Dustin Long predicts the best fantasy drivers in Texas so you don't have to.
Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Lone Star state this weekend for the NRA 500 from Texas Motor Speedway. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Texas, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Matt Kenseth
Among the favorites at Texas. He’s scored five consecutive top-5 finishes at that track, including a win in April 2011. He’s led 274 laps in those five races. He won at Las Vegas — a similar 1.5-mile oval — last month. Finished seventh at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway, which crew chief says was their worst race of the year.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Points leader has nine top 5s in 19 career starts at Texas, including a win last fall there. Led 48.4 percent of the laps run in both Texas races last season. Finished sixth at Las Vegas in the only race so far on a 1.5-mile speedway this season. Coming off Martinsville victory.
3. Kasey Kahne
One of the hottest drivers on the circuit with four consecutive top-10 finishes. He placed second at Las Vegas (leading 114 laps), won at Bristol, took ninth at Auto Club Speedway and is coming off a fourth-place finish at Martinsville. Has two top 10s in his last three Texas starts.
4. Brad Keselowski
Finished second to Johnson in last fall’s race at Texas. It marked his first top-10 finish there in nine starts. Has finished worse than sixth only once this year. Placed third at Las Vegas in only race so far on a 1.5-mile speedway in 2013.
5. Clint Bowyer
Has four top-10 finishes in his last five Texas starts. Has three top-10 finishes this season but all have come on tracks 1 mile or less in length.
6. Kevin Harvick
Outside his 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500, he’s finished between ninth and 14th in every race. He’s coming off a 13th-place finish — his third such finish in six races — last weekend at Martinsville. He finished ninth in both Texas races last year.
7. Jeff Gordon
Has two top 10s in his last seven Texas starts. Car seemed to be off at Las Vegas (where he was 25th) and Auto Club Speedway (11th) earlier this season.
8. Tony Stewart
Has two top 10s in his last six Texas starts but one was a win (Nov. 2011) and the other was a fifth-place finish in last fall’s race there. Struggled at Las Vegas with a late rally allowing him to finish 11th in only race so far at 1.5-mile track this season.
Defending race winner Greg Biffle. (ASP, Inc.)
B-List Drivers 1. Greg Biffle
One of the best at Texas. He’s scored nine consecutive top-10 finishes there, including a win last April. Has started in the top four in five of the last six Texas races.
2. Kyle Busch
Has two top-10 finishes in his last seven Texas starts, both are third-place finishes (including last fall’s race there). Won five consecutive Nationwide races there from 2008-10. Is one of the series’ hottest drivers with four consecutive top-5 finishes. He was fourth at Las Vegas, second at Bristol, won at Auto Club Speedway and fifth at Martinsville. He’s led 264 laps during that run.
3. Carl Edwards
Has three top-10s in his last four Texas starts. Finished fifth at Las Vegas in only race at 1.5-mile speedway this season. Finished fourth at Auto Club Speedway, a 2-mile track where horsepower and aerodynamics are as important as they are at Texas
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Finished 24th at Martinsville, first time this season he’s been outside the top 10. His worst finish prior to that this season was a seventh at Las Vegas. Has placed in the top 10 in each of his last four Texas starts.
5. Martin Truex Jr.
Won the pole for this race a year ago and finished sixth. Qualified fifth and finished 13th last fall in Texas. Had season-best finish of eighth at Las Vegas in only race so far at 1.5-mile speedway this year.
6. Mark Martin
Back in the No. 55 car at Michael Waltrip Racing. Finished third in this race last year. Placed 14th at Las Vegas earlier this year.
7. Joey Logano
Has one top-10 finish in nine Texas starts but placed 12th at Las Vegas and nearly won at Auto Club Speedway this season.
8. Kurt Busch
Finished eighth with this Furniture Row Racing team last fall at Texas. Since joining FRR late last season, has an average finish of 16.6 in five races on 1.5-mile speedways, including a 20th at Las Vegas earlier this year.
9. Ryan Newman
Feast-or-famine season continues. Finished 31st at Martinsville last weekend. He has three top-10 finishes this year but also has finished 30th or worse in three races. Does not have a top-10 finish in his last nine Texas starts (average finish 16.55 during that time).
10. Brian Vickers
Filling in for the injured Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 car. Vickers has never finished in the top 10 at Texas in 14 Cup starts there.
11. Jamie McMurray
Coming off season-best seventh-place finish at Martinsville, his second top-10 finish in the last three races (was 10th at Bristol). Has not finished better than 14th in his last eight Texas starts.
12. Paul Menard
Has finished 27th, 18th and 15th in his last three Texas starts. His 19th-place finish at Martinsville, a track he struggles at, snapped his consecutive top-10 streak at three races.
13. Aric Almirola
Best finish in four Texas starts is 15th, which came last fall. Other than 37th at Bristol, he’s finished between 13th and 20th in every race this season.
14. Marcos Ambrose
Finished 32nd last fall and 20th in the spring race at Texas last year. Has one top-10 finish there in nine Cup starts. Coming off season-best eighth-place finish at Martinsville.
15. Jeff Burton
Has not had a top 10 in his last six Texas starts. Best finish this year is a 10th at Phoenix. Has not finished better than 17th in any other race this year.
16. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has not had a top-10 finish in his last seven Texas starts. Best finish this season is a 12th at Phoenix.
17. Bobby Labonte
Has one top-20 finish in his last 10 Texas starts. Last top 10 there came in April 2006.
C-List Drivers 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
This will be his first Cup race at this track. He placed in the top 10, with one win, in his last four Nationwide starts at Texas.
2. Austin Dillon
Driving the No. 51 car of Phoenix Racing this weekend at Texas. This will be his third Cup start of the season, second with the team. He finished 21st at Las Vegas in the 51 car.
3. Casey Mears
Has finished 16th or better in four of the first six races this season. Worst finish of the year is 29th, which came in the Daytona 500 and at Las Vegas.
4. Danica Patrick
Finished 24th in her Texas Cup debut last fall. Coming off 12th-place run at Martinsville.
5. Trevor Bayne
This will be his third race of the year. Placed 27th in Daytona 500 and 23rd at Las Vegas for Wood Brothers.
6. Dave Blaney
Has had better success on bigger tracks than smaller ones this season with a 17th in Daytona 500, 21st at Auto Club Speedway and a 24th at Las Vegas.
7. David Ragan
Best finish this year is a 21st at Bristol. Finished 28th at Texas last fall and 35th last spring.
8. David Gilliland
Has not finished better than 24th this season.
9. JJ Yeley
Has finished 27th in each of the last three Cup races (Bristol, Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville).
10. David Stremme
Seeking to make first Texas start since April 2009. Has one top-20 finish this year.
11. David Reutimann
Has finished 33rd or worse in each of the last four races.
12. Travis Kvapil
Has placed 34th or worse in each of the last four races.
13. Landon Cassill
Season-best finish of 30th came at Auto Club Speedway when he was six laps behind the leaders.
14. Joe Nemechek
Season-best finish of 29th came at Bristol.
