Monday, March 21, 2011

Auto Club 400 Preview: Using What We Saw at Vegas Can Be Helpful This Week

By Micah Roberts

We've only had four NASCAR Sprint Cup races thus far, but it seems like the season has been months already. Maybe it has something to do with the 2011 schedule and different tracks seeing action from what we're used to. We saw Phoenix and Bristol already, two races sandwiched in between the Vegas race and an off week, and now this week we get Fontana's lone race of the season.

Paul Menard doesn't look like he'll be fading in 2011
Through the first four weeks we have seen plenty of surprises with both good and poor performances. Paul Menard, a fourth entry to the Childress Racing program this year, is currently fifth in points ahead of all his new teammates like Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton. Menard has never finished better than 23rd in any of his Cup seasons, but has proved to be a contender on four drastically different tracks. Because of the success on those tracks, it's likely we will see Menard be strong throughout the year.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved up one position last week to ninth and his hand-me-down cars from Jeff Gordon's 2010 team seems to be the reason. Junior doing well makes NASCAR better simply because more people care. Martin Truex Jr. sits 10th in points and Bobby Labonte finds himself in 14th heading to Fontana. For Labonte, no one can be displeased with seeing the former champion performing well weekly after watching him struggle the last few years with bad teams.

Meanwhile, Jeff Burton, Bowyer and Greg Biffle all find themselves outside the top-20 while Joey Logano, a favorite by many to make the Chase, sits 30th.

Las Vegan Kurt Busch, thanks to being the only driver to finish every race within the top-10, is currently leading the series in points and only one point ahead of Carl Edwards. Edwards is the only driver to have three top-5 finishes and looks to be the driver to beat this season.

With the race being in California, it's interesting to note that up to seven drivers starting the race hail from the Golden State, a sign of how large the NASCAR Nation has become within the last 20 years. The sport that started on tobacco road with moonshine runners is now more populated with drivers where sushi and surfing go hand in hand.

Stewart won for the time in Fontana last year
When looking to handicap the race this week, we can use a lot of the information from the Las Vegas race. Although Fontana is a half-mile bigger than Vegas and not banked as high, the horsepower and handling needed for each are relatively similar. Drivers who do well at Vegas should be just as good this week and the two drivers to look at begin with Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.

Tony Stewart had the most dominant car in Las Vegas, but had to settle for runner-up. In his last run at Fontana, Stewart secured his first win ever on the track leaving him with only two tracks he has yet to win on, one of which is still Las Vegas. In his last two years of races while driving for the team he owns, Stewart hasn't finished worse than ninth in the four Fontana races.

Only one driver has a better career average at Fontana than Edwards, and we'll get to him in a minute. Edwards won this race in 2008 and has averaged a finish of 9.2 in his 13 career starts. There is no one racing at a higher level consistently on all tracks than Edwards right now.

Jimmie Johnson is the California king with five wins on the track that saw him get his first career win there in 2002. The El Cajon, CA native has dominated his home track like no other driver before him. In addition to his five wins, he also has four runner-ups and two third-place finishes for an amazing 5.3 career average. The one thing that stands out against Johnson was his poor run in Las Vegas where he never was a threat and finished 16th.

Other drivers to take a look at this week include Matt Kenseth, Biffle, Truex Jr, Bowyer and Juan Montoya. A driver who stood out in Vegas and created a lot of surprised looks in the garage was Marcos Ambrose who practiced well and finished fourth. The horsepwoer that Kasey Kahne showed at times on these type of tracks in that car last year still looks to be there for Ambrose this year.

Top 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #14 Tony Stewart (9/1)
2) #99 Carl Edwards (6/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
4) #17 Matt Kenseth (12/1)
5) #33 Clint Bowyer (20/1)

No comments: