Predicting the best fantasy drivers in California so you don't have to.
Twitter masters. And not bad in Cali, either. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads back out west for the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. 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 Auto Club — or California, if you prefer — ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Why would you take anyone else this week? He has 10 consecutive top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway (average finish of 3.3 during that stretch) and has led laps in each of those races. He had an average finish of 3.0 in the first three races of the season and was headed for another top 10 before a blown tire sent him into the wall late at Bristol last week.
2. Matt Kenseth
He’s why you might want to pick someone else. Kenseth won at Las Vegas two weeks ago in the first test of the new car at a track where horsepower and aerodynamics matter (just like Auto Club Speedway). He had a teammate finish in the top five at Vegas, showing the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing on the big tracks. He’s also led more miles (323) than any other driver this season.
3. Brad Keselowski
Then again, there’s this guy. Keselowski has not finished worse than fourth in any of the first four races this season, collecting a bevy of points for those who put him on their team. He’s also led laps in each race this year.
4. Kasey Kahne
Finished second at Las Vegas and then won at Bristol. Has shown speed this season and that’s a good sign for Auto Club where he’s finished 14th, ninth and fourth in his last three starts.
5. Kevin Harvick
Has five consecutive top-10 finishes at this track, including a win in 2011 when he passed Johnson on the last lap.
6. Tony Stewart
Rallied late to finish 11th at Las Vegas after his car was awful in the first half of the race. Never had a chance at Bristol with a flat tire that sent him into the wall early. Needs a strong race this weekend and he’s coming to the right track. He’s won two of the last three at Auto Club.
7. Clint Bowyer
Both top-10 finishes this season have come at tracks one mile or less. Although he finished 27th at Las Vegas, his teammates placed eighth and 14th, showing that Michael Waltrip Racing could have some success at Auto Club.
8. Denny Hamlin
The center of controversy the past two weeks (NASCAR fine, Joey Logano dust-up), Auto Club has presented mixed results. He won the pole last year but has finished outside the top 10 in three of his last four races there.
9. Jeff Gordon
Was the only Hendrick driver who struggled at Las Vegas two weeks ago. Was never a factor, finishing 25th. Misfortune struck at Bristol, blowing a tire and crashing while leading. Needs a strong run or risks falling further behind the leaders in the points, but he’s finished 18th or worse in three of his last four starts in Fontana.
1. Kyle Busch
Finished fourth at Las Vegas and led 27 laps, showing the strength of a team with a new car in its first race at a big track. Also has been good at Auto Club Speedway, finishing in the top three the past two years there. Overall, he has six top-five finishes in 15 career starts.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has finished in the top 10 in each of the first four races of the season for the first time in his career, rewarding those who have put him on their team. Placed seventh at Las Vegas but knew they were a little off compared to the leaders. Will he close the gap this week? He finished third in Fontana last year.
3. Carl Edwards
Finished fifth at Las Vegas and now comes to a track where he’s placed in the top 5 in seven of his 15 career starts, one of the best marks among active drivers.
4. Martin Truex Jr.
Placed eighth at Las Vegas two weeks ago. Has finished in the top 10 in 10 of the last 11 races at non-restrictor-plate tracks of 1.5-miles and larger since last season.
5. Mark Martin
Back after taking Bristol off. Started third last year and finished 12th at Auto Club.
6. Ryan Newman
Has finished seventh or better in his last three starts in Fontana. When he’s made it to the finish he’s placed in the top 10 this season, but that’s happened only twice. In the other two races he was eliminated because of an accident or a blown engine.
7. Joey Logano
Certainly ran better than he finished at Bristol. He thought he was better than his 12th-place finish at Las Vegas but a pit road speeding penalty hurt him there. Can he avoid trouble and show where he can finish?
8. Kurt Busch
His fourth-place finish at Bristol last week was only the fourth top-five finish for Furniture Row Racing in 203 career starts. Busch has four top 10s in his last six starts at Auto Club Speedway, including a ninth-place finish in last year’s rain-shortened event with the underfunded Phoenix Racing team.
9. Greg Biffle
Auto Club Speedway has not been the best place for him. Although he finished sixth last year, he has placed outside the top 10 in eight of the last 12 races there.
10. Paul Menard
This marks the fourth consecutive year he’s been in the top 10 in points after four races — the only driver to accomplish that feat. Was 10th at Las Vegas, but Auto Club has not been as good to him. He’s never finished in the top 10 in 10 starts at the 2-mile oval.
11. Aric Almirola
Placed 16th at Las Vegas two weeks ago. He and Richard Petty Motorsports have shown greater success on the bigger tracks, going back to the end of last season.
12. Marcos Ambrose
Has finished between 18th and 22nd in each of his four starts this season.
13. Jeff Burton
Has one top-10 finish in his last seven starts at Auto Club Speedway. Has finished on the lead lap only once this year, placing 10th at Phoenix.
14. Jamie McMurray
His 10th-place finish at Bristol last week was his first top 10 in the last 26 races, dating back to last year. Has not finished in the top 10 in his last 11 starts at Auto Club Speedway.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has not had a top-10 finish in his last 25 starts, dating back to an eighth-place finish at Michigan in June.
16. Bobby Labonte
Has finished better than 20th only twice in his last 15 starts at Auto Club Speedway.
Specifically for the "fantasy" aspect. (ASP, Inc.)
C-List 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Never run in Cup at this track but finished second and fourth in his last two Nationwide races there. One of only five drivers to have completed every lap in the first four Cup races of this season.
2. AJ Allmendinger
Car finished 21st at Las Vegas with Austin Dillon driving. Team placed in the top 10 at Auto Club Speedway in rain-shortened race a year ago with Kurt Busch driving.
