Pala Casino 400 Preview: Big Oval Action

Pala Casino 400 Preview: Big Oval Action

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

As we put last weekend's thrills and crumpled sheet metal of Daytona behind us, the NASCAR Cup Series travels out west this week. NASCAR's top touring series comes to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California for the one and only visit to this huge, two-mile oval for the season. This will be the last Cup Series race at the big track as the facility has planned to undergo a massive renovation and reconfiguration at the conclusion of this week's Pala Casino 400. Auto Club Speedway has planned to build a short track that will replace the long-serving two-mile oval, so the next time NASCAR visits Fontana (likely 2025) we'll go short track racing instead of the familiar multi-lane, big track action that we're accustomed to seeing here.

For this weekend, the racing action will be equally entertaining as Daytona, but somewhat different as the drivers will compete on a wide open oval that is moderately banked, with only 14-degree banking 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,

As we put last weekend's thrills and crumpled sheet metal of Daytona behind us, the NASCAR Cup Series travels out west this week. NASCAR's top touring series comes to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California for the one and only visit to this huge, two-mile oval for the season. This will be the last Cup Series race at the big track as the facility has planned to undergo a massive renovation and reconfiguration at the conclusion of this week's Pala Casino 400. Auto Club Speedway has planned to build a short track that will replace the long-serving two-mile oval, so the next time NASCAR visits Fontana (likely 2025) we'll go short track racing instead of the familiar multi-lane, big track action that we're accustomed to seeing here.

For this weekend, the racing action will be equally entertaining as Daytona, but somewhat different as the drivers will compete on a wide open oval that is moderately banked, with only 14-degree banking 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, so it will be interesting to see which teams hit the pavement rolling on this huge, sweeping track. 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 23 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 Pala Casino 400. 

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kyle Busch9.11,1153748073,983109.0
Tyler Reddick17.5943990269100.3
Erik Jones10.2311351891797.6
Ryan Blaney15.7394725797095.7
Austin Cindric12.0611017994.3
Kevin Harvick12.69912422333,53394.3
Denny Hamlin16.39491031473,13993.2
Chase Elliott12.2362411789691.5
Joey Logano12.566983712,00491.5
Kyle Larson13.0348691381,07690.3
Brad Keselowski 14.754275871,51185.6
Martin Truex Jr.17.28111822362,46885.5
Chase Briscoe16.0439209182.1
Austin Dillon13.52547076879.7
William Byron19.8171132141779.1
Alex Bowman19.21756611152575.1
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.17.630013768570.8
Daniel Suarez15.01753039970.4
AJ Allmendinger19.433721181068.6
Aric Almirola21.93727784765.6

This will be our second time racing at Fontana with the new Next-Gen car. There will be some good data from last season to review, but some unknowns until the drivers take to the two-mile track and begin practice laps later this week. Until that time, our focus will be on drivers who've had a lot of success in the past in this style of racing. Looking back to the last race that was held at Auto Club Speedway last February could bear some clues as to who are the drivers to watch closely this weekend as the teams unload and shakedown their cars at the speedway.

When the NASCAR Cup Series last competed at Auto Club Speedway, it would be Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson and his No. 5 Chevrolet team that would rise late to take the victory. The win carried on a recent trend at the track of Chevrolet and Toyota drivers monopolizing victory lane and leaving just the scraps for Ford drivers. Only one Ford driver (Brad Keselowski) has won at the two-mile track in the last 14 events. Larson would take the lead from Joey Logano after the final caution of the day that February afternoon and held off fellow Chevrolet drivers Austin Dillon and Erik Jones to capture the win. That would be the bowtie brand's fourth victory in the last six races at Auto Club Speedway, and Larson's second-career Fontana win. Toyota is not to be overlooked in this recent success either. Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Martin Truex Jr. and formerly, Kyle Busch won at the huge oval in 2018 and 2019. The big question this weekend will be can any of the current Ford drivers break up this monopoly? We'll soon find out. In the outline below, we'll give you our picks for fantasy racing success in the Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway. 

