Fantasy NASCAR preview: Pepsi Max 400

by Eric McClung on October 6, 2010 @ 13:18:00 PDT


Speed is almost always rewarded at Auto Club Speedway, a sweeping, two-mile D-shaped oval track. The wide track surface allows the leaders to break away easily. For that reason fantasy owners will need to come out with all guns blazing. By this point of the season teams either have speed or they don't. There's not much in the way of sleeper picks when horsepower is the top priority. However, taking only two tires or no tires at all is a strategy often employed to gain track position at Fontana. Also, fuel mileage is sometimes a factor toward the end of the race due to long green flag runs.

Location: Fontana, Calif.
Shape: D-shaped oval
Length: 2.0 miles
Laps: 250
Turns 1-4: 14 degrees
Frontstretch: 11 degrees
Backstretch: 3 degrees

Drivers to keep an eye on

Carl Edwards | No. 99 Aflac Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing
Edwards on quite a roll

Even though he finished a respectable 13th in the February start at Auto Club Speedway, Edwards was off his game when compared to his stout background at the site. From the 2007 Chase race through last year's postseason event, Edwards spent over 88 percent of his laps running in the top 15 in all five starts. During that time, the worst average running position Edwards held was 11th. Over the last dozen races of this season, Edwards has finished in the top-five on six occasions and no worse than 12th. In each of the last five starts, he has led at least two laps and appears to be on the brink of a win. Those looking for a change of pace among the top-tier drivers should make the No. 99 their first option.

Kurt Busch | No. 2 Operation Homefront/Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Championship Racing

In terms of loop data, the elder Busch brother has started the Chase off nicely. Three races into the postseason his average running position has been no worse than 11th, and he has spent over 86 percent of his laps running in the top 15. In reality, Busch has one top-five sandwiched between two 13th-place finishes. Over the last three starts at Fontana, the Blue Deuce has an average finish of 6.3 with at least one lap led. Oh, and the loop data behind it is also pretty good. His average running position in those starts has ranged from fifth to 11th with over 81 percent of laps running in the top 15, including over 97 percent in each of last year's starts. Look for a postseason correction this week.

Greg Biffle | No. 16 3M Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

His first win of the season wasn't enough to increase his low ownership levels all that much. Coming into Fontana fresh off his second win, savvy owners should pounce as Biffle will remain a value. If not for a late wreck in last year's Chase race, The Biff likely would own four straight top-10s at Auto Club Speedway. In three of those starts, he's spent 94 percent or more of his laps in the top-15 with an average running position of fifth or better in two of them. While he lacks Edwards' consistency, Biffle has shown he's the best Roush driver when everything is clicking, which is certainly the case right now.

Jeff Burton | No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing

You can make an argument that Burton has been the best driver this season that has yet to win a race. Among the several "coulda shoulda woulda" races he's experienced this season, Burton finished third during the February event at Fontana and was putting the finishing touches on a victory until a late caution flag came out. Despite holding an average running position of 11th or better in all three Chase races thus far, Burton has only one finish better than 15th to show for it. Add in the fact that February was just his first finish better than 12th at Fontana since 2007 and its possible Burton could be overlooked in some formats. Don't make that mistake.

Kasey Kahne | No. 9 Budweiser Ford | Richard Petty Motorsports

After finishing 34th in the last two starts at Fontana due to wrecks, many owners will want no part of Kahne this week despite his prior four straight top-12 finishes at the site. His streak of five starts this season without a top-10 certainly won't help matters. Yet there is still plenty of optimism here. Kahne won the pole last week at Kansas Speedway and led the first 27 laps. He would later crash, but two of his RPM teammates finished in the top 10. With a good run here you should also pencil Kahne into your lineup for Charlotte Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, two 1.5-mile cookie cutter venues he excels at.

Temper your expectations

Denny Hamlin | No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin
Save Hamlin for later

After being wrecked in last year's Chase event at Fontana, Hamlin came from the rear of the field to lead six laps in February only to finish 29th after sustaining a flat tire. Certainly Hamlin has run better at Auto Club than his three top-10s in nine career starts at the site would indicate. However, last week at Kansas, Hamlin quietly finished in 12th after nearly going a lap down. This stretch of three intermediate tracks is a huge part of the Chase, and Hamlin is not off to an inspiring start. With so many other elite drivers holding better resumes at Fontana, Hamlin should be reserved in favor of the remaining flat tracks, Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway.

Ryan Newman | No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing

With eight finishes of 12th or better over the last nine races, including three straight top-10s, Newman must be kicking himself for missing the Chase. While Newman has been much better on intermediate tracks this season than in recent years, his history at Auto Club should keep you far away as he has only one top-10 since 2006. Newman's current streak could cause some to roll the dice regardless of the numbers. Just don't blame us if things go awry this week.

Jamie McMurray | No. 1 McDonald's Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

Even though McMurray's last top-15 finish at Fontana came back in 2006, we know by now this is not the same driver and to throw past statistics out. However, after winning the pole at Fontana in February, McMurray was unable to lead a lap and would finish 17th with only 33.6 percent of his laps spent in the top 15. Last week's 11th-place finish at Kansas may lead some to believe he's off to a good start in intermediate Chase races. The truth is McMurray was having a very mediocre run until his team used a risky two-tire stop to get him off pit road first. In the clean air, McMurray was able to lead some laps but eventually started fading backwards. Nothing McMurray does should come as a surprise, but call us skeptical.

Mark Martin | No. 5 CARQUEST/ Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

Over the last two weeks, Martin has come from the rear of the field to finish in the top-15. Still, Martin's last top-10 finish came back in August, and he's a very risky fantasy selection for the time being. At Fontana, the veteran has finished in fourth-place in two consecutive races and missed running all 500 combined laps inside the top 15 by just two laps. While a resurgent Martin would be a tremendous value for fantasy owners, he's not there yet. Continue to monitor his performance before diving in.

A.J. Allmendinger | No. 43 Valvoline Ford | Richard Petty Motorsports

Coming off consecutive top-10 performances for the first time in his career, Allmendinger will surely garner a lot of attention in leagues where he's a bottom-tier option. Back in February, the Dinger finished 25th at Fontana, his best finish in three starts at the site in RPM equipment. While the Ford program and Allmendinger have taken big steps since then, his teammate Paul Menard is also entering Fontana with two top-10s, a first for him as well. Menard finished a career-best 18th earlier this season and has been quite good on intermediate tracks. Who you start should come down to ownership levels, qualifying and Happy Hour speeds. Keep your options open.

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About Eric McClung

Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a three-time award finalist. Over the years, he's made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts. He's also captured the fantasy football championship in the KFFL staff league twice.

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