3. David Gilliland
Finished 28th at Las Vegas. Has never finished better than 17th in 11 starts at Auto Club.
4. Casey Mears
Finished 29th at Las Vegas, two laps behind leaders. Has best finish of 11th in his last seven races at Auto Club.
5. Dave Blaney
Placed 24th at Las Vegas, finishing one lap behind the leaders. Has not finished better than 29th in last 10 Auto Club starts.
6. Danica Patrick
After finishing eighth in Daytona 500, she’s placed 39th (Phoenix), 33rd (Las Vegas) and 28th (Bristol). She’s been at least five laps off the leaders in each of the last three races.
7. Travis Kvapil
Has one top-20 finish in 10 starts at Auto Club.
8. David Ragan
His 21st-place finish at Bristol was the first time he’s finished inside the top 30 this year Has finished 20th or better in only two of his last 30 starts with team, dating back to last year.
9. Landon Cassill
Has not finished better than 32nd in three starts this year (did not run at Daytona).
10. David Reutimann
Since placing 16th in Daytona 500, has not finished better than 25th in the three races since. Placed 34th at Las Vegas.
11. David Stremme
Finished 32nd at Las Vegas. Placed 39th at Auto Club last year.
12. Josh Wise
Finished 35th at Las Vegas. Placed 37th at Auto Club last year in only start there.
13. JJ Yeley
Has not finished better than 35th in his last three starts at Auto Club Speedway.
14. Michael McDowell
Has run a total of 47 laps in the last two races, finishing last at Las Vegas and 42nd at Bristol.
15. Scott Riggs
Seeking to make second start of the season after failing to qualify at Bristol.
16. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish seven of his last eight races at Auto Club Speedway, finishing no better than 34th.
17. Mike Bliss
Has completed 37 of 816 possible laps in two starts this year, finishing 42nd at Phoenix and 43rd at Bristol.
18. Timmy Hill
Seeking to make first start of the Cup season.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at the All-Star Race
Jimmie Johnson wins the All-Star Race. Again. (ASP, Inc.)
Say what you want about Jimmie Johnson. Critics have a long list of rebuttals for why he’s not the greatest driver of this era: Chad Knaus, superior equipment and more money through sponsor Lowe’s than his closest rivals. But it’s hard to argue the stats on paper. Johnson’s fourth win in the All-Star Race, a NASCAR record, launched him past teammate Jeff Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.
With five Cup championships, 62 wins and another decade or so to add to that total, it’s time to give the man his due. Yes, he may be paired forever with a political correctness label that leaves him scorned by much of the fan base. Surely, Knaus and owner Rick Hendrick’s “New York Yankees” model of having the best of the best in all positions helps immensely. But someone still has to drive the car. Johnson had to hold off a hungry Kasey Kahne, side-by-side and initially charge forward from a starting spot of 20th place. That was no easy feat, a goal that could only be reached by a select few.
This All-Star Race was another reminder that, like it or not, Johnson is clearly in the “Greatest Driver of His Era” category. A decade from now, when all is said and done in his career, Saturday night will surely not be the only record he’ll leave behind.
Other gears to shift through after NASCAR’s greatest exhibition include…
FIRST GEAR: The All-Star Race Needs a retool
The All-Star Race has long been billed as one where sparks fly, rivalries ignite and drivers let it all hang out. So what have we gotten these last nine years during the Chase era? A total of one pass for the lead within the last five laps. There have been few, if any, incidents of close racing let alone contact between drivers that would spark fan interest. On Saturday night, Johnson needed two laps to fully dispose of Kahne before cruising to the checkers, part of a 90-lapper that had only one major incident (Mark Martin being spun out by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.). Not exactly the type of marketing the sport needs for an exhibition race, right?
Clearly it’s not all the driver’s faults. Charlotte has struggled as a racetrack since a 2005 “levigation” experiment gone awry, producing asphalt that’s left Goodyear in a pickle. In the first race run after the process, a 500-miler was nearly stopped as tires blew every 15-20 laps; in response, the tire company has acted more scared there than a five-year-old without a nightlight in his room. The rubber they produce, every time out, has been far too conservative, forcing the drivers to race the same, as little falloff (creating similar lap times) combined with high speeds make passing difficult at best.
With that in mind, Saturday night still felt like a missed opportunity from a garage that’s not too happy with each other right now. From Kasey Kahne-Kyle Busch to Denny Hamlin-Joey Logano, the list of drivers who feel they “owe” somebody for some past on-track issue is lengthy; Don King could have a field day with a Friday Night Boxing Special on HBO. So with a chance to take a “free shot,” all these drivers did … was nothing. Absolutely nothing but ride around, make laps and watch as the prohibitive favorite (Johnson) entering the event took control and pulled away. It was anticlimactic, paired with a staggering amount of empty seats and with a format based on best average finish for the final segment that left fans referring to an abacus. Add in a graphical mistake by SPEED that made it look like NASCAR was manipulating the rules for “Five-Time,” and the whole show took on the feel of a debacle.
Clearly, major changes for this race need to happen, and they need to happen now. Stick ‘n’ ball sports are struggling with All-Star formats too, but no one seems to need to go back to the drawing board more than NASCAR.
SECOND GEAR: Kurt Busch proving his worth
Furniture Row Racing, as a single-car team, has just one victory in its near-decade of NASCAR competition. Expect that to change soon. Kurt Busch is on a tear, winning the pole for the All-Star Race (as well as the pole at Darlington the week prior) and winning two of the first four segments of the race. Only a slow pit stop kept the No. 78 from Victory Lane, as Busch lost track position for the final 10 laps and was forced to settle for fifth.
