Auto Club 400 Preview: Kyle Larson's House

Auto Club 400 Preview: Kyle Larson's House

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 Monster Energy Cup Series stays out west this week. NASCAR's top touring series comes to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for the one and only visit to this huge, two-mile oval for the 2018 season.

The racing action will take on a much different look this week as we prepare to compete on a 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, very 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-

As we put the short track tempers and beat up fenders that were the Phoenix race last weekend behind us, the Monster Energy Cup Series stays out west this week. NASCAR's top touring series comes to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for the one and only visit to this huge, two-mile oval for the 2018 season.

The racing action will take on a much different look this week as we prepare to compete on a 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, very 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 take a look at the loop stats for the last 19 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 Johnson6.98745338803,826116.9
Chase Elliott8.0125265393109.0
Kyle Busch10.19352726113,382108.6
Erik Jones12.06040193100.6
Kevin Harvick12.48192272323,06497.4
Denny Hamlin18.3680791382,44592.3
Clint Bowyer13.666681472,16989.8
Kurt Busch13.57881491622,61188.1
Kasey Kahne17.88261131522,57288.1
Kyle Larson17.01614011054586.6
Joey Logano14.843552451,21785.5
Martin Truex Jr.19.25991031081,85781.5
Ryan Newman16.775024152,27281.2
Brad Keselowski 16.9332293989879.9
Ryan Blaney22.01240028079.9
Austin Dillon15.5911032178.5
Daniel Suarez7.022003777.7
Jamie McMurray17.949622161,58373.7
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.19.21706040170.6
Ty Dillon18.031418670.5

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 Larson's victory in this event one year ago, the manufacturer Chevrolet now has a two-race win streak going at the Southern California speedway. Larson was preceded by Jimmie Johnson, who also won for the bowtie brand here in 2016. Larson will make a much-anticipated return to Auto Club Speedway and seek to start a streak of his own at this facility. Chevrolet's current grip on the two-mile oval could likely be short-lived as most Ford teams are running in top form entering the weekend. Kevin Harvick is absolutely on fire, and the trio of Penske Racing drivers are near the top of the finishing order almost every week. Auto Club Speedway could provide the opportunity for a Ford driver to win and end this short Chevrolet streak at Auto Club Speedway. Let's not forget about Toyota. Kyle Busch is a three-time winner in Fontana, and drivers like Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin can show up anywhere on any weekend and win. Each of these drivers has the ability to put the collective field under their boots this weekend, and usher Toyota back into victory lane at this two-mile oval. 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 Larson -
The Chip Ganassi Racing star has become the driver to beat on these two-mile ovals. Larson has swept the last four events between Fontana and Michigan dating back to late 2016. His most dominant performance of the four was his last visit to Auto Club Speedway. In this event one year ago the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet won the pole and led 110 laps on the way to dominating that event and capturing the win. Larson now has a victory and runner-up finish in his four-career starts at this oval. 2018 hasn't started quite as well as this driver and team would like, so you know they'll be eager for another crack at Auto Club Speedway this weekend, and a much needed win for this race team.

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 since the 2013 season at the huge California oval, and Busch carries a fat 42-percent career Top-5 rate at this facility. 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 riding high this weekend, but still looking for his first victory of 2018. 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.

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 he's coming off the strong third-place finish at Phoenix this past weekend. This week Elliott gets the very forgiving oval of Fontana. The young driver has two-career Top 10s at this facility in two starts, and he's finished runner-up three-straight times at the similar oval in Michigan. This style of racing plays to his strengths and his team's strengths. If Chevrolet is going to break into victory lane for the first time with the new Camaro, this could be the time. This 400-mile race sets up well for Elliott and don't be surprised if this weekend he collects career win number one.

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 2017 season. He has some success at Auto Club Speedway in recent outings. Two of his last three trips to Fontana have yielded Top-10 finishes. The two-mile oval resume over the last two season shows great improvement. Truex had fourth-, sixth- and second-place finishes on the two-mile ovals last season alone. He had nearly 200 laps led in those three starts, so winning at Fontana now seems a possibility for this driver.

