|Last year's winner Tony Stewart|
The elite of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has arrived at the "left coast" again. This latest version of NASCAR's western swing has the teams in Fontana-California, the home of the Auto Club Speedway. The Sprint Cup teams will be taking on the challenge of this speedway's mammoth two mile oval for Sunday's running of the Auto Club 400.
THE STORY BREAKDOWN.
There are plenty of Fontana based story lines to occupy the attention and conversation of both the NASCAR fans and the media. Certainly one of them is performance level of the new Generation-Six race car. The first five events on the NASCAR schedule, including next Sunday's race, has offered a separate and unique challenge to the new race car. It began with the high banks of Daytona and its restrictor plate racing format. The next venue was the one mile, tightly wound, flat oval at Phoenix. All eyes were on the car's performance at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway because its 1.5 mile oval layout is the most common denominator on the entire Sprint Cup schedule. It was at this race where we really observed the car's capabilities rise to the levels that NASCAR and the race teams were hoping for. The same could be said about last Sunday's race at the Bristol Motor Speedway, one of the most notoriously challenging short tracks in the entire country.
The Sprint Cup official results pages has certainly been impressive for the new race car. The first four races has turned up four different winners. We have also seen all three participating manufacturers in the series visit victory lane. That's what NASCAR calls a level playing field.
The Auto Club Speedway will be the next true test of the Gen-Six car this Sunday. Because of this speedway's mammoth size there will be two distinct areas the crew chiefs will have to focus on: engine performance and durability along with handling.
The long straightaways at this speedway, 3,100 feet on the front stretch and 2,500 feet on the backstretch, allows the cars to hit speeds as high as 207 MPH with the engines turning as high as 9,000 RPM's. Even with a slight lifting of the gas pedal, combined with a light toe touch on the brakes, the cars are still accelerating at a high rate of speed as they enter the 14 degree banked corners. The width of the corners, along with the smooth track surface, allows the drivers to return to full throttle in the middle of turns earlier than usual. You multiply this process times 200 laps on a two mile oval and, yes, there's going to be a major concern regarding engine performance and durability.
The size of the Auto Club Speedway will also be factor in the handling characteristics of the new race car. This speedway is extremely wide: 75 feet with an apron measuring 15 feet. This means the track has multiple lanes for the cars to race on. From what we've seen in the past, the cars can easily race three wide and sometimes even four wide. However, a race car that runs strong in the bottom lane may not work well at all in the middle lane or at the top of the track. That's going to provide yet another challenge for the drivers and crew chiefs. It's very likely that the teams will be leaving Fontana-California Sunday night having gained more knowledge about this new race car.
Yet another story line, that could see some dramatic change at the conclusion of the Auto Club 400, is the Sprint Cup Series' championship points standings. This is particularly true of the drivers, expected to be major players for the title, who are currently at the lower end of the rankings.
This especially applies to former Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart. His 2013 effort is off to a very sluggish start to say the least. His early race accident, last Sunday at Bristol, only made the hole he's standing in even deeper. He goes into next Sunday's race ranked a very uncharacteristic 24th in the points standings.
That's the bad news for Tony Stewart. The good news is: he returning to the Auto Club Speedway where he knows how to get the job done. Stewart is a two time winner at this track, including last year's race, and has a healthy finish record in Fontana. If there's a track where he can turn is early season around, this is the one.
The same scenario also applies to four time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. Also the victim of a crash last Sunday at Bristol, Gordon finds himself 21st in the standings. However, just like Stewart, the Auto Club Speedway is a track that has smiled on Gordon in the past. He's a three time winner there and Sunday's race could also turn out to be where he gets his 2013 championship effort back on track.
We all know what this week's big story line is in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. It's, of course, Denny Hamlin versus Joey Logano and their major disagreement with each other, last Sunday at Bristol, that occurred both on and off the track. This driver dust up has been the talk of the fans and the media all week long. It's probably not possible to obtain an accurate count of how many times the video of their incident has been shown on television. However, it is possible that we will keep seeing that video right up to the time for next Sunday's pre race ceremonies.
Logano made it clear last weekend that he's "keeping a scorecard" and this incident is far from over. That's led to speculation from many NASCAR observers who are wondering if we will see round two of this feud next Sunday at the Auto Club Speedway. That's probably not very likely. The Auto Club is just too big and too fast for an act of retaliation that could also lead to some very dangerous circumstances.
However, Sunday April 7th, the series will be racing at the Martinsville Speedway, a tightly wound short track known as "The Paper Clip." That's when we really need to be closely watching the Hamlin versus Logano feud.
THE VEGAS BREAKDOWN.
So, which driver is going to deliver the "whoo-hoos" in the Auto Club Speedway's victory lane on Sunday? To get an accurate indication of how to answer that question, we again turn to the professional number crunchers from the Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, (WSE).
Needless to say, the WSE has Jimmie Johnson on top of their list and they're backing that theory with 7 to 1 odds. Why wouldn't they? Johnson literally owns all of the pertinent stats at the Auto Club. The five time Sprint Cup champion has five wins at this track. He's the first, and only, driver to win from the pole position, 2008, and he's the only driver to win consecutive races at the Auto Club Speedway, in the fall of 2009 and the spring of 2010. Johnson also leads the speedway's stats for runner up finishes-5, top five finishes-12 and top ten finishes-14. His average finish ratio at this speedway is a series topping 5.389. The truth be known, if Jimmie Johnson ran for Mayor of Fontana-California he'd probably win that as well.