In the past, that incident would cause the once-tempestuous driver to explode. Make no mistake, Busch has had his in-race moments in 2013, but Saturday night was another example of Busch keeping those mood swings in check. Yes, he let his frustration be known over the in-car radio, but the fury was nowhere near on par with past outbursts, and there certainly was no throwing the crew under the bus — instead, he was roundly complimentary.
No doubt, that belies a level of confidence the driver feels with this program, more heavily linked with Richard Childress Racing than ever before, as the big man himself considers potentially placing the driver in a top-tier ride in the RCR camp come 2014.
Still in the top 20 in points, Charlotte’s 600-miler presents one of several opportunities for this team to steal a win in the coming weeks (Michigan, Sonoma and Daytona are others that come to mind). With a “win or wreck” mentality, Busch is likely to run around 20th in points, which means he’s the biggest roadblock for Denny Hamlin should this team break out and reach Victory Lane multiple times.
The “wild card” race is about to ramp up.
THIRD GEAR: Ford’s failure
Brad Keselowski, blowing a transmission on the second lap, said it all for a Ford contingent that’s looking a step behind. Despite adding two cars to its roster this offseason through Penske Racing, Fords have only won twice this season in 11 starts (plus a 12th opportunity in the All-Star Race). For every feel-good story (Carl Edwards’ return to prominence, David Ragan’s Talladega miracle, Aric Almirola’s top-10 surge) there’s been a long list of tough ones. Greg Biffle has been maddeningly inconsistent, hitting the wall at Charlotte Saturday night and once again being a non-factor. Ditto Joey Logano, although his charg to a strong second behind Johnson in the closing laps of the All-Star Race was admirable. Marcos Ambrose was once again invisible and will need to rely on road course expertise to make the Chase.
With Hendrick and Gibbs clicking on all cylinders for Chevrolet and Toyota, respectively, there’s not one top team you can rely on across the board at Ford right now. They really need to take the two weeks while at home in Charlotte to study their notes, retool and get it together for NASCAR’s grueling summer stretch.
Danica Patrick road the fan vote to a 20th-place showing. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Pretty and popular doesn’t equal all-star
NASCAR’s two Most Popular Drivers — at least on paper — were non-factors Saturday night. Danica Patrick, the Fan Vote winner, was ninth in the sport’s preliminary race before using that support to sneak into the main event. But she ran 20th, the last car on the lead lap, finishing behind even under-funded David Ragan, Talladega’s surprise winner.
It wasn’t much better for Earnhardt, whose Hendrick Motorsports teammates sat on the front row for the final segment while the No. 88 languished at the back half of the top 10. Running seventh, he’s now led just once, for a single lap, in the last 10 races in what’s hardly described as an All-Star performance.
No doubt, these two names get the sport maximum publicity when running well. But it’s hard to put them on TV or celebrate their accomplishments no matter how hard NASCAR tries when they can’t find the speed to keep up.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Talladega
Denny Hamlin (ASP, Inc.)
1. Should Denny Hamlin really return this weekend?
Denny Hamlin will likely start Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway, his first since his back injury in March at Fontana. He's not expected to finish, much less make it past lap 20. Still, he's hoping it will help his Chase for the Sprint Cup odds.
Simultaneously, the idea is both genius and insane.
Hamlin only received clearance from both his personal doctors and NASCAR officials Thursday to actually get in the car this weekend. He and the No. 11 team initially plan to take advantage of the NASCAR scoring rule that awards championship points only to the drivers who actually start the race. In a Joe Gibbs Racing perfect world, a caution will wave inside the first five laps and Hamlin can come to pit road and hop out in favor of a relief driver. Hamlin will then be credited with the points earned by wherever the relief driver finishes.
Hamlin, who has been injured in a crash at Talladega before, doesn't want to further his injury at one of NASCAR's most wreck-prone racetracks. It's a line of thinking that makes perfect sense in NASCAR's point structure. But it also makes zero sense when factoring in how unpredictable that both racing and race cars can be. Even if Hamlin dropped a half-mile behind the pack at the race's start, there's still plenty that can go wrong in a hurry.
Because of that, it seems incredibly questionable as to why NASCAR would clear Hamlin to participate when he's fully acknowledged he's not prepared to run the whole race. Points about the strategy making a mockery of the sport aside, Hamlin seems to face some legitimate danger of only making his back injury worse.
Talladega, after all, isn't simply a morning commute.
2. Talladega style of racing still an unknown commodity for NASCAR's new car
What can we expect to fill Talladega's 500 miles on Sunday? As of now, it seems pretty wait-and-see.
Much like Daytona in February, Talladega brings another first for NASCAR's new car. At Daytona, the over-hyped machine produced largely flatline racing for much of NASCAR's signature event thanks to myriad factors like cool temperatures and tires failing to show signs of wear. By and large, drivers were fine with the aerodynamic package — many felt more in control at Daytona than in years past — and only wanted to mix it up at the end when the money bell was ready to sound.
Talladega could easily bring more of the same, if only because these teams have learned that leading a lap for one bonus point isn't quite enough to get aggressive early in the race. The result of such actions is often abundantly clear at Talladega and Daytona and it takes the form of the “Big One.”
Sunday's weather forecast also has the implication that it could limit the show's total product. Cool temperatures in the mid-60s are expected, meaning the track will have more grip in every lane. That reduces tire wear over a run and makes it less likely for handling to factor while racing in a pack. When handling is an issue, drivers often have little choice to start passing and getting a bit more daring.
One thing does seem sure for Sunday, however: Tandem racing has been largely abolished in the Sprint Cup Series thanks to the new car design with irregular front and rear design assemblies. If you're looking for that, check out Saturday's Nationwide Series race.
3. Harvick buoyed by Richmond success just wants to finish
Kevin Harvick was one driver who ultimately left Daytona Speedweeks in February disappointed with his luck in the Daytona 500. The No. 29 had seemed to assert itself as a pre-race favorite with commanding performances that became wins in the Sprint Unlimited and a Gatorade Duel qualifying race.
