Auto Club 400 Preview: New Test for the Aero Package

Auto Club 400 Preview: New Test for the Aero Package

This article is part of our NASCAR DFS 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 2019 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.  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 20 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.

TOP 15
Jimmie Johnson79125338803,988115.6
Kyle Busch9.79632986733,582109.6
Erik Jones9.510940393101
Kevin Harvick13.58472382323,10195.5
Chase Elliott10.717126548295.2
Denny Hamlin17.5736841392,61492.7
Kyle Larson142245111072991.9
Clint Bowyer13.572481472,32189.6
Kurt Busch13.68471491622,79788.1
Joey Logano1447161541,41387.8
Martin Truex Jr.18.26321722332,05785.3
Ryan Blaney17.316913039184
Brad Keselowski15.638236391,09583.2
Ryan Newman16.977624152,32980.1
Austin Dillon14.41301046879.8
William Byron15310112171
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.191829041869.1
Daniel Suarez1555009868.8
Paul Menard20.642120591665.5
David Ragan20.935811365763.8

NASCAR's new aerodynamic package will get put to a new test this week.  This will be the first time racing at a two-mile oval with the setup as opposed to the two 1.5-mile ovals we've seen to this point.  It will be interesting to see how the racing develops and maybe even changes a bit over past Fontana action.  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 Martin Truex Jr.'s victory in this event one year ago, Toyota ended Chevrolet's two-race win streak at the Southern California speedway.  It was the veteran driver's first victory at Fontana and a real breakthrough for the JGR ace.  

Truex was preceded by Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson, who racked up two Chevrolet wins at the two-mile oval for Chevrolet during 2016 and 2017.  Larson will make a much-anticipated return to Auto Club Speedway and seek to start a new streak at one of his favorite tracks.  Toyota'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 and Aric Almirola are running well, and the Penske Racing duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are near the top of the finishing order almost every week.  The Auto Club 400 could provide the opportunity for a Ford driver to win and end a short dry spell for the brand at Auto Club Speedway.  Let's not forget about Toyota's chances of making a streak here.  Kyle Busch is a three-time winner in Fontana, and Truex himself stands a good chance of defending his race crown at the facility.  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

Martin Truex Jr. The defending event champion tops our contenders list this week.  In this race one year ago, Truex piloted his former Furniture Row Racing Toyota to a dominant performance in the Auto Club 400.  He led 125 of the 200 laps from the pole and marched away with his first-ever Fontana victory.  Truex's numbers at this two-mile oval have been improving in recent seasons, so last year's win was a great reward for a lot of hard work.  With well over 200 laps led in his last three visits to Auto Club Speedway, one victory in hand and two Top-5 finishes, the No. 19 Toyota is the clear favorite heading back Southern California this week.

Joey Logano Few drivers have 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 313.  The No. 22 Ford team is off to a good start this season, but is looking to make up for a subpar 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-5 streak into this weekend's action.  Logano's consistency and 8.1 average finish on these style ovals the last three years is reason enough to deploy him in fantasy racing lineups this Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Busch Last week's Phoenix victor is a three-time winner at the Auto Club Speedway, so 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 45-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 coming off the big win at ISM Raceway this past Sunday.  In this race one year ago, the Joe Gibbs Racing star led 62 laps and finished third in that installment of the Auto Club 400.  Busch may scratch the win column again this weekend in this 400-mile battle.

Brad Keselowski The Penske Racing star's last three seasons of racing on these two-mile ovals have netted two runner-up finishes, five Top-5 and seven Top-10 finishes.  Those are all top marks in the series, and work out to a miniscule 7.0 average finish, also best in the series over the span.  The lack of a victory is a bit concerning, but the driver of the No. 2 Ford has been very close to breaking through at both Michigan and Fontana the last three seasons.  Keselowski is a one-time Fontana winner (2015) and he rides a four-race Top-10 streak at this oval into Sunday's action.  Keselowski is not a driver to be overlooked in the Auto Club 400.