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Larson – Larson is a two-time Fontana winner and also a one-time runner-up finisher at this huge oval. The Hendrick Motorsports star, won this event one year ago, and he'll return to defend that race crown this Sunday afternoon. There's good reason for major optimism. Larson is also a three-time winner at the similar-sized oval in Michigan, and his last two starts at that track netted strong third- and seventh-place finishes. This style of racing really seems to play to Larson's strengths and he understands the aerodynamics of these big ovals. Changing lanes and utilizing the high groove for maximum momentum has always been a favorite tactic of Larson, and it really translates well at this big track in Fontana. The season may not have started the way Larson wanted, but he can more than make up for it in the Pala Casino 400.         

Kyle Busch – The Joe Gibbs Racing star is the active wins leader at Fontana with four victories over his Cup Series career. Three of those four victories have come since the 2013 season, so Busch's success here has been more recent than earlier in his racing career. The last of those victories came in 2019 at Auto Club Speedway and he also fetched a runner-up finish there in 2020. With two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in his last five starts between Fontana and Michigan, Busch is one of the more successful drivers in this style of racing in recent seasons. The Next-Gen car is a bit of a variable entering the weekend, but interestingly Tyler Reddick piloted this same car to a race-high 90 laps led in this event one year ago. That's some good measure of potential for a driver who knows exactly what to do with that type of speed at Fontana. Busch was in the running for the win late at Daytona last Sunday and he will be again this weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

Joey Logano – We've only had one Ford victor at Auto Club Speedway since the 2010 season, and it was Brad Keselowski's 2015 win that stands out for that camp. Logano will attempt to reverse years of Ford underperformance at this track. The Penske Racing star has demonstrated years of consistency at this track, despite being winless here. Logano has posed seven Top-5 finishes (including this event one year ago) in 15 starts for a strong 47-percent Top-5 rate at Fontana. The No. 22 Ford has just seemed to lack the speed to get over the top for that big win. That could change in Sunday's Pala Casino 400.  Logano looked incredible at Daytona last week, and we know he has the understanding to succeed at Auto Club Speedway. He's a three-time Michigan winner, and that bodes well for Sunday's 400-mile battle in California.

Kevin Harvick – Harvick has quietly been very successful on the two-mile oval in Michigan the last few years. The Stewart Haas Racing star has nabbed five victories there since 2018. Harvick is also a one-time winner at Fontana (2011) and he's grabbed three-career runner-up finishes at Auto Club Speedway. With a Top-10 percentage at this track checking in around 50-percent, Harvick has been quite consistent here just not dominant. He'll look to make that change starting with Sunday's Pala Casino 400. The driver of the No. 4 Ford collected a respectable seventh-place finish in his last start at Auto Club Speedway. We see that as the floor for this weekend. We expect to see Harvick racing among the leaders and vying for the win in the closing laps of this race.     

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Denny Hamlin – The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran hasn't won in his last five visits to Fontana/Michigan, but Hamlin has been razor sharp. He's led 64 total laps between the two tracks during this span and collected one runner-up, three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes for an impressive 6.2 average finish. In addition, Hamlin has cracked the Top 10 in four of his last six starts at Auto Club Speedway. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota is still winless for his career at this track and with Chevrolet's current dominance here, that's not likely to change. However, Hamlin has been a regular face among the leaders, leading laps and challenging for Top-5 finishes at this facility. The veteran driver makes a very safe and rewarding fantasy racing selection for the Pala Casino 400.   

Austin Dillon – Dillon has kicked off the season well. He got on the podium at the LA Coliseum in the pre-season, and he had a strong run going at Daytona last Sunday until the last-lap crash dashed his hopes of registering a Top 5. The Richard Childress Racing driver has been pretty sharp at two-mile oval racing in recent seasons. Two of his last four visits to Fontana/Michigan have netted Top-10 finishes, including a runner-up finish in this event one year ago in California. Dillon has won two pole positions at Auto Club Speedway since 2016 and he's registered three Top-10 finishes there during that time (50-percent). The way he and the No. 3 Chevrolet team have kicked off the 2023 campaign, we're very optimistic heading back to California this weekend.

