NASCAR Drivers to Watch at Fontana
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series travels back to the West Coast's Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
So far in 2012, the Sprint Cup Series has raced at the Superspeedway (2.5-mile racetrack) in Daytona, the short, flat racetrack in Phoenix (1-mile racetrack), the intermediate racetrack in Las Vegas (1.5-mile racetrack) and the short, high-banked racetrack at Bristol (.5-mile racetrack).
There are only two types of racetracks that the Sprint Cup Series has yet to compete on: the two-mile racetrack and the road course. This week NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series will check the two-mile racetrack off the list.
In order to win at Auto Club Speedway, NASCAR teams must have horsepower and the perfect setup on their cars.
There is a lot of room for cars to move around at Auto Club Speedway, so finding the perfect balance in the car will be the key to winning the race.
Chevy cars have won six of the last eight races at Auto Club Speedway. They will be fast again on Sunday, but I would not count out the three drivers from Roush Fenway Racing (Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle) competing for the win.
So, who will be the drivers to beat this Sunday in the Auto Club 400?
Here is my list of five drivers who will have success this week and five drivers who will struggle in Sunday’s race.
5 Drivers Who Will Have Success
Auto Club Speedway is considered to be an intermediate racetrack on the NASCAR schedule. This simply means that the racetrack is not a Superspeedway and not a short track. It is somewhere in between.
Tony Stewart has won the last three races on intermediate racetracks (Las Vegas, Homestead and Texas).
Ever since the Chase started last year, Stewart has been dialed in on his intermediate racetrack program. Since the start of the 2011 Chase, Stewart has an average finish of 4.5 on the intermediate racetracks. That includes four wins in six races. The No. 14 team will be the team to beat on Sunday.
Stewart may be the hottest driver on intermediate tracks dating back to last season, but Jimmie Johnson has dominated Auto Club Speedway over his career.
The California native has 17 career starts at the racetrack, with 13 top-10 finishes, 12 top-5 finishes, 849 lap leads and five wins. No other active driver has stats anywhere close to Johnson’s at Auto Club Speedway.
The No. 48 team received some good news this week when NASCAR rescinded the suspension of Crew Chief Chad Knaus and restored the 25 points the team was docked for alleged violations to their car before the Daytona 500. The team will be motivated this week to prove once and for all they are not cheaters.
Jeff Gordon struggled in the first three races of 2012, but he looked like he had the car to beat last week in Bristol. Gordon was racing up front when his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. tapped the side of his car. Unfortunately for Gordon, when the two cars touched, the exhaust pipe of Earnhardt’s car cut the tire on Gordon’s car, causing him to spin and hit the wall.
This will be a bounce back week for Gordon.
Gordon has 22 career starts at the Auto Club Speedway with 11 top-10 finishes, 10 top-5 finishes, 619 lap leads and three wins. This will be the week Gordon kickstarts his 2012 season.
Matt Kenseth is the last Ford driver to win a race at Auto Club Speedway in the Sprint Cup Series. If a driver from Roush Fenway Racing is going to win this week, my money would be on Kenseth.
Currently, Kenseth is No. 3 in the point standings. His 2012 season has gotten off to a fast start, and it is unlikely to slow down this week.
In his 19 career starts at Auto Club Speedway, Kenseth has 13 top-10 finishes, eight top-5 finishes, 497 lap leads and three wins. His smooth and steady approach to the race will put him near the top on Sunday.
Auto Club Speedway is Clint Bowyer’s best racetrack. In his 11 career starts at the racetrack, Bowyer has seven top-10 finishes and two top-5 finishes. He currently has a streak of four top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway.
Changing from Richard Childress Racing to Michael Waltrip Racing will not hurt Bowyer’s chances this week. The cars from Michael Waltrip Racing have been great this year. Bowyer’s chances of winning the race may have improved with his move to Michael Waltrip Racing.
5 Drivers Who Will Struggle
Brad Keselowski is coming off a victory at Bristol. His momentum from last week’s race should carry over to the race on Sunday, but I do not think it will.
Auto Club Speedway has been a bad racetrack for Keselowski. In his three career starts at the racetrack, Keselowski has an average starting position of 22.3 and an average finishing position of 24.3. His best finish at the track came in his first race at Auto Club Speedway in 2010. Keselowski finished the race in the No. 21 position.
Although Keselowski has a lot of momentum going into this week’s race, I do not think he will finish in the top 10.
Auto Club Speedway has been kryptonite to the Richard Petty Motorsports organization. The best finish for Richard Petty Motorsports at the racetrack in the past four seasons was a No. 14 finish by A.J. Allmendinger last year. The organization's average finish in the last four years at Auto Club Speedway is 26.25.
Richard Petty Motorsports' numbers at Auto Club Speedway look bad, but Marcos Ambrose's numbers are even worse. Ambrose has six career starts at the racetrack. His average starting position is 24.3, and his average finishing position is 28.8. Ambrose has never finished in the top 20 at the racetrack.
Juan Pablo Montoya
Juan Pablo Montoya is another driver that I think will struggle on Sunday. Montoya has gotten off to a horrible start in 2012.
After becoming the first driver to run into a jet-dryer at Daytona, Montoya currently is No. 18 in the point standings. He will not improve on his position after this week’s race at Auto Club Speedway.
Montoya started on the pole for this race last year and finished No. 10. He finished third in 2009 as well, but he also has finishes of 36th, 33th and 37th at the racetrack. He has been hit or miss at Auto Club Speedway, and the way Montoya’s season is going so far, I think this week’s race will be a miss for the No. 42 team.
Denny Hamlin started the 2012 season on fire. He finished No. 4 at the Daytona 500 and won the race in Phoenix. After his win in the desert, Hamlin finished 20th at Las Vegas and Bristol.
His history at Auto Club Speedway, combined with his current lack of success, is why Hamlin is on my list of drivers to struggle in California. In his 11 starts at Auto Club Speedway, Hamlin has an average starting position of 14.3 and an average finishing position of 19.2. Hamlin only has one top-5 finish at the racetrack.
While Hamlin may finish higher than half of the field on Sunday, I do not think he will finish in the top-10 in the race.
Martin Truex Jr.
Martin Truex Jr. is off to a hot start in 2012. But unfortunately, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will take place at a racetrack where Truex has not had much success in his career.
Truex has started 11 races at Auto Club Speedway. His average starting position is 15.1, and his average finishing position is 21.2. He has not finished higher than No. 18 at the racetrack in his last six races.
I don't think Truex’s success in 2012 will carry over to the race on Sunday.
Interesting Facts about Auto Club Speedway
The first NASCAR Sprint Cup Race at Auto Club Speedway was on June 22, 1997. Jeff Gordon won.
Only one driver has won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Race from the pole position: Jimmie Johnson in 2008.
The worst starting position for a race winner at Auto Club Speedway came when Matt Kenseth started No. 31 and won the race in 2006.
Kevin Harvick won last year’s race and only led one lap.
Kyle Busch holds the record for the fastest qualifying speed, driving 188.245 mph in 2005.
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