Auto Club 400 Preview: Time for Busch to Shine

Auto Club 400 Preview: Time for Busch to Shine

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, California for the one and only visit to this huge, two-mile oval for the 2016 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 four or five 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. It will be interesting to see which teams hit the
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, California for the one and only visit to this huge, two-mile oval for the 2016 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 four or five 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. It will be interesting to see which teams hit the pavement rolling on this huge, sweeping oval. Those that do will be headed for success at Auto Club Speedway.

Let's look at the loop stats for the last 17 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 Johnson6.48275108553,635119.4
Kyle Busch9.38082506043,001110.0
Matt Kenseth10.17581504343,249106.1
Carl Edwards8.97991541222,87397.1
Kevin Harvick12.9776171902,87196.8
Kurt Busch11.97881441622,61093.2
Denny Hamlin19.6601721322,11491.7
Greg Biffle16.96762222692,48791.6
Kasey Kahne17.17821101522,41590.6
Clint Bowyer14.162774471,97390.5
Brian Vickers14.662257101,91489.2
Kyle Larson14.01352034386.1
Ryan Newman16.969724152,07582.0
Joey Logano17.1326374182980.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.2651114271,76779.6
Brad Keselowski 20.1251263963377.8
Martin Truex Jr.19.353757141,50377.1
Austin Dillon13.519004272.5
Jamie McMurray19.139921161,28871.8
A.J. Allmendinger20.528512166269.2

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 Brad Keselowski's victory one year ago, it ended Kyle Busch's two-year run of success at Fontana last season. Busch's injuries at Daytona to start last season didn't allow the Joe Gibbs Racing star to seek his third win in a row at the California speedway. The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion will make a much-anticipated return to Auto Club Speedway and seek to start a new string of victories at this facility. Keselowski and Ford's grip on the two-mile oval will likely be short-lived as Busch and all the Joe Gibbs Racing teams are running in top form entering the 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 regain Toyota's grip on this California oval. Among the other past winners at this oval, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch's names jump right off the page. Busch hasn't won here since 2003 and would love nothing more than to collect another Fontana trophy during his current resurgence. Harvick has won here as recently as 2011, and is coming off the huge win at Phoenix last week. 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

Kyle Busch -
Considering that Busch is a three-time winner at the Auto Club Speedway, we have to give the veteran driver his due respect at the Fontana oval. Prior to missing last season's Auto Club 400, the Joe Gibbs Racing star had won the last two races at this California speedway. When the Sprint Cup Series last raced on a two-mile oval last summer at Michigan, Busch led 10 laps and finished 11th in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota comes to Fontana on fire this weekend, but still looking for his first victory of 2016. He may end the wait after 400 miles of action at Auto Club Speedway.

Kevin Harvick -
The one-time Auto Club Speedway winner comes to Fontana this week looking to keep his hot streak going. Harvick took the win in a thrilling finish at Phoenix this past week, and looking to build a win streak. The Stewart Haas Racing star has four runner-up finishes in his last five starts on two-mile ovals. That includes a runner-up finish in this event one year ago at Fontana. He rides the momentum of the Phoenix win into this Sunday, and that could be enough to push him into victory lane for a second-straight week. 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.

Kurt Busch -
Busch has won two poles and collected four Top-10 finishes in the first six races. He rides fourth in the series standings coming to California this week. 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 12 Top-10 finishes (55-percent) over his 16-season career of Sprint Cup Series racing. Entering Sunday's Auto Club 400, Busch is riding a four-race Top-10 streak at the facility. That string is highlighted by a strong pole position and third-place finish in this event one year ago. In last season's first Michigan race, we saw the driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet lead 6 laps and win the Quicken Loans 400.

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 victory as recently as 2014 on the similar oval in Michigan. 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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is coming off a strong Top-5 performance last week at Phoenix. Earnhardt had what appeared to be a race-winning car, but had to settle for the Top 5 instead. There's ample evidence to expect another strong 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. Three of his last four trips to Fontana have yielded Top-10 finishes. Last season's Auto Club 400 netted an impressive sixth-place finish. Earnhardt rides a string five-straight Top-10 finishes on two-mile ovals coming into this event.

Joey Logano -
Logano's current streak coming into this weekend's Auto Club 400 has the driver riding a strong seventh in the championship standings. The No. 22 Ford team is off to a good start this season. Logano made some real fireworks on the two-mile oval circuit the last two seasons. He has a string of five-straight Top-10 finishes between Fontana and Michigan the last two years. Logano started 13th on the grid and finished seventh in this event one year ago. We consider that to be the floor for his potential this Sunday afternoon. If the breaks go the Penske Racing star's way this weekend, he could be challenging the leaders for the victory.

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 his first victory at the facility. He out-raced Kurt Busch on the final restart to grab career win number one at Fontana. Keselowski added sixth- and ninth-place finishes at Michigan last season in order to underscore his strength at these sweeping ovals. Coming off a disappointing performance at Phoenix last week, we expect to see this driver and team rebound at Fontana this Sunday.

