Auto Club 400 Preview – Picks to Win the Race

Race: Auto Club 400
Date: Sunday March 18, 2018
Track: Auto Club Speedway
Time: 3:30 pm ET

by Virginia Vroom, NASCAR Handicapper,

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Talk about domination! Kevin Harvick swept another race, making it three wins in a row by winning at Phoenix this past weekend. The win was predicted, as this is Harvicks now 9th win and a record at this track. The interesting thing about this weekend is that it wasn’t a runaway win for him, much like it was at Atlanta and Vegas. In fact, Harvick suffered a loss of car chief due to infractions resulting from a right rear side skirt extension as well as problems with the roof braces on his car. Cheating? Who knows? It seems a little Chad Knaus-y to me, but who am I? Regardless, Harvick didnt lead the pack until later in the race, only leading a total of 38 laps.

Kyle Busch was probably pretty upset with a second place finish, as he clearly led the most laps with a total of 128. Between Busch and Kyle Larson, who led a total of 54 laps, Harvick certainly wasnt the most dominant car on the track. Unfortunately for those two drivers, it only matters who crosses the line on the last lap. Honestly, Kyle Busch shouldve won the race if it was based on the drivers. For him, his pit crew made a mistake of dropping the jack too soon on the left side of the car. This essentially cost him the race as he lost more than 3 seconds just on pit road. There were other faults noted after the race. A multitude of drivers to include Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were all found to have a lug nut that was not secure. It will be interesting to see if any additional penalties are added this week, as the rumors of potential cheating surround the Harvick camp. I’d like to think they’re just outracing everyone, but the penalties from last week leave a sour taste in my mouth for the integrity of teams.

This weekend, the drivers and teams are heading to Fontana where they will battle it out at a much larger track known as Auto Club Speedway. This track is an asphalt 2-mile D-shaped oval. It boasts pretty mild banking with only 14 degrees in the turns, 11 degrees on the front stretch, and 3 degrees on the backstretch. While we are limited in our length of green flag runs because of the segmented racing, Auto Club tends to provide long stretches of green flag racing with the leader pulling away from the rest of the field and putting cars down at a steady pace. As with any amount of large green flag runs on a track like this, tires are obviously a large consideration here. Teams will be focusing on the wear as the drivers put a lot of miles and heat into the tires on these extended stretches of racing.

Of course, looking at the odds, Kevin Harvick is the obvious favorite. Not to discount his abilities, but with his lack of domination at Phoenix, I dont think that he is as strong as some other guys heading into Fontana. In fact, I don’t even think that the current best active driver (Jimmie Johnson) has much of a shot. Although his stats are beyond impressive, it seems like the switchover for the Chevy drivers to this Camaro package is going to take some getting used to. It’s abundantly clear that there are gaps in the program when compared to other teams. It’s nothing to worry about and likely just growing pains as this new car finds its place in the field. When were looking at winners this weekend, I think that we need to look at how these guys are presently running. With that, lets take a look at your projected winners heading into Fontana:

My Pick to Win: Martin Truex Jr.
Middle of the Road Pick: Chase Elliott
Dark Horse Prediction: Erik Jones

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Erik Jones is a solid rookie driver. Hes consistently in the top 10, coming off a 9th place finish at Phoenix. This guy is getting better and better and seems to handle the intermediate tracks well. Chase Elliott is continuing to come into his own. He’s an impressive driver on these 2-mile tracks and is looking for that elusive first win. The Auto Club 400 is a place he can do it. Elliott finished 3rd at Phoenix and is another driver continually driving through the field. Overall, though, Martin Truex Jr. is going to be the one to watch. He finished 5th at Phoenix and had a knack for these tracks as well. Truex Jr. is only 12 points behind Harvick along with Kyle Busch. Those guys are hot on his tail and are looking for some wins this season.

Here are your current top 16 after last week’s race:

1. Kevin Harvick
2. Kyle Busch
3. Martin Truex Jr.
4. Joey Logano
5. Ryan Blaney
6. Denny Hamlin
7. Brad Keselowski
8. Kyle Larson
9. Clint Bowyer
10. Aric Almirola
11. Kurt Busch
12. Austin Dillon
13. Ryan Newman
14. Paul Menard
15. Erik Jones
16. Chase Elliott

As you can see, both Jones and Elliott have some catching up to do. They will be looking for both the win and those stage points this weekend along with everyone else. Fontana is scheduled to be a little colder than usual too. That should play a touch into strategy and make the tire situation interesting. With cooler temps, the track wont have the same conditions that the drivers are used to. Perhaps some teams can use this to their advantage? Maybe tire wear wont be such a factor? I guess we will have to wait and see. Stay tuned for a great afternoon of racing at the beautiful Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California!