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 keep his torrid hot streak going. Harvick is riding three-straight victories into Southern California. This oval presents a modest opportunity for him to extend that streak to four. The Stewart Haas Racing star has a pair of runner-up finishes in his last three trips to Auto Club Speedway. While last season's outing here was a bit subpar, we have to throw it out the window based on current driver and team performance. The driver of the No. 4 Ford should be seen as an outside contender to win and near-lock at a Top-5 finish.

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 three seasons of racing on these ovals have netted one win and seven Top-10 finishes. The lone win came at Auto Club Speedway three seasons ago. Keselowski's last start on a two-mile oval last summer netted a pole position and 105 laps led at Michigan. However, he'd run into some problems and finish 17th. It does demonstrate though that the No. 2 Ford team has good speed at these big ovals. Keselowski is not a driver to be overlooked in the Auto Club 400.

Joey Logano -
No driver has been more consistent and reliable on the two-mile ovals the last three years than Logano. He has one victory, five Top-5, eight Top-10 finishes and has collected the second-most points at Fontana and Michigan with 318. 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 fifth in this event one year ago, and he rides a three-race Fontana Top-10 streak into this weekend's action. Logano's consistency and 7.8 average finish on these style ovals the last three years is reason enough to deploy him in fantasy racing lineups this Sunday afternoon.

Jamie McMurray -
The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran hasn't enjoyed a good start to the season, but there's ample reason for optimism at Auto Club Speedway. McMurray has the Fontana resume to instill high confidence in fantasy racing performance this week. He has two-career pole positions and eight Top 10s at this facility. Three of his last four starts have yielded Top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway. McMurray has been dialed-in on two-mile ovals the last three seasons with seven Top 10s in those nine starts between Fontana and Michigan. This driver and team should be a low risk/high reward play in the Auto Club 400.

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

Ryan Blaney -
This style of racing really hasn't been Blaney's cup of tea to this point in his career. However, with the jump from Wood Brothers Racing to Penske Racing we believe we'll see a pop in his performance on these two-mile ovals. The No. 12 Ford team has had great speed to start the season, and Blaney has racked up one pole position and a pair of Top 10s in the first four races. He rides to Fontana fourth in the overall driver standings, and looking for another good finish at Auto Club Speedway. Blaney finished ninth in this event one year ago for his former No. 21 team, and we're willing to bet he'll be at least that good in Sunday's 400-mile battle.

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran is coming off a good finish at ISM Raceway. Hamlin had a fast Toyota Camry, and led 33 laps en route to finishing an impressive fourth last weekend. The veteran driver now has three Top-5 finishes in the first four events of the season and is off to a great start. 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 on the outside pole and finished 14th after 400 miles of action. That ties in with his recent history here. Hamlin's last three seasons of racing on two-mile ovals nets a 44-percent Top-10 rate. That's not bad, but it's the incredible current momentum of the No. 11 team that tips the scales for us this weekend.

Kurt Busch -
Busch has started the season well, as all four teams of the SHR stable have through the first four races. 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 (50-percent) over his 18-season career of Monster Energy Cup Series racing at Fontana. While last season's numbers were a bit subpar on the two-mile ovals, we believe that's an outlier of last season's below average campaign. When we look at the Busch's career body of work at Fontana and Michigan we have to give him his due respect this Sunday afternoon. Riding their current momentum, the No. 41 Ford team should be a steady fantasy play at Auto Club Speedway.

Erik Jones -
After consecutive Top 10s at Las Vegas and Phoenix, the Joe Gibbs Racing rising star comes to California with some good momentum. Jones will look to extend his current Top-10 streak to three after Sunday's Auto Club 400. This will be just his second-career start at Fontana, as he finished 12th in this event one year ago as a rookie. His other starts at Michigan were pretty impressive. Jones earned 13th- and third-place finishes at the similar two-mile Michigan oval. This young driver raced well at Auto Club Speedway during his Xfinity Series career, fetching a pair of Top-5 finishes in just three starts. The No. 20 Toyota team clearly has some momentum, and Jones should stay on a roll in Southern California.