Instead he finished a lowly 42nd after being swept into a multi-car crash on lap 47.
“I like restrictor-plate racing, but our luck hasn’t been that great lately on that style track. Last season, we thought we were going to have a chance to win coming to the checkers during the second races of the season at Daytona and Talladega, but we wound up coming in on a wrecker," Harvick said. "We just haven’t gotten the finishes we thought we would at those tracks, even though we’ve had good runs."
Harvick followed Daytona with several races of mediocre to decent racing, but never looked like a contender to win. The late-race yellow changed that last week at Richmond International Raceway when Harvick benefited from a good final pit stop and a solid car to steal a win on a green-white-checker finish. He led just three laps all night.
Now inside the top 10 in Sprint Cup points for the first time in 2013, Harvick could continue his upward swing at a track where he's fared pretty well. Harvick's rate of finishing at Talladega is over 93 percent, easily the highest among active drivers with more than 10 Talladega starts. He otherwise has a win, six career top-5 finishes and 10 career top 10s at Talladega. You can also bet he'll find the lead at some point Sunday: he's led a lap at Talladega in seven straight races.
4. Puzzle pieces starting to fit for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Don't worry, you're reading this right: Juan Pablo Montoya dominated the closing stages of a NASCAR short track race.
Yes, Montoya, the road racing expert and otherwise decent if unlucky oval racer finally seemed to show some flashes of what we really expected from him in this, his seventh year of full-time Sprint Cup racing. Montoya ultimately led 67 laps and wound up with a third-place finish for his efforts after a late caution flag threw last Saturday's night's race into a dizzying finale of pit stops and track position.
It was Montoya's best finish since a third-place run more than two seasons ago at Las Vegas. For Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, the finish was its fourth of the season inside the top 10 after a 2012 campaign where it collected just five. Montoya's teammate, Jamie McMurray, may be the best candidate to tie the team's 2012 performance Sunday at Talladega.
Last fall, McMurray led a race a race-high 38 laps. A crash with just a handful of laps to go then took him out of the race and pushed him to a disappointing 34th-place finish. Still, McMurray has built a bit of name for himself on restrictor plate tracks in recent years. The 2010 Daytona 500 winner has a win at Talladega and five top-5 runs.
A win or decent finish for McMurray — he's now 12th in points — could have him pretty close to (if not in) the top 10 in the series point standings. A year ago, McMurray never was higher than 16th in points and finished in 20th.
Danica Patrick (ASP, Inc.)
5. Danica Patrick looks to duplicate Daytona success
The consistent television broadcast coverage of Danica Patrick racing in and around 25th for much of this still young season became nearly unbearable following her strong showing at Daytona.
Fortunately, it had seemed to dwindle — or, at the least, plateau — in recent races. The lime green No. 10 was showing up more in replays of incidents, and less in live coverage. Strange explanations from the FOX booth about anything Patrick did on track seemed to go with it.
Don't get used to it.
Expect the mania of Danica to ramp up again this weekend at Talladega in Patrick's return to the style of track where she has most proven herself in the Sprint Cup Series. For our sake, let's hope the coverage comes with a good reason, like a strong and consistent Sunday race car.
A solid race for Patrick isn't far-fetched. She rarely turned a bad wheel during the Daytona 500 and ultimately finished eighth after inexperience haunted her in the scramble of the race's last lap.
"I feel like I’ve learned some lessons from Daytona about the draft and how that unfolds at the end if you are in the right place at the right time," Patrick said this week, before noting "there's a lot of luck involved" at NASCAR's restrictor plate tracks.
She's right, of course. Teammate Tony Stewart looked and felt like a driver to beat in the Daytona 500. He was wrecked out before mile 100.
Patrick, with a lone 12th-place finish sandwiched by seven other finishes of 25th or worse since Daytona, could stand to find luck of her own in Sunday's 500 miler. At the least, it'd give the television crew a competitive reason to focus on her — something few and far between right now.
David Smith crunches the numbers for the Aaron's 499
An ankle biter (believe it or not). (ASP, Inc.)
Let’s say you’re a gambler. Parading across the casino floor, you feast your eyes on the roulette wheel. It’s noted next to the wheel that the last five spins have landed on black. Your chips are now burning a hole through your pocket because you know that the next spin is due to land on red. You throw your chips down, bet on red and as the wheel once again lands on black, you’re filled with confusion. What just happened?
You’re a sucker. That’s what happened.
Each individual spin of the roulette wheel is independent of all other spins, meaning what happened in prior spins has no effect on the current spin or future spins. Trusting previous spins is fool’s gold. You know what else is foolish? Trusting previous races to determine when cautions come out and how many cars get collected. This is actually something that crew chiefs do, but it is flawed logic. A caution-filled race one year can be a green-flag feeding frenzy the next, at the same track … unless we’re discussing Talladega Superspeedway.
The 2.66-mile restrictor plate track is its own behemoth. Watching races on television don’t do the beast any justice. It’s wide, fast and scary as hell. It’s Daytona if Daytona took performance-enhancing drugs.
5 of 9+ Dating back to 2010, there have been five crashes that included nine cars or more in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Talladega.
This is probably the best running definition of “the big one.” In the last six races at Talladega, there have been five big ones. The numbers are sort of deceiving, though. The crashes aren’t spread out; those five crashes spanned just three races, meaning half of the races in that time frame didn’t have a crash that wadded up the majority of the field. Contrary to what you’ll hear on television this weekend, a giant field-cutting wreck isn’t a matter of when. The big one is a matter of if.
18 of 2 to 6 In the last six Talladega races, there have been 18 multi-car crashes consisting of six cars or less.