15. Josh Wise
Has finished better than 35th once this season, a 26th at Bristol.
16. Scott Speed
Has not finished better than 40th since placing 23rd in the Daytona 500.
17. Michael McDowell
Has finished 42nd or 43rd in each of the past four races.
18. Timmy Hill
Seeking to make second start of the season. Finished 39th at Auto Club Speedway in season debut.
19. Scott Riggs
Has an average finish of 42.0 in three starts this year.
20. Mike Bliss
Has failed to qualify in three of the first six races this season.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Martinsville Speedway.
Joey Logano with the "buckled hood" look. (ASP, Inc.)
Joey Logano. Tony Stewart. Denny Hamlin. Clint Bowyer. Jeff Gordon. The list of NASCAR drivers ticked off, for one reason or another, entering Martinsville could even knock the former Jersey Shore castmates down a peg. Add in a half-mile paperclip oval — one of the sport’s best — two weeks to ponder what’s gone wrong and Sunday was supposed to be an all-out explosion of revenge.
Instead? I’ve seen senior center bingo arguments come off with more energy than how it all panned out. (I guess maybe that’s what you get when a 54-year-old steps into Hamlin’s seat?) For all those expecting fireworks of historic proportions, somebody forgot to tell the watchman responsible for lighting that fuse.
Part of the problem was that some of these drivers never even got close to one another. Logano and Stewart, for example, had just a handful of opportunities where they were racing bumper-to-bumper. But in a sport where the championship — or more accurately, the playoff — is front and center, drivers are thinking about consequences even early in the season. Just like Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson won’t show their cards now when the results matter less, there’s no reason for a struggling Stewart to risk wiping himself out, digging a deeper hole to climb up when it comes to what really matters for paying sponsors: the Chase.
Such is the nature of the NASCAR beast these days. Bottom lines mean every race can’t turn out like your wildest dreams — matching the sanctioning body’s hype — as drivers sometimes choose to use their head over their heart. It’s a shame, though. Most times, this race at Martinsville, with plenty of action throughout the pack, would get itself a “B” grade or better without hesitation. But we’re in 2013, which is quickly becoming a year of high expectations. A race at one of the best tracks on the schedule should be an automatic A-plus under the circumstances.
Anything less? Feels like a missed opportunity … even though the “temper, temper” moments could well come back into play this fall.
Let’s go through the gears…
ONE: Jimmie Johnson owns Martinsville.
For exceptional athletes, there’s always one venue that fits their style better than any other. Tiger Woods has Augusta, Roger Federer has a set of tennis courts in Queens and Michael Jordan once thrived in Madison Square Garden.
For Jimmie Johnson, that magical place is Martinsville, Va. With eight victories in 23 career starts, third to only Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, the half-mile oval launch his performances into another stratosphere. Sixteen times he’s finished top 5 or better, and a 34.7 percent winning clip basically guarantees a victory once every year and a half there. Considering 43 Cup competitors start each race and those types of odds happen oh, about next to never.
“His car is so much better than everybody else,” explained sixth-place finisher Brad Keselowski, “That he just plays with everybody the whole race just to make it look good.”
No one encapsulated this day any better. Even when Johnson was being challenged by Martinsville 0-fers Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, the vibe still leaned his way. Not once for a single lap did the No. 48 put itself in position to run outside the top 5, simple history dictating the track would eventually come to him.
“It’s probably the most calm, relaxed thought-out weekend that we've had as the 48,” said the winner. “We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed to that.”
The end result now sees Johnson with 14,000 laps led overall in the Cup Series, a career best 2,327 of them at Martinsville. In comparison, peer Jamie McMurray, a six-time Cup winner in his own right, has led just 1,416 laps during his whole career. It seems between pit road, crew chief strategy and driver ability, this short track brings out the best in the five-time champ – the sport’s new points leader, to boot.
SECOND: See Hendrick go. See Gibbs go. See everyone else watch and get jealous.
The new Gen-6 car, while promoting parity, is bound to be figured out by a few organizations quicker than most. A look at Sunday’s laps-led totals reaffirm the answer: 2013 is developing into Hendrick, Gibbs and then every man for himself.
Only Marcos Ambrose, who led lap 1 and Travis Kvapil, who paced the field a single lap under yellow, broke the 498-lap spell up front rotated by HMS’ Jimmie Johnson, JGR veteran Kyle Busch and newcomer Matt Kenseth. But their performances are far from one-hit wonders. This trio, along with JGR’s Denny Hamlin and HMS’ Kasey Kahne, make up the top 5 in laps led on the circuit, six races into a young season.
Yes, Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards has a win at Phoenix. And Brad Keselowski over at Penske Racing has kept up that championship consistency. But by and large, the teams showing the most strength these days are coming squarely out of two race shops. Of the seven drivers, Kenseth, has been the most surprising, leading more laps at Martinsville Sunday – one of his worst tracks – then in his 13-year career at the track up to that point. If they can make him into a contender here, that bodes well for the 1.5-mile ovals right in his wheelhouse coming up next.
Brian Vickers manning MWR's No. 55 Toyota. (ASP, Inc.)
THREE: Substitute driving ain’t easy.
Brian Vickers wasn’t allowed to jump into Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 at Martinsville. But in a way, it helped showcase how impressive his record of six top 10s in 10 races has been filling in for part-timer Mark Martin in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota. Martin, one of the most respected drivers on the circuit, had a hard go of it on Sunday. Battling a super-tight condition early, he ran outside the top 20 before his pit crew dropped the jack too early during a stop. Martin left, not realizing the tires weren’t fully on the left side and the resultant penalty of pitting outside the box cost him a lap. Involved in a nasty mid-race wreck, the car hit the checkered a shell of its former self, a 10th-place finish admirable under the circumstances, but feeling like 40th considering how often this car is a threat to win here.
“We were capable,” Martin said afterwards. “But we kept stubbing our toe. I did not fill Denny Hamlin’s shoes, I can tell you that much.”
The ailing driver, while praising his sub, indirectly agreed, tweeting after the race, “Jimmie Johnson won’t have it that easy, in the fall, I promise.”
“I'm more mentally tired then after a race I was in,” he added later. “I don't know what watching your child race is like but I'm sure it's a lot like this.”
Too bad the end result couldn’t have been slightly better.
FOUR: Danica’s day showcases a different problem – the wave-around rule.
For many, the other big story revolved around “the most notable 12th-place finish in recent history.” That’s how it seemed post-race when Danica Patrick, fresh off her first lead-lap, competitive result since Daytona fielded more questions than second- and third-place finishers Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon combined.
On the one hand, you’ve got to give her credit. After spinning early and causing the race’s first caution, she was two laps down, mired well outside the top 30. To come back from that is admirable, considering this track is one of the toughest on rookies. (Anyone remember David Ragan’s “dart without feathers” debut?) But Patrick’s return also revealed one of NASCAR’s lingering weaknesses: the wave-around rule.
This rule, which allows cars that don’t pit a chance to “earn” a lap back under yellow should lead-lappers in front of them stop, needs to be revised. On Sunday teams were taking full advantage, knowing that at a place like Martinsville, cautions breed cautions. Staying out, knowing that your position will be cemented one lap ahead a few moments later, makes this an easy decision for a struggling group.
