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Mash The Gas: California Preview

Austin Dillon and Kevin Harvick lead the pack at the start of the 2016 Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. [Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images]

Austin Dillon and Kevin Harvick lead the pack at the start of the 2016 Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. [Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images]

By Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The third and final stop of the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series Western Swing occurs this Sunday afternoon as the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California hosts the Auto Club 400.

Auto Club 400
Auto Club Speedway
400 miles (200 laps)
Sunday, March 26
3:30 p.m. ET
FOX, 3:30 p.m. ET
MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Stage 1 (Ends on lap 60),
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 120)
Final Stage (Ends on lap 200)
The Auto Club Speedway is a wide two mile tri-oval that is similar to the Michigan International Speedway which is where the current low downforce aero package was first used. Thus, drivers that raced well at Michigan last season should find success this weekend at Fontana. Plus, the twenty year old California surface has worn enough to open up multiple grooves to race in, making the Fontana event one of the more exciting races on the schedule the last few years. Also in the past fuel mileage really came into play in California but this year while still a part of the strategy equation, it’s not as prevalent with the event broken into stages.

So far 2017 has produced four different winners in the first four races and here are a few drivers to watch this weekend at Fontana …

Chase Elliott (Dan Margetta)
I think I’m going to keep picking Chase Elliott until he finally wins one of these Cup races. Once again Elliott comes into Fontana continuing to ride an impressive streak of strong finishes. He first really became a serious contender in the Michigan races last season and he finished a respectable 6th here in 2016. Chase Elliott is listed at 7-1 odds to win this weekend and once again he should be one of the top drivers in the field. It will be key for Elliott to close out one of these strong races of late with that first victory as he tends to get tough on himself. The wide Auto Club Speedway should suit Chase Elliott well this weekend and he should be considered one of the favorites this weekend.

Kyle Larson (John Wiedemann)
Could this be the week that Kyle Larson picks up the pace to move up one spot in the final running order? Larson has been on the cusp of victory in each of the four races so far this season and Auto Club Speedway might be where he breaks through for his second career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win. Larson’s great runs, with three consecutive second place finishes, have him at the top of the standings. This is the first time a Chip Ganassi driver has led the points since Sterling Marlin in 2002. Larson has raced three times at the Auto Club Speedway with a best finish of second in his rookie year. A big wreck after a blown tire early in the race took him out of the action last season and relegated Larson to 39th. The fall race at Michigan was a completely different story with Larson leading 41 of the 200 laps and capturing his first series win. Larson just might end his runner-up streak this weekend and he might do that in victory lane. Larson is my pick for the win.

Jimmie Johnson (DM)
Historically, the most dominant driver at Auto Club Speedway is Jimmie Johnson who owns six victories here to go along with thirteen top five finishes. Johnson won this race last year and has an impressive 6.5 career average finish as well. This season Johnson hasn’t stood out in the first four races but Fontana could be the place he breaks out. Fontana is also Johnson’s home track and he has always been one of the best drivers here. This season he enters the Fontana event at enticing 10-1 odds to win and he should definitely not be forgotten this weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr (JW)
Dale Earnhardt Jr’s comeback season continues at a track where he has yet to win but has run very well.
In the last six races at Auto Club Speedway, Earnhardt has not finished below 12th and has averaged at 7.7th place finish. But prior to the wreck in last season’s Michigan race, Junior had a streak of four top ten runs including one runner-up finish at the sister track to Fontana. Can you remember when Earnhardt was a rookie? Junior will be making his 600th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start this weekend which is second among active drivers, Matt Kenseth will be starting number 619. Last week Earnhardt started strong with qualifying third and eventually finished 14th, his best finish this season. Look for a little more from Junior when the checkers wave in Fontana.

Kyle Busch (DM)
After having the victory snatched away by a late caution flag last week, Kyle Busch should roll into Fontana with a ton of determination. Busch has done well here, having won three times and discarding his 25th place finish in this race last year, his previous four Fontana finishes were first, first, second, and third. He’s listed as a 6-1 favorite this weekend and despite being bitten by bad luck late in the race the last two weeks, he should contend for the win this weekend as well.

Kevin Harvick (JW)
It’s been a bit of a strange start to the season for Kevin Harvick. Two top ten runs sandwiched between two rough finishes are not the norm for this team. And, all won’t be normal this weekend either as Harvick’s crew chief Rodney Childers is suspended following a track bar mount violation from last weekend. Currently winless this season, the penalty also included a subtraction of 10 points for Harvick’s team. With one win at Auto Club Speedway, Harvick is one of top performers at the track with fifth-best average finish (12.3), average running position (11.4) and driver rating. In 23 Fontana races, Harvick has six top five and eleven top ten finishes. Harvick has three stage wins this season and should contend for more this weekend. Harvick lost the 2016 Fontana race to Jimmie Johnson on an overtime restart. Is a win in the cards this weekend? We’ll see.

Erik Jones (DM)
Sunday will be Erik Jones’ first Monster Energy Cup Series start at Fontana and it comes on the heels of a top ten run last weekend at Phoenix. For that, I’m going to make Jones my long shot pick this weekend as he comes into Fontana at 30-1 odds to win. Jones has had a pretty good start to 2017 and this brand new team has been fast in every event. Jones does have a third place finish here in an Xfinity Series race from two years ago so he has had some success at the California track. I think Erik Jones could surprise some people this weekend and could look to join Furniture Row teammate Martin Truex Jr. as a Cup Series winner in 2017.

Ryan Blaney (JW)
One of the young drivers that could spoil the party this weekend is Ryan Blaney. On two mile tracks, Blaney has an upward trajectory with his finishes. Blaney’s first two races at Michigan ended in 24th place finishes. Last year, Blaney improved on those Michigan results with a 17th and 4th place finish at the Fontana sister track. Blaney’s first race at Auto Club Speedway didn’t go well as a late race tire blow out and accident relegated him from a possible top 15 run to a 35th place finish. But, based on his history at the speedways and his great runs this season so far, this could be a big weekend for the Wood Brothers driver. It would be awesome to see the #21 back in victory lane. If Blaney doesn’t do it this weekend, you can bet that first victory is coming soon.

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Dan Margetta

Dan Margetta