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Fantasy Preview: In atypical year, Johnson still a sure thing at Fontana

March 21, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Momma said there'd be days like this.

Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards were two of the most popular picks last week. Marcos Ambrose and Kasey Kahne were among the favorite dark horses. Bristol had different plans, however. On Lap 25, Kahne's spotter cleared him high as he passed Regan Smith on the frontstretch, but the No. 78 had too much steam and clipped the No. 5. In the ensuing melee, Ambrose, Busch, Edwards and Kevin Harvick piled into the crash scene. The current bodies of NASCAR's Cup cars are durable, but even they can take only so much of a pounding. Fantasy rosters took a pounding, as well.

With Busch and Edwards taken out of contention, that opened the way for some fresh faces to run with the leaders. Notably, Brad Keselowski sustained slight damage in the Lap 25 accident when he nudged one of the spinning cars. The dent was so small that the team didn't even need to deal with it and Keselowski went on to win the race. He also led the list of improbable drivers in the top 10. Keselowski's victory was only his second top-10 finish Bristol and he has made the most of those two strong runs by winning in back-to-back races. Third-place Martin Truex Jr. also scored only his second top-10 at Bristol and fifth-place Brian Vickers bettered his previous best finish on this track of 12th. In 10th, Paul Menard also scored his second career top-10 at Bristol.

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Bristol proved to be a wild card primarily because the usual suspects were eliminated by crash damage.

400 miles of two abreast, two miles at a time

Once bitten, twice shy; so it is with some hesitation that the Auto Club 400 gets described as a predictable track. The 2-mile tracks of Auto Club Speedway and Michigan International Speedway are wide and have sweeping corners that allow for two- and three-abreast racing through the corners. Successful drivers set up their cars to run in multiple grooves so they can alter their line when it is time to pass. These tracks are so wide in fact, that the dreaded aero-push can be avoided most of the time, which allows fast cars to cut through traffic.

Because of the length of the tracks and the high rates of speed, a premium is placed on handling and engine strength. If a car is slightly tight or loose, drivers have to feather the throttle in the long sweeping corners and lose momentum. The man behind the wheel and the crew chief sitting on top of the pit box have to be in perfect harmony to adjust the setup during the race so that their car is equally fast at the beginning and end of the day. The engine must have enough horsepower and durability to contend for the victory in order to score a top-10 finish and there are rarely any huge surprises on the 2-milers. Last year, four drivers swept the top 10 in all three races at Auto Club and Michigan.

There are few surprises on the 2-milers unless fuel mileage comes into play, that is. Since the corners are so wide, it is possible to stay out of trouble at Auto Club and Michigan. Long green-flag segments are commonplace and if one of these occurs in the final stages of the race then all bets are off. It is impossible to predict which teams will guess correctly and successfully roll the dice in the Auto Club 400, so fantasy players need to set their roster by the numbers.

The Favorites

Even if Hendrick Motorsports had lost its appeal of NASCAR's suspension of the crew and car chiefs, Johnson would have been a favorite this week, but now he is a virtual lock. Johnson has been practically perfect at Auto Club for most of his career and specifically since 2007. In the past nine races on this track, he has amassed four of his five career wins, finished second on two other occasions, and third or better eight times. The only time during that span of races that he failed to finish better than third was a ninth-place finish in 2009 and during his career, he has never finished worse than 16th. The downside of starting him is practically non-existent and the upside is immense.

Tony Stewart was not one of the drivers who swept the top 10 on 2-milers last year, but he came close. He finished 13th in the Auto Club 400 and went on to score a seventh and ninth in the two Michigan races. He gets the nod as a favorite this week for two reasons, however. The first of these is because he did sweep the top 10 in four races on 2-mile tracks in 2010 and has another fifth-place finish at Auto Club to end the 2009 season. To close out this streak, he won at Auto Club the last year this track hosted two events. The second reason he should be highly regarded is because he started this season with a lot of momentum courtesy of his victory at Vegas two weeks ago. He is not normally a great pick in the early months of the season, but this is not a typical year.