You can’t blame Patrick’s team for doing it. Several, in fact, used the same strategy under the rules. But how can NASCAR go to a place like Charlotte, for example, and expect drivers to race hard all 600 miles under those circumstances? When a driver drops two laps off the pace only to earn them back through zero on-track effort, it makes running hard early in the race unadvisable. Overcoming adversity should be about talent and effort, not luck.
The solution? I’m an old school guy, so lapped cars on the inside are always the way to go in my book. It gives the whole field more exposure, puts everyone on a level playing field (how awful was it to be outside on the double-file restarts Sunday?) and that’s how NASCAR did it, growing successfully, for years. Simply put — and it won’t happen — but make teams earn it…
Jamie McMurray, seventh Sunday, now has two top-10 finishes in the first six races. Last season he had three in 36. … What is up with Ford and Martinsville? No car ran inside the top 5 (Brad Keselowski had its best run, sixth) while Fusions led only one lap all day. No Ford has reached Victory Lane there since Kurt Busch did it for Roush in the fall of 2002. … It was a poor day for NASCAR’s Most Popular Points Leader, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. tumbled from the top spot in the standings after the handling went away late in the going. Also suffering from a late-race spin, it didn’t help that teammate Jimmie Johnson put the No. 88 down an extra lap before Junior could get the thing fully re-fired.
Dustin Long predicts the best fantasy drivers in Martinsville so you don't have to.
Jimmie Johnson (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit treks back east to quaint little Martinsville for the STP Gas Booster 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Martinsville ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
A-List 1. Jimmie Johnson
Won at Martinsville last fall from the pole and has seven career victories there. Scored 12 top-5 finishes in his last 15 starts there. Johnson has led 430 laps in his last four Martinsville starts. He has the best average running position (7.2) in the first five races of the season. He also has the best driver rating (110.2) at this point in the season.
2. Jeff Gordon
Has seven career wins at Martinsville. Appeared headed for No. 8 last spring when wrecked after contact by Clint Bowyer on a late restart and finished 14th. Gordon has 15 top-5 finishes in his last 20 Martinsville starts. Has led 534 laps in the last three races there. Has led an average of 113.4 laps in his last 13 starts at that track.
3. Brad Keselowski
Has scored seven consecutive finishes of sixth or better at ovals 1.1 miles or less, dating back to last season (that includes a sixth at Martinsville last fall, a career-best finish at the track). His 23rd-place finish at Auto Club Speedway ended his streak of four consecutive top-5s to open the season. That also was the first race this year he had not led. Dating back to last year’s Chase, he’s led laps in 11 of the last 15 races. Has an average finish of 12.1 in six starts at Martinsville.
4. Clint Bowyer
Finished fifth last fall at Martinsville and 10th in the spring. He led 154 laps last fall and had an average running position of 3.6 in that race, second only to race winner Jimmie Johnson’s average running position (3.2). Bowyer has four top 10s in his last six Martinsville starts.
5. Kasey Kahne
Placed third at Martinsville last fall. That ended an 11-race streak of finishing outside the top 10 there. Has recorded the fastest lap (149) more times than any other driver in the first five races of the season. He’s tied with Matt Kenseth with most laps led this year at 223 but has led only 31 laps in 18 career starts at Martinsville.
6. Matt Kenseth
Has placed in the top 10 in the past two spring races at Martinsville with a fourth last year and a sixth in April 2011. Those are his only two top-10 finishes in his last eight overall starts at the track. Tied with Kasey Kahne for most laps led this season at 223, which is 15 percent of all laps run.
7. Kevin Harvick
Won at Martinsville in April 2011 but since has finished fourth, 19th and 32nd there. Since being in a crash and finishing 42nd in the Daytona 500, Harvick has placed between ninth and 14th in each Cup race this season.
8. Tony Stewart
Has placed outside the top 20 in four of his last six Martinsville starts. In the other two races there, he won and finished seventh. Stewart has led only 15 laps in his last 11 starts at that track.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
B-List 1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has four top-10 finishes in his last five starts at Martinsville. Has led 110 laps during that stretch. Is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in each of the first five races of this season. He’s made more green-flag passes for position (588) and more quality passes (passing a car running in the top 15 under a green flag) with 354 than any other driver this season.
2. Brian Vickers
Making his second Cup start of the season in the No. 55 car. Started fourth and finished eighth at Bristol last month. Started second and placed eighth at Martinsville last fall. Tied winner Jimmie Johnson in that race for most laps run in the top 15 (495 of 500 laps).
3. Kyle Busch
Finished second at Martinsville last fall, part of his feast-or-famine routine at the track. In his last 12 starts there, he has six top-5 finishes. In the other six races, he’s finished outside the top 20. Has finished fourth (Las Vegas), second (Bristol) and first (Auto Club Speedway) in his last three starts this season. Has led 208 laps in those three races.
4. Ryan Newman
Hot and cold. Has three top-10 finishes this season. Other two races he failed to finish (accident at Phoenix and engine at Las Vegas). Won last spring’s race at Martinsville after leaders were taken out in a late restart. Has an average finish of 11.1 in last eight Martinsville starts.
5. Martin Truex Jr.
Has two top-10 finishes in last three Martinsville starts. Has led one lap at that track in 14 races.
6. Greg Biffle
Has placed in the top 15 in each of his last three visits to Martinsville, a track he’s acknowledged is far from his best track. Last time he led there was in Oct. 2009 when he paced the field for six laps.
7. Carl Edwards
Has finished outside the top 10 in three of his last four Martinsville starts. Has led 31 laps in 17 career starts at that track. Coming off a fourth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway. That’s his third top-5 finish this season.
8. Mark Martin
Driving in place of the injured Denny Hamlin at Martinsville. Martin did not race at Martinsville last year. In 2011, he finished 10th in the spring race there and 28th in the fall race.
9. Aric Almirola
Finished in the top 10 in both Martinsville races last year, placing fourth in the fall and eighth in the spring. Those are his only top-10 finishes in eight starts there.
10. Paul Menard
Enters this weekend with three consecutive top-10 finishes after placing eighth at Auto Club Speedway. Martinsville has not been kind to him. Finished 12th there last fall, his best finish at the track. Has finished outside the top 20 in seven of his 11 career Cup starts at Martinsville.
11. Joey Logano
Coming off his third-place finish at Auto Club Speedway — his first top-10 finish in his last 10 races, dating back to last season. Has run 68.5 percent of his laps in the top 15 this season, a higher percentage than for Kyle Busch (67.2 percent), Mark Martin (66.1) and Jeff Gordon (61.1). Has finished between 13th and 23rd in his last four Martinsville starts.
12. Kurt Busch
Heads to Martinsville after back-to-back top-5 finishes. Martinsville, though, has not been kind to him in recent years. His last top-10 finish there came in Oct. 2005. He has placed in the top 20 in four of the last five races there.
