Auto Club 400 Preview
March 21, 2017
By Micah Roberts
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Man, does time fly. It seems like the Daytona 500 green flag just dropped, but four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series have are already in the record books and we've had four different winners with no team appearing to have a decided edge like we've seen the past few years.
My favorite part of the early season so far is how great the racing has been with the race broken into three stages. I love the strategies each team employs with points being offered as the prize for being successful. They're all trying to be competitive right out of gate to get points and the stages are having its intended effect, which is forcing more people to watch the entire race instead of the final 50 laps.
I also got a thrill last week seeing Ryan Newman grab his first win since 2013 (Brickyard). The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook had Newman posted at 80/1 odds, but only four bettors took him there totaling just $45 bucks. It was also Richard Childress Racing's first win since Kevin Harvick won at Phoenix in 2013 before jumping ship to Stewart Haas Racing. I like all the new guys in the sport, but it's great to see some of the older guard still be relevant.
NASCAR completes its three-race West Coast swing this weekend at Fontana's wide 2-mile layout known as Auto Club Speedway, which is the sister track of Michigan International Speedway. The significance of Michigan coming into the conversation this week is because we're all still getting used to how the new low downforce package will run. Last season this same package ran on a trial basis at Kentucky and Michigan.
Although the two tracks are almost identical, the results from each of the tracks rarely resemble each other. What I have seen in recent years is that a lot of the drivers who fare well on 1.5-mile tracks also do extremely well at Fontana where speeds down the straightaway get over 200 mph.
We've seen two races already this season on 1.5s and then we also have Michigan from last season to reference so we've got a lot of data to dissect and the biggest trend among all three of those races begins with new points leader Kyle Larson, who has finished second in his last three starts.
"It’s really, really cool to be the point leader right now," Larson said after finishing second at Phoenix. "That was a goal of mine going into today (Sunday). We’ll hopefully continue to have this speed in our race cars and maybe close some of these races out.”
Oh yes, this kid has speed everywhere and the second win of his career is coming soon. His first win came in the Michigan race using his this new package. Good luck finding double-digit odds on him this week. Those days are long gone because he has just jumped into the upper-echelon of championship contenders who have the goods to win every week.
This is another part of the season I'm loving. We're seeing a new era of top flight drivers having a major impact with Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney competing well weekly. It only seems like yesterday when we we're watching Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte make a splash among the elite, or a few years later with Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnahrdt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Newman making an immediate impact in their first few years. I think this just means I'm getting old.
Real quick, and keeping up with the Larson runner-up theme this season, his first start at Fontana in 2014 was a runner-up.
Last season it was Johnson who won at Fontana, which came three weeks after his win on Atlanta's 1.5-mile layout. Johnson looked good last week at Phoenix, but didn't look like his typical self on 1.5s the previous two weeks at Atlanta and Las Vegas. However, no one is better than Johnson at his home track. The El Cajon native holds track records with six wins, 13 top-fives and 980 laps led in 22 starts. His first career win happened there as a rookie in 2002 and his 6.5 average finish is his best among any track.
Needless to say, Johnson is not someone to cross of the list of candidates to win just because of Vegas and Atlanta. His incredible past history here is almost as important as what he did on 1.5s this season. You know crew chief Chad Knaus is going get things figured out like he always does and he's also got the Hendrick stable finding lots of speed led by Elliott. Kasey Kahne's car looks drastically improved from last seasons sleds he was getting. I'm not betting Johnson to win this week, but I certainly won't bet against him in match-ups no matter who he is matched up against. It's all out of respect for his Fontana past.
Jimmie knows California!
Brad Keselowski won at Atlanta after Harvick led 292 of the 325 laps and then finished fifth the following week at Las Vegas after leading 89 laps. After never finishing better than 18th in his first six Fontana starts, he grabbed a win in 2015 and was ninth last season.
Martin Truex Jr. would win the first two Vegas stages, lead the most laps (150) and capture the win. In 16 starts at Fontana he's never had a top-five, which is very surprising considering how good he's been the past two seasons.
Elliott is another young gun I really like a lot and his first win is coming soon. The No. 24 looks like best Hendrick car and has had top-fives at both Las Vegas and Atlanta this season. Last year in his first Cup start at Fontana he finished sixth.
Kyle Busch has three wins at Fontana, including two in his last three starts there. He had a win stripped from him late last week at Phoenix because of a late caution caused by, of all people, Joey Logano who Busch owes a payback to. Busch pitted with only four laps remaining and three drivers stayed out on old tires, one of which was Newman who had a buffer with two slower cars behind him holding up better cars on the restart. Busch and Logano didn't have any drama during or after the race like they did in Las Vegas, but Busch won't let it pass which gives Logano a lot to think about weekly.
I'm going with the young guns to duel it out for the win.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #42 Kyle Larson (8/1)
2) #24 Chase Elliott (10/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)
4) #4 Kevin Harvick (8/1)
5) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)