We’ll call these the ankle biters. The big one has given away to a plethora of mini multi-car crashes that swoop in and eliminate around 12 percent of the field at any given time. Want to know why the big one hasn’t been a big concern the past three years? It has to do with these types of crashes, the ones that systematically eliminate the competition to a point where there aren’t enough cars remaining to actually have a giant crash.
Now, let’s be careful here. This isn’t a trend. A crash is something that occurs when a driver error or mechanical malfunction happens. A trend would read as follows:
“Driver A is going to become aero loose, overcorrect himself, crash, and take out 12.7 cars.”
That thought is wrong in so many ways. At Talladega, where large pack racing is on the menu, a mistake could occur at any point in the race, triggering an accident. The magnitude of the accident is based on the radius and reaction time of the cars around the trigger. It’s also based largely on luck. The best thing to do in avoiding accidents is to be out ahead of them, as we saw last year in Matt Kenseth’s restrictor plate race efforts.
Not an ankle biter. (ASP, Inc.)
6.0 Kenseth’s average running position in four points-paying restrictor plate races in 2012 was sixth.
Based on the aforementioned crashes, the safest place to be at Talladega the last three years is eighth or better. Kenseth’s decision to covet track position not only kept him out of harms way in each of those races last season, but it led to two victories. Considering he spent over 90 percent of those races running inside the top 15 and just under 33 percent leading, winning was practically a foregone conclusion.
6.000 Kenseth’s PEER through the three Daytona races earlier this year is 6.000, which ranks as the fourth-most productive rating.
The Gen-6 race cars flipped the script on drafting. It was hard to pass at Daytona — it won’t be as hard at Talladega, but it is likely to be significantly different compared to past races — so putting an emphasis on track position as a team would on an intermediate track eventually won the Daytona 500 for Jimmie Johnson (6.500 PEER, ranks second) and allowed Kevin Harvick (7.583 PEER, ranks first) to score two quick victories in the Sprint Unlimited and his qualifying race. Kenseth was as adept, just not victorious. His engine issue soured an otherwise beautiful Daytona 500 outing in which he led 86 laps.
1, 2 and 1 Danica Patrick won the pole in Daytona, starting first. She also ranked second in average running position (5.23) and first in average green-flag speed in the Daytona 500.
Specifically, her No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy SS was a rocket ship and the team’s focus on day-long track position wasn’t dissimilar to the game plan of Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team. Talladega will be a little more frenzied for Patrick, though. While her current plate PEER is admirable (3.000, ranks 15th), the addition of another groove at Talladega will make that strategy a little more daunting for a rookie driver.
I hope you all enjoyed restrictor plate action (or in this year’s case, inaction), short track madness and whatever it is we’re calling Fontana now, because all of that is in the rearview mirror. The intermediate tracks, referred to by some fans as “cookie cutters,” provide a semblance of statistical normalcy. Speed and strategy reins on these 1.5- and 2-milers, and while last year’s fall race at Texas Motor Speedway — this weekend’s destination — was an action-packed affair, the top finishers at these tracks are anything but random. We know who the key players will be, thanks to their statistical history on the tracks that comprise the bulk of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule.
69.2% Jimmie Johnson led a whopping 346 laps (69.2 percent of the race) last Sunday at Martinsville, en route to this eighth win at the facility.
We are used to Johnson’s sheer dominance on the half-mile paperclip-shaped track, but in seven previous wins he never threw down a performance like the one witnessed last weekend. It was a showing of team strength and driving expertise. As he did last fall, Johnson departs Martinsville’s Victory Lane for Texas, where he won following an exciting late-race battle with Brad Keselowski.
64.56% Danica Patrick recorded her best single-race passing efficiency, winning 64.56 percent of her pass encounters in her debut race at Martinsville.
The 12th-place finish was aided by her plus-passing — her pass differential for the day was plus-23 — after starting from the rear of the field due to an engine change. On a track that isn’t often kind to first-time racers (ask Ricky Stenhouse), Patrick had, arguably, her best Cup Series performance to date.
5.700 In the 10 CoT races that took place at Texas Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth amassed a series-high 5.700 Production in Equal Equipment Rating.
A beacon of consistency in the Lone Star State, Kenseth has finished ninth or better in nine of the last 10 races for an incredible 6.2-place average finish (backed by an amazingly consistent 5.5 finish deviation). Strangely, his average green-flag speed and his finishes at TMS don’t often coalesce; the one time he had the fastest car at Texas, he won (April 2011), but it is more typical that he radically out-performs his equipment, like his fourth-place finish last fall while averaging the 10th-best green-flag speed, or under-performs, like his ninth-place score while averaging the fourth-fastest speed in the spring of 2008.
Greg Biffle: Texas Stud. (ASP, Inc.)
452 Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle, the reigning winner of this weekend’s event, has led a series-best 452 laps in the last 10 races at Texas.
As a team, Roush Fenway won four of the 10 CoT events held at Texas. Its cars are often speedy, but it helps when the drivers are also adept. Of the current roster, Biffle is the standout on this particular quad-oval track, holding onto a 5.200 Texas-specific PEER (ranked second to Kenseth) to go along with the most laps led across the last five years. Carl Edwards ranks fourth with a 3.850 PEER thanks to a sweep of 2008’s races.
4.8 Keeping with Roush Fenway’s Texas success, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. averaged a 4.8-place finish in the last four NASCAR Nationwide Series races there, including a victory in last year’s spring race.
Does past lower division performance indicate future success? Not necessarily. Stenhouse, a Cup Series rookie, won’t be anyone’s pick to claim the victory Saturday night at Texas (especially with a re-tooled No. 17 team with rookie crew chief Scott Graves still building his personal notebook), but he could be destined for a good finish, something that could help raise the 17.8-place average finish he has through six Cup races this season.