13. Jeff Burton
Has an average finish of 23.0 this season with one top-10 finish (10th at Phoenix). Has two top-10 results in his last nine Martinsville starts.
14. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has finished between 19th and 22nd in four of his last five Martinsville starts with the exception a fourth-place result in April 2011 race. His best finish this season is a 12th at Phoenix. He’s placed 30th or worse in three of the other four races this year.
15. Jamie McMurray
Has one top-10 finish in his last six Martinsville starts. Finished 10th at Bristol for only top-10 finish of this season. Has placed inside the top 20 in each of the last three Cup races.
16. Bobby Labonte
Since placing 15th in the Daytona 500, he has not finished better than 24th this season. Took ninth at Martinsville last fall, breaking an 11-race stretch there without a top-10 finish.
17. Marcos Ambrose
Has never had a top-10 finish in eight Martinsville starts (best finish is 11th in March 2010). Has not had a top-10 finish in his last 17 Cup races, dating back to last season. Average finish this season is 22.6.
1. Regan Smith
Career-best Martinsville finish is 13th in eight starts there.
2. Casey Mears
Best finish is 12th in last seven Martinsville starts. Has three top-15 finishes this season. He had only one top-15 finish all of last season.
3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Will be making his first start at Martinsville among any of NASCAR’s top three national series.
4. Dave Blaney
Has three top-25 finishes this season. He had seven such finishes last season.
5. Landon Cassill
Finished 19th at Martinsville last fall, his best result in five starts there.
6. David Ragan
Has four top-15 finishes in 13 Martinsville starts but has an average finish of 27.7 in last three races at that track.
7. Ken Schrader
Placed 34th at Phoenix and 37th at Las Vegas in his only starts this season. Finished 29th in last fall’s Martinsville race and was 32nd in the spring event there.
8. Danica Patrick
Making her Martinsville debut. Since placing eighth in Daytona 500, she has not finished better than 26th this season.
9. JJ Yeley
After 10th-place finish in Daytona 500, he has not finished better than 27th this season.
10. David Reutimann
Has an average finish of 29.4 this season.
11. Travis Kvapil
Has an average finish of 33.0 this season.
12. David Stremme
Has not finished better than 30th in his last five Martinsville starts.
13. David Gilliland
Has an average finish of 31.2 this season. Has an average finish of 32.4 in his last five Martinsville starts.
14. Michael McDowell
Has never had a top-25 finish at Martinsville in seven starts.
15. Josh Wise
Has an average finish of 35.2 this season.
16. Scott Speed
Was not entered for Auto Club Speedway. After finishing 23rd in Daytona 500, he has not placed better than 40th.
17. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish the last nine Martinsville races (best finish 38th).
18. Scott Riggs
Best finish this season is a 41st at Auto Club Speedway.
19. Mike Bliss
Has failed to qualify for two races this year and finished no better than 42nd in any of the three races he’s made.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads NASCAR point standings, enjoying momentum
Photo by ASP, Inc.
It’s said that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the best start of his 14-year NASCAR Sprint Cup career.
The 38-year-old has recorded top-10 finishes in each of the first five events, averaging a 4.4-place finish, and leads the point standings heading to the circuit’s sixth stop, in Martinsville, Va., on Sunday.
“When I hear people talking about the fast start, I feel like you’ve got to take a lot of different factors into the equation,” Earnhardt says. “We’ve had good fortune. (Certain) scenarios have been working in our favor ... and they don’t always work in your favor. You’re not always gonna come out on the better end of those deals, but we have.”
It’s not like this is unexplored territory for the 10-time most popular driver. Last season’s full slate of top 15s through the first five races found him third in the standings. And in 2004 with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., he enjoyed his finest season to date, when he notched two wins in the first five events, though a 35th-place run in Las Vegas dropped the average finishing position to 10.4.
Earnhardt also scored the sole Daytona 500 victory of his career that season, and runs of fifth, first and 10th surrounded the Vegas dud. So technically, the start of that six-win season was his finest to date.
But you’ll excuse his legion of fans if they choose to ride the momentum 2013 has brought. And the fact that Earnhardt is the only driver in the series that has yet to see 11th-place (or worse) at the end of a long Sunday afternoon finds his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team feeling upbeat as the circuit embarks on a trek of 15 straight race weekends through mid-July.
“We’re feeling confident — the mood’s good,” Earnhardt says of his team. “We see where we need to improve. We feel like we’ve got pretty decent speed in the car in race trim.”
For a driver and team that once struggled to make the car better over the course of a race, the in-race improvement has been striking. In fact, that 4.4-place average finish is a full 15 positions better than where they’ve managed to qualify on average — a testament to the communication between driver and crew chief Steve Letarte.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at closing races, something I never really was good at for years, and now we’re doing it as good as anybody,” Earnhardt says. “(We’re) just riding the wave — just real happy with how things are going for our team.”
Still, qualifying further up the pylon may change those second- to seventh-place finishes into wins.
“We’d love to qualify better, to feel more dependable when we put the car in qualifying trim,” says Earnhardt.
It’s a sentiment Letarte echos, though he realizes that the team has put itself in position to win numerous times. And if they do it often enough, those wins will come.
“You can’t win from 15th; you can’t win from 10th, the sport’s too difficult,” Letarte says. “You have to run in the top 5 or top 7 to win races — and we’ve done that all season. And we think that’s the formula for success that will get us to Victory Lane throughout the year.”
That brings Earnhardt and crew to Martinsville, a quaint .526-mile, paperclip-shaped oval that’s as much of a throwback venue as one will find on a schedule saturated with 1.5-mile intermediate clones. It’s a racetrack that has treated Earnhardt well in the past — he has showings of seventh or better in four of his last five starts — though he has yet to earn the coveted Grandfather Clock trophy awarded to the winner.
At this rate, though, Earnhardt is happy to have gotten out of the gates quickly, knowing the points earned early are insurance for the potholes that speckle an arduous season, wrought with trial.
“It’s a long year,” he says. “You’re going to have some bad luck — nobody runs the whole season perfectly — but we’re just trying to get as many points as early as we can so when that bad luck comes it doesn’t hit us as hard.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has assumed the top spot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings, but it's defending champion Brad Keselowski who finds himself atop the Athlon Sports Horsepower Rankings.
1. Brad Keselowski
If not for an overheating issue late in Fontana (while running fifth), Keselowski would most likely be five-for-five in the top-5 finishes category. The defending champ has come out swinging.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior has a quintet of top-10 runs thus far in 2013. He will not ascend to the top of this list until the No. 88 team proves it can win on a consistent basis.
3. Jimmie Johnson
You just know ace crew chief Chad Knaus has used the off-weekend to widen the chasm between teams that have and have not figured out the nuances of the Gen-6 car.
4. Matt Kenseth
Not surprisingly, the veteran Kenseth has comfortably made the transition to Joe Gibbs Racing in a seemless manner. In fact, he may be ranked a bit low on this list.
5. Kyle Busch
Busch is riding a three-race streak that has witnessed finishes of fourth or better, punctuated by a dramatic win at Auto Club Speedway. This bunch is going to be hard to handle this season.
