In This Corner: Auto Club 400 Preview (w/ Celebrity Guest Picker Mike “Loop Dogg” Forde)

If there’s a storyline to be pulled from the first four races of the 2016 season, it’s that everyone loves close finishes and competitive racing.

They’re also both very good for the sport.

When the season started with the Daytona 500, there was plenty of conjecture and prognostication taking place. There were a handful of people who correctly identified that Denny Hamlin would take home the Harley J. Earl Trophy at the end of the day (our very own John Farrell was one of those people), but no one predicted how close of a finish it would be.

Coming out of Turn 4 of the final of 200 laps, Hamlin charged forward from fourth place to edge out Martin Truex Jr. by the smallest of margins — 0.010 seconds or four inches. The margin of victory was the closest in the history of the Great American Race.

Although the entire race was awesome (20 lead changes among 15 different drivers), it was the incredibly close finish that everyone was talking about at the water coolers the following day.

As good as that finish was, we didn’t have to wait long for another nail-biter, wait-until-the-very-last-second-to-celebrate finish.

Three weeks later with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in Phoenix, fans in attendance and watching at home were given another finish for the ages. The scenario was almost identical to Daytona’s finish, only the players were different.

As the field sped toward the checkered flag, Carl Edwards (on the inside) raced door-to-door with Kevin Harvick. The two cars were neck-and-neck as they crossed the finish line. The broadcasters and fans couldn’t tell who had the advantage, but NASCAR’s scoring had Harvick’s No. 4 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS 0.010 seconds out front of Edwards’ No. 19 Stanley Toyota Camry.

For the second time in four weeks, the NASCAR drivers treated everyone with a great show and an even better finish.

If this is what we can expect every weekend, or even every other weekend, we are in for a treat this season!

In regards to “In This Corner,” our celebrity guest picker (NASCAR’s first officially licensed artist Sam Bass) pulled a win out for the guests and gave the guests their first point of the season.

With a track-record seven Phoenix wins already going into last week, it made sense that Sam would pick Harvick as one of his three choices. As a matter of fact, both John and Alex Pohlman also picked the No. 4 driver, and who could blame them.

(Side note: At least one of our “expert” pickers have correctly identified the race winner each week. John at Daytona and Atlanta, Alex at Las Vegas and all three at Phoenix.)

Sam also had Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished fifth. His combined finishing position was eight.

John finished second with 18 points: Harvick, Kurt Busch (sixth) and Jimmie Johnson (11th). The three drivers Alex picked were Harvick, Earnhardt and Brad Keselowski (29th) for 35 total points.

With no clear-cut favorite like Harvick at Phoenix, this week’s picks should be interesting as #NASCARGoesWest for the third time in as many weeks. This week, they in Southern California at Auto Club Speedway for the Auto Club 400.

If this is your first time reading our “In This Corner” weekly column, we’ll explain how it works. The 2016 season marks the second year our “expert” prognosticators, Alex Pohlman and John Farrell, will choose who they think will win the upcoming race. (They’re only experts in their own heads.)

Every week last season, Alex and John picked one driver they thought would win that weekend’s race. Alex based her picks more on guts, while John based his picks solely on stats. The weekly winner between the two of them was the one who chose the driver who finished better in the race. For every weekly win, they received a point. In the end, Alex beat John 14-10. (It wasn’t a full season as they began with the May Dover race.)

This year, “In This Corner” is similar, but with some new twists thrown in to make it more challenging and entertaining. Joining Alex and John each week will be a different guest prognosticator. In addition, instead of selecting one possible winner, each oracle will pick three drivers they think have the best shot at ending up in Victory Lane.

Whoever selects the three drivers with the lowest accumulated finishing position will receive the point for that weekend. For example, if Alex picks the race winner and the 20th- and 30th-place finishers, but John picks the 10th-, 15th- and 20th-place winners, John would get that week’s point (depending on who the celebrity guest picker selects) because his drivers’ accumulated finishing position total (45) was lower than Alex’s (51).

The celebrity guest forecaster can choose whichever three drivers he or she wants regardless of who Alex or John select. However, Alex and John can only have one pick in common.

We will keep a running tally between Alex, John and the guests every week. At the end of the season, the prognosticator with the most points will be crowned the victor.

Our guest prognosticator for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 in Southern California is the one and only Mike Forde or “Loop Dogg.” Forde is Senior Manager, Content Communications for NASCAR. In this role, he manages all content distributed from NASCAR’s Integrated Marketing Communications department — including statistics. Nicknamed “Loop Doog” for his love of NASCAR’s loop data statistics, Forde appears on a weekly segment on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio to discuss his fantasy picks for the upcoming race weekend.

MIKE’S PICKS

IMC2016

1. Kyle Busch: He missed last year’s race because of a broken leg — and that was good news for the rest of the field. He’s won each of his last two ACS starts, and finished in the top three in each of his last four starts.

2. Jimmie Johnson: His recent finishes might scare you off a bit (average finish of 13.8 in last four races), but his driver ratings have been phenomenal. That typically means: Bad luck. That luck will turn this weekend.

3. Kevin Harvick: You have to ride the hot hand. He has the momentum after winning Phoenix, and has finished in the top five in three of the last five Auto Club Speedway races (including a runner-up last year).

ALEX’S PICKS

InThisCorner-Alex1. Kyle Busch: Kyle is still looking for his first win of the 2016 season and after winning the past two weekends in the XFINITY Series, I think this weekend might be the weekend he takes the checkered home.

2. Carl Edwards: After an exciting finish to last weekend’s duel in the desert, I think Carl will be on the move to win his first race of the season.

3. Jimmie Johnson: Although he crashed in qualifying last week and had to go to a back-up car, Jimmie still ended up at the front and this weekend be sure to look for the 48 charging for the front.

JOHN’S PICKS

InThisCorner-John1. Matt Kenseth: Although Matt hasn’t finished as well as he would have liked so far this season, he has four things going for him this weekend: 1) he’s already won three times at ACS; 2) he is one of only three drivers with an average driver rating north of 100.0 at the track; 3) the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing have looked really good through the first four weeks; and 4) he’s due to win a race or at least finish in the top three.

2. Kyle Busch: You never can discount Kyle Busch, especially when he’s opened the season with a pair of third-place and a pair of fourth-place finishes; expect more of the same from him in Southern California.

3. Austin DillonAustin is probably my biggest dark-horse candidate so far in 2016, but he’s been awfully good in 2016, and it might just be time to see the No. 3 Chevrolet celebrate again in Victory Lane.

GUESTS – 1; ALEX – 1; JOHN – 2

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