0.583 Brad Keselowski ranks 23rd in Texas PEER with a 0.583 rating.
Historically, Texas has not been the best track for the 2012 series champion, but considering his gritty second-place run last year, history might not matter. True, his best finish prior to last fall’s race was 14th and his average finish in nine starts is 22.7, but if we have learned anything about the driver that currently sits second in the point standings it’s that he shouldn’t be counted out solely based on past performance. His runner-up finish last year was legitimized by his third-place average running position and 75 laps (22.4 percent of the race) led.
23.1 Brian Vickers, the driver subbing for the injured Denny Hamlin this weekend, averaged a 23.1-place finish at Texas in his last seven starts.
Hamlin was a two-time winner at Texas in the CoT era, so Vickers represents a significant drop-off. Vickers ranks 43rd out of 47 drivers in Texas-specific PEER with a -0.536 rating and his best finish is 16th, twice, in 2008 and 2009. A fast car can hide a lot of blemishes, though, so fans of the consistently speedy No. 11 still might have something for which to root.
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.
Johnson wins the STP Gas Booster 500 at Martinsville Speedway
Jimmie Johnson celebrates in Victory Lane at Martinsville. (ASP, Inc.)
Jimmie Johnson capped off a dominant weekend at Martinsville Speedway in a familiar way: by celebrating in Victory Lane. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won his eighth career NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the half-mile Virginia short track on Sunday in the STP Gas Booster 500.
Johnson’s weekend started in fine form on Friday, when he won the pole for the event. His No. 48 was near the top of each practice session’s speed chart, and when the green flag flew for 500 miles of racing, there was little doubt as to who the field would be chasing.
Johnson led 346 laps — the highest single-race total of his career — and drove away from Clint Bowyer and teammate Jeff Gordon after a restart with eight laps to go to seal the victory in convincing fashion.
“We had a great weekend and I know the stats clearly show that, but (it was) the most calm, relaxed, thought-out weekend that we’ve had as the 48 (team) — and the most mature,” Johnson said. “We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed to that.”
Bowyer, Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch rounded out the top 5.
“Jimmie has just really figured this place out,” Gordon said. “You get a driver like Jimmie and a team like the 48 — or ours, or the 15 (Bowyer) — you put them on the pole (and) in that No. 1 pit stall … it’s going to be really, really hard to beat them.”
Johnson’s mastery of Martinsville is reaching historic levels. His eight wins on the paperclip-shaped oval leads all active drivers and ranks behind only Richard Petty’s 15 and Darrell Waltrip’s 11 all-time. He’s won seven of the last 14 races at the only track that has hosted NASCAR premier series races since the sport’s inception.
Johnson also reclaimed the lead in the Sprint Cup Series point standings, holding a six-point advantage over Brad Keselowski.
After two weeks of hype, neither Joey Logano nor Tony Stewart engaged in any sort of on-track retaliation following their post-race skirmish in Fontana, Calif. Denny Hamlin, who was injured in his last-lap battle with Logano in the same race, was in attendance at Martinsville atop the pit box of his No. 11 team. Mark Martin, who filled in for Hamlin, finished 10th.
Sprint Cup rookie Danica Patrick impressed in her first visit to the physical short track, placing 12th after a hard-fought duel with Brian Vickers and Kevin Harvick on the final lap. Patrick was forced to start at the rear of the field when her No. 10 team changed an engine on Saturday.
“I didn’t know what to expect (at Martinsville), but I feel like finding the limit on a short track where you’re going a little slower … there’s less risk as opposed to finding the limit on a really big track where you’re doing 200 mph,” said Patrick said.
Johnson is the first driver to collect multiple wins in 2013, having scored his second Daytona 500 crown in February.
The circuit heads to Texas Motor Speedway for a Saturday night affair this weekend.
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.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Food City 500 at Bristol.
Bristol: Far from capacity. (ASP, Inc.)
There’s nothing about a rough start to the NASCAR season a short track can’t fix. During a thrilling weekend in Bristol, the sport had a near-photo finish in Saturday’s Nationwide race (remember this name: Kyle Larson) and several thrilling moments during Sunday’s big show. After plenty of criticism — from a driver’s $25,000 fine to fans railing about Daytona’s single-file 500 — it’s hard to find anyone complaining about the action in Thunder Valley. But honestly, when’s the last time fans left a short track feeling they threw their hard-earned money down the toilet?
It certainly wasn’t last spring at Martinsville, when the Clint Bowyer – Jeff Gordon feud officially began. Or last fall at Richmond, where Gordon’s epic charge to second knocked Kyle Busch out of the Chase. My point? These three speedways, even in the worst of times, make fans flock to them faster than this Sunday’s two-mile tedium, otherwise known as Auto Club Speedway ever will.
With all that said …
FIRST GEAR: Bristol’s back. So why is the attendance still awful?
The number of empty seats at Bristol, one year after Bruton Smith’s latest reconfiguration recommended by the fans themselves, was an eye-opener. A track which once sold out for 55 consecutive Cup races, from 1982-2009, had chasms full of unsold tickets noticeable both at the track and on television. (NASCAR no longer releases official attendance). Considering Bristol has over 160,000 seats, even 50 percent capacity is more than a sellout at Martinsville, Darlington or other facilities which don’t even have that much room in the stands. But it’s also highly disturbing considering its “crown jewel” reputation as one of the sport’s must-see events.
It’s a shame, considering Sunday offered the perfect mix of Bristol’s magic elixir: unpredictability. 110 laps before the finish, leader Jeff Gordon blew a tire and took out himself and second-place Matt Kenseth, changing the complexion of the race. The personal fireworks were also there, in the form of a budding rivalry between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano (see below). Record speeds combined with a healthy 17 lead changes mixed side-by-side action with the on-track rubbing still needed at times to get by other competitors.