6. Kasey Kahne
Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have a full season under their belts at Hendrick Motorsports. The duo has led the No. 5 team to consecutive showings of second, first and ninth.
7. Carl Edwards
Somewhat of a feast or famine team, the No. 99 bunch has a win (Phoenix) and two additional top-5 runs in 2013. Those showings are offset by 18th- and 33rd-place stinkers.
8. Greg Biffle
Going about things the way only Biffle can. Through five races, he has zero top 5s and two top 10s, yet finds himself fourth in the point standings. He’s nothing if not consistent.
9. Paul Menard
Menard’s No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team are off to their annual semi-hot start, with three top 10s and an average run of 13.6. The question this year, as it is every year, is can they sustain it?
10. Ryan Newman
Yes, he’s an uninspiring 20th in the point standings, but Newman is actually carrying the Stewart-Haas Racing banner with three top 10s. Like Edwards, this is a feast or famine group, albeit without a “W.”
11. Clint Bowyer
Can this team avoid the dreaded championship runner-up hangover? The thinking here is they can.
Riding dirty? Not in the classical sense, anyway. (ASP, Inc.)
12. Joey Logano
How about a nickname change, from “Sliced Bread” to “The Tempest.”
13. Tony Stewart
It’s been a tough go thus far for Stewart, but he’s too good to stay down long.
14. Kurt Busch
With two straight top 5s, Busch is delivering results to Furniture Row Racing’s potential.
15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The rookie has completed every lap thus far this season and is 12th in points. Nice start, kid.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray
This weekend provides a rare off day on the jam-packed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, but that doesn’t mean analysis will stop. After five races, there is a litany of story-telling statistics in a series that continues to one-up itself, to the delight of news desks everywhere.
Secondary to all the controversial opinions, fighting and crashing, the most popular driver in the sport is the one sitting atop the NASCAR mountain. Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the point standings, which, as you will read below, is well deserved.
4.4 and 2.3 Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team lead full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors in average finish (4.4) and finish deviation (2.3).
What does this mean? Earnhardt is the most consistent driver in the series right now — a zero deviation would mean the same finish over and over — while bringing home tremendous results. Junior Nation should be rejoicing, because that isn’t just the sort of thing that gets a driver to the Chase; what Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led race team are doing are habits of potential champions.
+54.2% Earnhardt’s finishes are an increase of 54.2 percent over his average running position with 10 percent of a race to go.
That plus-54.2 percent position retainment difference is another habit of a title contender. That increase is worth about 26 positions — think of that as 26 extra points — earned in the waning laps of each race. On fresh tires, Earnhardt navigated through a firestorm of activity last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, driving from 13th to second in the final 20 laps for his most lucrative home-stretch run of the season.
100% Four teams in the Cup Series have finished in the top half of fields in all five races for a relevance percentage of 100.
“Relevance” is finishing in the top half of fields (21st or better in the Cup Series). This is important because hitting the 80 percent mark through the 26-race regular season all but lands a team one of the 10 automatic Chase spots. Of the four driver-team combinations currently with perfect relevance percentages, two of them aren’t surprises (Earnhardt and the No. 88 team and Greg Biffle with his No. 16 team) and two sort of are (Paul Menard and the No. 27 team and rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and the new-look No. 17 team). It is no coincidence that all four teams are currently inside the top 12 of the point standings at this juncture.
41 The No. 16 team with Greg Biffle has gone 41 races without registering a DNF (Did Not Finish, a status frequently used in NASCAR box scores to indicate why a driver finished so poorly).
In today’s NASCAR, with Chase implications attached to every position gained or lost, consistency matters. That starts with finishing races, which is something Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia have done in their sleep over the last year. Their most recent DNF was an engine failure in the 2011 season finale at Homestead, so credit the Roush Yates engine department for holding strong behind one of Ford’s best entries. Biffle himself deserves a tip of the cap for being able to avoid accidents well enough to go 76 races without an accident-related DNF.
Casey Mears (ASP, Inc.)
3 Casey Mears and the No. 13 Germain Racing team have scored three top-15 finishes through five races this season.
That is an intriguing factoid considering this driver-team combo only secured one top-15 finish all of last year. The improvement should be attributed to Mears, who is finishing in the top 15 at a rate 54 percent higher than the amount of laps he is running in the top 15. This time last season, the No. 13 ranked 28th in average green-flag speed. They currently rank 27th on this year’s average speed chart, making it difficult to see any discernible improvement in regular on-track performance.
13.3 The average finish of AJ Allmendinger and the No. 51 Phoenix Racing team, through three starts, is 13.3.
It’s a nice upgrade from the 26.1-place finish the team averaged in 2012 with Kurt Busch behind the wheel for the majority of the races. The team is currently ninth in the Cup Series owner point standings, after Regan Smith finished seventh at Daytona and Austin Dillon secured a 21st-place finish at Las Vegas. Is it early-season luck for the plucky crew out of South Carolina? Or do results change when the team isn’t crashing in just under half of the races as Busch did last year?
0.80 David Gilliland has a series-high 0.80 crash frequency.
The season has gotten off to a rough start for Gilliland, who has crashed four times in five races. He holds a -0.250 Production in Equal Equipment Rating (ranks 34th of 35 drivers), has a best finish of 24th (Bristol) and has his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team ranked 35th in the owner standings. If car counts for future events expand and his 27th-place average starting spot gets worse, he could be in danger of missing races.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Auto Club 400 in Fontana
Tony Stewart was not a happy camper after the Auto Club 400. (ASP, Inc.)
For 15 years, Fontana has played the role of weird aunt in the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule. You know the one. It’s who you have to suck it up and speak with every reunion even though the hug creeps you out, she believes aliens live on the street corner and “didn’t you just do the cutest thing you don’t remember when you were four.” Extended conversation makes you sleepy … or suicidal.
That, in a nutshell, is what watching every race scheduled at this two-mile oval has been like. (The fact Jimmie Johnson, criticized for his cookie-cutter personality on camera, is the all-time winner here speaks volumes.) But Sunday, in the midst of NCAA basketball’s showcase weekend, stock cars created a miracle all their own. For perhaps the first time in an L.A. market dominated by movie stars, an unscripted Hollywood race car finish became the talk of the town. Suddenly, a track that lost one of its two dates on the schedule becomes — dare I say it? — a “must see event” in 2014, one that puts someone like Tom Cruise back in attendance and not just some “D” level star from a movie you never heard of dropping the green flag.
If NASCAR’s Gen-6 car can make the weird aunt normal and relevant in the midst of another sport’s heyday, then the potential is there for sustained success. Let’s go “Through the Gears” on how it got to this point …
FIRST GEAR: NASCAR rivalries make or break this sport.
Denny Hamlin. Joey Logano. A finish so impressive, we need to watch it again. For a first-timer, that ending is exciting enough. But anyone who watches a lick of NASCAR racing will tell you their heart was pounding, regardless of who they root for, long before the white flag. Knowing the two went at it at Bristol, sparking a soap opera week of light shoving, Twitter tantrums and unaccepted apologies, the last 10 minutes came paired with a strong sense of anticipation. You just knew something was going to happen, with drama down the stretch providing that “hook” which takes a fan’s interest another level.