Austin Dillon -
The two-mile ovals have been pretty good tracks for the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet the last three seasons. Dillon won the pole position at Fontana in 2016, and he's nabbed three Top 10s in the nine events between Michigan and Auto Club Speedway. His average finish stands at a respectable 14.8 across the span. Dillon's last start on a two-mile oval yielded a seventh-place finish at MIS last summer. With his Daytona 500 victory and two other Top-15 finishes to start 2018, the Richard Childress Racing driver currently sits 12th overall in the driver point standings. Dillon has posted an 11.2 average finish through the first four races of this season, and that warrants a good long look for the Auto Club 400.

Aric Almirola -
One of the hottest drivers of this young season is Almirola and his No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing team. With two Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes through the first four events of the season, he comes to Southern California a lofty 10th in the overall driver standings. Two-mile oval racing hasn't exactly been this veteran driver's specialty over the years. 10-career starts at Auto Club Speedway have only netted two Top-15 finishes and a 27.2 average finish for his career at this facility. Granted, all those starts came with lesser-equipped teams than his current one, and that's much of the reason for optimism. His last start on a two-mile oval at Michigan last summer netted a 12th-place finish for his former team. Almirola should be at least that good, if not better in Sunday's Auto Club 400.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson -
Despite winning at this oval in 2016, we have to recommend against starting Johnson this weekend at Auto Club Speedway. Since that victory two years ago, the No. 48 team has hit the proverbial wall. His five starts on the two-mile ovals since that win have only netted a pair of Top-10 finishes and an average finish of 14.4. That 40-percent Top-10 rate and 14.4 average finish are well below his career averages at Fontana of 70-percent and 7.1. The start to the 2018 season has been slow as well for the seven-time champion. After four events he's yet to collect a Top-10 finish, and comes to Fontana 26th in the championship driver standings. Johnson's Top-15 finishes the last two weeks seem like morale victories, but fall short of fantasy racing expectations.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne's start to the new season with Leavine Family Racing has gone pretty much as predicted to this point. After four races he has only one Top-20 finish and comes to Fontana a lowly 29th in the overall driver standings. Things may not be much easier for the driver of the No. 95 Chevrolet this weekend. Kahne struggled on these two-mile ovals over the last three seasons while at Hendrick Motorsports. In his last nine starts between Michigan and Fontana, Kahne has no Top-10 finishes and a 20.1 average finish with his former No. 5 team. Those are numbers well below any fantasy racing expectations, and those came with a better equipped team than his current one.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
It's been a rocky start to 2018. It all started with a lackluster Daytona 500 finish, after some very high expectations. Since then Stenhouse has sunk to 18th in the driver standings after no Top 10s through the first four races of the season. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran will attempt to hit the reset button this weekend at Auto Club Speedway, but he faces an uphill battle. Stenhouse has five-career starts and only one Top-10 finish. His effort in this event one year ago only netted a 22nd-place finish. His last three seasons of racing on two-mile ovals nearly mirrors that level of performance. Only two Top 10s in nine starts, and a 19.4 average finish. Don't look for any surprise performances from the No. 17 team this weekend.

Paul Menard -
We hate to pick on Menard after he had started the season so well. However, his crash and DNF at Phoenix this past week threw up some caution flags for us. The former driver of the No. 21 Ford, Ryan Blaney, didn't have the best numbers on these two-mile ovals either, so this could be sort of a team issue on these big tracks for Wood Brothers Racing. Menard has two Top 10s in his last nine starts on two-mile ovals, but the last of those came way back in 2015. Last season the veteran driver failed to crack the Top 20 in his three attempts between Michigan International Speedway and Auto Club Speedway. Menard could pop up and prove us wrong on this one, as he certainly has that potential. However, we believe the team and driver indicators are shaky enough to warrant caution at Fontana.

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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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