The No. 39 team has performed well thus far into the Chase and Newman is poised for a good finish in the final standings, but this will likely be a sub-par week for the Stewart-Haas driver. Newman last three visits to the two-mile ovals of Michigan and Fontana have yielded no Top-20 finishes.