Matt Kenseth -
The start of the 2015 season has been an up-and-down affair for Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kenseth. He just collected his first Top 10 of the season at Phoenix and comes to Auto Club Speedway 16th 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 five Auto Club Speedway outings, so Kenseth has a very good chance to put his Toyota in the Top 10 at the Fontana oval.

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

Carl Edwards -
The No. 19 Toyota team has started the season in good shape. After Top 10s in three of the first four events, Edwards comes to Fontana fifth in the points. If there is any track that can keep 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 78-percent Top-10 rate. Four of his last five visits to the Fontana oval have yielded Top-10 finishes. This is a track where JGR star Edwards is a mandatory fantasy racing start no matter what the circumstances.

Chase Elliott -
The Hendrick Motorsports rookie had a fantastic run at Phoenix last week. He raced in the Top 10 for a majority of the day, and finished there for his second Top 10 of the season. Now the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet comes to Auto Club Speedway to make his first Sprint Cup start at the two-mile oval. While we don't have any data on the young driver at NASCAR's top level, we do have some good Xfinity Series numbers to examine. All four of Elliott's starts between Michigan and Fontana have yielded Top-10 finishes in NASCAR's second series. He'll carry that experience into Sunday's Auto Club 400. While Cup and Xfinity cars are a bit different, we believe the excellence of the No. 24 team will carry Elliott well through this first-career start at Fontana.

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 consistency of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team that makes this veteran driver a good fantasy racing start. Truex has picked up right where he left off in his strong 2015 season. He has some success at Auto Club Speedway in recent outings. Two of his four-career Top-10 finishes at this oval have come in just his last four starts. The two-mile oval resume over the last two season shows three Top-10 finishes in six combined Michigan and Fontana starts. Truex led 5 laps and finished an impressive eighth in this event one year ago.

Austin Dillon -
The No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team has come roaring out of the gates in 2016. Dillon has three Top-10 finishes in the first four events of this season and comes to the California speedway eighth in the driver standings this weekend. He should keep setting them up and knocking them down in the Auto Club 400. Dillon has two-career starts at this two-mile oval with finishes of 11th- and 16th-place to his credit. This weekend he'll likely start his best race car to this point in the Auto Club 400, so we expect more than just modest improvement on those numbers. Dillon's fourth Top 10 of the season should come after 400-miles of racing at Fontana.

Paul Menard -
Menard has been as strong as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano on the two-mile ovals the last two seasons. He checks in with an impressive three Top 5s and five Top 10s combined between Michigan and Auto Club Speedway over the last six races. That includes strong ninth- and fourth-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 has had a bit of a tough start to this season, but Auto Club Speedway is just what the doctor ordered at this point. It's a good track for Menard to rebound and get rolling again.

Ryan Blaney -
To this point, it's been Blaney that's been setting the pace in the race for Rookie of the Year and not the more heralded Chase Elliott. The Wood Brothers Racing rookie put the No. 21 team inside the Top 10 for the second-straight week at Phoenix last weekend. That snapped an 11-year drought for the Wood Brothers Racing team of back-to-back Top 10s. We don't see Blaney slowing down this week at the two-mile California oval. This will be his debut at Fontana, but he does have two-career starts at the similar Michigan oval. Blaney's experience racing at MIS should pay big dividends this week. A Top-15 finish seems a likely scenario for the driver of the No. 21 Ford.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran is coming off a great finish at Phoenix International Raceway. Hamlin had what appeared to be a fast Toyota Camry, but it would take some big gambles on pit strategy that would make that third-place finish possible. Where he raced most of the day was back in the field, and was surprising for the speed he had displayed in practice. 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 14 starts at the speedway. Two of his last four 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.

Greg Biffle -
This Roush Fenway Racing star used to be a top performer at Auto Club Speedway, but his numbers have been tailing off considerably the last few seasons. Biffle's last two visits to Fontana have yielded 40th- and 32nd-place finishes. This mirrors his struggles at the similar oval in Michigan. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has only one Top-10 finish in his last six combined Michigan and Fontana starts. Four of those efforts have resulted in finishes outside the Top 20. While Biffle's start to this season has been inconspicuous at best, his recent history of racing at Auto Club Speedway point to a down performance this weekend.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer's interim gig at HScott Motorsports has gotten off to a rocky start. After four forgettable efforts to start the season, he comes to California 34th in the driver point standings, and searching for answers. Bowyer is not likely to find many at the two-mile Fontana oval. His last two starts at Auto Club Speedway have netted 16th- and 30th-place finishes. The veteran's last start on a two-mile oval last summer at Michigan ended with a disappointing 41st-place finish. The No. 15 Chevrolet team is not in a good place right now, and Bowyer's performances at these style ovals the last two seasons has been questionable at best.

Trevor Bayne -
The second 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 2016 have only netted one Top-20 finish and he comes to southern California this week a lowly 21st-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 two-career starts here and they were 30th- and 29th-place finishes. Bayne's last eight starts at the similar oval in Michigan have only yielded three 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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