Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race in Southern California
by Jay Pennell
The Sprint Cup Series rolls back across the country this weekend for the fifth race of the 2012 season at Auto Club Speedway. The 2-mile D-shaped oval is situated about an hour from downtown Los Angeles, taking the stars of NASCAR to Hollywood — a far cry from last week's race nestled in the mountains of Tennessee.
Not only is the area surrounding the track much different from Bristol, but the action on the track will be dramatically different, as well.
The Auto Club Speedway has become known for long stretches of green flag racing, with fuel mileage always a concern. Thus, finding the perfect balance on the car is key to a successful day. Watch teams closely throughout the weekend as they work on walking that fine line between loose and tight.
One team that should have no problem walking a fine line is this week's fantasy favorites: the No. 48 team led by driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.
When it comes to ACS, Johnson is right at home — and it's not just because he's a California native.
In 17 career starts, Johnson has an impressive record with five wins, an average finish of 5.1, with 12 top 5s, 13 top 10s, 849 laps led and zero DNFs.
Impressive to say the least.
Yet more importantly for the No. 48 team, this week Hendrick Motorsports scored a huge win over NASCAR. On Tuesday, the penalties and suspensions handed down by NASCAR for unapproved C-posts in Daytona were overturned by the National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer, John Middlebrook.
Now, instead of losing Knaus and car chief Ron Malec for six weeks, they will remain at the track, leading the way for the No. 48 team. In addition, with the points reduction also overturned, the five-time champion sits 11th in the series standings.
A proven track record, a resounding win during the week to regain points and personnel, along with an impressive start to the 2012 season (two top 5s and three top 10s in four races) has Johnson as this week's fantasy favorite.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart
While Johnson may be this week's fantasy favorite, you may want to add Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer to your starting roster.
Although he has yet to visit Victory Lane in Fontana, Bowyer has a strong average finish of 10.6. In only 11 starts, he has score a solid seven top 10 finishes and has zero DNFs.
Now driving for MWR and working with crew chief Brian Pattie, Bowyer is starting to work through the difficulties of adjusting to a new team. Despite a 30th-place finish in Phoenix, Bowyer has finished 11th or better in three of the first four races and sits eighth in points.
For Pattie, the biggest thing the team needs to overcome in simple mistakes.
"Eliminating mistakes helps you run pretty decent — it’s a hell of a concept," he said. "We haven’t really done too much to get things going the right way. Everybody is understanding each other and Clint is understanding the cars more — and so am I. Hopefully we can keep Clint’s top-10 average at Fontana going this weekend.”
I expect them to do just that, leading to a solid day in the fantasy column.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman
Picking a darkhorse this weekend is more difficult than most. With many favorites in the field, choose your darkhorse driver carefully.
This weekend, I'm keeping my eye on Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton. Slated to make his 23rd career start at ACS, Burton has struggled recently on the intermediate track. In fact, the driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has only one top 10 in last seven ACS races, that being a third in 2010.
Yet, after a disappointing effort throughout the entire 2011 season, Burton is eager to get back into contention. One of the biggest issues the No. 31 team encountered last year was on the intermediate tracks. Making an effort to turn that around, RCR brought in new personnel and worked diligently to be a better team at each and every track.
After recording their second top-10 finish of the year last Sunday in Bristol, Burton and his Drew Blickensderfer-led team have a bit of momentum on their side, and are looking to put their intermediate track struggles behind them this weekend.
"That was, without a doubt, our weakest point," Burton said, reflecting on their struggles last season. "One-and-a-half and two-mile tracks weren't RCR's strong point last season. We've worked really hard to be better on those tracks. You have to be competitive on these tracks. You can't expect to go and win the championship if you can't go to those tracks and run strong. There are just so many of them on the schedule."
Three Darkhorse Picks: Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski
Best Average Finish at Fontana (Wins):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 5.1 (5)
2. Carl Edwards — 9.0 (1)
3. Matt Kenseth — 9.9 (3)
4. Clint Bowyer — 10.6 (0)
5. Jeff Gordon — 11.2 (3)
6. Kyle Busch — 12.0 (1)
7. Kurt Busch — 12.9 (1)
8. Mark Martin — 13.6 (1)
9. Tony Stewart — 14.1 (1)
10. Kasey Kahne — 14.9 (1)
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