Fantasy NASCAR preview: Auto Club 500
by C.J. Radune
on February 17, 2009 @ 01:00:01
Auto Club Speedway was opened in 1997 and remains one of the newer circuits. The track features fast straightaways with flat corners and is very similar to its sister track, Michigan International Speedway. Handling is a key at Fontana given the flatter nature of the turns. Engine attrition can also be an issue since the engines are fully stretched at the end of each straight. Long green-flag runs are common, making fuel strategy a factor, as well. Tire wear is generally not a major factor with the smooth surface, so taking two or no tires for track position is a common tactic. Both Auto Club Speedway and Michigan International Speedway have typically been the stomping grounds of Roush Fenway Racing, though Hendrick Motorsports took two of the four races on those tracks in 2008.
Location: Fontana, Calif.
Drivers to keep an eye on
Only three times in his 10 career starts at Auto Club Speedway has Kahne finished outside of the top 10. That is a very good record for any driver at the track. Despite a sometimes challenging 2008 season, he finished eighth in last year's Pepsi 500 and ninth in the Auto Club 500. In total, Kahne has earned one win, three top-fives and seven top-10s at the California track. Things didn't turn out so well for him in the Daytona 500 as he was running 29th when the rains came and ended the race. Look for Kahne to make a strong charge at Auto Club Speedway, and his record at the track demonstrates his potential there.
Busch ran strongly in the Daytona 500 and finished 10th. In 13 career starts at Auto Club Speedway, he has tallied one win, three top-fives and five top-10s. He didn't finish in the top 10 at the track in either of last season's visits but picked up two top-10s there in 2007 and even took the pole for the Sharp AQUOS 500. Busch should carry a lot of momentum with him to California. He ran well throughout the shortened Daytona 500, even posting top-10 finishes in the Gatorade Duel and the Budweiser Shootout. Busch is unequivocally the lead driver at Penske now that Ryan Newman is gone, and Busch should continue to run well in this weekend's Auto Club 500.
At the heart of what was probably the most controversial incident of the Daytona 500 was Vickers. He was tapped by Earnhardt while blocking down the back straight and was subsequently wrecked. In 2008, Vickers picked up 11th- and 12th-place finishes at Auto Club Speedway after not qualifying terribly well. In 2007, he picked up two top-10 finishes in the Auto Club Speedway races and those results are very consistent for the Red Bull driver. Toyota had a lot of power at their disposal in 2008, giving Vickers a strong car in California. Look for more consistency from Vickers in the Auto Club 500 as he looks to put last weekend's rough ride behind him.
Allmendinger sits outside of the top 35 in owner's points and, therefore, needs to qualify for the Auto Club 500. He finished an incredible third in the rain-shortened Daytona 500, which will help his cause in staying in the top 35 in points through the first five races of the season, after which he could be locked into each race going forward. Allmendinger only raced in the Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway in 2008. He qualified second for that one and finished 14th. Knowing that he must be among the fastest cars means that he will be focusing on qualifying and may compromise his race setup, but he remains a driver to watch this weekend.
After finished sixth in the Daytona 500, Ragan heads to Auto Club Speedway where he finished 13th and 14th in the two races last season. Keeping in mind the success of Ragan's teammate Carl Edwards in 2008 at Auto Club Speedway, it is reasonable to have high expectations of Ragan in this weekend's Auto Club 500. Roush Fenway Racing seems to have the tracks of Michigan International Speedway and Auto Club Speedway nailed down. Edwards won two of the four races on those tracks in 2008, and Ragan didn't do too badly himself with two top-15 results. Ragan would be a fine choice for a fantasy owner looking to earn a solid result in this weekend's race.
Temper your expectations
Hamlin finished third in his last trip to Auto Club Speedway. In his six career starts at the track, he scored only the one top-five and just one other top-10 result. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota's tend to have a good deal of power at California and Michigan; Hamlin recently turned that power into a top finish. He could be a good fantasy play for the Auto Club 500, but owners should probably not expect a sure thing. His statistics at the track just haven't been the kind we would like to see from a top-tier driver. While he is strong at other flat tracks like Pocono Raceway, he just hasn't consistently shown strong results at Auto Club Speedway.
Truex had a dream start to the season by winning the pole position for the Daytona 500. Unfortunately, he woke up from that dream and finished the race 11th. Truex finished sixth in the 2008 Auto Club 500 and followed it up by finishing a somewhat disappointing 19th in the return trip to California for the Pepsi 500. In total, Truex earned two top-10 finishes in six career starts at Auto Club Speedway. It will be interesting to see how the Earnhardt and Ganassi partnership affect the teams through the remainder of the season. Daytona didn't give us much of an opportunity to see those results. While Truex could be a strong play this weekend, but he shouldn't necessarily be someone's first choice.
Earnhardt won at Michigan International Speedway in 2008's LifeLock 400 but managed a best finish of 11th at Auto Club Speedway last season. He finished 40th in last year's Auto Club 500. In his 14 career starts at the track, he tallied three top-fives, four top-10s and four DNFs. Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson won the Pepsi 500 last season, so there is evidence that Earnhardt has the potential to turn around his string of poor California results in the Auto Club 500 this weekend. After a controversial move in the Daytona 500, Earnhardt will have to work hard to demonstrate that he has moved past the incident and is focused on the remaining season.
McMurray was near the front through a good portion of the Daytona 500 and had a fast car throughout the week. Without a strong finish to take with him to California, at least McMurray knows that he was competitive. His results at Auto Club Speedway in 2008 were very disappointing, like a lot of his season actually, and his best finish there was 22nd in the Auto Club 500. Early in his career McMurray had the speedway figured out. Between the 2004 Pop Secret 500 and the 2006 Auto Club 500, he had a string of two top-fives with four straight top-10s at the California track.
Montoya bagged a pair of 20th-place finishes in last year's Auto Club Speedway races. He finished on the lead lap in each of those races, though, which is a decent start. Those results were also a marked improvement from his results at the track in 2007. Like his teammate Truex, it will be interesting to see how the merger between Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing will affect the on-track performance. Montoya will still be getting used to having a Chevrolet engine this weekend, which could create some uncertainty surrounding his ability to keep the engine fresh through the stressful race. Be careful with Montoya, but keep tabs on his progress to gauge the impact of his new team.
About C.J. Radune
Radune has been a KFFL contributor since January 2008.
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