Two theories abound here. One: fans, skeptical of the sport and the Gen-6 car chose to stay home, sending a message that both drivers and track need to be worthy of their cash. (The night race, in August and closer to NASCAR’s Chase, draws better.) But the more likely scenario surrounds a disturbing amount of price gouging still prevalent within the region. Lodging that typically would be $100 or less a night during a typical weekend went for four-, five-, even six-times that.
No amount of ticket price discount can fix that hit to a blue-collar fan’s wallet. That’s especially true considering the track’s location, so close to many other fine facilities. If you’re a fan from Charleston, S.C., for example, why spend $1,000 on lodging, plus mileage when you’ve got Talladega, Atlanta and Charlotte within a similar driving distance — for half the price.
The economy always makes an argument here; in smaller markets, the races are the only major event hitting the region, meaning hotels have to maximize profits in order to survive. But the TriCities unemployment rate, along with job creation, has generally been stronger than the national average. Add in Smith’s billions and there’s no excuse to get this problem fixed, even though he’s powerful enough (see: getting the state of Kentucky to custom build roads for his speedway in Sparta).
Looks like its time for Smith to flex some muscle again. Otherwise, it’ll be years (if ever) before his most prized possession fills up to capacity.
SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s third wheel pushing for first-rate attention
Kasey Kahne’s Bristol success, while continuing a sizzling 2013 start, was a bit of a shock. Even after Sunday, his highest career average finish at any short track is Richmond, with a mediocre 18.0. That’s also the location of his last win at an oval this small, scoring his first Cup victory there in May 2005 before bookending his victory total with a 1.7-second, cruise-control performance down the stretch on Sunday.
“This is a big race for me,” he said Sunday after scooting ahead of Brad Keselowski on the final restart. “Bristol’s one of those tracks that as a driver, you really feel like you need to win at. It’s a big confidence builder.”
So is his habit of qualifying up front — a 3.5-place average start leads all drivers, along with 223 laps led in 2013. But most importantly, he’s not digging the type of 2012 hole that expended almost all this team’s energy simply to make last year’s Chase. Instead, he’s showcasing the type of versatility (second at Las Vegas, first at Bristol, one of the favorites at Daytona before wrecking out) that one needs to take home a title in this sport.
To do it, Kahne would have to leapfrog Johnson within the organization, a feat once thought impossible. But keep in mind, head wrench Kenny Francis — not from the Hendrick mold — can step outside the box of Chad Knaus. Those at HMS were impressed with the ideas he brought to the table in ’12 and many credit them for the organization’s resurgence. Francis, working out of a different shop, won’t have to play nice as consistently this fall and has the better pit crew, Johnson’s Achilles Heel, in each of the last two seasons.
Will it happen? I’ll still believe it when I see it. But four races in, Kahne has started making a case.
Joey Logano (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Old teammates, new rivalry?
It wasn’t long on Sunday before Joey Logano’s post-race shouting match with Denny Hamlin transcended typical NASCAR media and went national. It’s the second time in a month the two drivers have been at war. In February, it was over Daytona drafting that went awry and cost both a better finish.
“That’s a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car – probably the worst teammate I ever had,” Logano said afterwards. “I had to put up with him for years, so… he’s just driving like an idiot.”
In his defense, Penske’s newest addition was right to place blame. Hamlin may not have meant to spin him, but all it takes is one frustrating bump at Bristol. The two have since taken to Twitter, spouting back and forth like high-schoolers (Hamlin, in particular, could sell t-shirts over his “Hush, little child” slam alone.)
What’s next? Both drivers are the emotional type, so this incident won’t get swept under the rug. Most importantly, Logano’s now matched with Brad Keselowski, who has a colorful history with Hamlin, and who had his own issues with the No. 11 on Sunday. The one who pushed to pair up, Kes has taken Logano under his wing, the type of mentorship Hamlin or Kyle Busch never gave at Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s possible some bitterness still exists there, along with a push from the reigning champ to “stand up for yourself” that will only increase. Stay tuned.
FOURTH GEAR: Where there’s Smoke, there’s a slump
Say what you will about Danica Patrick. But four races into 2013, she’s got as many top 10s, more poles and more laps led than her boss. The race wasn’t 10 laps old Sunday before Tony Stewart hit the wall, his second wreck in four races that’s left him 24th in points. That’s one spot ahead of Ryan Newman, who was seventh at Bristol but has suffered two other spectacular DNFs.
Typically, that wouldn’t be a problem for Smoke; he’s noted for not winning much until May. But landing 30 points outside the top 10, even this early in the season, could prove problematic. There’s a lot of talent to jump over, a potential “wild card” threat already in Matt Kenseth (reading three-four wins, just as many DNFs to keep him needing that fallback) and the dangers of falling too far behind development of NASCAR’s Gen-6. The more damaged cars, the more costly it becomes, and with over a dozen races unsponsored amongst his three teams, the money is not exactly growing on trees.
Danica, though, presents the biggest question of all. Could her struggles, combined with the media scrutiny surrounding them, make it that much harder to get on the same page? It’s the biggest mess Stewart’s had since purchasing the team in ’09. Has he matured as a boss to keep calm and work his way through it?
OVERDRIVE Paul Menard, RCR’s most consistent driver in 2013, has run better each week. He was 21st, 20th, then 10th before running ninth on Sunday. … Brad Keselowski’s the first since rival Jimmie Johnson, in 2005, with four top-5 finishes in the first four races. The difference? Johnson picked up a win (Las Vegas) with 270 laps led overall. No wonder why Penske’s top dog is so ticked. … Considering Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s freshman-year start in the Nationwide Series – four races, four wrecks – you have to give him credit for his start in Sprint Cup. Four straight top-20 finishes, leaving him 11th in points is the perfect foundation considering he should improve as the season progresses.
