Auto Club 400 Preview
March 15, 2016
By Micah Roberts
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It's crazy that we were just anxiously awaiting for NASCAR to begin prior to Daytona and now the 2016 season is already four races old with four different winners.
This week at Auto Club Speedway, we get to see the low downforce package let loose on the wide 2-mile layout. While there was plenty of excitement for the package in two races last season, the jury is still out how its performed this year.
The NASCAR west coast swing comes to end after three straight west races that began with Las Vegas two weeks ago and continued last week at Phoenix. Lets just say results from the first two weren't as sexy as we may have hoped with the new package. Sure Vegas had some wind, but Phoenix was beautiful and despite the fantastic finish, the racing wasn't the best I've seen on the track.
Last season when the package was introduced which shortened the rear spoiler and front splitter, we saw lots of passing. There was outstanding competition with several teams showing they could contend with the power organizations. Drivers absolutely love the package. But I have to call it as I see it, and as much as I have a west coast bias for its NASCAR races, the last two races left feeling me kind of empty.
There were only seven lead changes among four drivers Sunday at Phoenix, where Kevin Harvick again led the most laps (139 of 313) while winning for his track record eighth time. New package, same results, and there appeared to be even a bigger edge for the top guys, which has kind of a reverse effect as was intended by NASCAR with the package.
Will that again be the case at Fontana's 2-mile wide layout this weekend?
Brad Keselowski won his only race of 2015 at Fontana last season where he led just one lap -- the last one. Harvick and teammate Kurt Busch finished second and third while combining to lead 99 of the 209 laps. However, there was a missing element in last years race that is active this week -- Kyle Busch.
Busch missed the race because of a broken leg suffered in the season opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona. The Las Vegas native is a three-time winner at Fontana, including wins in his last two starts there. Prior to the 2013-14 wins, last years Sprint Cup champ had finished second in 2012 and third in 2011. Yes, he loves the track and the track apparently seems to like him as well. He should be considered the favorite to win Sunday. He doesn't just have track history on his side, he's been one of the better drivers since the new package was introduced.
The all-time leader in wins at Fontana is Jimmie Johnson with five in 21 starts, including his first career victory there in 2002. The Ej Cajon, CA native has a 6.7 average finish, also a track record, at what is essentially his home track. His last win there was in 2010 which was the last season when Fontana had two race dates. Johnson's Atlanta win should serve as a good indicator he'll be a force to reckon with on Sunday. Recent history at Fontana hasn't been so hot for him as he's finished ninth or worse the past four years.
Look for the rest of the Joe Gibbs Racing team to be almost as good as Kyle Busch with Johnson, Dale Earnhradt Jr., Harvick and Kurt Busch, Joey Logano and Keselowski all being strong contenders to win.
Yes, it's the same cast of characters, isn't it. But the sweeping turns and high speeds at Fontana should allow the low downforce package to produce some great racing.
Matt Kenseth is a three-time winner and Carl Edwards has a win and second-best 8.7 average finish.
The best long shot to win might be Austin Dillon at around 40/1 odds. The Richard Childress Racing driver had strong practices at both Atlanta and Las Vegas with nice final results to boot and both those tracks are applicable this week. He's certainly worth supporting in driver matchups this week.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #18 Kyle Busch (7/1)
2) #4 Kevin Harvick (6/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)
4) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
5) #19 Carl Edwards (12/1)