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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 madness and 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 its first visit to this huge oval of the 2013 season. The racing will take on a much different look this week as we prepare to compete on the two-mile 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 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. This will be our first event on a two-mile oval with the new Gen-6 race car. The races to this point have been pretty exciting and the new car should give the oval at Fontana a new injection of excitement this weekend.

Let's look at the loop stats for the last 14 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 Johnson4.67084567513,142122.4
Kyle Busch10.47011954742,603106.4
Matt Kenseth9.36461283622,689105.2
Tony Stewart11.56552162132,502102.4
Mark Martin12.2520146652,20799.7
Carl Edwards8.96401531212,47298.5
Jeff Gordon13.47152002122,50297.7
Greg Biffle15.05832152692,26995.9
Kevin Harvick12.163293552,38194.5
Kasey Kahne15.96271071522,07292.6
Clint Bowyer10.848564451,61891.7
Denny Hamlin18.549850731,73889.8
Kurt Busch13.763190952,12789.2
Jeff Burton16.969281681,96084.3
Ryan Newman18.152421121,66180.9
Juan Pablo Montoya19.1341651181,11580.0
Martin Truex Jr.20.14595691,18376.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.21.9482105271,30175.8
David Reutimann20.03284482973.6
David Ragan18.73308160471.9

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, Chevrolet drivers have won the last five races at the California oval, and have convincingly dethroned Ford from atop the hill at this track. When talking about the Chevy drivers, we have to talk about Tony Stewart first and foremost. The 2011 Sprint Cup champion has been the most dominant driver on this two-mile oval the last three seasons. With a victory in this race one year ago and a win at Auto Club Speedway in the fall of 2010, you need to give Stewart some serious consideration in your weekly lineup leagues. Smoke hasn't fired out of the gates this season, but this could be the weekend where the No. 14 Chevrolet comes to life. 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-, third- and 10th-place efforts in the three races at this huge oval since that last win. The 67 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 Carl Edwards. The driver of the No. 99 Ford won this event in 2008 and has excellent loop stats at the huge oval along with an impressive 47 percent Top 5 rate at the track. If Toyota hopes to get into the mix this weekend, look to none other than new Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth. Toyota has never won at this oval, but the Joe Gibbs Racing camp is performing so well right now that could easily change. Kenseth is a three-time winner at Auto Club Speedway and his teammate Kyle Busch has been a second- and third-place finisher in each of the last two events at the two-mile oval. 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

Matt Kenseth -
The start of the 2013 season has been an up-and-down affair for new Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kenseth. He won at Las Vegas two weeks ago but was involved in a race-ending crash and DNF at Bristol this past weekend. He enters the Auto Club 400 looking to regain the momentum that he had two weeks ago. Kenseth is a three-time winner at the Fontana oval, so he obviously knows what it takes to win here. With close to 500 laps led at Auto Club Speedway, the veteran driver has plenty of experience leading the field at the two-mile oval. His recent record holds three Top 5s in the last six two-mile oval races, so Kenseth has a very good chance to put Toyota in victory lane for the first time at Auto Club Speedway.

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 and an eye-popping 12 Top-5 finishes. 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's last victory at this facility came in 2010, but he has a pair of Top-3 finishes in the three races there since. The Hendrick Motorsports star looks like a safe bet to challenge for his second win of the season in Sunday's Auto Club 400.

Kyle Busch -
After the beating and banging at Bristol Motor Speedway this past Sunday, we're willing to bet Busch will 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 four Top-3 finishes in his last six starts between Michigan and Fontana. In his last two Fontana starts alone, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota has close to 250 laps led and second- and third-place finishes to his credit. It looks like the time might be right for Busch to cash in at the California oval.

Kasey Kahne -
The No. 5 Chevrolet team comes to Auto Club Speedway on fire this weekend. Kahne is riding the momentum of his Bristol win and Las Vegas runner-up finish coming to California this week. The Hendrick Motorsports star has one career victory and a 56 percent Top 10 rate at the two-mile oval. More recently, Kahne has collected fourth- and ninth-place finishes in two of his last three trips to the Fontana oval. His last outing at a facility similar to Auto Club Speedway was a brilliant third-place finish at Michigan last summer. We are convinced that Kahne will be a pole threat and threat to win in this Sunday's 400-mile marathon at Fontana.

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

Brad Keselowski -
The reigning Sprint 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 Keselowksi. But there are plenty of indicators that this is starting to change. The Penske Racing star's last two trips to MIS yielded third- and second-place finishes with 17 laps led. So improvement is taking shape for Keselowski at ovals such as this. His last trip to Fontana netted a career-best finish of 18th in last season's Auto Club 400. We're willing to bet that the surging driver of the No. 2 Ford racks up his first career Top 10 at this track this weekend.

Carl Edwards -
The No. 99 team is off to a pretty good start this season. Edwards has one win and two Top 10s through four races, but 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 12 Top-10 finishes at the facility. That works out to a stellar 80 percent Top 10 rate. Despite his struggles the last couple seasons, this is a track where Roush Fenway Racing star Edwards is a mandatory start no matter what the circumstances.

