With the glitz and glamour of Daytona now behind us, the focus of the Sprint Cup Series turns West to Fontana and the 2-mile oval that marks the real beginning of the 2009 season. Though unique thanks to its empty grandstands and exceptionally boring races, the Auto Club Speedway is the first of many intermediate ovals that make up the meat and potatoes of the Cup schedule. And with the ban on testing, it seems to be a safe assumption that the same teams which were good on these tracks in 2008 will be the ones to beat on Sunday — and the drivers you should be picking for this weekend’s fantasy lineup.
By the Numbers
2008 Auto Club 500 Top-Five Finishers
Carl Edwards, 64 laps led
Jimmie Johnson, 76 laps led
Jeff Gordon, 68 laps led
Kyle Busch, 14 laps led
Matt Kenseth, 4 laps led
The Cream of the Crop
Johnson has raced at California 12 times. He’s been the first to the checkered flag in three of those events, and won the very first time he ever raced in Cup on the track. Johnson’s also finished second four times and third once, creating a total of eight career top-five finishes here. His worst finish is 16th twice and his average finish is 5.9, the best among active drivers. Add to these stats the fact that the No. 48 team ran like Fido’s rear end at Daytona, and you can bet Chad Knaus and the boys are going to be coming out loaded for bear in Southern California this weekend. Expect to see a very strong run by the three-time defending series champ. – Mike
Kenseth came out of nowhere to win the Daytona 500, and though the weather definitely helped his cause, the No. 17 car was definitely among the class of the field all race long. Kenseth and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer have apparently clicked very quickly, and that spells trouble for the rest of the field at Fontana. Kenseth has two wins at Auto Club Speedway to his credit, and has scored seven consecutive top-10 finishes at the track. Kenseth going two for two to start 2009 is a very likely scenario. – Bryan
The Middle of the Pack
Kasey Kahne has not been tearing up the circuit over the last few years. Aside from his flash of brilliance at Charlotte last season, the rest of 2008 was less than impressive for Richard Petty Motorsports’s top driver. But one of the few bright spots over the last handful of years for Kahne has been California. Kahne is seventh among active drivers with an average finish of 13.1, and always seems to run well at the track. Seven of his 10 races in Fontana have been top-10 finishes, and one of his career victories came at the speedway. Running the new chassis style for both races last year, Kahne came home with eighth- and ninth-place finishes, proving he’s made a successful transition with the CoT on this track. After all the success for RPM at Daytona, expect to see Kahne ride that momentum into California and score himself a solid finish. – Mike
David Ragan was the most improved driver on the Cup circuit in 2008, and in finishing sixth at Daytona, he showed no signs of regression. Ragan has never cracked the top 10 at Fontana in four starts… but he has also never finished worse than 16th, even during his “dart without feathers” 2007 campaign. Make no mistake, the No. 6 team has returned to form as a powerhouse Roush entity — and the results will reflect that on Sunday. – Bryan
AJ Allmendinger is a pure momentum pick for Sunday. After concluding 2008 by taking the worst GEM car and moving it to the front of the field, ‘Dinger followed that up by darn near stealing the Daytona 500 in what is currently a part-time ride. He likely won’t contend for the win at Fontana, but a solid finish is all but a given for one of the hungriest drivers in the Cup garage. – Bryan
Scott Riggs put on quite a display racing his way into the Daytona 500. Driving for a team that didn’t even exist two months ago, he capped off an incredible Speedweeks by finishing in 25th place. In typical Riggs fashion, he made the most he possibly could with a car that is both underfunded and maintained by several volunteers. And don’t forget that Ryan Newman is locked into races this season because Riggs was the driver who kept his car in the Top 35 in owner points in 2008. Expect to see Riggs continue that kind of effort this weekend, as he’ll easily qualify Tommy Baldwin’s car into the race in California. Riggs may not be the fastest — and he may not run up front all day — but he’s likely to keep his car out of trouble. Barring a mechanical failure, Riggs could step it up a notch, scoring a solid finish somewhere around 20th place at California. – Mike
In order to help the readers track how well our experts are doing, we’ll keep track of the cumulative points scored by all three drivers every week — as well as the total for the season.
Bryan 245 245
Mike 137 137
Mike Wallace’s failure to qualify for the race cost Mike dearly. He’s now going to be coming from behind all season long.
The Final Word
This Sunday’s race will most certainly be two things. One, it will be a sedative. Two, it will be the first demonstration of how the testing “ban” will amount to nothing more than making the rich richer. Look for the superteams to dominate this event in every way possible — so make sure those drivers are printed all over your fantasy roster.