The Auto Club 500, which has been the follow-up race to the Daytona 500 since 2005, is considered by many to be the first "real race" of the season. The restrictor plates are now thrown out the window, and teams that finished well at Daytona aren't necessarily guaranteed the same results at California. A similar turnaround can be said for teams that struggled in the first race of the season. The Car of Tomorrow will compete in its first race, after teams took the car to the speedway during Preseason Thunder and tested the car for a couple days prior to the Budweiser Shootout.
The track features fast straight-aways where long green flag runs are common, which results in a lot of full-throttle racing. This style puts a lot of stress on the engines where the rpms stay high for a long time. Teams with strong engine packages are likely to fare better than teams that don't have the resources to back their engine departments. Tires aren't as big an issue on this track, although devising a sound tire strategy is a must. Fuel strategy and track position are the keys to having a successful day at Fontana.
Location: Fontana, Calif.
Length: 2.00 miles
Banking: 14 degrees
Leading the Pack
Jimmie Johnson | No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Johnson found similar results last week at the Daytona 500 as he did in 2007, ending his day off the track. However, we all know how last season turned out for him and this next race in Fontana could very well be the jump start he needs. He finished third in the Auto Club 500 and won the final race in Fontana last season. In three of his last four races on the track, he has finished in the top five in each. As the current back-to-back Sprint Cup champion, Johnson is hard to keep down for long and should get his season on track this week.
Ryan Newman | No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge | Penske Racing
Newman shocked the world by winning the Daytona 500 last week. It was his first victory since 2005, covering exactly 100 races. Dodge engines dominated the day, placing three drivers in the top five and six in the top 10. However, their success could be taken with a grain of salt considering three of the four Hendrick Motorsports cars didn't finish. Newman's victory and second-fastest overall time in preseason testing at Fontana Jan. 31 should be enough to consider him one of the top drivers heading into this week's race.
Matt Kenseth | No. 17 DeWalt Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Kenseth is coming off a disappointing start to his season after he was collected by teammate David Ragan resulting in a 36th-place finish in the Daytona 500. However, things appear to be looking up for Kenseth, who returns to Fontana as the reigning back-to-back champion of the Auto Club 500. Kenseth is the all-time leader in NASCAR wins at California Speedway, posting six wins total - four in the Nationwide Series and two in the Sprint Cup Series. Kenseth has also faired well on Fontana's sister track, Michigan International Speedway, where he has one victory in his last three visits.
Jeff Gordon | No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Gordon had his own demons at the Daytona 500 that forced him off the track due to a suspension failure. He had been running up front early on with the leader at the time, Kyle Busch, who led the most laps. Gordon hasn't dominated in Fontana like he did when the track first opened, where he won two of the first three races. He has, however, recorded two top-five finishes in two of the last three races in Fontana; he also boasts another top-five and top-10 finish in two of his last three races at Michigan International Speedway.
Kurt Busch | No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Racing
Busch might have been one of the most impressive drivers in the Daytona 500, after he started in the 43rd position only to end up pushing his teammate to victory. In Busch's last two trips to Fontana, he has two top-10 finishes; he has starting on the pole in three of the last four races. Busch took home the victory in the last race at Michigan International Speedway and finished with the third-fastest speed during the final testing session in Fontana Feb. 1.
Drivers to Keep an Eye On
Kasey Kahne | No. 9 Budweiser Dodge | Gillett Evernham Motorsports
Outside of an engine issue that Kahne had in the Auto Club 500 last season, he has put together one win, three top-five and five top-10 finishes over his last seven races in Fontana. This week's race will be a key to how he fares the rest of the season. After finishing 11th in the Daytona 500 in 2007, Kahne stumbled in Fontana and picked up his first of six DNFs that would lead him to a 19th-overall finish in Cup points. Kahne is a solid driver on two-mile tracks and should be considered a lock to finish in the top-10 if he completes the race.
Denny Hamlin | No. 11 FedEx Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Hamlin, who led 32 of the 200 laps at Daytona last week, finished a disappointing 17th after looking strong early on. During Preseason Thunder testing at Fontana earlier this month, Hamlin posted the fastest time by a full mph faster than the next driver. In his only four attempts in Fontana, Hamlin has managed one finish in the top 10, while posting an average finish of 12 and leading a total of 29 laps. If Hamlin can run as strong as he did early on in Daytona (that's a big "if"), he could have a chance at competing for the victory.
Casey Mears | No. 5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST | Hendrick Motorsports
Mears fell into the same trap as his other teammate Johnson; he was collected in the Daytona 500 and finished in a disappointing 35th place. He was contending for the victory at the point of the incident when he made contact with Tony Stewart on Lap 194. Mears hasn't had much success in Fontana and at Michigan International Speedway, finishing on the outside of 20 more often than the inside. However, if Mears can run as strong as he did in Daytona, then he will be someone fantasy owners may want to pay attention too.
Greg Biffle | No. 16 3M Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Biffle is two years removed from two dominant performances in Fontana, where he posted a victory in the Auto Club 500 and a second-place finish seven months later. The last two seasons have been frustrating for Biffle, who has been on the outside looking in when it comes to qualifying for the Chase. Biffle could be the biggest sleeper candidate heading into Fontana; he's off to the best start of his career after finishing 10th in the Daytona 500.
Sam Hornish Jr. | No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge | Penske Racing
Hornish was one of the biggest surprises coming out of the Daytona 500, where he finished 15th in only his third race in the Sprint Cup Series. He competed in a Nationwide event last season at Fontana, but recorded a DNF after being involved in an accident on Lap 132 of 150. It was an impressive beginning for the rookie, who has the backing of a solid team and the upper hand at grabbing the Rookie of the Year Award.