Some in the garage area believe that Auto Club Speedway has turned into a 2-mile Atlanta, so good thing we already have some race data to look into this year with the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 a few weeks ago. If you remember back to that race, starting position didn’t matter a whole lot–as there was quite a bit of passing opportunities–and tires were super important. Expect much of the same in the Auto Club 400 here at Fontana on Sunday, although the races here tend to come down to fuel mileage quite often. Kurt Busch won the pole for this year’s Auto Club 400 and the full starting lineup can be found here. Here at links to the two practice speed charts from Saturday (Practice #2 — Happy Hour) as well as our notes for each: Practice #2 — Happy Hour. Don’t be afraid to take some risks this weekend and roll with a sleeper or two!
Final Top 15 Ranking For The Auto Club 400:
It’s going to be fun to watch the #4 and the #41 duke it out when the green flag waves on Sunday because if practice is any indication of what we should expect, these are the best two cars in the field. Harvick is on a ridiculous streak of top 2 finishes and should be considered (and probably on) all fantasy rosters for the time being. It’s almost unbelievable how good this team and car is every single weekend. Kevin’s record here at Fontana isn’t stellar (16.4 career average finish) but I literally couldn’t care less; this guy could have an average finish of 43rd at this race track and I’d still pick him on Sunday. The #4 Chevrolet had the 2nd-best ten-lap average in both practice sessions on Saturday and posted the 3rd-best overall lap in Happy Hour. Harvick is a top 5 car for sure heading into the 2015 Auto Club 400 and should be favored by most fantasy experts as well as Vegas once everyone’s rankings are published. Broken record, right?
As I said earlier, Auto Club Speedway is viewed by many in the garage as a larger version of Atlanta Motor Speedway. In case you have bad short-term memory, Jimmie Johnson won at Atlanta a few weeks ago, beating out Kevin Harvick. Those two definitely had the two best cars in the field that day, and the same could also be said this weekend at Fontana. Johnson’s career average finish of 6.7 at this race track puts it as his 2nd-best track on the circuit (at least statistically). Jimmie is a five-time winner here and could easily make it six this weekend. The #48 Chevrolet will roll off the grid in 14th when the green flag waves on Sunday (not a big deal, as noted above) and had the 3rd-fastest ten-lap average in Happy Hour Saturday. Johnson ranked 4th on that chart in Practice #2 earlier that morning. Although “Six Time” hasn’t posted a finish better than 10th here at California since the 2011 season, this is the same guy that finished 3rd or better in 8 of the 9 events here from 2007 to 2011. There’s no reason not to consider the #48 a solid top 5 car heading into Sunday’s race.
Looking strictly at the numbers, this looks like a week that you would be a fool not to have Kurt Busch on your fantasy NASCAR roster. He won the pole for Sunday’s Auto Club 400, posted the fastest lap (and ten-lap average) in Practice #2 on Saturday morning and then went out and topped the speed chart again in Happy Hour. He had the best ten-lap average in that final practice session, too. Additionally, Kurt has finished 3rd and 5th in the last two races here at Auto Club Speedway, and he has ended up 9th or better in six of his last eight starts here. Surefire pick, right? Well, let’s not forget about who we’re talking about here. Kurt Busch is one of the most inconsistent drivers in the Sprint Cup garage and this will be just his second full race this season on Sunday. With that being said, him and crew chief Tony Gibson were really starting to get on a roll to end 2014 and it looked like they didn’t miss a step last week at Phoenix, ending up 5th. The pessimist in me is saying that this has all the happenings of a “epic bust Kurt Busch weekend” but it’s hard to ignore that Stewart-Haas/Hendrick power. Taking everything else out of the equation, the #41 Chevrolet is–without a doubt–a top 5 car heading into Sunday. Let’s just hope Kurt can bring it home in one piece…
As a general rule of thumb, Matt Kenseth tends to race better than he qualifies. That may not be the case this weekend, though, because the #20 Toyota will roll off the grid in 3rd on Sunday. However, that’s not to say that Kenseth isn’t capable of a top 3 finish, he just hasn’t shown enough speed in practice for me to confidently say that. Honestly, the drivers I have ranked 4th through 9th this week could all be interchanged any which way you like because they’re all that close. However, Kenseth gets the nod above the rest because of his record at this race track: in 22 career starts at Fontana, Matt owns a career average finish of 9.8 with three trips to victory lane. I’m still waiting to see that blazing speed out of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas that fantasy owners are dying for. The #20 Toyota was 11th on the ten-lap average chart in Practice #2 on Saturday morning and improved to 9th-best in Happy Hour later that afternoon. Kenseth ran 5th at Atlanta earlier this year despite starting 36th, which is a good sign for his chances here at Fontana on Sunday.
