This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.
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. With the many racing grooves to choose from, restarts can be a bit chaotic. It's not unusual to see some three- and four-wide racing on
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. With the many racing grooves to choose from, restarts can be a bit chaotic. It's not unusual to see some three- and four-wide racing on this very wide oval. Drivers will make use of that fresh rubber to grab as many positions as possible on the restarts. 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 and later in the summer at the similar oval in Michigan.
Let's look at the loop stats for the last 18 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.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||18.7||676||114||27||1,824||79.4|
|Martin Truex Jr.||20.1||573||68||35||1,656||78.4|
|Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||18.5||107||6||0||221||68.9|
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 Jimmie Johnson's victory in this event one year ago, it ended Ford & Toyota's three-year run of success at Fontana last season. Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski had won the last three-straight events at this two-mile oval. The reigning Monster Energy Cup Series champion will make a much-anticipated return to Auto Club Speedway and seek to start a streak of his own at this facility. Johnson and Chevrolet's grip on the two-mile oval could likely be short-lived as Busch and all the Joe Gibbs Racing teams are running in top form entering the weekend.
Some of the younger drivers are ones to keep an eye on. They haven't won at the two-mile oval yet, but drivers like Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott are dominating each week and are painfully close to hauling in their first wins of the season. Auto Club Speedway could provide the opportunity for these young drivers to cash in this weekend. With respect to 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 a nice Top 10 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
Joey Logano – No driver has been stronger on the two-mile ovals the last two years than Logano. He has one victory, three Top-5, six Top-10 finishes and has collected a series-leading 229 points at Fontana and Michigan. The No. 22 Ford team is off to a good start this season, but is looking to make up for a poor outing at Phoenix this past week. Auto Club Speedway should present Logano with an excellent rebound opportunity. The Penske Racing star finished fourth in this event one year ago, and he was clearly the driver to beat in all three two-mile oval events of last season. Logano has a lot to prove and has the opportunity to win this weekend, those are two great reasons to deploy the No. 22 Ford this weekend.
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. He's won two of those three victories in his last three starts at the huge California oval. Each time we visit here the No. 18 Toyota is battling at the front at crunch time. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota comes to Fontana with lots of speed and little luck this weekend, but still looking for his first victory of 2017. This is the track that could end Busch's frustration and where a fast car could equal an easy victory. He may scratch the win column for the first time this season after 400 miles of action at Auto Club Speedway.
Brad Keselowski – The 2012 Monster Energy 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 two seasons of racing on these ovals have netted one win and a six-race Top-10 streak. The lone win came at Auto Club Speedway two seasons ago. Considering how well the No. 2 Ford team is racing right now, they have to be considered dangerous in this 200-lap event. Keselowski's victory at Atlanta and pair of Top 5s at Vegas and Phoenix have him riding second in the driver standings coming to Fontana. Keselowski is not a driver to be overlooked in the Auto Club 400.
Chase Elliott – The Hendrick Motorsports star in the making is inching closer and closer to his first career win in NASCAR's top division. Each week he's been impressively fast and has led 145 laps already this young season. Last week he had the car to beat at Phoenix for the first half of the race, but couldn't keep up with the changing track in the second half. This week he gets the very forgiving oval of Fontana. Elliott finished sixth last season in his debut at this oval, and he led 66 combined laps and nabbed a pair of runner-up finishes at the similar oval in Michigan during the summer. This 400-mile race sets up well for Elliott and don't be surprised if this weekend he collects career win number one.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Kevin Harvick – The one-time Auto Club Speedway winner comes to Fontana this week looking to get a hot streak going into the short track stretch of the spring. This oval presents the team with an opportunity to sharpen their claws. The Stewart Haas Racing star has five Top-5, including three runner-up finishes in his last six starts on the two-mile ovals. That includes a runner-up finish and 142 laps led in this event one year ago at Fontana. He looks to rebound and build momentum as we come into the Auto Club 400, so this oval presents Harvick with a chance to impress. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet should be seen as an outside contender to win and near-lock at a Top-5 finish.
Kyle Larson – The championship standings leader is still learning how to win at NASCAR's top level. He's flirted with victory lane in each of the last three races entering this weekend. Larson had a runner-up finish at Fontana in his debut at this oval in 2014, so it's a good track for him to challenge for the win. He won in his last start at a two-mile oval at Michigan last summer, so optimism for a good run this weekend should be high. If a win isn't in the cards for the No. 42 team, he won't be far off the winner's rear bumper. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver could be looking at another week of finishing runner-up and extending his current streak of second-place finishes to four.
Kurt Busch – Busch has encountered some head winds the last couple weeks, but is looking to hit the reset button this weekend. 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 (52-percent) over his 17-season career of Monster Energy Cup Series racing. Entering Sunday's Auto Club 400, Busch has one win and three Top-10 finishes in his last six starts on two-mile ovals. When we look at the Daytona 500 winner's career body of work at Fontana and Michigan we have to give him his due respect this Sunday afternoon. Many fantasy racing players will bench Busch this weekend, but we believe he should be started with all confidence.
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 six victories at the two-mile oval and an eye-popping 13 Top-5 finishes. The loop stats for the six-time Monster Energy 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 this event one year ago, but a win this weekend seems unlikely. The Hendrick Motorsports star looks like a good bet to grab his second Top-10 finish of the season this weekend.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Fontana who can provide a solid finish
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 2016 season. He has some success at Auto Club Speedway in recent outings. Two of his last five trips to Fontana have yielded Top-10 finishes. The two-mile oval resume over the last two season shows three Top-10 finishes in six combined Michigan and Fontana starts. Truex has been gradually improving on these two ovals. Considering the start to the season, this Furniture Row Racing driver should be a good performer in this 400-mile race.