At 8 to 1 odds you will find the trio of Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne. Never rule out the presence of Kyle Busch at any race track. He began the season with surprise equipment failures, but it appears those issues may now have been rectified. It's expected that the pit road speeding penalties from the previous two events will also be rectified. He's a solid wager consideration. The same applies to his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Matt Kenseth who is a three time winner at the Auto Club. Kahne is coming off of the momentum of last Sunday's win at Bristol and is expected to be strong again this Sunday. He driving a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, an organization who has enjoyed great success at Fontana.
Defending Sprint Cup champion, and current series points leader, Brad Keselowski is in a class by himself at 9 to 1 odds. It's going to be interesting to see if this driver can elevate his streak of top five finishes to five in a row. Keselowski is very proud of his team and the fact that they have started their title defense on such a strong note. However, he feels like he should have parked that strong race car victory lane by now. That could happen this Sunday.
At 11 to 1 odds you will find the duo of Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle. There are some who might speculate that Hamlin may be a little distracted these days. They are referring to NASCAR fining him $25,000 for publicly criticizing their new race car, after the Phoenix race. There's also a possible distraction regarding the aforementioned situation with Joey Logano at Bristol. But the fact of the matter is: when this driver straps on his helmet it's all about charging to the front and nothing else. Keep an eye on Hamlin this Sunday, he's a solid wager consideration. So is Biffle who in the past has shown a lot of strength at the Auto Club Speedway. He's part of the Roush Fenway Racing stable who has enjoyed a lot of success at this race track in the past.
Driver Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon are ranked at 12 to 1 by the WSE. Edwards is on a redemption tour looking to eradicate the disappointment from the 2012 season. He's off to a good start especially after scoring the win at Phoenix. He should be regarded as a very good long shot wager at Fontana. Gordon is in a bit of a hole points wise, especially after last weekend's crash at Bristol. However, he has shown some strength at times this year and is a three time winner at the Auto Club Speedway. Add his name to your long shot wager list.
All by himself, at 13 to 1 odds, is the pride of the Junior Nation. Second in the points standings, Dale Earnhardt Jr is off to an outstanding start in this still early 2013 season. With this team hitting on all cylinders so early, he could conceivably pull off a major surprise and win the Auto Club 400 despite the fact that he's had no luck at all at this speedway.
Kevin Harvick is ranked at 14 to 1 and should be regarded as a very good long shot wager. He proved that two years ago when he pulled off that stunning slide job on Jimmie Johnson, on the final one-quarter of the final lap, to steal a win.
The WSE has Tony Stewart ranked at 15 to 1 for this Sunday. Again, Stewart may in a bit of a hole right now and is off to a sluggish start but don't be too surprised if the Auto Club Speedway is where he turns things around. He's won there two times in the last three years. He's more than worthy of a long shot Benjamin wager. If I thought I could get the approval from the lady of the house, I'd be calling the WSE in Las Vegas right now.
In the WSE's lower tier rankings for the Auto Club 400, you will find Michael Waltrip Racing team mates Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr ranked at 20 to 1 while the third MWR Toyota driven by Mark Martin comes in at 25 to 1. Completing this week's rankings, Joey Logano is rated at 40 to 1, Ryan Newman comes in at 45 to 1 and Ricky Stenhouse Jr completes the WSE list at 50 to 1 odds. If you don't see your favorite driver on the list, that means he's automatically listed under "all others' at 10 to 1 odds.
Now for the disclaimer: NASCAR wants us to remind you that these posted ratings should be viewed for informational and entertainment purposes only. They neither encourage nor condone the placing of wagers on their races.
Wait a minute: aren't they the ones who built a hotel and casino above their race track in Kansas? (I'm just asking……)
THE RACE BREAKDOWN.
The Auto Club 400 is 200 laps/400 miles around the speedway's massive two mile, D shaped, oval. The race has 43 entries meaning all teams will get to race on Sunday and the element of go or go home will not apply during qualifying.
The track presently has seating for 92,000 fans and was opened in 1997.
The very first NASCAR sanctioned race at the Auto Club Speedway was a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West event, won by Sprint Cup veteran Ken Schrader, held on June 21, 1997. The first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup race was held the very next day and was won by Jeff Gordon. Since that time the speedway has hosted 23 Sprint Cup events that has sent 14 different winners to victory lane.
The Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets tops the speedway's win list with nine trips to victory lane. The Roush Fenway Racing Fords are second on that list with seven wins.
The track qualifying record, 188.425 MPH, was set by Kyle Busch back in February of 2005. It's going to be interesting to see if one of the new Generation-Six cars can top that record speed on qualifying day.
The weather should be absolutely no problem during the race weekend. The forecast for the greater Fontana-California area calls for mostly sunny skies Saturday and Sunday with daytime highs ranging from 67 to 74 degrees.
The Auto Club 400 will be broadcast live by Fox Sports with the pre race showing beginning at 230 pm eastern time. The race replay will be presented by the SPEED Channel on Wednesday, March 27th, at 12 pm eastern.