For the fifth straight week this season, NASCAR visits a different track type. In order to claim that their champion is the best in stock car racing, a balance of high-speed tracks versus short tracks and road courses that require mechanical grip is maintained for most of the season, with a slight skewing toward larger and faster tracks.
One of the results of that variety is that there are several near-perfect courses that hit both ends of the spectrum; Auto Club Speedway is one of these.
Fantasy Power Ranking
|14||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||14.30|
|15||Martin Truex Jr.||16.49|
|16||Juan Pablo Montoya||19.05|
The Power Average is the average finish during the last three years, plus the number of laps spent in the lead, in the top five, and in the top 10 expressed as if they were finishing results on two-mile tracks.
While it can be grouped with the other similarly-configured 1.5- and two-mile tracks, both Auto Club and Michigan International Speedway require a blend of horsepower and handling. The task is made either simpler or more complicated by the configuration of the track, depending on a driver’s preference and crew chief’s skill.
With wide, sweeping corners, there is an opportunity to set up a car to run in the high, low, or one of several middle grooves. Because of the multitude of options, the competition is fierce and the corners all funnel into a high line exiting turn two.
With 14 degrees of banking, the only tracks that are flatter on the NASCAR schedule are a few short courses and the uniquely shaped tracks in Indianapolis and Pocono. This limits the thickness of a crew chief’s notebook, but fantasy players will find inspiration by comparing a driver’s record in California with that of the sister two-mile course in Michigan, which is banked slightly higher at 18 degrees.
For years, Roush Fenway Racing was prohibitively dominant on the two-mile tracks. With three and four teams, the Cat in the Hat regularly swept the top 10 or narrowly missed and placed one of his drivers in the top 15. In recent seasons, that dominance has diminished slightly, but his organization remains one of the best values overall.
Last year, only two drivers swept the top 10 in three events at Auto Club and Michigan. Greg Biffle was one of the perfect racers with a sixth in the rain-shortened Auto Club 400, a fourth in the Quicken Loans 400 on the repaved Michigan track, and a victory in the Pure Michigan 400. He got off to a slow start this season with only one top-10 in four races, but last week’s 11th at Bristol will focus his resolve and make him an even bigger threat.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. not only swept the top-10 on this track type last year, his worst result on a two-mile track was fourth in the second Michigan race. His victory in the Quicken Loans 400 was emotional for his fans, but it also broke a psychological dam for the driver and reminded him that he can win. After that race, he was one of the most consistent drivers in the field with solid top-15 and top-20 performances. In 2013, he has improved even more and currently has the longest top-10 streak going. There should be a little doubt in players’ minds, however; last year’s third-place effort in this race was his first Auto Club top-10 since 2007.
Carl Edwards’ prowess on the two-mile tracks when he first joined the Cup series was legendary. He scored 20 top-10s in his first 22 attempts at Auto Club and Michigan and finished off the lead lap only once in that span of races. His last 10 attempts have been less impressive with only five top-10s, but he has come close on three other occasions with top-15 finishes. A victory and a top-five in back-to-back races at Phoenix and Vegas respectively gave him confidence. And he might have capitalized on that at Bristol if he had not sustained damage in an early-race accident.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. remains affordable in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game and his salary cap will take a while to catch up to his potential worth. On tracks where he should have struggled like Phoenix and Bristol, he finished just outside the top 15. On unrestricted, intermediate speedways, there is no concern whatsoever and Stenhouse could easily challenge for a top-10. With a price tag of $13.75 this week, he is the 27th-most expensive driver, but he scored the 15th-most points at Vegas two weeks ago. He will inherit setups from his teammates and come out of the hauler fast this week.
Marcos Ambrose did not get a chance to live up to his potential last week at Bristol when he sustained damage in an accordion-style accident early in the Food City 500. He has another shot this week, because the two-mile tracks were kind to him in 2012. He finished only 21st at Auto Club, but that race was shortened by rain and he might have improved with a few more adjustments. He swept the top 10 in Michigan’s two races and that setup should give the team a great baseline this weekend.
Tony Stewart is too strong a driver to languish all season and he will eventually string several strong runs together. For the moment, however, he is struggling to find momentum after getting involved in accidents in the season-opener at Daytona and last week in Bristol. He finished eighth at Phoenix, but he did so unconvincingly enough to earn only the 14th-most points in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game. At his salary cap level, a player wants to believe they have the potential to score a top-10 and that is simply not the case at the moment.
If Brad Keselowski were a less-expensive proposition this week, he would be a favorite. He grabbed the Sprint Cup points lead at Bristol on the strength of his fourth consecutive top-five finish; the last time he visited a two-mile track, he finished second in the Pure Michigan 400. His record at Auto Club has been deficient, however. In his first three starts he finished in the low to mid-20s. Last year, he scored a career-best of 18th and that shows he is heading in the right direction, but it is not enough to justify the amount players will have to shell out to have him on their roster.