Now that Dale has finally joined the Twitter world, we get even more inside information (if that’s what you want to call it) and he’s one of the most truthful NASCAR guys on the social media site. After Happy Hour, Junior tweeted that the #88 Chevrolet is as good as anybody after a few laps, that they’re just lacking the initial takeoff speed. I don’t know about you but I’m expecting long green flag runs on Sunday and this should definitely play into Earnhardt’s hands. He disappointed fantasy owners big time last weekend at Phoenix but I’m expecting a big bounce back out of NASCAR’s most popular driver this Sunday. In Happy Hour on Saturday afternoon, Junior had the 10th-fastest lap and ranked 7th on the ten-lap average chart. He finished 12th in this race last season but posted results of 2nd and 3rd in the two events prior. I might be overly optimistic but I see the #88 as a solid top 5 pick this weekend. Remember, Junior finished 3rd at Atlanta this year and was one of the few cars who had anything for Johnson or Harvick.
This was the race last season that Kyle Larson made me believe that all of the hype surrounding him may be legitimate. He ended up finishing 2nd that day and as long as he doesn’t run into problems here on Sunday, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see the #42 Chevrolet be a top 5 threat once again at Auto Club Speedway this weekend. Looking back at Atlanta this year, Larson finished a disappointing 26th, but that was back when he was struggling a little bit coming out of the gates. Since then, however, Kyle has posted back-to-back top 10s at Las Vegas and Phoenix and he should make it three in a row here at Fontana. Larson will roll off the grid in 5th on Sunday and showed decent speed throughout the day on Saturday during the two practice sessions. He ended up 8th in terms of ten-lap average during that final practice. Larson will be rim-riding all day on Sunday and that should be the fastest way around this 2-mile race track for the Auto Club 400.
High risk? Yep, and for one reason: Brad Keselowski has never finished better than 18th here at Auto Club Speedway over the course of his six career starts. Now, obviously that’s going to change (probably this weekend) and he has been better than he finished, the point still remains the same–and that’s the reason why BK is a risky pick this weekend. He’s also not shown the speed many have come to expect out of the Blue Deuce thus far in 2015 so there’s some concerns there. However, we all know that Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe could break out any week here with a win, so I can’t sit here and tell you not to pick him. Brad has a pretty good starting spot for this year’s Auto Club 400 and was 5th on the ten-lap average chart in Saturday’s Happy Hour. The Blue Deuce should be a solid top 10 car on Sunday with a decent shot at a top 5 as well.
The #24 team finally “broke through” last weekend at Phoenix with a 9th-place finish. Now, this isn’t what we have come to expect out of Gordon, but that’s exactly the type of run this team needed because their season was going south fast. The #24 Chevrolet was the best car on the long runs for most races in 2014 and we should start seeing that be true again here in 2015 eventually. Now when that will happen is the question. Jeff will roll off the grid in 7th this Sunday and I’m expecting him to be a solid top 10 fantasy pick–which would be his first such finish at this track since 2010. The #24 team didn’t run many laps in the Happy Hour practice session Saturday but they were one of the most impressive in the morning one (5th on the ten-lap average chart). I’ll give you this advice about Gordon this weekend: pick at your own risk. I personally think there are better options available.
I may be over-reacting a little bit here but I feel like something is going on with Joey Logano and the #22 team. Are they experimenting? Possibly, I can’t really say yes or no with confidence. However, they have suddenly started a new habit of fading during races: Joey ended up 10th at Las Vegas after running inside the top 5 all day (pit strategy was a big factor here) and he finished 8th at Phoenix last weekend–nothing terrible, but we’ve come to expect more out of Logano. We all know how good this kid is on intermediate race tracks so I’m not too concerned about Joey’s career average finish of 18.4 here. All you need to know is that he ended up 3rd in the 2013 race here, and has the potential to do that again. However, it seems as though the #22 Ford is lacking a little speed this weekend; Logano didn’t even make it to the final round of qualifying on Friday and he was just 8th-fastest on the overall speed chart in Happy Hour on Saturday (16th in ten-lap average). This typically is indicative of a worse-than-expected race out of Logano on Sunday. Going into the Auto Club 400 I think Joey is a top 10 car but not much more. We’ll see how the team works on his Ford throughout the race and whether or not they can vault him into the top 5.
After getting off to a terrible start at Daytona, Ryan Newman has awarded fantasy owners handsomely over the few weeks: “The Rocketman” came home 10th at Atlanta earlier this month and followed that up with 3rd-place finishes at both Las Vegas and Phoenix. Should we expect something similar here at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday? Probably not, but it’s not out of reach for this #31 team. Newman will roll off the grid in 9th when this week’s race goes green, and although he might fade and come back a couple times throughout the 400-mile race, expect him to be a solid top 10 car when it’s all said and done on Sunday. Ryan ended up a disappointing 20th in this race one year ago but before that he had a four race streak of top 10 finishes at Fontana–two of which were also top 5s. Newman was 11th-fastest in terms of ten-lap average during the final practice session on Saturday and had the 7th-best overall lap. He mentioned that the car was comfortable to drive during that Happy Hour practice and that should be an advantage come Sunday.
