With the NCAA Tournament starting up this week, it’s a great time of year to be talking about favorites and sleepers. So why not put out an early favorites and sleepers list for Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at the Auto Club Speedway?
Everyone loves a good Cinderella story right? Well, with how Kevin Harvick’s been dominating the Cup Series races this season, there’s some good underdog situations for this weekend’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET/FOX/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Here’s the list I have for this weekend.
He has to head this list. Harvick, has won three consecutive races and going for a fourth on Sunday afternoon. His No. 4 Ford has already led 433 laps this season. That’s 39-percent of the 1,111 overall laps run. There’s only two more drivers that have even led more than 100 laps all year. In Atlanta and Vegas, he dominated. At Phoenix, he was mad and hungry to prove NASCAR and his haters wrong. Now, he wants to keep that momentum going.
Plus, it’s not like Fontana is a bad track for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. He led 142 laps in 2016 and finished second. In 2015, he also came home runner-up. Last year, he was 13th. But, since 2010, a span of nine races, Harvick has six top seven finishes in Fontana, four of which were in the top two.
On Friday, he picked up where he left off with topping the speed charts in the lone practice session of the day.
Kyle Larson (+400) –
While Chevrolet has been down this season, Larson is the best Chevy driver in the standings currently. Plus, since the Michigan Cup race in August
2016, Larson hasn’t been defeated on a 2-mile track. He won at Michigan that day and won both Michigan races last year. He also is the defending race winner at Fontana in both Cup and XFINITY Series action. In nine career Fontana starts combined across Cup and XFINITY, seven have resulted in finishes of eighth or better.
He was P5 in practice on Friday.
Other than Harvick, no one has been better than Busch recently. He’s been runner-up to Harvick in each of the last two weeks. That makes his hunger to beat Harvick even greater. Maybe Fontana is the place for that.
In his last six Fontana starts, Busch has scored five top 10 finishes. From 2012 to 2015, he finished no worse than third, including back-to-back wins in 2014 and 2015. Last year he faded to an eighth place run. I think he contends again in his No. 18 Toyota this weekend.
This is a slippery slope to put Hamlin in the favorites category, but isn’t Fontana a track that owes him? On race morning in 2014, he had a developing eye condition that caused him to miss the actual race itself that day. The year prior, he was injured in a last lap crash with Joey Logano. Since 2009, Hamlin has had just two total top 10 finishes on the 2-mile, D-shaped track. But, one of those was a third place run in his No. 11 Toyota two years ago. I think Toyota’s will be fast again this weekend and Hamlin will shine.
Plus, Hamlin has finished fourth or better in three of the four races to start this season off. He’s due for a win and that could come Sunday.
Hamlin, was sixth in practice on Friday.
It’s been a while since Logano last went to victory lane, but that could end this weekend. Logano, has seen some of his speed go away the last few weeks, but I think the race contending pace comes back this weekend. Since he’s joined Team Penske, Logano has finishes of third, 39th, seventh, fourth and fifth respectively at Fontana. His Penske teammate of Brad Keselowski has finishes of first, ninth and second respectively since 2015.
I put Logano and his No. 22 Ford on notice for a good run on Sunday.
2018 has been a very good start for Bowyer. He has two top six finishes in four races. The speed is there. That was evident with his third place run on the 1.5-mile track in Atlanta. With Fontana being a horsepower track, and Stewart-Haas Racing clearly having the most in the Cup Series garage so far this season, I look for Bowyer to contend on Sunday. He’s coming off of a sixth place finish last week in Phoenix and a third place run last year in Fontana. I like his No. 14 Ford.
In practice so far, the only one quicker than Bowyer was Harvick.
Lets keep the SHR theme going. Almirola has done more in his No. 10 Ford in four races than Danica Patrick did in four years. He was a 1/2 lap away from winning the season opening Daytona 500. He’d finish 11th instead. He backed that up with scoring stage points in both stages in Atlanta and finishing 13th. In Vegas, he came home 10th. Last week, he brought his car home seventh.
With Ford being the preferred engine so far this year and Fontana racing the way it does, I like SHR to contend this weekend. That makes Almirola a solid sleeper.
