Fantasy NASCAR race preview: Auto Club 400

by Eric McClung on March 23, 2011 @ 04:15:12 PDT


Speed is often rewarded at Auto Club Speedway, a sweeping, two-mile, D-shaped oval track. The wide racing surface allows the leaders to break away easily. 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 on a warm California day can lead to engine problems. Sagging attendance and lackluster action on the track forced NASCAR to cut Fontana back to one race, which has been shortened by 100 miles.

Fontana is configured very 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 in June.

Location: Fontana, Calif.
Shape: D-shaped oval
Length: 2.0 miles
Laps: 200
Turns 1-4: 14 degrees
Front stretch/Tri-oval: 11 degrees
Back stretch: 3 degrees

Drivers to keep an eye on

Kurt Busch | No. 22 California AAA Dodge | Penske Championship Racing

Four races into the 2011 season, Busch is the only driver to notch a top-10 each time out. Prior to finishing 21st in last October's Fontana race to begin Chase swoon, Busch had three consecutive finishes of eighth or better at the site and an average running position that never dipped below 11th. Currently sitting first in points, Busch appears to have found the consistency that has eluded him at times over the last few years. Sporting the race title sponsor on the hood, Busch has excelled in new paint all year.

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

Mark Martin
Consistency helps

With finishes of 13th and 34th, 2010 was an off-year for Edwards at Fontana. In prior five starts, Edwards averaged a finish of 4.4, including a win. Aside from that disappointing result at Phoenix International Raceway, Edwards has been the hottest driver in the series. He picked up a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the only other intermediate race so far this season, and finished as the runner-up in two other starts. California dreaming becomes reality when it comes to Edwards.

Paul Menard | No. 27 Menards/Serta Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing

Although Menard's average finish of 26.5 in eight career starts at Fontana is uninspiring this is clearly a different driver. Menard is currently fifth in points while no other RCR driver is ranked higher than 15th. During last year's breakout season, Menard's strength was intermediate tracks. He finished a career-best 18th in February at Fontana while posting his best running position (16th) in the Chase event. Menard is proving to be a late bloomer, but one to keep rolling with so early into the season.

Jimmie Johnson | No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

Since Fontana no longer hosting a postseason race, it's now or never to invest a start on Johnson in allocation formats. Since 2007, he's has won four times in eight starts with a runner-up performance and two third-place results. In that time he has led at average of 92.8 laps per race. Since 2008, Johnson's average running position has been at least third while spending entire race inside the top 15 in four of the last five. The numbers speak of themselves, there's no way to avoid starting Johnson this week.

Mark Martin | No. 5 Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

In the last three Fontana starts, Martin has finished sixth or better with an average running position of at least fifth. Of the 700 combined laps, only two were spent outside of the top 15. Through four starts this season, Martin has finished 13th or better on three occasions and sits 10th in points. While he has yet to dominate a race, Martin has been a steady performer and a safe selection to bank on in the Golden State.

Kasey Kahne | No. 4 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing

Last year was a mixed bag for Kahne at Fontana despite excellent starting position. He qualified fourth in February but spun out on Lap 92, killing the front fender and leaving him to finish 34th. Starting fifth in October, Kahne capitalized with a fourth-place result and an average running position of ninth. After a rough start to open the season, Kahne has quickly settled in at Red Bull with three straight finishes of 14th or better, including a pair of top-10s.

Matt Kenseth | No. 17 Crown Royal Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

Since loop data was introduced in 2005, Kenseth has recorded an average running position of 12th or better in 11 of 12 Fontana starts. In that span he has collected three wins and six other finishes of seventh or better. If not for a cut tire in February of 2005 and a blown engine in last year's Chase event, Kenseth would likely own two more top-10s, further boosting an already impressive resume. Fontana has been a Roush-friendly venue in the past - expect more of the same.

Jeff Gordon | No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

Even though Gordon ended a long winless streak last month at Phoenix it has been his only top-10 thus far. Things could change at Fontana, where Gordon has recorded an average running position of 13th or better in 10 straight. After finishing as the runner-up in both 2009 races, Gordon finished 20th last February due to engine problems that developed after restarting third with 51 laps to go. Things held together in the Chase event where Gordon finished ninth, his sixth top-10 in nine starts in his home state. Current starting percentages indicate Gordon could be something of an undervalued driver at a site he always runs well at.

Temper your expectations

Jamie McMurray
Don't be fooled

Jamie McMurray | No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

Despite qualifying on the pole in each Fontana race a year ago, McMurray was unable to do much with it. He finished 17th in each race, never spending more than 34 percent of laps in the top 15. After failing to lead a single lap in February, McMurray managed to lead only 14 laps in October. A virtual non-factor this season, McMurray is a dicey option unless your game collects points for another potential strong qualifying effort.

Brian Vickers | No. 83 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing

With rock-bottom ownership and six finishes of 12th or better in his last seven Fontana starts, Vickers could be a legitimate sleeper option. However, he has been having problems staying out of trouble. In three of four races this season, Vickers has finished down by numerous laps as a result of on-track incidents. The only race Vickers has finished smoothly was at Las Vegas. Since LVMS is an intermediate track, Vickers' primarily strength, he carries a lot of risk until we see a clean car more frequently.

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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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