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NASCAR Auto Club 400 preview

by Dave Grayson
Friday, March 23, 2012

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Last year's finish was a close one at Fontana
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will roll onto the massive Auto Club Speedway for Sunday's running of the Auto Club 400. This massive, two mile, oval has always been conducive to five wide, full throttle, racing. On the opposite extreme is the fact that fuel mileage has often been a major factor in the conclusion of a race at this speedway. Next Sunday's Auto Club 400 could turn out to be a true test regarding how to save fuel with the new electronic fuel injected engines.

The Auto Club Speedway also has a reputation of turning up surprises towards the end of their events that greatly influences which driver gets to park his car in victory lane. A case in point came during the final lap of last year's race when Kevin Harvick stole the win from Jimmie Johnson coming off of turn four with the checkers in sight. The slide job Harvick pulled to steal that win more than earned him the nickname: "The Closer." The video highlights of that moment were stunning, but imagine the excitement felt by the fans who were on their feet to watch this move in real time.

It could very easily happen again this year. There are still some good tickets, and special packages, available for Sunday's race. Check out the details at www.autoclubspeedway.com or call 1-800944-RACE. As the speedway has been saying in their current marketing campaign: "it's GO time."

THE STORY BREAKDOWN

Will the Auto Club 400 break the current 2012 streak this Sunday? So far this season the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has ran four races that has turned up four different winners from four different teams representing four different auto manufacturers. There has also been four different pole winners in the qualifying sessions although none of them have found victory lane yet. You just can't ask for better parity than that.

The last time a streak like this occurred was back in 1986 when five races turned up five winners in five different cars. That distinguished streak list included: Geoffrey Bodine-Chevrolet, Kyle Petty-Ford, Terry Labonte-Oldsmobile, Morgan Shepherd-Buick and Rusty Wallace-Pontiac.

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The Auto Club 400 is the fifth race of the 2012 Sprint Cup season. That means the 2012 owner's championship points will officially become effective this Sunday. Per NASCAR's long time policy, all teams within the top 35 of the owner's points are guaranteed a start in the next race on the schedule. This "golden transfer ticket" guarantees these teams have a starting berth in the race no matter what goes wrong during qualifying.

In case you're wondering, the answer is no: my opinion of this policy hasn't changed. It should have been rescinded years ago. Racing is about performance. You're either fast enough to make the starting field on qualifying day or you're not. If some high profile Sprint Cup superstar has to pack up the hauler and go home early then that's racing and the show goes on without him.

If you examine the current top 35 in owner's points, one name immediately jumps off of the page: Kasey Kahne. from Daytona to Bristol, the new driver for Hendrick Motorsports has been plagued with horrible racing luck that has deterred his highly anticipated arrival to one of NASCAR's most prolific teams. If the bad luck strikes again at the Auto Club Speedway, then it's very likely that Kahne's team will no longer be in that coveted top 35. He goes into Sunday's race ranked 34th in the owner's standings and only seven points ahead of the team in 36th place. If bad racing luck strikes again at Fontana, and Kahne falls out of the top 35, he will have to earn a starting berth, for the next race at Martinsville,  based on qualifying speed with the group often referred to as "the go or go homers." It's not likely that this driver and this team will have a problem with qualifying, but it will be an additional layer of concern and stress for an organization that already endured its fair share.

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You can seriously expect to hear, and read, stories about a makeover for the Bristol Motor Speedway That would be the old Bristol versus the new Bristol versus a return to the old Bristol. Earlier in the week, Speedway Motorsports Inc, (SMI), Chairman Bruton Smith was making a lot of comments indicating he was seriously thinking about spending an estimated $1 million to return his race track to its original configuration before it was changed back in 2007.

Last Wednesday, Smith did a live interview on the Sirius XM Satellite Radio's NASCAR Channel and announced his intent to proceed with the planned changes and said it was based on a survey that said approximately 75% of the fans wanted the old, racing is rubbing, Bristol returned. Smith said, at the time, that there were people working on it even as he spoke about it. He also said that all of the engineering records, and other pertinent data regarding the old configuration were kept and the track renovation could easily be completed by the next race there scheduled for August 25th. Smith admitted that he was disappointed with the 102,000 plus attendance figures at last Sunday's Bristol race and he wanted to see the return of 165,000 clamoring for tickets as they did in the past.

