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NASCAR Fontana preview: High-speed, slick track challenges drivers

Auto Club Speedway offers drivers a complex challenge with its multiple grooves and a surface that’s worn and bumpy.

A large videoboard stationed at the end of Auto Club Speedway's frontstretch flashes a driver's speed as they barrel into Turn 1, and with the Southern California track among NASCAR's fastest, the speeds displayed are often in excess of 200 mph.

The board isn't just used by fans, though. Drivers will use it to gauge their performance lap-to-lap and whether they are carrying as much speed as thought. And that can present a bit of a distraction.

"It's neat, but I wish they did something so we couldn't watch it because every time I come down I'm like, ‘Oh what do I got? What do I got?'" Carl Edwards said.

Any distractions while behind the wheel are bad, but especially so on a multi-groove track that offers drivers a bevy of options on how to determine their corner entry.

"You get to work here. You get to actually use the skills that you have as a race car driver."-Carl Edwards

"You go into that corner and you're like, ‘Do I run by the fence? Do I want to go to the bottom?'" Edwards said. "I don't know about the other drivers, but it's a tough decision.

"You could write a book about a lap at this place. There's so much happening out there: where you place your tires, how you enter the corner, what the guy in front of you is doing. All of those things add up to a lot different balance. ... It's a little bit unpredictable, it's definitely tough and to me that's part of the fun."

That there are myriad ways to navigate the 2-mile track is among the reasons why the speedway annually plays host to some of the best racing of the year. Some drivers will run at the very bottom, even dropping onto the apron; others will stay as close to the outside wall as possible, even if it means an occasional brush against the energy-absorbent barriers. And many will choose the wide middle portion, often resulting in drivers fanning out three- and four-wide through the turns.

"You've got to put yourself into the mindset of doing stuff that you don't normally want to do," said pole-sitter Austin Dillon. "It makes you a little uncomfortable. It definitely makes you go up there and try some different things that you don't get to do every weekend at every race track."

Said Edwards: "You get to work here. You get to actually use the skills that you have as a race car driver."

Another wrinkle comes in the form of ACS's aged asphalt that's still original to when the track first opened in 1997. Weathered and featuring numerous bumps, the surface causes significant tire wear, forcing drivers to find a balance between being fast for a single lap versus being consistently strong over a long green flag run.

In recent years, being fast over a short duration has proven to be the winning strategy. Last year, Brad Keselowski took advantage of a restart with two laps remaining to surge into the lead on the final lap -- it was the only circuit he led all afternoon. A similar sequence unfolded the year prior when a restart with two laps go closed the field, allowing Kyle Busch to pass older brother Kurt on the white flag lap.

"I think you're gonna see that short-run, long-run balance," Keselowski said. "The guys that are good on the short-run will have a huge advantage if there's a yellow at the end, and there's a pretty big discrepancy between what it takes to run good here on the short-run and a long-run."

As if ACS didn't provide enough of a challenge, a low downforce aerodynamic rules package only adds to the degree of difficulty drivers will face Sunday.

Implemented at the beginning of the season to create additional passing opportunities by making cars hard to control and on the verge of jumping sideways, the package has been met with near universal praise. It produced better than average races in each of the three races used thus far (the season-opening Daytona 500 utilizes a restrictor-plate package) and drivers have been eagerly awaiting running the low downforce configuration at ACS.

"This is the race we've all been looking forward to the most just because of the fact that you have some high speeds and lots of racing lanes and the cars are going to slide all over the place," Kevin Harvick said. "It's going to be a fun [race]."