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Auto Club 500 Preview: California Drift

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.

As the dust settles from the thrill-ride that was the Bristol race last weekend, the Sprint Cup Series comes to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for its first visit to this huge oval of the 2011 season. The racing will take on a much different look this week as we prepare to compete on the two-mile oval that is relatively flat, with only 14-degree banking in the corners. The huge track is very forgiving from a handling standpoint as there are many grooves to race in. If your car isn't working low, you can head up the banking and ride the top around the outside wall. If your car is upset there you can head to the middle of the track and find a happy medium. It's this versatility that allows a lot of long green flag runs, few wrecks and an emphasis on fuel mileage as a result. The driver who succeeds at Auto Club Speedway knows how to "drift" into the groove that makes his car work, and knows how to manage the gas for that last, long green-flag run at the end of 500 miles of racing.

Let's look at the loop stats for the last 12 races at Auto Club Speedway for some background on the drivers. This information will come in handy since the season is young and we don't have much to base the drivers on large oval performance right now other than their Daytona 500 outings. This track has been one marked by historical trends so the loops stats should come in very handy for the Auto Club 500.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Jimmie Johnson4.36114277462,823124.2
Matt Kenseth9.25551243622,417107.5
Mark Martin11.4431141651,938102.5
Kyle Busch11.86401352432,275100.7
Jeff Gordon12.06491892092,33299.6
Carl Edwards9.55401511212,16398.7
Tony Stewart12.35931481602,17398.6
Greg Biffle16.15002132692,02096.0
Kasey Kahne16.75491061521,91493.9
Kevin Harvick13.755173542,08892.2
Kurt Busch13.861687952,09091.9
Clint Bowyer11.039256441,34090.6
Denny Hamlin17.245639561,52888.4
Brian Vickers15.94534491,52885.1
Jeff Burton16.761579681,79284.8
Juan Pablo Montoya20.52616211191779.7
Ryan Newman20.14391141,33576.7
David Reutimann19.32954479575.5
David Ragan16.82968155875.1
Martin Truex Jr.21.236735897074.4

An interesting trend has emerged the last three years at Auto Club Speedway. The Chevrolet camps appear to have put a dent in the Ford dominance that we saw at this two-mile oval in the middle of this decade. Chevrolet drivers have won five of the last seven races at the California oval, and surrendered the other two events to Roush Fenway Ford drivers Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. When talking about the Chevy drivers, we have to talk about Jimmie Johnson first and foremost. The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion has won four of those five victories by himself. With the Hendrick Motorsports icon looking to scratch the win column for the first time this season, you need to give Johnson some serious consideration in your weekly lineup leagues. If Ford hopes to wrestle control away of Auto Club Speedway, those hopes will largely fall on the shoulders of Edwards. The driver of the No. 99 Ford won this event in 2008 and has excellent loop stats at the huge oval. His teammate Kenseth could also make his presence felt on Sunday afternoon. The driver of the No. 17 Ford sports three career wins at Auto Club Speedway and that places him among the tops in the series. If you consider Tony Stewart won the last event at the California oval, and his good start to the season, then don't overlook the No. 14 Chevrolet team in the Auto Club 500. Smoke will likely impose his influence at the front of the field this Sunday afternoon. We'll take a look at all the potential players, and a few others you need this weekend to dominate in your fantasy racing leagues at Auto Club Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Carl Edwards –
The No. 99 team is the only team with three Top-5 finishes to this point in the season. That stat stands as a marker to how competitive Edwards has been to start the season. He has always liked the big, two-mile ovals so the beat should roll on this weekend. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has scored a mind-boggling 10 Top-10 finishes in 13 career starts at Fontana. Edwards won at this oval as recently as 2008, and he should mount a good challenge for the win this Sunday.

Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson will try to extend his recent success at Fontana with another strong outing this Sunday afternoon. The loop stats for the five-time Sprint Cup champion at this two-mile oval are beyond compare. The Lowe's Racing team runs fast and they run up front every time they visit Auto Club Speedway. Johnson has won four of the last seven events at Fontana so the Hendrick Motorsports star looks good to possibly collect his first win of the season in the Auto Club 500.

Tony Stewart –
Last fall's Pepsi Max 400 saw Smoke go to victory lane at Auto Club Speedway for the first time in his 13-year career. It was a long time in coming, but the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet finally hoisted the trophy at Fontana. Stewart will hope to defend his win in this weekend's Auto Club 500. He's led over 250 career laps at the two-mile oval, and is riding a four-race Top 10 streak at the facility entering this weekend's race.

Matt Kenseth –
The start of the 2011 season has been pretty good for Roush Fenway Racing driver Kenseth, but he's yet to make a real challenge for a win in the first four races. That could change at Auto Club Speedway. Kenseth is fresh off a Top 5 run at Bristol and looking for more coming to the huge California oval. The driver of the No. 17 Ford has three career victories and has led close to 500 laps at Auto Club Speedway, so he knows how to race up front here.

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

Jeff Gordon –
Considering that it's been a while since Gordon visited victory lane at Auto Club Speedway (2004), it would be a long-shot putting him in the contenders list this week. So we settled on the solid play ranking for the No. 24 Chevrolet team. Gordon has cracked the Top 10 in four of his last six visits to Fontana, and he sports a 52 percent career Top 10 rate at the track. The season hasn't gotten off to the best start for Gordon, but we expect him to rebound to Top 10 form at the very forgiving oval.

