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Auto Club 400 Preview: Trends Begin to Form

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

As the dust settles from the mayhem that was the Bristol race last weekend, the Sprint Cup Series travels back west this week to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for the first visit to this huge oval of the 2012 season. The racing will take on a much different look this week as we prepare to compete on the two-mile oval that is relatively flat, 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 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 is upset 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.

Let's take a look at the loop stats for the last 13 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 loops stats should come in very handy for the Auto Club 400.

Jimmie Johnson4.26764407493,013123.1
Matt Kenseth8.86151283622,608107.2
Kyle Busch11.16901773942,474104.0
Mark Martin12.2498144652,079100.5
Tony Stewart12.36321901712,373100.1
Carl Edwards9.26121531212,34398.3
Jeff Gordon12.56881892092,40197.9
Greg Biffle15.75562142692,14095.2
Kevin Harvick12.759792552,25293.7
Kasey Kahne16.16001061521,94792.8
Clint Bowyer10.646664451,53992.3
Kurt Busch14.162989952,11389.9
Denny Hamlin19.248742711,60987.5
Jeff Burton16.56838068193385.2
Juan Pablo Montoya19.3335651181,11481.5
Ryan Newman18.950116121,53279.1
Martin Truex Jr.21.24365291,10775.4
David Reutimann19.23284482975.2
David Ragan17.33108160174.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.23.3454104271,17373.6

An interesting trend has emerged the last three years at Auto Club Speedway. The Chevrolet camps appear to have put a dent in the Ford dominance that we saw at this two-mile oval in the middle of the past decade. Chevrolet drivers have won six of the last eight races at the California oval, and surrendered the other two events to Roush Fenway Ford drivers Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. When talking about the Chevy drivers, we have to talk about Kevin Harvick first and foremost. The Richard Childress Racing veteran has been the most dominant driver on the two-mile ovals the last couple seasons. With a victory in this race one year ago and a win at the Michigan oval in the late summer of 2010, you need to give Harvick some serious consideration in your weekly lineup leagues. Also when speaking of Chevy camp drivers, how can we forget Jimmie Johnson? The five-time Fontana winner hasn't visited victory lane at Auto Club Speedway since this event in 2010, but he's racked up brilliant second- and third-place efforts in the two races at this huge oval since. The 71 percent Top-5 rate that Johnson sports at Fontana is simply too awesome to ignore. If Ford hopes to wrestle control away of Auto Club Speedway, those hopes will largely fall on the shoulders of veteran Matt Kenseth. The driver of the No. 17 Ford won this event in 2009 and has excellent loop stats at the huge oval along with three career victories. His teammate Greg Biffle could also make his presence felt on Sunday afternoon. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has one career win at Auto Club Speedway and has started the season in red-hot fashion. If you consider that Tony Stewart has one victory and three Top 10's in his last four trips to the California oval, then don't overlook the No. 14 Chevrolet team in the Auto Club 400. Smoke will likely have a strong presence at the front of the field this Sunday afternoon. We'll outline the major players, 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

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. The loop stats for the five-time Sprint Cup champion at this facility are beyond compare. The Lowe's Racing team runs fast and they run up front every time they visit Auto Club Speedway. Johnson has won three of the last six events at Fontana so the Hendrick Motorsports star looks good to challenge for his first win of the season in Sunday's Auto Club 400.

Tony Stewart -
With one win on the season already, the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet should be on your fantasy racing radar screens each time we visit the larger ovals. Smoke is a one-time winner at Fontana (2010) and he's led over 270 career laps at the two-mile oval. The three-time Sprint Cup Series champion has been one of the most consistent performers on the two-mile ovals the last couple seasons. Considering Stewart's momentum and the venue this weekend, it's hard to pass up this strong driver for the 400-mile main event at Auto Club Speedway.

