Auto Club 400 Preview: California Drift

Auto Club 400 Preview: California Drift

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

As we put the short track tempers and beat up fenders that were the Phoenix race last weekend behind us, the Sprint Cup Series stays out west this week. NASCAR's top division comes to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for the one and only visit to this huge, two-mile oval for the 2015 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 doesn't work there you can head to the middle of the track and find a happy medium. It's this versatility that allows lots 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 car rules package. It will be interesting
As we put the short track tempers and beat up fenders that were the Phoenix race last weekend behind us, the Sprint Cup Series stays out west this week. NASCAR's top division comes to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for the one and only visit to this huge, two-mile oval for the 2015 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 doesn't work there you can head to the middle of the track and find a happy medium. It's this versatility that allows lots 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 car rules 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 16 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.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson6.37675048553,432120.1
Kyle Busch9.38082506043,001110.0
Matt Kenseth8.87351373913,066106.2
Tony Stewart11.87522262312,773100.7
Carl Edwards8.77541541212,77397.8
Jeff Gordon13.38312522352,75697.3
Kevin Harvick13.6742126562,66294.7
Greg Biffle16.06762172692,48493.7
Clint Bowyer12.960474471,91892.1
Kasey Kahne17.17381091522,31591.5
Denny Hamlin19.055656761,92690.7
Kurt Busch12.576294972,40190.6
Kyle Larson2.0601015089.4
Brian Vickers14.662257101,91489.2
Ryan Newman17.762724151,90481.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.0595112271,56478.1
Joey Logano18.4270344163078.1
Martin Truex Jr.20.14855791,30775.7
Austin Dillon11.014003474.4
Jamie McMurray18.939919161,28872.3

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 sweep of this oval last season, Chevrolet's stranglehold on the facility has come to an end. Unfortunately, Busch is still sidelined with the leg injuries and won't be able to defend his race title nor extend his win streak at the two-mile track. So if Toyota dominance hopes to continue at Fontana, someone else will have to step up and take center stage this weekend. Our most decorated Auto Club Speedway driver is Jimmie Johnson with five-career victories at the sweeping oval. Given that he just won at Atlanta three weeks ago, it might be time to see the No. 48 team back in victory lane this weekend. Two other drivers who are former winners at Auto Club Speedway and are among the leaders in average finish at the two-mile oval, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, will also project their power this weekend. Edwards has one-career victory and Kenseth has three at the Auto Club speedway. Both have the potential to dominate this installment of the Auto Club 400 and retain Toyota's current grip on this California oval. Among the other past winners at this oval, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon's names jump right off the page. Gordon hasn't won here since 2004 and would love nothing more than to collect another Fontana trophy on his farewell tour. Harvick has won here as recently as 2011, and is the hottest driver in the series as we pull into the two-mile oval this weekend. 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

Kevin Harvick -
The one-time Auto Club Speedway winner comes to Fontana this week looking to keep his hot streak going. Harvick has been just absolutely amazing to start this season and his current two-race win streak will be challenged this Sunday at Fontana. The Stewart Haas Racing star has four runner-up finishes in his last four starts at the similar two-mile oval in Michigan. While that success has been harder to translate to the California track, it still shows the excellence of this team on the momentum ovals. Considering that the driver of the No. 4 Chevy has won as recently as 2011 at this facility, he should be a top contender for the Auto Club 400.

Joey Logano -
Logano's current streak coming into this weekend's Auto Club 400 has the driver riding a lofty second 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 the last two seasons. He led 41 laps and narrowly missed winning this race two years ago. He then won at the similar oval in Michigan later in 2013. Logano led well over 100 laps on the two-mile oval circuit last season and came away with a pair of Top-10 finishes. He's never won at Auto Club Speedway, but considering the start he's off to in 2015, this could be the weekend where he finally breaks through.

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 Fontana yielded 38 laps led, but problems led to a 26th-place finish. Keselowski made up for that with a pair of Top 10s at Michigan last season in order to underscore his strength at these sweeping ovals. Coming off the good performance at Phoenix, we expect to see this driver and team challenging for the win at Fontana this Sunday.

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 five visits there since. The Hendrick Motorsports star looks like a good bet to challenge for his second win of the season in Sunday's Auto Club 400.

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

Matt Kenseth -
The start of the 2015 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 and comes to Auto Club Speedway 10th in the overall driver standings. Kenseth enters the Auto Club 400 looking to rediscover the magic that he had on the big tracks last season. The veteran 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, Kenseth has plenty of experience leading the field at this two-mile oval. His recent record holds three Top 10s in the last four Auto Club Speedway outings, so Kenseth has a very good chance to put his Toyota in the Top 10 at the Fontana oval.

Kurt Busch -
Busch made his season debut last week at the Phoenix oval and left nothing to question after a stellar performance finishing fifth in the Campingworld.com 500. Now the Stewart Haas Racing veteran comes to a track where he's enjoyed a lot of success over the years. Busch has one victory and 11 Top-10 finishes (52-percent) over his 15-season career of Sprint Cup Series racing. Entering Sunday's Auto Club 400, Busch is riding a three-race Top-10 streak at the facility. That string is highlighted by a strong third-place finish in this event one year ago. At times last week Busch looked like the only driver on the track that had something for Kevin Harvick, we could see a repeat of that scenario in the Auto Club 400.

