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AutoZone Inc. (AZO - 337.86) steps up to the earnings plate ahead of tomorrow's bell, when the firm will announce its fiscal first-quarter results. The Tennessee-based car concern has a history of besting expectations, and this time around, analysts are predicting a profit of $4.44 per share.

AZO is having an impressive run on the charts in 2011. The stock is sitting on a healthy 21% year-to-date gain, and has added 2.3% in today's session. In addition, the security continues to find solid support atop its ascending 80-day moving average.

AZO price chart

Despite AZO's strong technicals, sentiment toward the stock remains relatively bearish. Zacks reports that 12 out of 19 analysts maintain a "hold" toward the stock. Also, the 12-month consensus price target -- as calculated by Thomson Reuters -- is pegged at $345.65, a slight 5% premium to Friday's closing price of $330.22.

The pessimism surrounding the equity has been carried over into the options arena, as well, where AZO's Schaeffer's put/call open interest ratio (SOIR) rests at 1.77. This ratio ranks in the 86th percentile of its annual range, showing that near-term traders are holding a more bearish bias than usual toward the security.

Furthermore, the stock's 10-day International Securities Exchange (ISE), Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), and NASDAQ OMX PHLX (PHLX) put/call volume ratio of 2.15 ranks higher than 77% of similar readings taken over the last year. In other words, speculators have been picking up puts over calls at a faster-than-usual clip during the past two weeks.

Ahead of the earnings announcement, the sentiment tide may be shifting. So far today, calls have traded at seven times their average intraday volume. Specifically, 1,225 call contracts have crossed the tape, compared to the 458 put contracts that have changed hands.

Should AZO check in with another strong earnings report, the stock could be poised to continue its upward trajectory, prompting more pessimistic players to hit the exits. In fact, with short interest accounting for 4.6% of the equity's available float, AZO could be positioned to enjoy contrarian-related gains, as short sellers begin to jump ship.

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