Kevin Harvick -
The one-time Auto Club Speedway winner rides a five-race Top 10 streak at the oval into this weekend's race. 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 one victory and three Top-10 finishes in his last six starts on ovals of this description. Considering that the No. 29 Chevy team has such a good record on these style ovals, we believe he's a pretty safe play in the Auto Club 400. There are just certain tracks where this driver comes to life, and Auto Club Speedway is one of them.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer is quickly putting up the numbers to put him back in the championship discussion again this season. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota picked up his second Top 10 of the season this past weekend at Bristol, and comes to California riding a brilliant fourth in the driver standings. We expect the team to unload another fast race car this week at Fontana. Bowyer sports some pretty impressive stats at the two-mile speedway. He has seven Top-10 finishes in 12 career starts there. That works out to an attention-grabbing 58 percent Top 10 rate at Auto Club Speedway. We like Bowyer to stay on a roll in the Auto Club 400.

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

Tony Stewart -
Stewart's consistency issues dating back to last season has made him a risky fantasy play, and his slow start to this season is also concerning. However, the return to the two-mile oval circuit should be most welcome to the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet. Smoke is a two-time winner at Fontana (2010 and 2012) and he's led over 300 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 expertise at this venue this weekend, it's hard to pass up this strong driver for the 400-mile main event at Auto Club Speedway.

Ryan Newman -
The Stewart-Haas Racing veteran is off to a decent start this season. With two Top-10 finishes in the first for races, he's looking to overcome some consistency issues he's had to this point. Auto Club Speedway should present him that opportunity. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet is riding a three-race Top 10 streak at the California oval entering this weekend. There's been no more consistent driver on these size ovals the last two seasons. He has five Top-10 finishes in his last six starts between Michigan and Fontana. Newman should add to his growing collection of good runs at this oval again in Sunday's Auto Club 400.

Greg Biffle -
The driver of the No. 16 Ford will bring his good two-mile oval record into this weekend's Auto Club 400. Just last year alone, Biffle racked up one victory, two Top 5s and three Top 10s on the ovals of Michigan and Fontana. That's a pretty spotless record by any measure. Biffle also has the historical stat angle covered with close to 300 laps led and six Top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway. In this event one year ago he peddled his Ford from forth starting spot to an impressive sixth-place finish. You could do far worse than Biffle in your fantasy racing lineups this weekend.

Mark Martin -
Martin returns to the No. 55 Toyota this week after a one-race hiatus from the Michael Waltrip Racing team. The grizzled veteran is a steady hand on ovals like Auto Club Speedway. Martin has amassed over 300 laps led at the California oval along with 10 career Top-10 finishes. The last time we saw this driver and team in action on a two-mile oval, Martin won the pole and led 55 laps at Michigan International Speedway before an unfortunate incident crashed the veteran driver out of that contest. However, it is noteworthy that the team had a potential race-winning car in that event. Martin's experience and this team's excellence should be a good combination on Sunday afternoon.

Kurt Busch -
Busch finally got the No. 78 team back into the Top 10 with a great run this past weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. There was nothing fluky about it, the finish was a legitimate hard-earned Top-10 finish. Busch will now set his sites on one of his favorite ovals. The two-mile track in Fontana is a personal favorite for the Furniture Row Racing driver. Busch owns three pole positions, one victory and nine Top 10s in his 19 career starts at this facility. He even led the embattled No. 51 team to a Top-10 finish in this race one year ago. Busch knows how to navigate the wide banks of Fontana, and he'll prove it in this Sunday's 400-mile battle.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Certainly Allmendinger's opportunity with Phoenix Racing is like a second chance of sorts for the recently reinstated driver, and he's taking full advantage thus far. Fresh off 11th- and 13th-place efforts at Phoenix and Bristol, the journeyman driver will focus on one of his favorite speedways this weekend. Allmendinger has a very solid record at the two-mile oval in Fontana. He's recorded five Top-20 finishes in eight career starts at the facility, and his last two trips to the facility have netted steady 14th- and 15th-place finishes. With good momentum behind them, the No. 51 Chevrolet team appears to have what it takes to be impressive in the Auto Club 400.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Denny Hamlin -
After a big letdown in the closing laps at Bristol this past weekend, the No. 11 JGR team has fallen in a bit of a rut. Hamlin has looked uninspiring in finishing 15th and 23rd in each of the last two weeks at Las Vegas and Bristol. We're afraid that slump (and bad luck) 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 10s in 12 starts at the speedway. Two of his last five trips to Fontana have resulted in DNF's with only one Top 10 over that span.

Joey Logano -
Logano's current feud with Denny Hamlin may be the most talked about story line going into the Auto Club 400 this weekend, and it could be a huge disservice for the Penske Racing driver. Other than being a big mental challenge in all those media and press conferences, a driver looking for revenge on the track rather than results is a bad recipe. Not to mention the fact that Logano would rather be racing about anywhere else this weekend than Fontana. His record at Auto Club Speedway shows some major struggles. In six career trips to the two-mile oval Logano has no finish better than 18th and an average finish of around 25.7.

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 21st in the championship standings and he has only one Top 10 in the first four races of the season. Couple that with his less than impressive recent finishes at Fontana and you get the gist of what we're illustrating. Three of his last four trips to Auto Club Speedway have resulted in finishes outside the Top 15.

Paul Menard -
If there is a week to call for the Menard flop, this is it. It's tough to put the streaking driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet in the flops list this week. Considering he's started the season so well with two Top-10 finishes and a ninth-place spot in the driver standings, this is a bit of a bold prediction. However, we'll hang our hat on history here which shows that the RCR veteran struggles at Auto Club Speedway. In 10 career starts at Fontana, Menard has never cracked the Top 15 and has an average finish of just 24.7. Couple that with his record on the two-mile ovals last season (one Top 10 in three tries) and you get the full picture that this is a week to rest Menard.