NASCAR Preview: Auto Club 500

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After the fanfare of the Daytona 500 the long, hard and even occasionally boring slog to the NASCAR Sprint Cup title begins this week.

From the curtain raiser over looking the Atlantic the series ups sticks are drives clear across the US for the first of its two races at Auto Club Speedway in California, the rather uninventively sponsored Auto Club 500.

“When you get to Fontana, it's exciting,” explains A.J. Allmendinger. “You get to see where your race team is, where your cars are on those two miles, those mile-and-a-halves. That's really what makes up the bulk of the season.”

Leading the Sprint Cup ranks into Fontana will be Jamie McMurray and the No.1 Earnhardt-Ganassi team by way of their surprise Daytona win. The next task for the new driver/team combo will be to emulate Matt Kenseth's feat of twelve months ago and take the first two races back-to-back.

And while McMurray may be low down on the list of favourites, the driver himself believes it's something he could achieve.

“[Fontana's] honestly a really good track for me, I think average finish-wise it's been one of my best tracks,” says the Missouri native who has a 16.4 average finish from 13 starts despite finishing the corresponding race last year in a lowly 36th place.

This year McMurray sees Fontana in a Chevrolet for the first time and with a new weapon.

Juan Pablo Montoya.

McMurray will start the weekend with the same set-up that Montoya and the No.42 team ran at the track last year, a set-up which saw the Columbian finish third in last year's February race and eleventh in the October event.

The list of favourites, with the return to more 'standard' tracks, sees many of the most familiar names in NASCAR clustered back around the top.

Jimmie Johnson dominates many of the statistics collected by NASCAR. The California native has an average finish of just under fifth at the track, including a win in the most recent race at the track as part of last year's season ending Chase. The Hendrick driver also tops the lists for average start position, number of laps led and, perhaps most tellingly, the total number of points accrued on the two-mile track.

With those facts in mind it may be slightly surprising that Fontana is considered something of a Roush Ford stronghold. However, the blue ovals flagship team have won the last five February races at the track.

Whether Roush can continue that run is up for debate. The team that shed McMurray in the off season faded from the front of the pack last year, and with the idiosyncrasies of Restrictor Plate racing the top ten finishes of Kenseth, Biffle and Carl Edwards at Daytona should not be considered a renaissance yet.

However, the Ford form throws another driver into the mix for victory – Kasey Kahne.

The driver, who moved from Dodge along with Richard Petty Motorsports in the winter is one of NASCAR's best on the intermediate tracks, with nine of his eleven career wins coming at them, though only one is at Fontana itself.

Maybe his move to Ford could add a second.

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