NASCAR at Fontana 2016: Preview, Prediction for the Auto Club 400

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2016

NASCAR at Fontana 2016: Preview, Prediction for the Auto Club 400

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Four races down...22 remain in the regular season.

    Four races, four winners, no surprises. Four NASCAR titans burned out their tires as the sun set.

    The finishes have been thrilling, looking at you Daytona Beach and Phoenix.

    And we’re also trying to get a handle on the new aero package. The analysts are all over it, singing its praises (Are they being told to tout it and not criticize it?). Maybe that’s because they can see it in person and see a wide angle of 40-ish cars braiding around each other.

    Take Fox’s Larry McReynolds:

    This rules package wasn't designed to have a lead change every lap. We know we'll never get there. It's also shown we can have some great racing without a lot of cautions. Honestly, it makes it where I can't wait to get to the next race...I'm sure there are a few people Sunday [Phoenix race] who didn't like this or didn't like that, but I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you didn't like what you saw Sunday, I sure as heck don't know what you're looking for as a race fan. 

    In any case, Auto Club Speedway makes its debut under the new aero package as the season rolls on.

    Read on for this week’s preview.

By the Numbers: Auto Club Speedway

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Auto Club 400

    Place: Auto Club Speedway

    Date: Sunday, March 20

    Pre-race Coverage: 3 p.m. (ET), Fox

    Green Flag: 3:46 p.m. (ET), Fox

    Distance: 200 laps, 400 miles

    Defending winner: Brad Keselowski

Current Chase Standings

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    1. Kevin Harvick, 154

    2. Kyle Busch, 154 

    3. Jimmie Johnson, 140

    4. Kurt Busch, 137

    5. Carl Edwards, 136

    6. Denny Hamlin, 131

    7. Joey Logano, 127

    8. Austin Dillon, 122

    9. Martin Truex Jr., 117

    10. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 115

    11. Brad Keselowski, 110

    12. Ryan Blaney, 104

    13. Aric Almirola, 100

    14. Kasey Kahne, 96

    15. Jamie McMurray, 94

    16. Matt Kenseth, 90

     

    Bold equals Chase qualifier.

The Too-Early-to-Watch Chase Bubble

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The Two Above the Line

    Jamie McMurray

    The No. 1 car didn’t lose a spot or gain a spot after the Phoenix race.

    Last year he was one of the top drivers in the Sprint Cup's points standings.

    This year he’s teetering on the edge—a precarious place with big movers like Matt Kenseth and Chase Elliott lurking.

    McMurray is solid at Fontana. Will we see a breakthrough?

     

    Matt Kenseth

    After a trilogy of opening races that saw Kenseth get burned on the final lap of the Daytona 500, taken out because of a black-and-crossed flag and then rear-ended by Elliott, his uneventful race at Phoenix was what he needed.

    Kenseth finished seventh after starting sixth. No drama.

    To give you an idea regarding how well the Joe Gibbs cars performed, his finish was the worst of all four.

     

    The Two Below the Line

    Kyle Larson

    Mr. Dark-Horse Selection crept up to 17th in the standings. My man! C’mon, big fella! Bring it 42!

    After finishing 26th and 34th at Atlanta and Las Vegas, respectively, Larson's 12th-place finish did him well. He earned 27 points and moved up three spots from last week.

    It’s hard to know which Larson will show up when the green flag waves, but the Phoenix Larson has the chops to make something of this season.

     

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

    This one stings for the No. 17 car.

    He, like a few others at Phoenix, was victimized by melted beads, and as a result he completed just 161 of 313 laps.

    The crash set him back in a major way. He got deported from the Chase Grid altogether.

Biggest Movers

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Biggest Climb

    Matt Kenseth, Up Six

    Sunday’s Fox broadcast lacked any comments from Kenseth. For the No. 20 car, this was a good thing.

    It meant nothing happened to Kenseth. He didn’t get passed on the final lap, as he did at Daytona. He didn’t miss a penalty flag, as he did at Atlanta, and he didn’t get plowed by a rookie, as he did at Las Vegas.

    As a result Kenseth climbed six spots and into the top 16.

     

    Biggest Fall

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Down Seven

    Drivers like Stenhouse can’t afford to drop seven spots in the driver standings.

    It’s not that he’s a bad driver; it’s that he doesn’t have the requisite resources to overcome mishaps the way the Big Four teams can.

