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Auto Club 400 Preview: Trends Begin to Form

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 we put the short track tempers and crumpled fenders that were the Bristol race last weekend behind us, the Sprint Cup Series travels back west this week. NASCAR's top division comes to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for the first visit to this huge, two-mile oval for the 2014 season. The racing action will take on a much different look this week as we prepare to compete on the wide oval that is moderately banked, with only 14 degree slope in the corners. The huge track is very forgiving from a handling standpoint as there are many grooves to race in. In fact, it is not unusual to see traffic jams go 4 or 5 lanes wide, especially on restarts. 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 long, final green-flag run at the end of 400 miles of racing. This will be our first event of the season on a two-mile oval with the new aerodynamic package. It will be interesting to see which teams adapt to the new conditions the fastest. Those that do will be headed for success at Auto Club Speedway.

Let's take a look at the loop stats for the last 15 races at Auto Club Speedway for some background on the drivers. This information should prove to be quite helpful since it is early in the season and we don't have much to base the drivers on large oval performance right now other than their Daytona 500 outings. This speedway has been one marked by historical trends and manufacturer dominance, so the loop stats should come in very handy for the Auto Club 400.

Jimmie Johnson5.17454567513,247119.6
Kyle Busch9.87392435992,803109.2
Matt Kenseth9.17011333722,860105.5
Tony Stewart12.27072262312,683102.0
Carl Edwards8.67081531212,65198.5
Jeff Gordon13.37792022122,58196.2
Greg Biffle14.46492172692,40595.8
Kevin Harvick12.1707119562,55795.5
Kasey Kahne15.57051071522,23792.9
Clint Bowyer12.755669451,77591.4
Denny Hamlin19.055656761,92690.7
Kurt Busch13.167394952,20489.6
Brian VIckers15.35425091,72087.3
Jeff Burton16.970081681,98583.0
Ryan Newman17.556623121,75281.0
Joey Logano15.4245334155878.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.5547106271,44577.7
Martin Truex Jr.19.94855791,30777.2
Jamie McMurray19.833819161,12970.8
David Ragan19.23349261370.2

Now that we're entering our fifth race of the season we should begin to see some trends form. We've had almost every type of oval to this point, and the track at Auto Club Speedway will be our first two-mile oval in the schedule. Speaking of trends, with Kyle Busch's victory in this event one year ago, Toyota dethroned Chevrolet's five-race win streak at the California track. Busch was the beneficiary of a heated battle between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin on the last lap. When the two leaders collided it was Busch that swept past to the surprising victory in the Auto Club 400. While we won't see an exact repeat of this scenario this weekend, the No. 18 Toyota should still be a strong contender in this 400-mile event. Our most recent winner, Carl Edwards, should be poised to keep the momentum rolling this week. The Roush Fenway Racing star is a one-time Fontana winner and he finished in the Top 5 in this race one year ago. Two other drivers who are former winners at Auto Club Speedway and are among the leaders in average finish at the two-mile oval, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, will also project their power this weekend. Johnson has five career victories and Kenseth has three at the California speedway. Both have the potential to dominate this installment of the Auto Club 400. Among the other past winners at this oval, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart's names jump right off the page. Stewart has won here as recently as 2012 and Harvick as recently as 2011. Each has the ability to put the collective field under their boots this weekend. We'll outline the major players, new contenders and a few sleepers you need this weekend to dominate in your fantasy racing leagues at Auto Club Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Matt Kenseth -
The start of the 2014 season has been an up-and-down affair for Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kenseth. He has a pair of Top 10s in the first four races, but he showed his first real muscle of the year by leading 165 laps and Bristol last weekend. He enters the Auto Club 400 looking to rediscover the magic that he had on the big tracks last season. Kenseth is a three-time winner at the Fontana oval, so he obviously knows what it takes to win here. With over 500 laps led at Auto Club Speedway, the veteran driver has plenty of experience leading the field at this two-mile oval. His recent record holds two Top 10s in the last three Auto Club Speedway outings, so Kenseth has a very good chance to put his Toyota in victory lane at the Fontana oval.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson will try to extend his recent success at Fontana with another strong outing this Sunday afternoon. He leads all active drivers with five victories at the two-mile oval and an eye-popping 12 Top-5 finishes. The loop stats for the six-time Sprint Cup champion at this facility are beyond compare. The No. 48 Chevrolet team runs fast and they run up front every time they visit Auto Club Speedway. Johnson's last victory at this facility came in 2010, but he has a pair of Top-3 finishes in the four visits there since. The Hendrick Motorsports star looks like a good bet to challenge for his first win of the season in Sunday's Auto Club 400.

