Auto Club 400
Yahoo: Top 30 Drivers
Yahoo / Fox / NASCAR: Quick Picks
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Auto Club Speedway this weekend for the Auto Club 400. Sunday's race is the final stop on a three-race West Coast swing, and it is also one of three races that will be held at a 2.0-mile oval this season, with the other two coming at Michigan in the summer months.
I'm always ready to adjust my strategy after qualifying, but heading into the weekend, I'm planning somewhat of a balanced lineup that focuses on drivers starting near the front.
Not only are there fewer points available in the dominator categories because the race is just 200 laps, but the points in the laps led and fastest laps run categories have been spread out a bit of late. Over the last five races at Auto Club, 11 different drivers have led 38 or more laps in a race.
All 11 of those drivers have started in the Top 10, and seven of those drivers have started in the Top 5. Four drivers have led 80-plus laps in the same stretch, and all four have started in the first two rows. Ideally, I'll be able to afford three or four reliable options starting up front in order to maximize my chances of hitting the points in the dominator categories.
Here is a closer look at the guys I will be watching ahead of the Auto Club 400.
Harvick has owned the two-mile tracks since signing with Stewart-Haas Racing, logging a series-best seven Top 5 finishes in nine starts. He has also led a series-high 350 laps in that span. Last year, Harvick led a 142 of the 205 laps at Auto Club on his way to a second-place finish, and he ranks fourth or better in both dominator stats at the track overall.
The 2.0-mile tracks have been among his best, and over the last three years, Logano has a series-leading eight Top 10s in nine starts. During the same stretch, his 287 laps are the second most in the series, and he led 165 laps in three races last year. He has the upside in the dominator categories that you need atop your lineup.
Busch got on track at Phoenix last weekend, and we all know how dominant he can be when get gets hot. He has also been strong at Auto Club, picking up two wins and a second-place finish and leading 210 laps in his last four starts. Overall, Busch ranks second in both the laps led and fastest laps run categories at Auto Club, so he is more than capable of owning the dominator stats Sunday.
Elliott has been even better in his sophomore season than he was as a rookie, and he had a pretty darn good rookie season at the 2.0-mile tracks. Elliott compiled a 3.3 average finish in three starts, leading a combined 67 laps. Expect an excellent finish, and he is a great alternative candidate to win the dominator categories.
If anyone knows how to get around the 2.0-mile tracks, it's Larson. His first XFINITY Series win came at Auto Club, and his first Cup Series win came last year at Michigan. Larson has been strong out of the gate in 2017 and heads into Sunday's race as the point leader. Don't rule out a trip to victory lane and a strong showing in the dominator categories.
He is off to a solid start this season, and his success should continue this weekend. Over the last three seasons, McMurray has scored the fifth-most driver points at two-mile tracks, and he finished in the Top 10 in all three races at two-mile ovals last year. He should provide a solid point total based on his finishing position alone, and his value only goes up if he has some upside through place differential after qualifying.
The sample size is still small, but Jones certainly looks like the real deal. He has finished in the Top 15 in all three races since Daytona, and he cracked the Top 10 last weekend at Phoenix. Jones already looks capable of cracking the Top 10 on any given week, and his price tag should remain reasonable for a while. He can be a useful cash or GPP play depending on how he qualifies.
Almirola has managed to sneak into the Top 20 the last two races, and although you can't expect much more than a mid-pack finish, he has been able to take advantage of the place differential category. Almirola has gained a combined 27 spots the last two races, and as long as he continues to start outside the Top 25, he is worth throwing in as a low-priced play in a few lineups.
He doesn't have a lot of strong tracks, but Auto Club is on the short list. Menard has cracked the Top 20 in his last five starts here, compiling an 11.0 average finish. More importantly, he has an average place differential of +10.6 in that same stretch. If he qualifies in the middle of the pack or worse, feel free to plug him in as a cheap sleeper.
Cassill has been a monster in the place differential category at Auto Club. He has finished in the Top 25 in his last three starts at the track, gaining at least 15 spots in three races in that span. Cassill will be cheap this weekend, and he should be an excellent punt play if he qualifies in the back.
He has been able to use the place differential category to his advantage at Auto Club. Whitt has finished 26th or better in all three of his starts here, gaining an average of 11.3 spots per race and gaining at least eight spots in all three races. As long as Whitt starts outside the Top 30, he will have value as a potential punt play.