Fantasy NASCAR picks: Auto Club 400 preview

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nascar/sprint/drivers/213/" data-ylk="slk:Jimmie Johnson">Jimmie Johnson</a> (Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson (Getty Images)

Fantasy NASCAR picks: Auto Club 400 preview

Special to Yahoo Sports
By Dan Beaver

Tracks that host only one race per year can be difficult to handicap. A lot can change from one season to the next in terms of driver momentum, rules’ packages, and the wear patterns on the track. Since 2011, NASCAR has visited Auto Club Speedway only once per year.

Fortunately, that matters less on this two-miler than on any other track type. Auto Club was built from the same blueprint as Michigan International Speedway, only with four fewer degrees of banking. Weather conditions have changed both tracks over the years, but the drivers who run well on one consistently do so on the other.

Last year, five drivers swept the top 10 on the sister tracks. Several others scored results in the teens in all three races. That same pattern is seen in the 20s and 30s. Players should look to last year’s Michigan race as a starting spot for the Auto Club 400.

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Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Penske Racing Ford, Yahoo! Group A

Along with his teammate Joey Logano, Keselowski has the longest active streak of top-10s on two-mile tracks. Dating back to a third-place finish in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan, he has been almost perfect on this track type. He won at Auto Club in 2015 and swept the top five on the sister track. A player might also chose to take the straight Penske ticket this week because the stats on the No. 22 are almost identical.

Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Yahoo! Group A

Johnson did not turn many heads last week in Phoenix International Raceway, but he finally earned his first top-10. He was only the fourth-best value in Yahoo’s Group A. His 74 points for the Camping World 500K was less than what four B and two C drivers earned, but the effort was important nonetheless. It eased him into the top 16 in points and should have helped restore some of this team’s confidence.

Chase Elliott, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Yahoo! Group B

Readers who have already taken a look at this week’s cheat sheets know Elliott is one of the top picks. Predicting an outright winner in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is almost impossible because of all the variables that go into getting a position to contend late in a race, but the two-milers are quite a bit more forgiving than short, flat tracks with their tight corners. He is still seeking his first win at the senior level, but Elliott came within one position of winning both of Michigan’s races last year. He finished sixth in the Auto Club 400 while he was still incredibly inexperienced.

Kyle Larson, No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, Yahoo! Group B

As incredible as this seems, Larson is still the only driver who has earned maximum Yahoo points at his level in more than one race. He was the top earner at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Group B and had the second-most points last week at Phoenix. Fantasy players had a glimpse of the future last summer at Michigan. Elliott and Larson put on a spirited battle for the win and the No. 42 came out ahead. Larson crashed early in last year’s Auto Club 400, but he has success on this track. He finished second in his rookie attempt in 2014.

Ryan Blaney, No. 21 Wood Bros Ford, Yahoo! Group B

Strategic alliances have long been a part of NASCAR, but they have not always born a lot of fruit. Last year, that changed in the Toyota camp as Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row was equal to the Gibbs’ guys. This year, the same thing is happening with the Wood Bros. and the Penske pals. Blaney has been on par with them for most of the season. His lack of experience has affected the final rundown on a couple of occasions, but he has spent more time in the top 10 than the majority of his competitors.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 17 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford, Yahoo! Group B

Roush-Fenway Racing is one of the most improved organizations in the field. Scaling back to two cars has helped focus their resources, but the real benefit seems to be that is has allowed the two young Roushketeers to have a more prominent role within the organization. Intangibles are a big part of this sport, and the confidence with which Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne are interacting with the media is one of those factors that signal their strength. Last week’s fourth-place for the No. 17 finish at Phoenix certainly didn’t hurt either.

Erik Jones, No. 77 Furniture Row Toyota, Yahoo! Group C

At Atlanta and Las Vegas, Jones spent enough time in the top 10 to rank among the 10 best. He was shuffled back into the top 15 in both of those races. Last week, he was among the leaders for about 250 laps, which was the sixth-best in the field. This time, he surged after the final caution waved and earned his first career top-10. More will certainly follow and Jones seems to be equally comfortable on unrestricted, intermediate speedways as he is on short, flat tracks.

Daniel Suarez, No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Yahoo! Group C

Last week was a great one for the rookies. Suarez finished one spot ahead of Jones in seventh and also earned his first career top-10. Unlike his freshman classmate, Suarez did not show any dominance along the way. The two laps he logged among the top 10 at the end of the race were his only circuits among the leaders in his last three attempts. This team has a stellar record on two-mile tracks and the No. 19 has a great baseline that was set by Carl Edwards, but a top-15 is far more likely in the Auto Club 400.

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