The NASCAR Cup Series stays on the West Coast this weekend for a trip to Auto Club Speedway. Sunday's Auto Club 400 is the first race of the year at a two-mile oval, but unlike its sister track, Michigan International Speedway, Auto Club's older surface leads to some of the most aggressive tire wear drivers will deal with all year.
Track position and clean air remains important, and we are going to see some wild restarts as drivers take full advantage of Auto Club's wide surface. However, the tire wear also allows drivers with long-run speed to move towards the front, and when setting my season-long fantasy lineups this weekend, I made sure to pay close attention to the practice sheets.
For my Fantasy Live roster, I used a combination of drivers starting up towards the front and drivers who showed the best speed during Friday's practice sessions. Stage points are crucial in this scoring system, and I loaded up on drivers who I feel will have the strongest cars. I don't think this is the track to roll the dice on sleepers. I used a similar strategy in the Driver Group Game.
After being somewhat limited with our options in the Slingshot game last weekend because the field was set by owner points, there are plenty of avenues to explore Sunday at Auto Club. Yes, Martin Truex Jr. is going to be close to 100 percent owned, but there are several other strong options who are also starting deeper in the field. I think this is a week to be aggressive with your pursuit of place differential points. You should be able to post a big point total.
NASCAR.com Fantasy Live
It's been a slow start to the year for Busch, but I expect him to break out in a big way Sunday. He didn't have a great qualifying effort, but he showed good long-run speed in practice. Busch also led a race-high 134 laps in his win at Auto Club last year, sweeping both stages. He has six finishes of third or better in his last eight starts here, winning three times.
Fresh off his win at Las Vegas, Logano's practice times Friday suggest that another victory could be on tap Sunday. Nobody led more laps at two-mile ovals in 2019 than Logano, and he was the runner-up at Auto Club, finishing second and fourth in the two stages. Logano actually has four straight Top 5s here, and starting inside the Top 10, I think he at least extends that streak this weekend.
I had Martin Truex Jr. penciled into this spot, but now that he has to start dead last after failing qualifying inspection, I'm worried he won't pile up a lot of points in Stage 1. Instead, I'll turn to Johnson. He qualified on the front row, and he is a six-time winner at Auto Club for his career. After the speed he showed at Las Vegas last weekend, the seven-time champ may be able to turn back the clock Sunday.
Blaney has been strong at the two-mile ovals since joining Team Penske, logging five Top 10s in six starts and finishing eighth and fifth in two starts at Auto Club. He also finished ninth and third in last year's race here. Blaney lit up the practice charts on short and long runs Friday, and he should at least be able to replicate his solid performance from a year ago.
A couple of 10th-place finishes at Michigan last year are his most noticeable performances at two-mile ovals to date, but Bowman appears to have himself a rocket ship to work with this weekend. After topping the charts in both practices, he qualified fourth. I'm expecting double-digit stage points out of Bowman, and it wouldn't shock me to see him end up in victory lane.
Garage Driver – Kurt Busch
Busch isn't known as a guy who piles up stage points, but the two-mile tracks have been some of his best, and he appears to have one of the strongest cars this weekend. Starting third, I wouldn’t be surprised if he secures a decent amount of stage points and challenges for a Top 5. Worst-case scenario, he should challenge for a Top 10 and provide a serviceable score if something happens to one of my starters.
Fantasy Racing Cheat Sheet Driver Group Game
Kyle Busch (A)
While he had a forgettable showing at Las Vegas last weekend, Busch has owned Auto Club over the years, and he showed plenty of long speed in practice. He is also the defending winner of this weekend's race, and he has finished third or better in six of his last eight starts at the track, winning three times in that span. Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick are my other top plays in this tier.
Alex Bowman (B)
I had Ryan Blaney penciled in for this spot coming into the weekend, but Bowman had absolutely dominated the practice sheets this weekend, and he qualified up in the Top 5. Bowman looks like one of the cars to beat Sunday, and stage points seems likely. I still think Blaney is a great play, and Stewart-Haas Racing drivers Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola are a couple of other intriguing options.
Kurt Busch (B)
While he might not be considered an elite option in this tier, Busch knows how to get around the two-mile tracks, and he showed plenty of muscle during Friday's practices before qualifying third. He has eight Top 15s in his last 10 starts at two-mile ovals, including four finishes of sixth or better in his last five starts. I love his high floor, but he also offers legitimate stage point upside. If you are looking for a potential sleeper, Matt DiBenedetto is worth a look.
Ross Chastain (C)
Yes, his race unraveled at Las Vegas, but as long as he is driving the No. 6 machine, I think Chastain has the highest ceiling of any of the Group C options. With no clear timetable on a return for Ryan Newman, I want to make sure I take advantage of Chastain's elevated value while I have the chance. If you aren't feeling Chastain, I love Tyler Reddick as an alternative.
Fantasy Racing Online Slingshot Fantasy Auto
Martin Truex Jr. ($12,200)
This is an absolute chalk play, but Truex is starting dead last after failing pre-qualifying inspection three times. Not only does he have maximum upside in the place differential category, but he has also been stout at the two-mile ovals. He has scored the second-most points of any driver over the last 10 races, and he has a 4.3 average finish in his last three starts at Auto Club.
Denny Hamlin ($11,800)
Yes, this is another chalk play, but after he qualified way back in 28th, I have a hard time passing up Hamlin. Granted, his practice times didn't jump off the page, but Hamlin is the type of driver who challenges for a Top 10 on a bad day and is always capable of delivering a Top 5.
Austin Dillon ($9,000)
I thought a long time about Erik Jones for this spot, but I opted for Dillon and some added cap space. Plus, Richard Childress Racing has typically run well at two-mile ovals, and Dillon has a 13.8 average finish in the last 10 races, finishing 11th or better in all three starts at Auto Club in that span. Starting back in 25th, he should be able to lean on the differential category to post a solid point total.
Ross Chastain ($8,300)
Chastain qualified back in 27th, but he ranked inside the Top 15 in both practices Friday. Worst-case scenario, I think he should be able to sneak into the Top 20 and log double-digit bonus points in the differential category.
Tyler Reddick ($7,500)
The main reason I went with Dillon over Jones was to be able to afford Reddick as my No. 5 driver instead of John Hunter Nemechek. Like Dillon, he should benefit from RCR's success at the two-mile ovals, and his practice times support that theory. He ranked third and 14th in the two sessions, and he posted the eighth-best 10-lap average speed in Happy Hour. It's a bit of an aggressive call, but from the 19th spot, I like Reddick's upside at this price.