The spark of those rivalries (what drives that other March Madness) is what had been missing from NASCAR in recent years. Sure, we’ve had Brad Keselowski, the reigning champ and his “I don’t get no respect!” routine, but his main adversary (Johnson) won’t even turn on the jets to respond until September. The sport needed an ending with this type of spark, a reminder its A-list stars won’t always “go through the motions” when they’re sitting with a good points day in the spring.
As for where we go from here? Clearly, Logano has been listening to everyone from Keselowski to the media who say he needs to stand up for himself. But while any wreck can turn tragic, there’s a major difference between speeds at Bristol or Martinsville and Fontana, where 200-plus mph is not uncommon. Sure, Penske Racing’s newbie was doing all it took, fighting for victory just like he should. But there was a point, in the midst of Turns 3 and 4, where the game changed and Logano made a choice. Hamlin, on the top line, had fresher tires and the angle off the turn — and was in position to take the checkers (or finish second to Kyle Busch). At that point, Logano could have backed off; a wreck did neither one any good. But he didn’t, causing the incident and the comments afterwards make it sound like the action was clearly intentional. “Now we’re even,” he said on the radio before following up with a “that’s what he gets” to a crowd of reporters while Hamlin was being loaded up in an ambulance.
Yes, I know we have to remember the guy is only 22 years old. Unfortunately, after three-plus years in the Cup Series and paired with one of the sport’s most prestigious owners, Logano doesn’t get the luxury of being immature. What would have happened there if Hamlin was seriously hurt … or worse? (He was kept overnight, for hospitalization complaining of back pain.) Nationwide Series driver Michael Annett is out for 6-8 weeks after being injured at these types of speeds; you can’t just “assume” the cars will be safe.
I see a classic case of overreaction here. A young driver reeling from comments he’s too passive and feeling he needs to make up for it immediately in one full swoop. Problem is, it doesn’t work like that. Earning respect is a gradual thing, and judging by Tony Stewart’s comments after the checkered flag — championed by many peers on Twitter — Logano just isn’t quite there.
“It’s time he learns a lesson,” Stewart said. “He’s run his mouth long enough … he’s nothing but a little rich kid that’s never had to work in his life. He’s going to learn what us working guys who had to work our way up (know about)how it works.”
SECOND GEAR: Smoke is blowing Smoke, well, everywhere.
Those comments from Stewart, a three-time champ, came 10 minutes after an interview peppered with enough profanity to spice up anyone’s Sunday. Somewhere in between the bleeps was a simple message for Logano: I’m going to tear you in two.
But the car owner, more than anything, is just frustrated. As we spoke about last week, his slow start is even slower than usual and a block by Logano on the final restart robbed the No. 14 car of its momentum. That left him drifting outside the top 20, on a day where a top-5 result could have kept him from digging a deeper hole. Now he sits 22nd in the point standings, 37 markers behind 10th-place Hamlin and with some tracks ahead (Martinsville, Texas) where he’s not a surefire favorite.
With that said, seeing the Stewart of old, the rogue entertainer who once got fined regularly for “telling it like it is,” was a refreshing sight to see — even if his thought process was irrational. I seem to remember a Chase wreck at Talladega last fall caused in part by a Stewart block. Wasn’t Logano doing the same thing, making a whatever-it-takes move to win the race? It’s hard to be disrespectful on a restart that late in a race when you’re running for first place.
Kyle Busch earned win No. 1 of 2013 in Fontana. (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Kyle Busch is set to go on a roll.
In the midst of this mess, let’s not forget who actually won Sunday’s race. It was the first time in the last 10 events Kyle Busch has finished first after leading the most laps in a Cup event. Until the white-flag fracas, it was primed to be stolen from him again after pit strategy left the No. 18 a sitting duck down the stretch.
Instead, Lady Luck finally shined in Busch’s direction in what amounts to a hump race for this team. All year, Joe Gibbs Racing has shown the speed, just not the ability to finish (see: Daytona, two blown engines). But Busch, who has won three out of five times in the Nationwide Series in 2013, has the most momentum of the trio; now, he’s finally overcome adversity in Cup. With tracks in his wheelhouse ahead, along with more intermediates (Texas, Kansas and his best statistical venue of Richmond) don’t be surprised if he’s won three or four by Memorial Day.
FOURTH GEAR: NASCAR’s most popular driver is in position.
It’s easy to forget that five months ago Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sitting on a couch when the green flag dropped at Kansas Speedway. Now? He’s the Sprint Cup points leader. Fully recovered from a series of concussions, Earnhardt has charged out of the gate with no finish worse than seventh (Las Vegas). While only leading one of the five races thus far (Phoenix), consistency continues with the No. 88, which all sides hope will eventually put them in position for victories.
“We’re pretty good at closing races,” Earnhardt said after spending most of the day in Fontana virtually invisible until solid pit strategy — new tires at the right time — left him charging to second. “Something I never really was good at for years, and now we're doing it as good as anybody.”
Worries over more head injuries still loom, though. It was surprising to hear Earnhardt brutally honest over concerns Hamlim’s or Logano’s car would slide up in front of him (it was here, in 2002, where the driver got possibly his worst concussion). But the pieces are in place more than ever for this perennial underachiever to make a run at the title.
OVERDRIVE Cars continue to find the one spot on the racetrack where there isn’t a SAFER Barrier. That’s not always the fault of the speedway, but the inside wall leading to pit road? What, Fontana, you never thought that might be a tricky place? Cars hit there at Daytona all the time. Bottom line, soft walls should be in place. … Hendrick Motorsports pulled a rabbit out of the hat Sunday. Jimmie Johnson ran in the 20s, Jeff Gordon hit the wall, as did Kasey Kahne, while Earnhardt Jr. nearly got lapped at one point. All four were inside the top 12 at the finish, but HMS (particularly Gordon’s No. 24 team) has some catching up to do on intermediates. … Brad Keselowski’s bid for five top-5 finishes in five races came to an end when an engine went sour, the second one this weekend for his No. 2 team. Interesting to note that’s out of their control this season with the powerplants being manufactured by the Roush-Yates engine shop.
Kyle Busch wins Auto Club 400; Logano, Hamlin rivalry intensifies.
Kyle Busch in Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway. (ASP, Inc.)
A frenetic final 20 laps in the Auto Club 400 concluded in a last-lap crash involving rivals Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, a surprise winner in Kyle Busch, and a fight on pit road between Logano and Tony Stewart. And it all happened at the most unlikely of venues: Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
The two-mile oval in Southern California has historically been known for its single-file, strung-out style of racing where aerodynamics and downforce — not tight-quarters beating and banging — are key. That all changed on Sunday.
A bevy of late-race three- and four-wide racing hit its crescendo on a restart with 11 laps to go. Race leader Logano threw a block on Stewart as the field took the green flag, killing the latter’s momentum and costing him valuable positions. That opened the door for Kyle Busch, who shot to the lead in the high groove.
