The final leg of the west coast swing for NASCAR takes places this weekend in Fontana when the drivers hit the 2-mile track known as Auto Club Speedway. The last five races at the track have produced five different winners, but as Vegas tells us, there’s really 6 guys to keep an eye on as far as capturing the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon.
Before we move forward to Sunday’s race I need to go back and reflect on what happened at ISM. First, we all saw Kyle Busch mostly dominate the race in route to his 199th career win across all three series and while I figured he’d have another strong showing at the track, I backed the 4 car and the king of Phoenix Kevin Harvick who was only able to come home 9th after a strong showing at practice and decent qualifying. I put all my chips on the table backing the 9-time Phoenix winner and it didn’t pan out, they just couldn’t quite hit it right on race day and look like their usual selves.
As far as DraftKings and other picks I hit on Aric Almriola who was up front late and even had the lead in the final stage, Kyle Larson was a no-brainer starting 31st and finishing 6th then Chris Buescher was a good value play at the lower level going from 22nd to 16th. That said, the bad outweighs the good here as Harvick wasn’t worth his price, Bowman and Byron both ran into issues and went from starting inside the top 10 to miserable finishes and lost you a good chunk of points then Daniel Suarez had his car power down at one point and had to scrap and claw to get back on the lead lap and finish 23rd when he was running inside the top 15. Not a great day for me at Phoenix, but even more reason to back me this week. Bounce-back time.
The two-mile California track should produce yet another exciting finish in this NASCAR season with a slew of drivers who could realistically contend for the win. The first name that comes to mind at any two mile race track is Kyle Larson with the wide-open and fast racing. Larson won this race in 2017, finished runner-up last season and over the last 6 races on a 2-mile track (Michigan & Auto Club), Larson has a 8.33 average finish and 3 wins. Along those lines the next guy to watch is last year’s winner Martin Truex Jr., the runner-up at ISM last weekend. The JGR cars are in full stride and the 19 team is on the verge of cracking their first win of the campaign. This would be the track to get it done at with a win last year, a 4th place result the year prior and a 7.50 average finish for Truex & Cole Pearn on 2-mile tracks over the last 6 races. There’s one final name capping off my “Big Three” to watch this weekend and that’s Atlanta winner Brad Keselowski. Also strong on the 2-mile tracks, Brad has an average finish of 4.0 over the last 4 races at Auto Club including a win back in 2015 and we know just how good the Michigan man is when he gets to his home track. This play’s right into his strengths and his teams as Penske has been firing on all cylinders out of the gate this season.
Jimmie Johnson is another name to watch this weekend based purely on past performances. We know the entire Hendrick Motorsports team isn’t where they want to be right now, but that group fought back to earn a top-10 last week at ISM and this is a track that the 48 car has historically owned. This is Johnson home track and he has won 6 times at Auto Club in his career most recently in 2016. He’s the active leader in average finish 7.21, wins (’02, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’16), top 5’s (13), top 10’s (27) and laps led (980). If you’re buying stock in their camp to snap the long points-race winless streak, you could be rewarded with a massive payout.
Okay, can we just take a second to talk about the madness of group knockout qualifying on Friday? Dozens of cars playing chicken waiting until the last possible moment to run in line in the draft and post the best time. Guys getting bumped in seconds, lines getting blocked and pure madness. It culminated when NONE of the cars posted a time in the third round waiting until there was under a minute to go and not one of twelve cars could make it back to the line.
NASCAR has already said they will change the format of how they qualify after those results, but the excitement factor has been there and its must see in Friday’s. Also, this format has helped players in building a solid fantasy live lineup with place differential. You’ll see mine below.
Betting Odds (opening odds out of Las Vegas):
-Kyle Busch 9/2
-Kevin Harvick 9/2
-Brad Keselowski 6/1
-Martin Truex Jr. 6/1
-Kyle Larson 6/1
-Joey Logano 6/1
-Denny Hamlin 18/1
-Ryan Blaney 18/1
-Aric Almirola 18/1
-Jimmie Johnson 50/1
Other odds: Erik Jones 20/1, Kurt Busch 20/1, Chase Elliott 25/1, Clint Bowyer 25/1, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 50/1
Fantasy Picks (Draftkings):
Martin Truex Jr. ($10,000): Truex and the No. 19 team have been clicking and on the cusp of breaking though with that first win of the season. He had a clean sweep of this race last season and starts 27th as a result of a crazy first session where a slower car impeded his run. He’s a lock in all my lineups.
Kyle Larson ($10,800): Larson was bounced in the second round of qualifying and starts 15th. He’s going to get that first top 5 of the season on Sunday and probably challenge for the win. I also need him on Sunday. Could breakthrough and snap that 50 race winless streak.
Brad Keselowski ($11,500): I like Brad and Penske in general to run well this week, but you cannot afford these top 3 in your lineups so you likely need to leave one out. Brad starts the highest in 13th, but his numbers here are hard to overlook.
Kurt Busch ($9,100): Busch is the only Chevrolet driver with a top 5 this season and he has two of them. He’s arguably got just as good, if not better of a ride than his teammate Larson and he starts 21st. Find a way to incorporate him this weekend.
Jimmie Johnson ($7,800): Jimmie is right there, fastest in opening practice, scored a top 10 last week and he’s heading to his home track. Could this be the weekend he finally breaks through? Maybe, but at this salary you bet I’ll have the 48 in my lineup. He’s starting 11th, but should run up inside the top ten all day.
Ryan Blaney ($8,000): Another value pick is Blaney who has the same equipment and speed at his teammates, at a much lower price. He was disappointed not to get it done from the pole last week and should have a good afternoon at Auto Club on Sunday. Maybe even contend for the win late.
Paul Menard ($6,700): Penske equipment, starting 25th. Worth plugging in here.
Ryan Preece ($6,200): Has shown speed this season, his teammate Buescher has had great results this season and starting 26th this week, Preece should provide those crucial points at the bottom of your lineup.
Matt DiBenedetto ($6,500) starting 24th & Daniel Hemric ($6,300) starting 17th are solid lower-tiered options as well
Race Winner Prediction:
Martin Truex Jr.
The man ran the only perfect race to date at this track last season starting on the pole, winning both stages and winning the race. He struggled on Friday in qualifying and looks to have turned it around as they gear up for the race with a better second practice on Saturday. I’m betting on Truex & Cole Pearn to win on Sunday.
Dark Horse: Jimmie Johnson
Johnson is the active leader at the track in wins with six, leads in top 5’s and top 10’s. He was fastest in opening practice and has a good starting position. I like the 48 to run up front and maybe snap that long winless streak in points races. Worth a shot at those odds, could be a HUGE payday.