Martin Truex Jr. – The 2018 Auto Club Speedway winner checks in on our solid plays list this week. Truex has led close to 250-career laps at the two-mile California oval and he's cracked the Top 10 a total of seven times, with three of those being in the last five visits. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota has definitely risen his game at this track later in his career. Truex has also been just as strong at the similar oval in Michigan. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has 15 Top-10 finishes at that facility (47-percent) and currently rides a six-race Michigan Top-10 streak entering this season. The wide lanes and multi-groove racing has really grown on Truex in recent years and the results show it. His last start at Michigan last season in the Next Gen car netted a solid sixth-place finish.  

Chase Elliott – Elliott carries some high potential, but also maybe the highest risk of the upper tier drivers this weekend as we return to Auto Club Speedway. The Hendrick Motorsports star has led 89 combined laps in his last five Fontana/Michigan starts, but no major threat to win any of those races. Still, Elliott has nabbed three Top 10's in those five events and an 11th-place finish at Michigan last August for a respectable 12.2 average finish in these recent two-mile oval events. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has six-career starts at Auto Club Speedway and he's captured one Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes (50-percent) in those starts. Those are not eye-popping numbers and the lack of laps led diminishes his contender status. Still, those are consistent enough numbers to consider him a high probability Top-10 finisher in this 400-mile battle.  

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Fontana & solid upside

Ryan Blaney – Coming off a strong Top-10 finish at Daytona, Blaney will look to keep things rolling with a good performance at Auto Club Speedway. The Penske Racing star has been pretty effective on the two-mile ovals the last few seasons. Blaney is sort of in the same boat as Chase Elliott as he's not a major threat to win at this track, but consistent enough to produce good returns in most fantasy leagues. His six-career starts at Auto Club Speedway have netted 57 laps led, one Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes (50-percent). He also sports a 50-percent Top-10 rate at the similar oval in Michigan and has won there as recently as 2021, but we'd consider that performance a bit of an outlier. Blaney is a solid choice for fantasy lineups in the Pala Casino 400.

Erik Jones – Jones suffered some tough luck at Daytona last Sunday, but he'll look to rebound in race number two of the season at Fontana this Sunday afternoon. The Legacy Motor Club driver has been pretty proficient at Auto Club Speedway over the years. He owns one Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in his six starts for a rather impressive 10.2 average finish. Additionally, Jones grabbed third- (Fontana) and eighth-place (Michigan) finishes in the pair of two-mile oval events of last season. The 23 laps led in those two races shows he's not just following the leader, but getting out front and leading laps at these tracks. The driver of the No. 43 Chevrolet was strong in this event one year ago, and we believe those notes will come in handy in this event as well.         

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski led a lot of laps at Daytona last Sunday (42), but his luck didn't hold up and he was collected in the last crash of the evening. The good speed is at least a hopeful sign that the owner/driver of the No. 6 Ford is on the track to turning around his slump. Prior to Keselowski's departure from Penske, these two-mile ovals were favorites of the veteran driver. At Auto Club Speedway alone he had one win (2015), five Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes (46-percent) for a respectable 14.7 career average finish at the track. Additionally, Keselowski is a 52-percent Top-10 finisher at the similar two-mile oval in Michigan, with two-career pole positions there. Two-mile ovals have been a favorite of Keselowski's before the move to the No. 6 Ford team. They seemed to learn a lot in the Michigan race last summer (Top-15 finish), so there should be continued improvement Sunday in Fontana.    

Austin Cindric – The Penske Racing youngster had a strong car that he could seem to move through the field at Daytona, but the late crashes would be Cindric's undoing in the Daytona 500. He'll look to rebound at a much calmer Auto Club Speedway this week. The driver of the No. 2 Ford has two-career starts at two-mile ovals, and they both came last season. In a stunning upset, Cindric won the pole at Fontana last year and would finish a respectable 12th-place in his debut at the track. He also qualified strongly at Michigan, earning an impressive fifth-place starting slot on the grid there. While his experience is short, the speed and precision are coming together for the No. 2 team under Cindric's guidance. Let's not forget he was a 67-percent Top-10 finisher at Fontana during his Xfinity Series career.       