Stewart's teammate, Ryan Newman, also needs to be thought of as a favorite this week. He's never won at Auto Club and his most recent victory at Michigan came in 2004, but what he lacks in flat-out speed, he makes up for in consistency. His past four races on the 2-mile tracks have ended in results of either fifth or sixth and that makes him a good value in any game. Both Stewart-Haas Racing drivers have picked up the pace in recent weeks with top-fives at Vegas and top-15s at Bristol, so no one will be surprised to see them at the head of the pack again this Sunday.

Fontana


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Dark Horses

Mark Martin's honor is a stake. It's not as if a veteran with more than 25 years of NASCAR Cup experience actually has anything to prove, but after Brian Vickers contended for victory with this same team last week, Martin will be hungry to demonstrate he can do the same thing. Auto Club has been one of his better tracks in recent years. He stumbled last spring to finish 20th, but he entered that weekend with a three-race streak of fourth- and sixth-place results. Last year, he swept the top-10 on the sister track of Michigan and he's won there as recently as 2009 while racing for Hendrick Motorsports.

Clint Bowyer ran exceptionally well at Bristol in light of his struggles there in the past three years. In fact, all three of Michael Waltrip Racing's teams finished in the top five and that gives them a lot of momentum entering this weekend. There is no reason to sit back and wait for this team to elevate themselves to the level of Roush Fenway Racing or Hendrick Motorsports because for the moment, it already is there. Bowyer completes the equation with a superior record at Auto Club. He enters the week with a four-race streak of top-10s on this track and finished second to Stewart in fall 2010.

Underdogs

Marcos Ambrose has been one of the most pleasant surprises on a number of occasions this season and if not for crash damage at Bristol, he could have been one of the best values.. He also has shown flashes of speed on the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks, which should carry over onto the 2-mile unrestricted, intermediate speedways. That hasn't been the case, however; in six previous starts at Auto Club, his best finish is a 22nd and his average is 28.3. He hasn't finished much better at Michigan, although he does have a pair of 15ths there as his personal high-water mark.

All three of the Joe Gibbs Racing's guys had trouble at Bristol. Denny Hamlin spent most of the afternoon looking in his rear-view mirror while the leader stalked him to put the No. 11 a lap down. If the past two and half years are an indication, Auto Club could provide another frustrating weekend because he has experienced trouble there in three of his past four attempts and finished outside the top 25. Last year, he won at Michigan in the first race, but when the series returned in August, he sustained crash damage and finished 15 laps off the pace.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Two-mile tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Tony Stewart9.08 17.Jeff Burton19.55 31.Travis Kvapil33.05
3.Jeff Gordon9.33 18.David Reutimann20.35 32.Landon Cassill33.55
4.Matt Kenseth10.34 19.Joey Logano20.38 33.Bobby Labonte34.23
5.Mark Martin10.67 20.Martin Truex Jr.21.53 34.David Stremme34.35
6.Denny Hamlin11.16 21.David Ragan21.62 35.David Gilliland34.83
7.Clint Bowyer11.20 22.A.J. Allmendinger24.33 36.Aric Almirola36.00
8.Kyle Busch11.34 23.Paul Menard25.19 37.Robby Gordon36.42
9.Greg Biffle12.03 24.Jamie McMurray25.49 38.Michael McDowell36.85
10.Kevin Harvick12.33 25.Brad Keselowski25.97 39.Dave Blaney37.76
11.Carl Edwards13.08 26.Regan Smith26.30 40.Joe Nemechek38.11
12.Kasey Kahne13.38 27.Marcos Ambrose28.75 41.J.J. Yeley38.33
13.Kurt Busch14.16 28.Casey Mears30.31 42.Tony Raines40.72
14.Juan Montoya14.98 29.Ken Schrader30.72 43.Scott Riggs 41.36
15.Ryan Newman17.67 

* Power Rankings: Fontana