Kyle Busch -
After the beating and banging at Bristol Motor Speedway this past Sunday, we're willing to bet Busch will be very happy to see Fontana's wide open racing grooves and elbow room this weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been a top performer on the two-mile ovals later in his career, helping to erase some of his struggles at these tracks earlier in his Sprint Cup Series career. Busch won this race one year ago in convincing fashion. In his last three Fontana starts alone, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota has over 350 laps led and third-, second- and first-place finishes to his credit. Busch looks like a strong bet to defend his event win in this race from one year ago.

Brad Keselowski -
The 2012 Sprint Cup champion doesn't have the best career numbers at Fontana or Michigan for that matter. Two-mile ovals have been a bit puzzling for Keselowski. But there are plenty of indicators that this is starting to change. The Penske Racing star's last trip to MIS yielded 17 laps led and a 12th-place finish. So improvement is taking shape for Keselowski at ovals such as this. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is off to a strong start to the 2014 season, so Keselowski is surging in this visit to Auto Club Speedway. We expect to see this driver and team challenging for the win and his first Top-5 finish at Fontana this Sunday.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Joey Logano -
Logano's current streak coming into this weekend's Auto Club 400 has the driver riding a lofty sixth in the championship standings. The No. 22 Ford team is off to a strong start this season. Logano made some real fireworks on the two-mile oval circuit last year. He led 41 laps and narrowly missed winning this race one year ago. He then followed that up with a ninth-place finish and victory in the two races at the similar oval in Michigan. Logano has to be eagerly looking forward to this 400-mile race at the California speedway. The Penske Racing driver should easily crack the Top 10 this Sunday afternoon and possibly challenge for the victory.

Kasey Kahne -
The No. 5 Chevrolet team comes to Auto Club Speedway looking to build some momentum. Kahne is coming off a pair of eighth-place finishes at Las Vegas and Bristol. The Hendrick Motorsports star has one career victory and a 59 percent Top-10 rate at the two-mile oval. More recently, Kahne has collected Top-10 finishes in three of his last four visits to the Fontana oval. His last outing at a facility similar to Auto Club Speedway was a strong seventh-place finish at Michigan last summer. We are convinced that Kahne will be a pole threat and threat to crack the Top 10 in this Sunday's 400-mile marathon at Fontana.

Carl Edwards -
The No. 99 team is on a roll coming off the big victory last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. Edwards has one win and three Top 10s through four races, and he's coming off an impressive performance at Bristol. If there is any track that can keep the Roush Fenway Racing star going strong, it's the two-mile oval in Fontana, California. He has always liked the big, wide racing grooves of Auto Club Speedway. Edwards has one career victory and 13 Top-10 finishes at the facility. That works out to a stellar 81-percent Top-10 rate. This is a track where Roush Fenway Racing star Edwards is a mandatory fantasy racing start no matter what the circumstances.

Kevin Harvick -
The one-time Auto Club Speedway winner comes to Fontana this week looking to snap a bad luck streak that saddled him with bad finishes at Las Vegas and Bristol. Harvick has been just absolutely amazing on the two-mile ovals of Michigan and Fontana the last few seasons. The Stewart Haas Racing star has a pair of Top-5 finishes in his last three starts on ovals of this description. Considering that the driver of the No. 4 Chevy has such a good record on these style ovals, we believe he's a pretty safe play in the Auto Club 400. There are just certain tracks where this driver comes to life, and Auto Club Speedway is one of them.

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

Tony Stewart -
Stewart's injury and six-month layoff make him a somewhat risky fantasy play and his slow start to this season is also concerning. However, his Top-5 finish at Bristol this past week will help to dispel those concerns. The return to the two-mile oval circuit should be most welcome to the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet. Smoke is a two-time winner at Fontana (2010 and 2012) and he's led over 300 career laps at the two-mile oval. The three-time Sprint Cup Series champion has been one of the most consistent performers on the two-mile ovals the last couple seasons. Considering Stewart's expertise at this venue this weekend, it's hard to pass up this strong driver for the 400-mile main event at Auto Club Speedway.

Jeff Gordon -
Considering that Gordon is a three-time winner at the Auto Club Speedway, we have to give the veteran driver his due respect at the Fontana oval. Although his two-mile oval record has suffered somewhat the last couple seasons. We have good reason to believe this will turnaround this weekend. Gordon rides into the Auto Club 400 with four-straight Top 10s to start the season and sitting a lofty third-place in the overall driver standings. Gordon's 10 career Top-5 finishes at this speedway rank him second among active drivers. There's good reason to believe we'll see the Gordon of old behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevrolet this weekend.

