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Friday, October 8, 2010

Fontana Auto Club 400 Preview: Beyond the Numbers

For the fourth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship NASCAR travels to California. The Auto Club Speedway, located in Fontana California, is a 2 mile D-shaped oval. Lying due east of Los Angeles by about 50 miles, the Auto Club Speedway will host the Pepsi Max 400 on Sunday afternoon as NASCAR Cup Series drivers make 200 laps around the circuit for 400 miles. Not only has this years fall race in California been shortened by 100 laps, but this will be the last running of the fall race at Fontana – as part of NASCAR's Chase realignment the fall race has fallen victim to poor attendance and is not part of the 201 schedule.
 Jeff Gordon has a 10.9 average finish at Fontana, with ten top ten finishes coming from his 20 Cup series starts at this track. A disappointing 20th finish at the Auto Club Speedway in February broke a string of back to back second place finishes for Jeff that he had in 2009. With Chevrolet winning four of the last five fall races at Fontana, and a Hendrick Motorsports driver the last three Jeff should have the team knowledge to get it done, if the cards fall the right way.

Keep an eye on Carl Edwards this weekend; he moved up two spots after last week and has taken over the number four place in season points. Only two of Carl's starts in Fontana have resulted in finishes outside of the top ten. His 7.2 average finish at the Auto Club Speedway reflects the consistency Edwards has been able to bring to this track. His early-season performance in 2010 was less than stellar; Carl finished 13th at the end of the day. With four of Edwards' last five races resulting in top ten finishes, however he has the momentum coming into this race to post a finish that will continue his climb toward the top of the Chase leader board.

AP Photo
 Jimmie Johnson has won the last three late season races at the Auto Club Speedway and has wins in four of the last six races held in Fontana. As Chase points leader, and four-time in a row season Champion Johnson comes to Fontana with more than a healthy dose of experience at winning here. Jimmie's average finish of 5.5 and 11 top ten finishes in 15 starts in Fontana track shows that he could come out on top again this week and increase his points lead over the other Chase drivers. One thing that could hurt Jimmie as he goes for another win is that he has 50 fewer laps to get to the front of the pack.

With the drama and ensuing stress that the Clint Bowyer team has experienced since New Hampshire finally over, Clint finds himself 252 points behind the Points leader and in the 12th position. Bowyer said before the Kansas race that he doesn't expect to win the Chase after the 150 point penalty but does see finishing the season in the top five as a realistic goal. To reach the top five, Bowyer needs to come out strong this weekend and post a top ten finish, at the very least. With an average finish at the Auto Club Speedway of 12.0 and only one of his nine Cup starts showing a top five finish Clint will have his work cut out for him as he drives toward the front of the pack. If determination alone can do it, Bowyer will find his way to the top ten by the 200th lap on Sunday but it's going to have to be a good day for the RCR # 33 team.

 Greg Biffle moved up one spot in the Chase after his win last week; Biffle would like to bring home another trophy and gain more points on the Chase leaders this weekend. With 15 starts at Fontana Greg can claim five top ten finishes – including one win. Three of Biffle's last five starts have resulted in top ten finishes, including a 10th place finish at the end of the February race at the Auto Club Speedway. Coming off of a win at Kansas, Greg has confidence and may ride the wave of momentum to another top ten at Fontana.

Losing four spots in Chase standings after a disappointing 21st place finish at Kansas last week, Kyle Busch is coming into Fontana in free fall. With an average of 10.8, Kyle posts a top ten finish in more than 66% of the races he starts at the Auto Club Speedway. Knowing the track can go a long way in getting a driver to the front and in twelve Cup Series starts at Fontana, Busch has eight top ten finishes to prove that he knows how to navigate this track. Chances are that we will see Kyle near the front of the field by the end of Sunday's race.

AP Photo
Matt Kenseth is 149 points behind Chase points leaders and sits in 11th place. Matt has a 9.1 average finish at Fontana and comes to this track with 12 top ten finishes is his 17 starts here. Kenseth has shown in the past he can be a contender at the Auto Club Speedway; only one of his last ten starts here has found him outside of the top ten by the end of the day. With three previous wins, there seems to be little reason to expect that Matt will finish any lower than the top ten this weekend.

With just three Cup Series starts under his belt at Fontana, Joey Logano comes to this weekend with a 15th place average finish at the Auto Club Speedway. Logano has been fairly quiet in recent weeks, but this could be the weekend he gets back into headlines. Joey posted a 5th place finish in California in the February race and arrives in Fontana with confidence that he can get the job done. A strong qualifying run will be key to getting Logano off to a good start on Sunday.
 Tony Stewart is looking for his first win at Fontana. In Stewart's 18 Cup starts at the Auto Club Speedway he has laid claim to 10 top ten finishes but has not made a trip to the Winner's Circle. Tony is coming off of a solid fourth place finish at Kansas, and has a fourth place finish at his last trip to the Auto Club Speedway to remember. Consistency is the key to the remainder of Stewart's season, as he is in 10th place in the Chase standings; it's time for Tony to move up and finish strong to keep his Chase hopes alive.

With 14 starts and five top ten finishes to his credit at the Auto Club Speedway Jamie McMurray shows 16.4 as his average finishing spot at this track. Just outside of the top ten at Kansas, Jamie finished 11th. McMurray will be looking to improve on that result as he makes his way through the field on Sunday. He started the season with a win, then posted a win at Indy; can he show that he can win late in the season, too? Although this may be Jamie's best track, he should be in the top ten by the end of Sunday's race.
 Winner pick for Fontana is Tony Stewart with Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson filling the remainder of the top three. Also predicted to finish in the top ten are Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, and Jamie McMurray. With this being the halfway mark in the Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship it is do-or-die time for many Chase drivers. I call for Kurt Busch to end up in the middle of the pack at the close of the race, causing him to drop back in the standings and for Harvick to have an uncharacteristically rough day with pit stop problems leaving him behind the leaders.

Practice at Fontana comes on the air Friday at 3 p.m. on ESPN2 for practice, qualifications will also be on ESPN2 being aired at 6:30 p.m. Saturday's practices will not be aired on television but occur at 1:30 p.m. and 2:50 p.m. RaceDay on SPEED begins Sunday at Noon, and coverage switches to Pre-Race on ESPN at 2 p.m. The Pepsi Max 400 goes live on ESPN at 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon. Don't miss the fifth race in the NASCAR Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship as drivers continue to battle for position, on the track and in the points.

Amy McHargue

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