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FANTASY: California Love

Thursday, March 22, 2012
I wasn't far from this start/finish line when Kenseth crossed it in 2009. Photo: Getty Images

Do you remember your first race?  Nevermind...stupid question.

Statistics show that NASCAR fans are 76.8% more likely to recall who won the first race they attended than they are to remember their mother's first name.  If you took my word on that stat, then let me also tell you that research shows 28.7% of people make up percentages on the spot.  (...Wait...is he joking?)

Look, the point is this: nobody forgets their first NASCAR race, and for me that was at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

The year was all the way back in 2009.  The reigning champion was a man by the name of Jimmie Johnson, and the race winner of the Auto Club 400 that day ended up being this guy they called Matt Kenseth.  I know, I'm probably dating some fans with these references, so my apologies.  And, by "some fans," I mean those that have been born since the fall of Jimmie Johnson's reign last November.

The only other thing that was different from now was that Matt Kenseth had a different sponsor, but he changes sponsors every year, so I'm not telling you anything you didn't know.

I was a senior in college in February of 2009 and being an aspiring sports journalist, I realized that it was time to figure out why so much of our country enjoyed watching cars turn left.  It didn't take very long, as I was sitting in the third row.  By the time Jimmie Johnson pulled away from the green flag pack and blew by the nearby flag stand at a speed of 182 mph to lead after two laps, I was pretty much sold.

This was awesome!

I moved out of Southern California later that spring, so I haven't been to a race there since.  The only time I've driven by was when I took the southern route on a cross-country drive home from San Francisco to New Hampshire.  While NH Motor Speedway is my home track (and my employer), the Auto Club will always hold some place in my heart, just like a long lost elementary school love.

Then again, there are some drivers that clearly are still very much in love with the place now!  It's our job to figure out who they are and get them into our fantasy lineups.

Strategy: The two-mile D-shaped oval ranks among the largest on the series not to use restrictor plates.  This means that cars are free to go as fast as possible and that there really isn't a whole lot of slowing down the fastest ones.  Overall driving ability isn't as important as the machine under the driver.  Barring a fuel milage outcome, the best cars will finish at the top.

A-List

Start

#17 Matt Kenseth - It's not just because Kenseth won the race I attended at the Auto Club that I'm picking him; he's won two other races on this track as well.  He ranks second, albeit a distant one, to Jimmie Johnson in driver rating at ACS.

#29 Kevin Harvick - For the first four weeks, I'd give you some stat about how he only has three top-fives in 18 starts and that last year was his only win at this track.  But, that concrete thinking has led my team to the 29th percentile in Yahoo scoring.  They always say, "lead, follow or get out of the way."  Since I'm not leading, my options are limited, so I'll follow along with all those that seem to think he'll do well this weekend.

#48 Jimmie Johnson - The Southern California native might as well own his home track.  He has five wins and 12 top-fives in 17 starts here for an average finish of 5.1.  Seriously, that's so good that some critics might even question if he's following all the rules...

Park

GraniteStripe.com - When it comes to my "lead, follow or get out of the way" mantra, I'm just going to get out of the way on this one.  So far, I've encouraged parking Denny Hamlin's fourth-place at Daytona, Jimmie Johnson's fourth-place at Phoenix and Brad Keselowski's win at Bristol.  Somehow, I feel like I normally would have soapboxed about Kevin Harvick here, but I'm trying to learn my lesson.

B-List

Start

#15 Clint Bowyer - Bowyer's 10.6 average finish at California tops the B-List.  They say you gotta get while the gettin's good, and right now Bowyer and Michael Waltrip Racing are very, very good.  I know I wrote earlier this week that I expect MWR to keep it up, but I also expected Keselowski to bomb out in Bristol.  We know that right now MWR is doing very well, and that makes Bowyer a great option this weekend.

#55 Mark Martin - Sure!  Let's fire up a few more of the MWR cars, right!?...Right!  Martin has two tops-10s in three starts this season and Brian Vickers drove the same car to fifth place last week.  Martin's 100.1 driver rating at ASC is the best of the B-List, and he's the one amongst the MWR's drivers that I really don't think will routinely continue to put up top-10s.  Better use him sooner than later!

#56 Martin Truex Jr. - As is the case with the other two entries from Michael Waltrip Racing, this suggestion has more to do with momentum.  Truex Jr. has all of zero top-10s in 11 starts at this track, so you'll need to figure out whether you put more emphasis on current momentum or track history.  He's fourth in the Cup standings right now, if you need a push towards momentum (which a data head like myself definitely does).

#88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. - You want me to jinx any chance he has at winning?...I think he might have a shot at winning...Sorry, Junior Nation fans.  I don't love Junior, but I don't dislike him either, the one thing I'd like to do is have him starting when (...it might be turning into "if," at this point) he finally snaps the winless skid. He's done poorly at the Auto Club, very poorly, actually, but his last win came at a similarly sized Michigan track.  I've played by the stats and lost so far this season, so I'm going on nothing more than a hunch and recommending him.

Park

This probably would have been a good spot for one of the Junior's in the group, but I just recommended starting both of them, so I suppose I can't now tell you how their stats warrant an executive parking spot at California.

#5 Kasey Kahne - Mark my words that he's going to be the "Parker" that totally makes me look like a fool this week.  He's won at the Auto Club and has nine top-10s in 15 starts.  He's also been a severe victim of bad luck so far this year.  However, by playing him twice in four races, I've started Yahoo's worst B-list driver 50% of the time this season.  (No wonder I'm not doing well!)  I'd rather be wrong than be all gung-ho again that this is the week.  I'll have plenty more chances to use his remaining seven starts.

#51 Kurt Busch - Keep in mind what I said about it being more about equipment than driver ability.  Busch doesn't have the equipment to compete on this type of track, and it would be a small miracle if he came close to winning this weekend.

C-List

Start

#43 Aric Almirola - His Richard Petty Motorsports Ford is probably the only car on the C-List that has a chance at really competing this weekend.

#47 Bobby Labonte - Here's a rule to live by this season: when in doubt, send Labonte out.  This is the worst C-List in my four years of playing Yahoo Fantasy Auto Racing, there are very few options.  The No. 47 is one of the few choices for a respectable finish each weekend.  He's not going to excite anyone, but he's going to be one of the most consistent finishers in the C-List each week.

Park

#32 Ken Schrader - Schrader was a darkhorse recommendation on my part last week, but not this week.  Bristol gives a driver like him the chance to compete, California does not.  I'd put the odds at less than 50/50 that Schrader even qualifies this week, because I just don't think his car will be fast enough.

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The picks in this blog are based around Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game and its standard scoring rules.  The preview is designed to provide suggestions, while still encouraging managers to make their own decisions.  Once sorted into Yahoo's A, B and C-Lists, they are organized based on car number and not directly associated with a rank value.

You can sign up and play for free, by visiting http://racing.fantasysports.yahoo.com.  If signed up, the "Fans of NHMS" group may be joined by clicking here.