As Busch built a cushion up front, the fight for second between Logano, Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. intensified. The quintet sparred for three laps before Logano and Hamlin prevailed. They chased down the leader and overtook him in a physical fight in the tri-oval with five laps remaining.
The former teammates, whose rivalry has made headlines since Daytona and reached a new high in Bristol when Hamlin spun Logano, sparking a post-race confrontation and a war of words, ran nose-to-tail until the final lap, when Hamlin made his move as the white flagged wave.
Hamlin loosened Logano up in the tri-oval and powered by on the outside. However, Logano was far from done. He dove to the inside in Turn 1 and pulled alongside on the backstretch. As Logano’s car got loose in Turn 3, he washed up the racetrack, making contact with the No. 11 of Hamlin. That allowed a stalking Kyle Busch to skate by near the wall, charging to the lead as Logano and Hamlin wrecked.
Logano bounced off the wall but righted the ship for a third-place finish. Hamlin cut hard to the inside of the track and crashed head-on into a concrete wall devoid of energy-absorbing SAFER Barriers. Hamlin exited his car but quickly collapsed to the pavement as track safety personnel attended to him. He was airlifted to a local hospital complaining of back pain for what Joe Gibbs Racing officials called “precautionary reasons.”
“They forgot about me. I knew they were gonna,” Busch said of the two leaders as they parried for the win. “When they went to the bottom side of (Turns) 3 and 4, I thought, ‘Oh man, this golden — I got enough (momentum) up here to make this happen.’ Lo and behold, I put my foot to it and drove around the outside of them before they were crashing … or maybe as they were crashing, I’m not sure.”
The victory was Busch’s first of the season and 25th of his career.
Earnhardt Jr., Logano, Edwards and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 5. Hamlin was credited with a 25th-place finish. Earnhardt assumed the lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings after former leader, Brad Keselowski, limped to a 23rd-place showing.
Tony Stewart, following his pit road confrontation with Joey Logano. (ASP, Inc.)
As Busch celebrated in Victory Lane, Stewart confronted Logano on pit road, having taken exception to the block that dropped him from third to, ultimately, 22nd. A fight broke out between the two drivers and members of their respective teams, though no punches appeared to connect. The drivers were quickly restrained and separated.
When asked by a FOX television reporter about the incident, Stewart went on an expletive-laden tirade, taking Logano to task and promising retribution, then later referred to him as “a rich kid who never had to work a day in his life.”
Logano was unapologetic concerning his tactics, saying, “I had to throw the block there — that was the race for the lead. I felt like if the 14 (Stewart) got underneath me, that was going to be the end of my opportunity to win the race. I was just trying to protect the spot I had.”
As for the violent ending to his race with Hamlin, the Connecticut native again displayed little remorse.
“He probably shouldn’t have done what he did last week,” Logano said. “So that’s what he gets.”
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Auto Club Speedway
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Strong start, but when does Dale Earnhardt Jr. win?
Depending on how you judge these things, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the most impressive start to a NASCAR Sprint Cup season in his career. The claim comes with Earnhardt, now second in the point standings, putting together his best average finish (5.0) after four races since he started full-time in 2000.
Or, you could say that it's just been a really consistent start for NASCAR's top-billed man that rivals the start he worked in 2004. That season, he won the Daytona 500 and the season's fourth race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a start only derailed by a miserable day at Las Vegas in the season's third race.
Each, of course, has their merits. But only one — the incredibly consistent current campaign — matters now. It also begs the question we've asked of Earnhardt plenty in the last half decade: when he is going to win?
A trip to Auto Club Speedway for Earnhardt may provide that answer. It's a track that he both welcomes as a driver's venue and one where he's shown moderate past success. It doesn't hurt that four of the last nine races have been won by Hendrick Motorsports.
"You can run the bottom; you can run on the apron; you can run on the top. It’s a very fun racetrack to drive," Earnhardt said. "And so I’ve got a good attitude about it. I think Steve (Letarte, crew chief) is going to give me a good car. We ran good last year because Steve gave me a good car.”
Earnhardt was scored third last year when rain ended the race on lap 129, good for his fourth top 5 at ACS in 20 career starts.
"There are opportunities to pass when you run a guy down, you can change the line you’re running and get some clean air on your car," Earnhardt said. "You feel confident that if you do the right thing and drive the car well, that you can make a pass. I love that about that racetrack."
2. Toyota still waiting on the checkers to blow their way.
Another Sprint Cup entity hoping to break in to the win column Sunday is a bit larger than even Earnhardt. Toyota, winners of the last nine Nationwide Series races contested at ACS, has yet to find Victory Lane in a Sprint Cup car at the southern California speedway that stands closest to the Torrence, Calif.-based Toyota Racing Development facility where all TRD engines and other parts are manufactured for Toyota teams.
To do so Sunday, they'll have to break a five-race streak of wins held by the Chevrolet camp in NASCAR's top division. Helping the cause will be the addition of Matt Kenseth to the Toyota fold. The former Roush Fenway Racing Ford driver has three wins in Fontana. Kenseth, already a winner at Las Vegas two weeks ago, appeared on pace to grab another before Jeff Gordon's flat tire forced his exit at Bristol last week.
Kenseth will be pushed by his teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny Hamlin was running second last year until an ill-advised pit stop as rain closed in on the track dropped him back in the pack to finish 11th. Kyle Busch was also plenty strong a year ago at ACS, leading 80 of 129 completed laps before taking second to Tony Stewart.
“We’ve had really fast race cars everywhere we’ve gone so far. Fontana is another place where I’ve always fared well over the years, and I’m hoping we can finally get that victory we’ve been looking for this weekend," Busch said.
Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Stewart-Haas Racing ready for turnaround?
More than just a win, the drivers representing Stewart-Haas Racing are looking merely for a few doses of good fortune. Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart are packed neatly together in the point standings at 23rd and 24th, respectively, and just ahead of rookie teammate Danica Patrick in 28th.
Already in 2013, Stewart has wrecked twice (a victim of a pack crash at Daytona and a flat tire at Bristol) while Newman has crashed due to a flat tire at Phoenix and a blown engine at Las Vegas. Stewart, at least, isn't worried. He thinks the finishes will come thanks in part to how well the Stewart-Haas organization has taken on the third full-time car with Patrick behind the wheel. He says the team has avoided alienating the new rookie driver in Patrick like he's seen others do in the past — to the extent that Newman and Patrick are akin to brother and sister.
They're also feeling some of the added home-track pressure usually reserved for racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Haas Automation, the company of team co-owner Gene Haas, is also located in southern California.
"(Newman and Patrick) get into conversation that I actually get uncomfortable with and I’m like, ‘Alright, you guys go ahead and talk about this, I’m leaving,'" Stewart said. "That’s hard to do with me, so she fits in really well with us as a group.'"
"I guess I give ourselves a better grade than where we were this time last year because everyone is working together a lot better and they’re a lot more comfortable with each other.”