Wow, this team showed last week at Phoenix that even when they have a crappy race, they can still turn it around and pull off a good finish. Truex now has four straight top 10 finishes to start off his 2015 campaign and it honestly wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see him make it five in a row here at Fontana on Sunday. Martin qualified 12th for this year’s Auto Club 400 and was 6th-fastest in the morning practice here on Saturday. Once Happy Hour was completed later that afternoon, the #78 Chevrolet was 6th on the speed chart once again. My only concern? He never made a long run and didn’t make it on to the ten-lap average board. Truex’s last top 10 finish at Auto Club Speedway was back in 2012, but that could easily change this weekend. I’m going to keep using this guy in fantasy until he gives me a reason not to, I’ll tell you that.
I tend to overlook Kasey Kahne when he has a bad qualifying result simply because that exponentially increases the likelihood that he’s going to disappoint fantasy owners on Sunday. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Kasey Kahne is the most inconsistent driver in the Sprint Cup Series garage. The #5 Chevrolet will roll off the grid in 19th on Sunday, and although I do think Kasey has the speed to end up inside the top 10 when it’s all said and done, we all know he’s probably going to make it interesting along the way. Kahne’s career average finish here at Auto Club Speedway is an even 16.0 over 18 career starts. He has one victory (back in 2006) and has ended up 10th or better in three of his last five starts here. Kasey finally broke through with a top 5 at Phoenix last Sunday so let’s see if he can keep that momentum going. My money is on ‘no’. On a positive note, KK did post the 6th-best ten-lap average in Happy Hour on Saturday and ranked 6th on that chart in Practice #2 as well. At Atlanta earlier this season Kahne ran a decent race and ended up finishing 14th.
Here’s you’re second good sleeper option for Sunday, and he should have been on your radar before the cars even got to Fontana. Paul Menard has ended up inside the top 10 in each of the last two races here at Auto Club Speedway and posted results of 13th and 12th at Atlanta and Las Vegas already this year. Not great, but there’s some value there in some leagues. The #27 Chevrolet was 2nd-fastest in this weekend’s Happy Hour (10th-best ten-lap average) and Paul will roll off the grid in 11th once the green flag waves on the Auto Club 400. I’d say a solid top 15 finish should be expected out of Menard on Sunday and he has a shot at a top 10 if he plays his cards right.
“The Dinger” continues to be the surprise of the 2015 season and you have to believe it’s because of (at least in part) the alliance with Richard Childress Racing and the Chevrolet engines. My theory on momentum is that you should run the guys while they’re hot. Yes, A.J. is going to disappoint fantasy owners eventually (and probably soon) but there are many leagues in which picking Allmendinger is a great strategic move–specifically allocation and salary cap leagues. Looking at his history here at Fontana, ‘Dinger ended up 8th here last season while driving his Ford and actually has ended up 16th or better in each of his last four starts here. Obviously I’m expecting that streak to continue. A.J. will start 18th on Sunday but he has a better car than that. As I said earlier, I’m not against taking the sleeper picks this weekend and Allmendinger is a great one. Remember, he finished 7th at Atlanta a few weeks ago and followed that up with a 6th-place finish at Las Vegas. I’m not going to guarantee another top 10 out of Allmendinger this weekend but a top 12 finish definitely isn’t out of reach for him.
Hamlin has been pretty strong here over the last few years but just hasn’t gotten the finishes he deserved. Call it bad luck or what have you, you also have to factor into the equation that Darian Grubb was on the pit box. But now Denny has Dave Rogers calling the shots and that should only make him stronger because Kyle Busch has won the last two races at this track. So why do I have Hamlin ranked 15th going into Sunday? Well, for one, I don’t trust him, and two, I’m just not seeing the speed. Yeah, Denny put down a pretty good qualifying lap, but he couldn’t crack the top 15 in either practice session held on Saturday at Auto Club Speedway. In all reality, this ranking is probably entirely too low for Hamlin, but he’s one of the top tier drivers in this sport and in fantasy games you expect a top 5 finish when you pick guys like him. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening for the #11 team on Sunday. Hamlin has been boom or bust for fantasy owners this season and that not a risk I feel like taking right now in this young fantasy year.
The Next Ten:
16. Clint Bowyer
17. Carl Edwards
18. Austin Dillon
19. David Ragan
20. Jamie McMurray
21. Tony Stewart
22. Aric Almirola
23. Danica Patrick
24. Greg Biffle
25. Sam Hornish, Jr.