Driver reaction to this move indicates that they believe other options should be looked at first before this diverse change is made. Again, expect a lot of back and forth commentary on this hot topic during the Fontana weekend.

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I suppose we will also hear about the final dregs of last Tuesday's appeals hearing involving Hendrick Motorsports. These opinions will largely be media based because most of the drivers have seemingly been very guarded with their comments. Whether you agree or disagree with the final appeals ruling, it's time to let the sleeping dog lie and move on.

That's exactly what Jimmie Johnson has been doing. The reinstatement of his championship points last Tuesday once again has his championship effort back on track. Jimmie "Five Time" is once again placing his focus on becoming Jimmie "Six Pack." The number six has another significant meaning for this driver. He has a series high five wins at the Auto Club Speedway and plans to pick up number six this Sunday.

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THE LAS VEGAS BREAKDOWN

To determine who is going to have fun in Fontana this Sunday, we once again turn to the number crunching professionals from the Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, (WSE).

To no real surprise, the WSE Auto Club Speedway rankings are led by Jimmie Johnson at 7 to 1 odds. There's one basic reason for this: his numbers at Fontana are just simply awesome. The #48 team stats include five wins, 12 top five finishes, 13 top tens along with an amazing 5.1 average finish ratio, (AFR). Johnson also has a strong sentimental tie with the Auto Club Speedway, he won his first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup event there back in 2002. You won't find a stronger wager choice than this driver.

At 8 to 1 odds you will find the trio of Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart. Kyle Busch is a previous Auto Club Speedway winner but that win occurred seven years ago when he was driving for Hendrick Motorsports. He does have five top fives and nine top tens and a 12.0 AFR. However the Joe Gibbs Racing driver seems to be experiencing a slow start so far in 2012. In four starts he only has one top ten finish and is 15th in the points. But this is Kyle Busch and the law of averages says he will make quick work of turning things around and that process could begin in Fontana. Consider him a good long shot wager .

Carl Edwards is a member of Roush Fenway Racing, an organization that has enjoyed success at the Auto Club Speedway including seven wins. Edwards has his own set of impressive Fontana numbers including a win along with six top fives, 11 top tens and a healthy 9.0 AFR. He's also a wager worth considering.

Ranked seventh in the points, Tony Stewart is also a strong wager consideration who is off to a good 2012 start for a driver who usually catches fire in the late summer. He has a previous win, back in 2010, at the Auto Club Speedway along with five top fives, 11 top tens and a 14.1 AFR in 20 starts. He also has a very good 100.1 driver rating at this track. 

In the WSE 9 to 1 category you will find the tandem of Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth. Jeff Gordon is likely a long shot wager despite the fact that he's a three time winner at the Auto Club Speedway including the very first Sprint Cup race there. However his last win in Fontana was back in 2004, but along the way he has accumulated ten top fives, 11 top tens and a respectable 11.2 AFR.

When it's springtime in Fontana Matt Kenseth seems to catch fire. He has three wins at the Auto Club Speedway with all three of them occurring during the spring months. He also has eight top fives, 13 top tens, a 9.9 AFR and zero did not finishes in 19 starts. His driver rating at this speedway is also a very high 107.2. The 2012 Daytona 500 winner is off to a great start this season and is currently ranked third in the points. Also don't overlook the fact that he's driving a Roush Fenway Racing Ford with a Roush Yates engine under the hood. At 9 to 1 odds, Matt Kenseth is a very good bet.

All by himself, at 10 to 1, is "The Closer." Kevin Harvick's single win at the Auto Club Speedway was the aforementioned event last year when he stole the show from Jimmie Johnson. In 18 Fontana starts, he has three top fives, eight top tens and a 16.2 AFR. He's off to a good start this season and is currently ranked second in the points. Consider him to be a good long shot wager.

At 12 to 1 is the duo of Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski. Biffle is off to a strong start so far this season and currently leads the points standings. He's a former Auto Club Speedway winner with four top fives and five top tens with a 17.9 AFR. Biffle is a driver with a lot of strong momentum going for him in the still early year that's enhanced by the fact that he also drives one of those high powered Roush Fenway Fords. Consider him a very good long shot wager.

Brad Keselowski has three goose eggs at Fontana and a terrible 24.3 AFR. That being said, remember this is Bad Brad and if that Penske Dodge is handling right he could be a factor on Sunday. His Bristol numbers weren't that good either but we all saw what he did last weekend.