    When those drivers (see Kenseth) flub up, they can prep knowing they have a strong chance of winning no matter the place, no matter the time.

    Stenhouse, who is winless in his three full seasons in a Cup car, isn’t there yet. Maybe he has the talent, but he needs more intel.

    We can’t know for sure, but what we do know is, he better put the bad luck from Phoenix behind him and get back into the top 15 at Fontana—a track that has been unkind to RSJ (23 average finish).

Biggest Storylines

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Larry McReynolds Gives New Aero Package ‘Three Thumbs Up’

    I’m not entirely sure what to make of the new aero package. It seems like the most action we hear about is after the race when Driver X and Driver Y and maybe Driver Z say how much they were battling, how much they like it.

    The problem is, we don’t see it on the Insignia. The "Aero Package PR Department" (re: Fox NASCAR analysts) keep telling us how great it is. It’s as if they’re told to stump for this package.

    “I know we still have some other types of tracks to visit with this low downforce package and tire combination Goodyear is bringing, but I'm giving these first four races not two, but three thumbs up,” McReynolds wrote on FoxSports.com.

    There’s an old adage in writing called “show, don’t tell.”

    The finishes of the Daytona 500 and Good Sam 500 were as thrilling as they come, but are they the result of the new aero package? Hard to say.

    What the television producers can and should do is illustrate in better terms why it’s better. We’re told over and over again, but those words are about as empty as Joey Logano’s gas tank with six laps to go at Phoenix.

     

    Tony Stewart Can Drive a Car

    Tony Stewart continues to rehabilitate his severely injured back.

    He got a double serving of good news this past week at Phoenix. First, Harvick won for Stewart-Haas Racing. Second, Stewart was given clearance to drive your typical factory-line, robot-built automobile.

    Stewart said on NASCAR.com:

    The funny part was when the doctor told me, or the surgeon cleared me to drive a street car. I didn't have the heart to tell him I've been driving for almost three weeks. I'm not really one to follow the doctor's orders anyway, so we're fine. I've been up all day today and I feel great, so we're excited about where we're at right now.

    Brian Vickers will get the start in the musical cockpit that is the No. 14 car. Ty Dillon gave it a good run for a top 15 in Phoenix, so it will be up to Vickers to try and top that at Fontana.

     

    Will Kyle Busch (sorta) Make It Three in a Row?

    Busch won this race in 2013 and 2014. He never raced at ACS since he was in the middle of some serious rehab following his gruesome wreck at Daytona International Speedway in 2015.

    Now Rowdy is back where he loves to dominate. He’s tied for first in points, but he's second in the standings since he has yet to win a race.

    “It’s a fast race track, and you just have to be able carry a lot of speed through the corners,” Busch said on MotorRacingNetwork.com. “You’re in the corner for a long time, but the more speed you carry through the turn, the better it makes your straightaways.”

    Busch has a streak of eight straight top fives dating back to 2015 and has been the most consistently good driver in the entire Sprint Cup this season.

    He is perhaps the driver to beat come Sunday.

Dark-Horse Pick: Jamie McMurray

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    To save face I have to get off the Larson train for the dark-horse pick. It’s killing me not to pick Larson here, but I’ll do the next best thing.

    Pick his teammate.

    Jamie McMurray has done surprisingly well at Fontana. He has two poles to his credit at Auto Club, three top fives and six top 10s.

    So, J-Mac, what are ya gonna do?

    The No. 1 car sits in 15th in the driver standings, and a win here will go a long way toward good Chase vibes, maybe even the confidence to reach the Contender Round and beyond.

And the Winner Is...Kyle Busch

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Picked him last week and some driver error cost him a chance at the win.

    Now he returns to the track where he hasn’t lost since 2012.

    Busch said on MotorRacingNetwork.com:

    It’s really a hard racetrack to get ahold of especially when it’s hot and the sun is out. There are two completely different types of racing when you run the top versus the bottom groove. You can run from the top to the bottom, but when you run the bottom, you really feel like you’re puttering around the racetrack.

    Joe Gibbs Racing has all four of its drivers in the Chase Grid with three of the four inside the top six.

    Busch is driving like a defending champion, and all he needs is that win to cement his bid for another try at the Sprint Cup.

     

    Stats come via Racing-Reference.info.

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