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

Kyle LarsonThe Chip Ganassi Racing star has enjoyed a lot of success in his brief career at the Fontana oval.  Larson has one victory and two runner-up finishes in five starts at the California speedway.  He won this event two years ago in a dominating, 110-lap led performance.  The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet returned last season and mounted a good defense to his 2017 win at the facility.  Larson started on the second row of the Auto Club 400 and raced to a runner-up finish to Martin Truex Jr. one year ago.  The young driver has enjoyed even more success at the similar Michigan oval, where he's won three victories in the last three seasons.  This is clearly an oval that Larson likes and is a setup for him to exceed expectations.       

Kevin Harvick Even though Harvick is a one-time winner at Auto Club Speedway, this is not one of his better ovals.  His 11-career Top-10 finishes at the two-mile facility in 25 starts checks in at a pedestrian 44-percent.  His last two trips to Auto Club Speedway have been less than ideal performances for the No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing team.  So this week we're adjusting down our expectations for this star driver.  In light of Harvick's uncharacteristic struggles at Phoenix this past week, we believe it's the correct move to devalue Harvick a bit this week.  We don't expect to see him challenging for the win this week, but he'll more likely be battling at the back end of the Top 10 much like he did at the Phoenix oval this past Sunday.    

Ryan Blaney Coming off the great performance and third-place finish this past weekend at Phoenix, we like Blaney to carry that momentum into Auto Club Speedway.  The young Penske Racing driver has just three-career starts at the two-mile oval, but two of those have been steady Top-10 finishes.  Blaney finished ninth-place in this event two years ago, and he returned last March to claim an eighth-place finish.  We believe the driver of the No. 12 Ford is poised for a career-best Fontana performance this Sunday afternoon.  His last action on a two-mile oval were his two starts at Michigan last summer.  Blaney didn't disappoint with eighth- and fifth-place finishes in those starts.  He'll once again be a top performer in 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 one Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes through the first four events of the season, he comes to Southern California a lofty seventh in the overall driver standings.  Two-mile oval racing hasn't exactly been this veteran driver's specialty over the years.  11-career starts at Auto Club Speedway have only netted three Top-15 finishes and a 25.8 average finish for his career at this facility.  Granted, all of those starts but one 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 seventh-place finish in the Consumers Energy 400.  Almirola should be at least that good, if not better in Sunday's Auto Club 400.     

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

Denny Hamlin – The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran is coming off a good finish at ISM Raceway.  Hamlin had a fast Toyota Camry, and led 7 laps en route to finishing an impressive fifth-place last weekend.  The veteran driver now has a win and two 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 way back in the field in 25th-place and after 400 miles of action earned a strong sixth-place finish.  That ties in with his recent history here.  Hamlin's last three seasons of racing on two-mile ovals nets a respectable 56-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 with two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes and he rides ninth overall in the standings to California this week.  The Chip Ganassi 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 (48-percent) over his 19-season career of Monster Energy Cup Series racing at Fontana.  While last season's start at Fontana was a subpar 14th-place finish, he did well at the similar oval in Michigan with third- and sixth-place finishes.  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. 1 Chevrolet team should be a steady fantasy play at Auto Club Speedway.      

Jimmie JohnsonThe seven-time champion gave us a glimmer of hope last weekend with a pit-strategy powered Top-10 finish at Phoenix.  It seems that new crew chief Kevin Meendering is willing to gamble and pull out all the stops to get Johnson back to his dominant ways.  This week we visit an oval that has held a tremendous amount of success for Johnson over the years.  Auto Club Speedway has yielded six victories, the most recent in 2016 and 17 Top-10 finishes, which works out to a dazzling 71-percent in 24 starts.  The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has a good recent record at this facility despite being down overall the last couple seasons.  Three of Johnson's last four starts at the two-mile oval have yielded Top-10 finishes.  He should be up to the task to impress again in the Auto Club 400.

Chase Elliott The Hendrick Motorsports youngster was his own worst enemy at Phoenix this past week.  A jump-the-start penalty at the beginning of the race basically negated his fast car, and Elliott struggled to finish 14th at Phoenix.  He'll look to rebound this week at a much friendlier oval for the No. 24 team.  Elliott has torn up these two-mile ovals the last three seasons.  With eight Top 10's in his last nine starts between Fontana and Michigan, he ranks among the most consistent drivers in the series on these huge ovals.  Good track position will be lessened in importance this week with the multiple grooves that drivers can race in at Fontana.  We believe Elliott will take full advantage and peddle to his second Top-10 finish of the young season.