Matt Kenseth -
The start of the 2012 season has been pretty good for Roush Fenway Racing driver Kenseth. He has a Daytona 500 win and he's ranked a stellar third in the championship driver standings entering this weekend. Kenseth is a three-time winner at the Fontana oval, so he obviously knows what it takes to win here. Three of his last five two-mile oval starts have netted great Top-5 finishes. When we last saw the No. 17 Ford team in action at Auto Club Speedway, Kenseth collected a brilliant fourth-place finish in this event one year ago.

Kevin Harvick -
The defending race champion of the Auto Club 400 will attempt to make a successful defense of his race win from one year ago this weekend. Harvick has been just absolutely amazing on the two-mile ovals of Michigan and Fontana the last few seasons. The Richard Childress Racing star has a pair of victories and three Top-10 finishes in his last five starts on ovals of this description. Considering that the No. 29 Chevy team came within an eyelash of winning at Phoenix a couple weeks ago, the team is running at a high level on the larger race tracks right now.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Ryan Newman -
The Stewart-Haas Racing veteran is off to a decent start this season. After four races Newman stands 12th in the driver standings and looking for more. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet is riding a two-race Top 5 streak at Auto Club Speedway entering this weekend. The pair of fifth-place finishes at Fontana gives Newman four Top 10's in his last five starts on the two-mile ovals. That places the veteran driver among the very elite in the series right now at these type speedways. Newman could push that Top 5 mark again in Sunday's Auto Club 400.

Kyle Busch -
After Busch's struggles this past weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, we're willing to bet he'll be very happy to see Fontana's wide open racing grooves and elbow room this weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been a top performer on the two mile ovals later in his career, helping to erase some of his struggles at these tracks earlier in his Sprint Cup Series career. Busch has one win and a pair of third-place finishes in his last three starts between Michigan and Fontana. He's led well over 200 laps during this span. We look for the No. 18 Toyota team to bounce back well at Auto Club Speedway.

Kasey Kahne -
Another driver and team looking to erase some Bristol heartache is Kahne and the No. 5 Chevrolet squad. The Hendrick Motorsports star has one career victory and a 60 percent Top 10 rate at Auto Club Speedway. More recently, Kahne has collected fourth- and ninth-place finishes in his last two trips to the expansive two-mile oval. He and crew chief Kenny Francis have teamed to post one pole position and three Top 10's in the last five two-mile oval races. We are convinced that Kahne will be a pole threat and a Top-10 finisher in this Sunday's 400-mile derby.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle is a one-time winner at Auto Club Speedway and he did finish 11th in this event one year ago. He's led close to 300 laps for his career at the speedway, so he knows what it takes to run up front at the two-mile oval. Roush drivers have always performed well at this facility and Biffle has been a big part of that stable's success. The championship standings leader is on a roll right now, so it's a great time to be visiting one of Biffle's favorite tracks on the circuit. His last two starts on two-mile ovals have yielded one pole position and 154 laps led.

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

Brad Keselowski -
There's little doubt that Keselowski is a gifted stock car driver. After three victories and a Chase berth in 2011, he's wasted no time getting his first win of the season last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. We can't really judge the No. 2 Dodge team by the loop stats or finishing stats at Fontana. The sample we can examine closely is his last two-mile oval outing. It came in August of last year at Michigan. Keselowski qualified sixth and finished third in the Pure Michigan 400. Considering the momentum of the Penske Racing driver, he could be in for a career-best finish at Auto Club Speedway.

Carl Edwards -
The No. 99 team is not off to the best start this season. Edwards has two Top 10's through four races, and he's coming off a forgettable performance at Bristol. If there is any track that can get the Roush Fenway Racing star rolling, 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 11 Top-10 finishes at the facility. That works out to a stellar 79 percent Top 10 rate. To say we like his chances this weekend would be an understatement.