4. Going’ back to Cali? Just fine for Jimmie.
The state of California, according a simple Wikipedia search, has been the subject of more than 390 songs recorded by a group of artists eclectic and diverse as the nation's third-largest state. A native son of The Golden State, Jimmie Johnson probably doesn't need even one of those for motivation to deliver results at Auto Club Speedway.
No, Johnson doesn't need any of The Beach Boys, Katy Perry or Notorious B.I.G. Even the Eagles can stay on pause. Especially the Eagles.
That's because the two-mile Southern California speedway could easily be argued as the very best track for Johnson and his No. 48 team. Johnson scored his very first Sprint Cup win in Fontana in 2002 (the first of now 61) and his since taken the checkered flag at ACS four more times. He has more wins at three other tracks, but Johnson's average finish at ACS is the best of any track outside of the two races he's participated in at Kentucky Speedway.
Johnson, 10th last year, hasn't finished outside the top-10 at ACS since 2006.
5. Championship race already taking shape?
Four races is entirely too small of a sample size to accurately pick title contenders when 22 races remain before the start this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. But in a year with a new car style, it's not outlandish to think the likelihood that those teams who are strongest to start the season will keep that pace through the end of it.
To that end, six of the top seven drivers in the current Sprint Cup point standings are the same ones who comprised the top six spots in the final rundown of last year's title fight. The seventh of that group — Dale Earnhardt Jr., now second in points — missed two races in the 2012 Chase thanks to concussion symptoms.
Certainly, nothing is a lock between Sunday's 400-miler and September's race in Richmond. But it's got to be ominous for the competitors of Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin to see how strong they've been to start this year. Of those six, only Biffle (down four spots in the standings year-to-year) and Hamlin (one spot back from post-Bristol 2012) have regressed from this time a year ago. Meanwhile, Keselowski is up 12 spots in the point standings from a year ago, Johnson is up 14 spots and Kasey Kahne is up an astounding 25 spots over last year.
Drivers who represented the back half of last year's final standings, though, are leaving their spots completely up for grabs as of now. Jeff Gordon, now 24th in the standings, is 17 spots lower than his finish a year ago. Tony Stewart is 15 spots down.
Sure, there's a ton of racing left. And sure, anything can and will happen. But when guys like Keselowski, Johnson and Bowyer are hot already, you have to wonder what everyone else is going to do to catch up.
The California Etc.
Five drivers have completed all 1,283 laps competed in the Sprint Cup Series so far in 2013, including Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. … Just as it did at Las Vegas and Bristol, Goodyear is bringing the same tire compound from 2012 to Auto Club Speedway. There was no test in the new Gen-6 car at the track … Sunday marks the 24th Sprint Cup Series race in Fontana, and three drivers (Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte) have started every race … Jimmie Johnson is the only current driver to finish on the lead lap in every start at Auto Club.
Over the last 13 years, NAPA ads have become the most common and sometimes completely mind bending ads during a Sunday race (like you’ve never involuntarily blurted out “N-N-N-NAPA Know How!”). This spot from 2003 kind of comes off a little rough on Mikey, but what’s more shocking is to actually see Teresa Earnhardt.
by Vito Pugliese
9. "Deadpan" Dale Jarrett
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UPS had one of the more memorable ad campaigns when it signed on with Dale Jarrett in 2001. It was a relationship that lasted through the 2008 season, but it wasn’t until UPS joined Roush Fenway Racing that they actually painted the car brown on a regular basis. This spot from 2007 features Ned Jarrett — who I wish ESPN would have the good sense to let call a few laps with Bob Jenkins at The Brickyard this year; maybe invite Ken Squier in the mix as well.
by Vito Pugliese
8. Dick Trickle: 0-243
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During NASCAR’s ascension to national prominence in the 1990s, one of the keys to its success was getting a mention during ESPN’s SportsCenter, where Dan Patrick always made a point to let you know where Dick Trickle finished. Another key was self-deprecating humor, as Dick proves in this NAPA spot.
by Vito Pugliese
7. Domo arigato, Mr. Kenseth
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What’s this? Another NASCAR commercial with a Wisconsin racing hero? Matt Kenseth won the last Winston Cup in 2003, and was featured in this spot for Nextel. This ad is not only funny — as the knock on Kenseth at the time was that he was void of personality (not true) — but accurate, considering how Kenseth can still get out of 130-degree car after four hours and talk at Mach 2 without taking a breath. If only they had the foresight to bank this one for Jimmie Johnson … they really could have had some fun with it.
by Vito Pugliese
6. Backseat Driver
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ESPN had a slew of great NASCAR spots during the 1998 season with its “NASCAR Ride Along Program.” This one with Richard and Kyle Petty was one of the best, with The King offering some backseat driving for Kyle. For some reason, I have a feeling these conversations actually did take place on the way back to Level Cross.
by Vito Pugliese
5. Toyota Comes to Cup
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When Toyota came to the Cup Series in 2007, it faced a bit of an uphill battle. It was the first time since the 1950s that a foreign automaker had competed in NASCAR’s premier division. Toyota had to hit it right and knew it should tread lightly to gain fan acceptance and prevent an outright revolt – which appears to have happened with these R/C cars. Note Tony Stewart’s ode to Vince Neil with that hair.
by Vito Pugliese
4. Now They Throw the Flag!
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Another one of the “NASCAR Ride Along Program” spots, this one featuring Keyshawn Johnson and Mark Martin. These two are either great actors or actually got along very well.
by Vito Pugliese
3. There’s Two Ways To Do This…
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When the 2000 Chevy Monte Carlo debuted, it had a swoopy new body that emphasized lower drag and vastly improved downforce. After getting it’s headed handed to it by the Ford Taurus for two years (well, other than that No. 24 car…) Chevrolet’s new car was inexplicably heralded by … the Tasmanian Devil? Not sure why they’d select a babbling, sputtering maniac with an acute case of Tourette’s, but at least they managed to have the Earnhardt’s in this commercial together. As with the ad with the Richard and Kyle Petty spot, this one hit the mark probably because it was more fact than fiction. If you haven’t seen this one in a while, it’ll make you miss him that much more.
by Vito Pugliese
2. Speed Up!
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This Gatorade ad from 2003 featured 2002’s Rookie of the Year runner-up and the Winston Cup runner-up from the same season. Mark Martin looks more “D-FENS” from the movie “Falling Down” than a driver’s training instructor (and drives like him too). This would be the second time in a few months that Martin would drive into the side of Jimmie Johnson, as his power steering locked up on the pace lap of the fall Talladega race the season before, eventually costing Martin the title. Looks like Jimmie rebounded OK, though. As fair and gentlemanly as Martin has been throughout his career, I’ve always feared he’d snap one day and do this for real.
by Vito Pugliese
1. Octane 93
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This commercial with Jeremy Mayfield lives on in Mopar lore as one of the greatest ads ever. Kind of ironic that she’s pouring a bunch of chemicals in a tub … something that Jeremy would apparently develop an affinity for in later years. Jeremy’s date in this one is Candice Michelle, who would later go on to GoDaddy.com and WWE fame. She actually slides through the window like a champ. Oh yeah.