Ryan Newman -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran is off to a decent start this season. With two Top-10 finishes in the first for races, he's looking to overcome some consistency issues he's had to this point. Auto Club Speedway should present him that opportunity. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet is riding a four-race Top 10 streak at the California oval entering this weekend. There's been no more consistent driver on these size ovals the last three seasons. He has six Top-10 finishes in his last nine starts between Michigan and Fontana. Newman should add to his growing collection of good runs at this oval again in Sunday's Auto Club 400.

Greg Biffle -
The driver of the No. 16 Ford will bring his good two-mile oval record into this weekend's Auto Club 400. Just last year alone, Biffle racked up one victory and three Top 10s on the ovals of Michigan and Fontana. That's a pretty spotless record by any measure. Biffle also has the historical angle covered with close to 300 laps led and seven Top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway. In this event one year ago he peddled his Ford from second starting spot to an impressive sixth-place finish. You could do far worse than Biffle in your fantasy racing lineups this weekend.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer is off to a slow start this season, but if there's any track on the circuit to get him turned around it's the kind two-mile oval in Southern California. Over the last 10 races on two-mile ovals, only two other drivers (Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman) have been stronger than Bowyer. We expect the Michael Waltrip Racing team to unload another fast race car this week at Fontana. Bowyer sports some pretty impressive stats at the two-mile speedway. He has seven Top-10 finishes in 13 career starts there. That works out to an attention-grabbing 54-percent Top-10 rate at Auto Club Speedway. We like Bowyer to get on a roll in this 400-mile race.

Kyle Larson -
The rookie certainly made an impression at Bristol Motor Speedway last weekend. Larson raced up front with the leaders and top stars of the sport in that 500-lap brawl at the Tennessee short track and came home with his first career Top-10 finish. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver will think he has tons of room to race when he makes his first Cup start at Auto Club Speedway this weekend. The multiple racing grooves should prove pretty handy for the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet. Larson has one career Nationwide Series start at the two-mile oval and it was a strong sixth-place finish one year ago.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Denny Hamlin -
After a couple weeks of struggles, Hamlin rallied back with a pole position and Top-10 finish at Bristol last weekend. However, the short 2014 season has shown marked inconsistency with this driver and team. We're afraid that slump (and bad luck) could continue this week in the Auto Club 400. The two-mile oval in California has been a real puzzle for Hamlin during his Sprint Cup Series career. He has only four Top 10s in 13 starts at the speedway. Two of his last three trips to Fontana have resulted in DNF's despite two pole positions. The No. 11 Toyota has been fast at this two-mile oval, but the results have not followed.

Kurt Busch -
Busch has stumbled out of the gates to start the 2014 season. After four races, the new Stewart Haas Racing driver finds himself 31st in the championship standings and slumping coming to Fontana. The veteran driver's prospects for turning this slow start around are not good. The last three seasons have seen Busch collected only three Top-10 finishes in his last 10 races at Michigan and Fontana. Despite a career 50-percent Top-10 record at this oval, his recent performances have been much worse. Busch is a driver to avoid this weekend and until he starts to show some improvement with his No. 41 SHR team.

David Gilliland -
The Front Row Motorsports driver is generally a pretty decent performer on the larger ovals. However, Auto Club Speedway would be an exception to this as Gilliland has struggled a lot on these two-mile ovals in recent years. Only one of his last nine starts between Fontana and Michigan have netted Top-20 finishes. The average over that span works out to a lowly 27.5 average finish. Gilliland's last start one a two-mile track resulted in an engine failure and 37th-place finish at Michigan International Speedway. It's best to layoff the driver of the No. 38 Ford this week in the Auto Club 400.

Marcos Ambrose -
Coming off the brilliant Top-5 finish at Bristol, it's hard not to recommend starting the No. 9 RPM team this week, but that is indeed what we're doing. From purely a historical standpoint, there's no worse oval in the series for Ambrose and this race team. In eight career starts he has no Top-20 finishes and an average finish of 28.8 at Auto Club Speedway. Two-mile ovals in general have been bad for the Richard Petty Motorsports driver. With only three Top 10s in his last 10 starts between Michigan and Fontana, the veteran driver has much better speedways in his NASCAR resume. Ambrose is a suspect fantasy racing play this Sunday afternoon.
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