Denny Hamlin – The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran is coming off a good 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 10th-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 most of Hamlin's career, but he always brings fast cars to this track. In this event one year ago the Joe Gibbs Racing star started third on the grid and finished there after 400 miles of action. It was a break from his usual bad luck at Fontana. We believe Hamlin will keep that trend going in Sunday's Auto Club 400.
Kasey Kahne – Hendrick Motorsports has seen both Chase Elliott and Kahne's teams start the season well. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has a pair of Top-10 and three Top-15 finishes in the first four events. He comes to Auto Club Speedway ninth overall in the driver point standings. Fontana has held 10 Top-10 finishes in 20 starts for a very respectable 50-percent rate. Kahne also owns one-career victory at this two-mile oval. With 13th- and 14th-place finishes in his last pair of two-mile oval starts (Michigan) the veteran driver carries some level of performance and expectations into California this week. Kahne should use his current momentum and good Auto Club Speedway experience to grab a good finish in Sunday's 400-mile race.
Ryan Newman – Our surprise Phoenix winner should roll into Fontana with a tidal wave of momentum this week. Snapping winless streaks of that length will do wonders for a driver and team's confidence. Newman has enjoyed reasonable success at Auto Club Speedway over the years. He's grabbed nine-career Top-10 finishes in 22 starts (41-percent) and five of those have come in his last seven trips to the California speedway. Newman has done a more than reasonable job on two-mile ovals the last two years, carrying a very respectable 12.2 average finish across six starts at Fontana and Michigan. He won't likely make it back to victory lane this week, but the No. 31 Chevrolet should represent well in the Auto Club 400.
Jamie McMurray – Chip Ganassi Racing has not only enjoyed a fast start to 2017 for Kyle Larson, but for McMurray and the No. 1 team as well. The veteran driver has nabbed a pair of Top-10 finishes in the first four races of the season and comes to California eighth overall in the driver standings. McMurray has the Fontana resume to instill high confidence in fantasy racing performance this week. He has two-career pole positions and seven Top 10s at this facility. Two of his last three starts have yielded Top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway. McMurray has been dialed-in on two-mile ovals the last two seasons with four Top 10s in those six starts between Fontana and Michigan. This driver and team should be a low risk/high reward play this Sunday afternoon.
Ryan Blaney – To this point Blaney has been racing with the lead pack each week and looking like a tremendous value in weekly fantasy racing leagues. He had a bit of tough luck at Phoenix this past week, but don't take that as a trend, rather the exception. The Wood Brothers Racing driver struggled on these two-mile ovals over the past two seasons, but it's his last start on one of these tracks that grabs our attention. Blaney's fourth-place finish last summer at Michigan was a tremendous effort and a break from his trend line at the big ovals. He has only one-career start at Fontana, but don't let that be a concern. This surging young driver and team come to California this week with a lot of upside.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is coming off another difficult performance this past week at Phoenix. Earnhardt had what appeared to be a Top-10 car, but had to settle for a 14th-place finish. Each week this driver and team get a little better, but they're still not ready to punch at their weight class yet. The rust is proving a little more difficult to shake for this returning driver. Earnhardt has better ovals in his racing resume than Auto Club Speedway. With only seven Top-10 finishes in 24-career starts, he checks in at a lowly 29-percent Top-10 rate. Only one of his last three trips has netted a Top-10 finish. Earnhardt is visiting a tough venue and still facing obstacles in his path of being a top tier driver once again. It's best to hold off another race in weekly lineup leagues.
Austin Dillon – This season has gotten off to a rough start for the No. 3 Chevrolet team. A sure Top 5 at Atlanta was foiled by a bad battery, and ever since it's been a struggle each week for Dillon. He's yet to crack the Top 10 this season and comes to an oval that's held little success for him during his brief career. Outside of winning the pole position in this event one year ago, three-career starts at Fontana have netted no Top-10 finishes and an average finish around 17.0. The super speedways and intermediate ovals tend to be better tracks for Dillon and these two-mile ovals are just not his racing strength. We don't expect his early-season drought to end in Sunday's Auto Club 400.
Matt Kenseth – The start of the 2017 season has been an up-and-down affair for Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kenseth. He has a pair of Top 10s and a pair of crashes and DNF's in the first four events of the season. Kenseth enters the Auto Club 400 looking to capitalize on the magic that he has had on the big ovals for most of his NASCAR career. The veteran driver actually had a subpar year in 2016 on the two-mile ovals with finishes of 19th-, 14th- and 13th-place. That's poor considering that Kenseth is a three-time Fontana winner and three-time Michigan winner. His last two trips to Auto Club Speedway have yielded no Top-15 finishes and an average of 25.0. The trend is not up to historical standards and his recent shaky performance has a bit concerned about Fontana this week.
Danica Patrick – The Stewart Haas Racing driver comes to Auto Club Speedway looking for answers to her slow start to the season. Four events into the campaign and Patrick has no Top-15 finishes and an average at 27.0. She won't likely find any major rebounds in the Auto Club 400. Patrick's four-career starts at this two-mile oval have netted only one Top 15 and an average finish of 24.2. The driver of the No. 10 Ford finished 23rd in her last start on a two-mile track last summer at Michigan. If anything the pattern is pretty predictable and the results are below inspiring any fantasy racing expectations this Sunday afternoon.