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Fantasy NASCAR Race Preview: Auto Club 400
Speed is often rewarded at Auto Club Speedway. It's a sweeping oval track with a wide racing surface that allows the leaders to break away with little resistance. With so much room to operate, drivers rarely need to get out of the throttle. However, turning all those RPMs over extended green flag runs can lead to engine problems.
Fontana is configured most similarly to Michigan International Speedway. While MIS features slightly steeper banking, it is only other two-mile venue on the schedule and is also quite spacious. Remember to revisit the results of this week's race when NASCAR heads back to the Irish Hills for two stops later in the schedule.
Practice sessions: Friday, March 22 at 2:30 pm EDT, Saturday, March 23 at 12:30 pm EDT, 3:30 pm EDT
Drivers to keep an eye on
Johnson boasts a great resume on a lot of tracks, but Auto Club is his very best. Since 2007, he owns a sizzling average finish of 3.3 in 10 starts thanks to four wins and a total of eight podium finishes. In that time he has held an average running position no worse than eighth in a single race. If you were betting it all on one car in one race it would be the No. 48 at Fontana.
Since 2010, Bowyer has held an average running position of eighth or better in three of the four races hosted at Fontana. Going back a little further, Bowyer has recorded a top-10 finish in five of the last seven starts at the site. Even though this team swung and missed badly at Las Vegas, Bowyer and his crew finished 11th or better in the other three races held this season.
Edwards only managed three top-fives last year, one of which came at Fontana. In 15 career starts at the site, Edwards has finished seventh or better a dozen times. He has also laid down an average running position of 11th or better in seven of the last nine. So far in 2013, a resurgent Edwards has already put up two highlights: a win at Phoenix International Raceway and a top-five the following week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Over the last two years, no driver has run better at Fontana than Busch. Even though he didn't win either race, he held a race-high average running position of second and led the most laps in each Auto Club start. Rowdy left his home track of Las Vegas with a fourth-place result and is coming off a very impressive runner-up performance at Bristol Motor Speedway. After coming up short the last two years, Busch is getting closer to making California dreams a reality for Gibbs, who remains winless at Fontana.
Even though Harvick owns just one top-10 in his last three starts of the season, he's actually run much better than that. Harvick has held an average running position inside the top 10 each time, but left Phoenix in 13th and Bristol in 14th. Harvick won this race in 2011 and has top-10 finishes in five consecutive Fontana events. On the surface, he looks like a mediocre performer but Harvick appears to be just fine.
After skipping last week's race at Bristol, Martin will get behind the wheel at Fontana before taking off again at Martinsville Speedway. Over the last five Auto Club races, Martin has logged an average running position of fifth or better three times and ran 10th last year. After starting the season with a podium finish at Daytona International Speedway, Martin captured the pole at Phoenix and led 75 early laps before equipment problems spoiled his day. Martin's most recent outing was solid top-15 at LVMS.
It took several years but it appears that Newman has figured out Auto Club. From 2006-09, Newman had only managed a single top-10 finish at the site. He has now finished seventh or better in three straight Fontana races, including a pair of fifth-place performances. Newman has also increased his average running position and percentage of laps spent running the top 15 in each of those runs, proving he's now a legitimate middle-tier option on this track.
While the aforementioned Kyle Busch held the best average running position each of the last two years at Fontana, Stewart was right behind him both times. On the average Smoke ran fifth and third, respectively, at Auto Club and was only driver to spend all the combined laps running inside the top 15. Stewart has also won two of the last three Fontana races and could really use some sunshine to brighten his uneven start to the season.
Temper your expectations
Keselowski struggled at Auto Club in his first three Cup starts, but looked better during last year's 18th-place finish, adding a career-high 63.6 percent of laps in the top 15. It took Keselowski several attempts in the Nationwide Series to finally get it going at Fontana, recording six straight finishes outside of the top 25 until improving drastically over the last five. It's just a matter of time until Keselowski also improves here in the Cup car, but he'd have to light it up in practice to believe it will happen this week.
Auto Club has proven to be quite a mixed bag for Hamlin. He has started on the first row three times in the last five Fontana races, but qualified poorly in the other two. During that time, Hamlin has finished 11th or better twice versus 29th or worse in the other three. A strong performance from Hamlin would very well happen, but there are a lot of safer options.
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