Kurt Busch –
The No. 22 team comes out west this weekend with the championship standings lead after four races. Busch owns three career poles at Fontana and he's a one-time winner at the track. In recent seasons he's been just as strong with Top-10 finishes in three of his last four visits to the speedway. We expect the Penske Racing veteran's good resume at the two-mile oval to grow a little longer after this weekend.

Kasey Kahne –
To say that Kahne has made a big splash with his new team at Red Bull Racing would be a huge understatement. After four races the veteran driver has posted a pair of Top 10's and stands a respectable 12th in the championship standings. Kahne is a one-time Fontana winner and carries a 57 percent Top 10 rate at the huge oval into this event. We expect the streaking No. 4 Toyota team to stay on a roll this Sunday afternoon.

Greg Biffle –
Biffle is a one-time winner at Auto Club Speedway and he did finish 10th in this event one year ago. He's led close to 300 laps for his career at the speedway, so he knows what it takes to run up front at the two-mile oval. Roush drivers have always performed well at this facility and Biffle has been a big part of that stable's success. The No. 16 team should push into the Top 10 in Sunday's 500-mile race, with an opportunity to surprise the front-runners.

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

Kyle Busch –
While Busch has had his struggles at Auto Club Speedway the last couple seasons, there's good reason to shrug that off this weekend. For one, the Joe Gibbs Racing star is fresh off the big victory at Bristol Motor Speedway and we can't help but believe that momentum will carry over to Fontana. Busch is a one-time winner at Fontana and carries an attention-grabbing 62 percent Top 10 rate at the facility into this race.

Ryan Newman –
The Stewart-Haas Racing veteran is off to a great start this season. After four races Newman has a pair of Top-5 finishes and three Top-10's. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet also sports a lot of good performance stats at the huge California oval. Newman has one career pole and five Top-10 finishes at the facility. His last appearance at Fontana last fall yielded a stellar fifth-place finish in the Pepsi Max 400. Newman could push that mark again in Sunday's Auto Club 500.

Juan Pablo Montoya –
After two Top-10 finishes in the first four races, Montoya enters the Fontana weekend in good shape in the standings. The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing veteran comes to a good oval for building on that momentum this weekend. Montoya's last four visits alone to the two-mile oval have yielded over 100 laps led and three Top-15 finishes. His loop stats have steadily improved at Auto Club Speedway since he moved to NASCAR, and that trend should continue on Sunday afternoon.

David Reutimann –
If you're looking for a good sleeper in your weekly lineup league or salary cap league this week, please consider Reutimann and the No. 00 MWR team. He makes an excellent selection when you have to go deep into your fantasy racing lineup. Reutimann has collected a pair of Top 10's and four Top 15's in his last five visits to the Southern California oval, and his stats at similarly-configured Michigan International Speedway the last two years have been just as solid.

Paul Menard –
The season couldn't have possibly started much better than it has for Menard and his new No. 27 team. The Richard Childress Racing driver enters this event with two Top-10 finishes this season and a stellar fifth-place ranking in the driver standings. Menard doesn't have the greatest career stats at Auto Club Speedway. In fact, he has no finish better than 18th in eight career starts. We expect this Sunday's effort to be much better. Considering the momentum of this team, Menard should pick up his first career Top 10 at this facility.

David Ragan –
The Roush Fenway Racing team have always fared well at the huge California oval, and Ragan is no exception. He has one career Top 10 and only two finishes outside the Top 20 in eight career starts at the speedway. The comfort of multiple racing grooves should provide the environment for Ragan to post a Top-15 finish in Sunday's Auto Club 500. His average finish at the oval of 16.8 would seem to bear this assumption out.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
To say that Earnhardt has struggled at Fontana over the years would be a big understatement. Despite the good start to the season, the No. 88 team faces a big challenge turning in a good run at Auto Club Speedway. The truth is that his last six visits to Auto Club Speedway have yielded a poor average finish of 27.2 and one DNF. This can't be chalked up to just bad luck at the California oval. Earnhardt's numbers at the similar two-mile Michigan International Speedway are just as dismal.

Jeff Burton –
After four races Burton finds himself a dismal 30th in the championship standings coming to Fontana. The Richard Childress Racing veteran is struggling mightily after his unimpressive 20th-place finish at Bristol. Burton has a series-leading 21 career starts at Auto Club Speedway, but little to show for it over his long career. With only seven Top-10 finishes in those 21 starts the driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet would appear to be a sub-par fantasy racing play this Sunday afternoon.

Clint Bowyer –
Another Richard Childress Racing driver off to a bad start this season is Bowyer. His engine failure at Bristol Motor Speedway last weekend illustrates the bad luck at that the No. 33 team is currently experiencing. Bowyer sports a stellar 60 percent Top 10 rate at this huge oval, but his current slump tempers our expectations at one of his better tracks. It's best to steer clear of Bowyer in your fantasy racing lineups for the Auto Club 500.

Brad Keselowski –
There's little doubt that Keselowski is a talented stock car driver, but it has yet to manifest itself in the Sprint Cup Series. Four races into the 2011 season we're still scratching our heads and wondering when the switch is going to “flip” for the driver of the No. 2 Dodge. Keselowski has yet to finish better than 15th this season and his career numbers at Auto Club Speedway aren't exactly inspiring. His two starts at the huge oval in 2010 yielded uninspiring 21st- and 26th-place finishes.

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