Ryan Newman -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran is off to a good start this season. With two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in the first for races, he's looking to keep the ball rolling this week in southern California. Auto Club Speedway should present him that opportunity. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has a pair of Top 5 and four Top 10s in his last five trips to the Fontana oval. There's hardly been a more consistent driver on these size ovals the last three seasons. His current momentum even adds to our confidence in this driver and team this weekend. Newman should add to his growing collection of good runs at this oval again in Sunday's 400-mile race at Fontana.

Carl Edwards -
The No. 19 Toyota team has yet to visit the Top 10 this season, but this week's venue is the perfect opportunity for Edwards to get on a roll. If there is any track that can get the Joe Gibbs 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 14 Top-10 finishes at this facility. That works out to a stellar 82-percent Top-10 rate. He rides a four-race Fontana Top-10 streak into this installment of the Auto Club 400. This is a track where JGR star Edwards is a mandatory fantasy racing start no matter what the circumstances.

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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is coming off a tough DNF and poor performance this past week at Phoenix. Not much went right from the start in the Campingworld.com 500 and it wasn't long before Earnhardt was watching the race from his RV. There's ample evidence to expect a rebound performance this week at the two-mile California oval. Earnhardt hasn't enjoyed the success at Fontana that he has at Michigan, but recent indicators are pointing north. Two of his last three trips to Fontana have yielded a pair of Top-3 finishes. Last season's Auto Club 400 wasn't a stellar outing, but still netted a respectable 12th-place finish. Let's not forget Earnhardt had started 2015 with three consecutive Top-5 finishes before the Phoenix DNF.

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. When the Sprint Cup Series last raced on a two-mile oval last summer at Michigan, it was Gordon who won the pole, led 68 laps and captured the win. We haven't forgotten that outing in the least. The Hendrick Motorsports star has 11th- and 13th-place finishes in his last two trips to Fontana, and we're willing to bet he does much better this time around.

Kyle Larson -
The Chip Ganassi Racing youngster certainly made an impression in this event one year ago. Larson was battling door-to-door with Kyle and Kurt Busch in the closing laps to finish runner-up in his first career start at Auto Club Speedway. It will be hard to top that performance, but the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet's runner-up finish in this event one year ago was just a sample of what the future could hold. Larson proved that performance was no fluke with a similarly impressive eighth-place finish in his first-career start at the similar oval in Michigan last summer. It's early in his career, but it's fair to say this style of racing really appeals to Larson. The results show it.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Throw out the Fontana record books for this fantasy racing recommendation. It's not his historical performance that gets our attention this weekend, it's the torrid hot streak that the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team is currently on coming into the Auto Club 400. Truex set a team record last week at PIR with his fourth-straight Top-10 finish to start the season. Everything this driver and team touch right now turns to gold. Truex has some success at Auto Club Speedway earlier in his career when he claimed two Top 10s and three Top 15s in a five-race stretch between 2006 and 2008. So we know he's more than capable of a good performance this weekend. Given how hot the team is right now, an outside shot at victory lane isn't out of the question.

Paul Menard -
No driver in the series the last eight races on two-mile ovals has more Top 10s than Menard. He checks in with an impressive six Top 10s combined between Michigan and Auto Club Speedway over the last eight races. That includes steady eighth- and ninth-place finishes at Fontana the last two seasons. You could say that the No. 27 RCR team has the large sweeping ovals pretty well dialed-in. The black book for these style ovals seems to be pretty detailed. Menard will be breaking in a new crew chief there this week, but that shouldn't be a problem. Justin Alexander has given Menard cars good enough to finish in the Top 15 each of the last three races.

David Ragan -
The veteran driver gets another start in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota this weekend in relief of the injured Kyle Busch. This team has some of the most dominant loop stats in the series at the Auto Club Speedway. Some of that excellence will translate over to relief driver Ragan, but don't expect to see him leading laps or challenging for the win. What this situation does produce is a strong car and team and a very capable driver who can potentially crack the Top 10 in the Auto Club 400. Ragan generally stays on or near the lead lap, so he is adept on this oval for the smaller teams. The Joe Gibbs Toyota will almost certainly be the best car he's ever raced at Fontana.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran is coming off a disappointing finish at Phoenix International Raceway. Hamlin had what appeared to be a fast Toyota Camry, but mistakes led to a 23rd-place finish last Sunday. 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 winning two pole positions. The No. 11 Toyota has been fast at this two-mile race track, but the results have not typically followed.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart's slow start to the 2015 season make him a risky fantasy play at Auto Club Speedway this weekend. Forget the fact that 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 is currently mired in the worst slump of his NASCAR career. Stewart has only one Top-10 finish in his last 18 starts, and he's carried that slump right into the start of this season. Considering Stewart's history and expertise at this venue it's hard to avoid him this weekend, but our better judgment says to wait until the No. 14 team can show some signs of turning things around.

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 at Auto Club Speedway have netted Top-20 finishes. The average over that span works out to a lowly 28.5 average finish. Gilliland's last start at the Fontana oval resulted in a 38th-place finish in last season's Auto Club 400. It's best to layoff the driver of the No. 38 Ford this week and deploy him later this spring at an intermediate oval.

Trevor Bayne -
The first season in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford is not off to the best of starts for Bayne. His four starts to this point in 2015 have only netted one Top-20 finish and he comes to southern California this week a lowly 26th-place in the overall driver standings. Bayne will hope to change his luck at Auto Club Speedway, however, the two-mile ovals haven't held much success for him to this point in his Sprint Cup career. He has only one career start here and it was a 30th-place finish in 2011. Bayne's last six starts at the similar oval in Michigan have only yielded two Top-20 finishes. The numbers just don't add up to a productive start this weekend.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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