Clint Bowyer The driver of the No. 14 Ford labored to an 11th-place finish at ISM Raceway this past weekend.  Bowyer will hope to improve on that mark as the series visits Auto Club Speedway this Sunday afternoon.  The good news is that Bowyer won on a two-mile oval last season.  The SHR veteran won the first of two Michigan races in 2018, and he also picked up 11th- and 12th-place finishes in his two other two-mile oval starts.  His Fontana resume with Stewart Haas Racing has been pretty good with third- and 11th-place finishes the last two years.  Bowyer now sports a 44-percent Top-10 rate at Auto Club Speedway for his career, and that's not poor by most measures.  This should be an upside weekend for this driver and team.

Austin DillonThe 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 four Top 10's in the nine events between Michigan and Auto Club Speedway.  His average finish stands at a respectable 13.4 across the span.  Dillon's last start on a two-mile oval yielded a strong fourth-place finish at MIS last summer.  A bit of bad luck with fuel mileage this past week at Phoenix derailed a possible Top-10 finish late in that race.  Dillon should be poised to rebound on this much more favorable oval in Sunday's 400-mile Fontana battle.

Slow Down – Drivers to Avoid This Week

Erik Jones Jones is a "check status" driver this week at Fontana.  We've given him a temporary downgrade to the slow down list as a result.  After a good start to the season, he's struggled the last two weekends at Las Vegas and Phoenix.  Two-mile oval racing hasn't exactly been his best tracks the first two seasons of his Cup career.  Jones has labored to just two Top 10's in six starts between Fontana and Michigan.  That 33-percent rate is reason for pause this week.  The Joe Gibbs Racing driver could also struggle as a result of the new aero package in our first two-mile oval race with the setup.  This is a good weekend to give Jones a pass in weekly lineup leagues, and check back in with the No. 20 team when we head to the friendlier short tracks of Bristol and Martinsville in the coming weeks.   

Daniel Suarez The young driver's start with his new Stewart Haas Racing team is not off to the best start in 2019.  With one Top 10 through the first four races, Suarez has an inflated 20.8 average finish so far this young season.  His noticeable lack of speed this past week at Phoenix is a bit concerning, and his physical confrontation with driver Michael McDowell during qualifying shows that the pressure to succeed is mounting for Suarez.  The last two seasons at Fontana and Michigan show just one Top-10 finish in six starts for this driver and a poor 22.0 average finish.  It would seem that the odds are stacked against Suarez this weekend.  It could be another tough week of racing for the young driver.    

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. It's been a good start to 2019.  With one Top-10 and three Top-15 finishes through the first four events, Stenhouse stands a respectable 10th in the driver point standings as we come to California this week.  However, this is not a track to take lightly for the No. 17 Ford team.  Stenhouse has a spotty history racing at both this oval and the sister two-mile oval of Michigan.  In six-career starts at Fontana the veteran driver has just one Top-10 finish and a 19.0 average finish.  The last three years of racing between Michigan and Fontana have netted just two Top 10's in nine starts and a similar 19.3 average finish.  It appears that the driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford will be just another face in the crowd racing at the back end of the Top 20 this week.

Paul Menard We hate to pick on Menard this week, but his Fontana racing resume is not the best.  The Wood Brothers Racing driver has 16-career starts at the California speedway and just three Top-10 finishes in those starts.  The Top-10 rate of a lowly 19-percent and 20.6 average finish don't inspire thoughts of success this Sunday.  Menard hasn't cracked the Top 10 at this track since the 2015 season.  It looks like the driver of the No. 21 Ford will be battling with many drivers at the back end of the Top 10 this Sunday afternoon at Auto Club Speedway, and that's not a good reason for fantasy racing deployment in weekly lineup leagues.  It's best to keep Menard on the bench this week, and wait for the series to return to intermediate ovals.

The author(s) of this article may play in daily fantasy contests including – but not limited to – games that they have provided recommendations or advice on in this article. In the course of playing in these games using their personal accounts, it's possible that they will use players in their lineups or other strategies that differ from the recommendations they have provided above. The recommendations in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of RotoWire.
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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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