Erik Jones (+2000) –
The last three weeks have seen Erik Jones quietly move into a contender to win at some point this season. The second year driver is on the cusp following an 11th place finish in Atlanta, eighth in Vegas and ninth in Phoenix. What better track to win at than Fontana? He came home 12th as a rookie last year on the Cup side and fourth in XFINITY Series competition. He was also third at Fontana’s sister track in Michigan last August. I think his No. 20 Toyota will run up front again on Sunday.
Like Jones, a second year driver with JGR is also looking for his first career Cup win. Fontana is also a good spot it could happen for him. The Mexican driver finished seventh in his No. 19 Toyota a year ago as a rookie starter. Imagine what he can do with another year under his belt. He was eighth last weekend in Phoenix and I think that translates well over on Sunday.
The “Rocket” is due for another win. Fontana is a spot he can do so at. Chevy may be at a disadvantage so far this year, they have won both races as well as both poles at Fontana the last two years. Plus, Newman is pretty good there. Since 2010, Newman has five top 10 finishes in eight tries. In fact, during that same time frame, he has just one finish outside of the top 15.
In four starts this season, he’s been quietly getting the job done. His worst finish was at Atlanta, a place where he was the only Chevy driver to lead. He’d come home 22nd. At Daytona, Vegas and Phoenix, he’d bring his No. 31 Chevrolet home eighth, 11th and 11th respectively.
Watch out for him flying under the radar again this weekend.
Jimmie Johnson (+2000) –
Stats show that this weekend may be the time for old seven time to come out of his funk. But, I’m wary about that. While Johnson may have 12 top 10 finishes in his last 15 Fontana starts, nine of which in the top three, I don’t think he’s ready to get even a top 10 on Sunday.
Last year, he spun in practice and started the race at Fontana in the back. He’d finish 21st. This year, he seems the same. He wrecked three times at Daytona, spun all by himself at Atlanta and was off the pace the last two weeks again.
In Atlanta, he was three laps down at the finish in 27th. In Vegas, he was one lap down and 12th. Last weekend in Phoenix was his first race that he’s finished on the lead lap as he came home 14th.
But, in the first three races of the year, he’s either crashed out or been at least one lap down by time the first stage was done.
Plus, if you go back to his last 32 races as a whole, Johnson has scored only two total top five finishes. Those both came at Dover, a one mile track. He has 10 straight finishes outside of the top 10.
With Fontana being a horsepower track, I don’t think the No. 48 Chevrolet has it in them.
William Byron (+8000) –
While the rookie led his first laps last weekend in Phoenix and scored a career best 12th place finish, I don’t think he’s ready for the low downforce high speed track like Fontana yet. He did finish fifth in the XFINITY Series race last March, I just don’t see the No. 24 Chevrolet contending for the win this weekend. He has one finish inside the top 15 all year.
Kurt Busch (+3300) –
It’s hard to not put him on a favorites or sleeper list this weekend, especially with being a SHR Ford driver, but Busch has struggled in Fontana lately. He was 30th in 2016 and 24th last year. Mix that with a up and down year so far, trends show he will have another bad finish.
At Daytona, he crashed in the end and finished 26th. The next week in Atlanta, he was stellar and came home eighth. The next week on his hometrack in Vegas, he crashed and finished 35th. Last week in Phoenix, he rebounded and finished 10th. The trend shows another wreck in coming on Sunday. His past Fontana stats say so too.
Jamie McMurray (+8000) –
I just don’t like where Chip Ganassi Racing is at right now. I know I have Larson as a favorite, but that’s only because of his past history at Fontana and Michigan. I can’t discount that. But, as a whole, they seem to be missing something. I mean Larson spun out all by himself at Phoenix for crying out loud. McMurray, well he’s been worse.
In four races to start 2018, McMurray has yet to crack the top 15. His finishes are 16th, 19th, 36th and 26th respectively. He does have three top 10 finishes in his last four Fontana starts, I just don’t think a fourth is on the horizon. In fact, if you span out to the bigger picture, those three recent top 10 finishes for McMurray are the only ones he’s had at Fontana since 2006. He’s led 16 laps since his rookie start there in 2003.