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Thursday, February 18, 2010
Fontana preview: Johnson top bet, is McMurray for real?

By Mark Garrow
Jayski.com

The new ESPN Stock Car Challenge, in conjunction with Jayski.com, got off to a great start in its Daytona debut. 28Rolando smoked the competition by scoring 816 points, correctly picking the top three drivers (Jamie McMurray, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle) and adding two other top-10 finishers with Juan Pablo Montoya and Matt Kenseth.

As for The Guru, I stumbled in with 659 points. In my Daytona 500 preview last week, I gave you Clint Bowyer (fourth) and Jamie McMurray (first) as two solid, dark-horse picks, yet I refused to use my own advice and neither wound up on my team. Once again, a restrictor-plate race turns The Guru into a Goober.

Undaunted, I'm ready to give it a go again for Sunday's race in Fontana, Calif.

GROUP A

Picking out three drivers from Group A will not be easy, as all 15 guys in that group are capable of running in the top 10. However, when looking at the stats for the Auto Club Speedway, Jimmie Johnson jumps out.

The Lowe's Chevrolet driver has conquered the two-mile track four times, including the past three fall races in a row. Add in four runner-ups in his 14 starts, and it's easy to see why Johnson's average finish is a minuscule 5.8 and he's averaging over 161 points a race. If the car is halfway right, JJ will take it to the front.

As a group, Roush Fenway Racing could be in for a big day, especially Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth. This could be the place where Edwards has the chance to do a long-awaited backflip in Victory Lane. After all, Edwards has won at Fontana before, and in 11 starts has only one run outside the top-seven. He's bopping along in California with a 6.6 average finish, but in the past five races, he's averaging 4.4. Edwards has been worth over 153 points an outing.

As for Kenseth, he scooted home 13th at Fontana last fall. But in the previous eight Cup races, he had three wins, including this event a year ago, with five top-5 and eight top-10 finishes. He's also led laps in seven of his past 10 outings in California. Overall, he has been banking more than 148 points per visit to southern California.

Jeff Gordon might be of some help, even as he comes off a total disaster at Daytona. He's won three times at Fontana, although his last victory was in 2004; still, in the past six races, the DuPont Chevy driver has been the runner-up four times.

Also keep an eye on Kyle Busch. He grabbed his first Cup win here in 2005, and while he hasn't been in Victory Lane since then, he had reeled off seven consecutive top-10 runs before finishing 24th last fall.

Looking for dark horse so your "A team" can go on a road less traveled? What about Greg Biffle? He was fourth in this race a year ago and the runner-up in fall 2008. In the past three races at Fontana, "The Bif" has scored the fifth-highest number of points.

I also like the way Juan Pablo Montoya in trending at Fontana. In 2008, the Colombian driver put together a pair of 20th-place finishes, but in 2009 Montoya was 11th in the first go-round and third last fall. He's also scored the sixth-most points over the past three races in southern California.

Some others in Group A to keep an eye on include Tony Stewart, who finished eighth and fifth at Fontana in 2009, and Mark Martin, who was 40th a year ago but rolled home fourth in the fall.

GROUP B

Three of the four drivers I selected as the top picks last week from this group hardly acted as "B" boys. Jamie McMurray won the 500, Dale Jr. was the runner-up and Kevin Harvick finished seventh, leading the most laps (41) in the process. The other competitor I picked out was Elliott Sadler, who finished 24th but also led the race four times.

What about those four this week?

We're about to find out if McMurray is for real after his Daytona 500 victory. In his first tour of duty for team owner Chip Ganassi (2003-05), he had three top-5 and four top-10 finishes in five Fontana starts.

Dale Jr.'s past four Fontana starts have resulted in three really ugly finishes of 25th or worse. However, he had a runner-up run in 2005, and we're about to find out how preparing his cars like Mark Martin's over the winter will pay off.

Harvick was 38th in this race a year ago, but he came back in the fall to finish 10th. In 2008, the California native finished eighth and fourth. In 2007, a week after winning the Daytona 500, Harvick had a second victory all but wrapped up when one of his tires went flat under yellow with only a handful of laps left.

As for Sadler, you might have forgotten that he won at Fontana in 2004, but he has only one other top-10 run in 17 starts, with an average finish of 23-plus. So I won't be singing his praises as I did at Daytona.

But who else needs to be on the radar screen from Group B? How about Roush Fenway's David Ragan? His stats aren't sexy, with only one top-10 in six starts, but his average finish is just a tick over 13 and he's scoring an average of 125 points per race at California.

Like Ragan, David Reutimann has been basically a 13th-place car in his past three tries at the Auto Club Speedway. I think you also have to keep his new Michael Waltrip Racing teammate on your radar. Martin Truex Jr.'s past three Fontana races haven't been pretty, but he did put together back-to-back sixth-place finishes in 2007 and 2008.

Another guy to keep an eye on is Jeff Burton. He'll be the first to tell you he's been junk at California the past two seasons. However, with the way RCR was performing at the end of last season, he feels they had made up a lot of lost ground. His CAT Chevy team could be in good shape, as they were in Fontana back in 2007 when Burton finished fourth in both races.

Remember, if you'd like to challenge me every week, join my league, Jayski Junkies, and follow me on Twitter at @GuruGarrow!