Martin Truex Jr. -
If you're looking for a good sleeper in your weekly lineup league or salary cap league this week, please consider Truex and the No. 56 MWR team. He makes an excellent selection when you have to go deep into your fantasy racing lineup. Truex has a pair of Top-10 finishes on the young season and he currently sits fourth in the overall driver standings. Michael Waltrip Racing is really showing some strength early on in 2012. Truex has only two Top 10's in 11 career starts at Auto Club Speedway, but we feel he's going to have one of his best performances ever at this oval on Sunday afternoon.

Paul Menard -
The season couldn't have possibly started much better than it has for Menard and his No. 27 Chevrolet team. The Richard Childress Racing driver enters this event with three Top-10 finishes this season and a stellar 10th-place ranking in the driver standings. Menard doesn't have the greatest career stats at Auto Club Speedway. In fact, he has no finish better than 16th in nine career starts. We expect this Sunday's effort to be much better. Considering the momentum of this team, Menard should pick up his first career Top 10 at this facility.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer is quickly building some chemistry with his new team at Michael Waltrip Racing. The new driver of the No. 15 Toyota picked up his first career Top 5 for his new boss at Bristol this past weekend. We expect the team to unload another fast race car this week at Fontana. Bowyer sports some fairly respectable stats at the two-mile speedway. He has seven Top-10 finishes in 11 career starts there. That includes a four-race Top 10 streak at Auto Club Speedway entering this event. We like Bowyer to stay on a roll in the Auto Club 400.

Mark Martin -
Martin returns to the No. 55 Toyota this weekend at Auto Club Speedway. It's a great time for the veteran to slip back into the driver's seat of this MWR Toyota. Martin is a one time winner at Auto Club Speedway and he has 10 career Top-10 finishes in 20 starts at the facility. That includes three Top 10's in his last four trips to the California oval. Martin should unload a fast car this weekend, and we are confident he'll race and finish it well in the 400-mile event at Fontana.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Denny Hamlin -
After a blazing fast start to the season, that included a big win at Phoenix a few weeks ago, the No. 11 JGR team has fallen in a bit of a rut. Hamlin has looked uninspiring in finishing 20th each of the last two weeks at Las Vegas and Bristol. We're afraid that slump could continue this week in the Auto Club 400. The two-mile oval in California has been a real puzzle for Hamlin during his Sprint Cup Series career. He has only four Top 10's in 11 starts at the speedway. Two of his last four trips to Fontana have resulted in DNF's.

Bobby Labonte -
Labonte has started 2012 in a good enough fashion. He's 21st in the driver standings and started the season off with a pair of Top 20's at Daytona and Phoenix. Labonte has cooled off a bit since, and could continue on that track this Sunday afternoon in the Auto Club 400. The veteran driver's last five trips to two-mile ovals have resulted in a lowly 29.4 average finish and two DNF's. His last visit to the Top 20 at the Fontana oval was in 2009. We would advise staying clear of the JTG/Daugherty Racing No. 47 team this weekend.

Jeff Gordon -
Considering that Gordon is a three-time winner at the Auto Club Speedway, it has to be a bit surprising to see him in the flops list this week. The reason for our pessimism in Gordon and the No. 24 team is based mostly on the team's current bad luck streak. Gordon is ranked a lowly 23rd in the championship standings and he has only one Top 10 in the first four races. Couple that with his less than impressive recent finishes at Fontana and you get the gist of what we're illustrating. Two of his last three trips to Auto Club Speedway have resulted in finishes outside the Top 15.

Kurt Busch -
The No. 51 Chevrolet team has been on a roller coaster ride this season. Busch's new home in 2012 has presented the highs and lows we expected. The veteran driver is 27th in the championship standings after four races and has only one Top-15 finish to his credit. We expect those growing pains to continue at Fontana this weekend. Despite Busch's respectable 44 percent Top 10 rate at the two-mile oval, he's going to have his hands full on Sunday. When Busch has had inferior cars, he's shown great difficulty in the recent past of breaking into the Top 20 at this facility.