Turning now to the WSE's middle tier, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin shares the 15 to 1 ranking. Kahne is a previous Fontana winner with four top fives, nine top tens and a decent AFR of 14.9. The Auto Club Speedway could be the location where he finally rids himself of that horrible early season racing luck.

Fontana isn't exactly one of Hamlin's stellar tracks. He has a single top five finish and a 19.2 AFR in southern California.

It wasn't that many years ago when Dale Earnhardt said he thought they should blow up the Auto Club Speedway and start over. That sentiment is likely based on the numbers he's compiled at Fontana. Earnhardt has three top fives, four top tens and a 21.7 AFR in 19 starts. There has been a lot of signs indicating that this team is rejuvenated but it's not likely you'll see many signs of it during the Auto Club 400.

Looking now at the WSE's lower tier for Sunday's race, Clint Bowyer, previous race winner Mark Martin and Martin Truex Jr completes a Michael Waltrip Racing trio ranked at 30 to 1 odds. The interesting aspect here is Bowyer. He's still seeking his first win at Fontana, but he does have two top fives and seven top tens in 11 starts there. He also has a very good 10.6 AFR and a 92.3 driver rating. If you're into stretching the long shot concept this could be your driver.

Concluding the WSE rankings for the Auto Club 400, Ryan Newman and A J Allmendinger share the 35 to 1 rating. Jeff Burton and Joey Logano are rated 40 to 1while Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team mates Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya closes the list at 50 to 1. If you do not see your favorite drivers listed this week that means they are automatically listed  in the "others" category at 18 to 1.

Now for the disclaimer: NASCAR wants us to remind you that these numbers should be viewed for informational and entertainment purposes. They neither encourage or condone the placing of wagers on their events.

If you're located in or near the greater southern California then you may want to consider spending some of that gambling budget on race tickets and enjoy the Auto Club Speedway NASCAR weekend. They have a lot of budget value packages available that will save you more than enough money to go ahead and place a bet with the World Sports Exchange.

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THE RACE BREAKDOWN

The Auto Club 400 is 200 laps, 400 miles, around the Auto Club Speedway's mammoth two mile, D shaped, oval.

The race has 46 entries vying for the 43 starting positions. 11 of those entries are on the go or go home list meaning they are not guaranteed a starting berth in the race because they are currently outside of NASCAR's top 35 in owner's points. These teams will have to rely on qualifying speeds to make the race.

Groundbreaking for the Auto Club Speedway was held in November of 1995 with the track opening in 1997. The first race, a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West event, was held in June of 1997 and won by Ken Schrader. At the same time the first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup race was held and was won by Jeff Gordon.

Since 1997, there has been 22 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events at the Auto Club Speedway that has sent 15 different winners to victory lane. Jimmie Johnson leads the win list with five followed by Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth with three wins each. Hendrick Motorsports lead the team wins with nine. Kevin Harvick is the defending race champion.

Kyle Busch holds the track qualifying record at the Auto Club Speedway, 188.405 MPH, set in February of 2005. He has also won a series high three pole positions there. Only one race has been won from the pole position at Fontana. That feat was accomplished by Jimmie Johnson in 2008. Eleven of the 22 races have been won from starting positions outside of the top ten.         

The Auto Club Speedway is 75 feet wide with a 15 foot apron. The four turns are banked at 14 degrees, The front stretch, measuring 3,100 feet, is banked at 11 degrees while the back stretch, measuring 2,500 feet, only has three degrees of banking. The speedway's pit road is 2.200 feet long with 44 stalls. The pit road speed is 55 MPH. The Auto Club Speedway has seating for 92,000 fans.

Weather could pose a problem for the Auto Club 400 this Sunday. The National Weather Service forecast for the Fontana area calls for cloudy conditions and a 50 percent chance of rain on race day. The Auto Club Speedway has a fleet of eight jet dryers available to them.

The Auto Club 400 will be broadcast live by the Fox Network with the pre race show beginning at 230 pm eastern time. The race re-broadcast will be on Wednesday, March 28th, on SPEED at 12 pm et. The race will also be broadcast live on the MRN, the Motor Racing Network, and on Sirius XM Satellite Radio's NASCAR Channel 90.

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