Aric Almirola – The Stewart Haas Racing veteran looked great at Daytona last week. Almirola would lead 16 laps and look like a Top-5 finisher before the final wreck of the day would dampen his performance. The good news is that Almirola should rebound nicely at Auto Club Speedway. Since moving to SHR a few seasons ago, the veteran driver has reeled off finishes of 12th-, ninth-, eighth- and sixth-place at the two-mile California track. The multi-grooves and wide lanes of racing really appeal to Almirola and this No. 10 Ford team. In this event one year ago, he finished a Fontana career-best sixth-place in the Wise Power 400. Almirola and his race team should be a good bet for a strong performance in Sunday's Pala Casino 400.

Alex Bowman – Bowman kicked off the season with a great performance at Daytona. He would win the pole position, lead 12 laps and finish fifth-place in the Great American Race. It was just the start to the season he and the No. 48 team needed. Bowman won this event in 2020 in a dominating performance. He would lead 110 of 200 laps that day and be the class of the field. Bowman's last performance on a two-mile oval was his steady ninth-place finish at Michigan last August in the Next Gen car. That's a good indicator of potential this weekend. Bowman doesn't have great career-long numbers at Auto Club Speedway, but his ability to win here is established and his last outing on a similar oval is very encouraging.        

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Ross Chastain – The Trackhouse Racing veteran proved to be a driver to not bet against in 2022, and his Top-10 finish this past week in the Daytona 500 is another positive heading into a new season. However, if there was one aspect Chastain struggled with last season, it was two-mile oval racing. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet finished a disappointing 29th-place in this event one year ago, and Chastain led some laps at Michigan (29 total) but ran into trouble and finished 24th-place there. The team may make some gains this season and Chastain may make some positive adjustments, but to say we're a bit pessimistic would be an understatement. We consider Chastain and his No. 1 Chevrolet team a high-risk option for fantasy racing lineups this week.       

Harrison Burton – Coming off 9 laps led and decent performance (but poor finish) at Daytona, it may be a bit surprising to see Burton in the slow down list this week. Burton will take some steps and further develop this season to be sure, but this is not the week to gamble a fantasy racing start on the No. 21 team. Burton's two starts last season on the two-mile ovals of Fontana/Michigan resulted in two crashes and DNF's. They weren't particularly good qualifying efforts either for the youngster. This will be just Burton's second-career Cup Series start at Auto Club Speedway, so there may be some improvement, but still a lot of lessons to learn. Burton and the No. 21 Ford team are a risky fantasy racing option for the Pala Casino 400.

Tyler Reddick – The young 23XI Racing driver has two-career starts at Auto Club Speedway. Those were 11th- and 24th-place finishes with his old team at Richard Childress Racing. Reddick led a lot of laps in that second start, but ran into trouble and finished a distant 24th-place in this event one year ago. He'll look to hit the reset button on this track with his new No. 45 Toyota team. It will likely be an uphill climb though. Toyota teams have struggled a bit in the last couple seasons at this facility, and Reddick doesn't have the experience here yet that he needs to be considered a safe fantasy racing play. His last five starts between Michigan/Fontana have only yielded a top finish of 18th-place and an average finish of 24.8. It's best to keep Reddick on the fantasy racing bench this week.      

Christopher Bell – We're generally optimistic and high on Bell for the season, but his two-mile oval performance the last few seasons has been very discouraging. His last five starts on the two-mile ovals have yielded just two Top-15 finishes, his average finish checks in at a subpar 21.0 between Fontana and Michigan. Bell still has a lot to learn about racing on these high-speed big ovals. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota registered a Top-5 finish at Daytona last weekend, so we have confidence in his skills. Auto Club Speedway is not likely what the doctor ordered to keep this driver and team on a roll heading into the early-season. Bell is a bench candidate this week, but look for him to be a better pick at tracks like Las Vegas and Phoenix in the coming weeks.

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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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