Predicting the best fantasy drivers in Bristol so you don't have to.
Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit rolls on to one of its most anticipated stops of spring for the Food City 500 at Bristol 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 Bristol, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
A-List 1. Jimmie Johnson
Hottest driver on the circuit. Johnson has an average running position of 4.2, best in the season’s first three races, and has the best average finishing position (3.0) in the series. Also, he has four consecutive top 10s at Bristol, most among active drivers.
2. Brad Keselowski
Not too far behind Johnson in the fast start category (average finish of 3.7) and heads to a track in Bristol where he’s won two of the last three races.
3. Matt Kenseth
Has led a series-high 128 laps this season with 86 of those coming in the Daytona 500. His 25th-place finish in the Bristol night race in August broke a string of six consecutive top-10 finishes there. He’s led in each of the last three Bristol races.
4. Denny Hamlin
Won the Bristol night race in August, leading 70 laps. Has two top-10 finishes in his last three starts there.
5. Kasey Kahne
Has best average start this season (4.0) on the circuit. Has three top-10 finishes in last five races at Bristol and led 42 laps there in the night race.
6. Clint Bowyer
Scored a pair of top-10 finishes last year at Bristol. Best finish so far this season is a sixth at Phoenix.
7. Jeff Gordon
Has been passed 44 more times under green than he’s passed this season and has an average start of 5.7 but average finish of 18.0 in 2013. Has not a had a top-10 finish in the spring Bristol race in the past three years.
8. Tony Stewart
Has not finished better than 14th in his last five Bristol races. Seems to be typical Tony where he starts the season slow (his best finish so far is an eighth at Phoenix).
9. Kevin Harvick
Harvick has an average running position of 16.6 in the first three races of this season. Has one top-10 finish in last eight races at Bristol.
Kyle Busch (ASP, Inc.)
List-B 1. Kyle Busch
Has highest driver rating in the last 16 races at Bristol and has led the most laps among active drivers during that time. Busch has seven top-10 finishes, including four wins, in his last nine Bristol starts.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Off to the best start of his career with three consecutive top-10 finishes. Has the best average finish (9.9) of any active driver in the last 16 races at Bristol. However, he’s finished between 11th and 16th in his last five Bristol starts.
3. Brian Vickers
Making season debut in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 car. Finished in the top 5 in both Bristol races in this ride last year, leading 126 laps.
4. Carl Edwards
Last year marked the first time since 2009 that he did not have a top-10 finish in either Bristol race.
5. Greg Biffle
Has been hot and cold at Bristol. Biffle has not had a top-10 finish in his last three starts there. Before that, though, he had four consecutive top-10 results. He has started in the first two rows in three of the last four Bristol races.
6. Paul Menard
He’s among nine drivers to have completed every lap so far this season. Has three top-10 finishes in last four Bristol starts. Also ranks 10th in average running position through three races this year.
7. Martin Truex Jr.
Has three consecutive finishes of 11th or better at Bristol.
8. Ryan Newman
Last year marked the first time since 2005 that Newman did not score at least one top 10 at Bristol. Team could use a rebound after the tough start it has had with two consecutive DNFs (accident at Phoenix and engine at Las Vegas).
9. Jamie McMurray
Has four top-10 finishes in his last six Bristol starts. He’s also led laps in two of those races.
10. Joey Logano
Finished eight in last August’s night race and led 139 laps. It was his first top 10 there in eight Cup races. Coming off a 12th-place finish at Las Vegas, his best since joining Penske Racing.
11. Kurt Busch
Still knows his way around Bristol but has not finished better than 17th in his last three trips there.
12. Aric Almirola
Has finished between 13th and 16th in the first three races of the season.
13. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has one top-10 finish in his last four Bristol starts.
14. Marcos Ambrose
Finished fifth in night race last August and led a lap. Has run in the top 15 in only 11.2 percent of the laps run this season.
15. Jeff Burton
Has one top-10 finish in his last five Bristol races.
16. Bobby Labonte
Has not finished better than 13th in his last 10 Bristol starts.
List-C 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Running his first Cup race at Bristol. Finished second in Nationwide race there last August and sixth in the spring. This season, he’s made more green-flag passes in Cup (359) than any other driver, but he’s been passed 358 times under green as well.
2. AJ Allmendinger
Finished in top 20 in last two Bristol starts.
3. Travis Kvapil
Placed 18th in most recent Bristol race, his best finish there in last six starts.
4. David Gilliland
Placed 20th in August race, his best Bristol finish in last nine starts there.
5. Michael McDowell
Finished 23rd in night race last August for best Bristol finish in five starts.
6. Casey Mears
Has an average finish of 24.0 in first three races of the season. His average finish in his last three Bristol races is 23.0.
7. Landon Cassill
Finished in top 30 in both Bristol starts last year (24th and 29th).
8. Danica Patrick
Finished 29th in lone Cup start at Bristol in her career but did finish ninth in August Nationwide race there.
9. David Ragan
Has finished no better than 16th in last six Bristol starts.
10. Dave Blaney
Has failed to finish six of the last eight Bristol races with his best finish during that time 25th.
11. David Reutimann
Has finished no better than 21st in last three Bristol races since placing second there in August 2010.
12. JJ Yeley
After 10th-place finish in Daytona 500, placed 28th at Phoenix and 36th at Las Vegas.
13. Scott Speed
Has failed to finish the last two races, placing 41st at Phoenix and Las Vegas.
14. Terry Labonte
This would mark only his second Bristol start since 2009. Last ran there in 2011 night race, finishing 33rd.
15. Josh Wise
Finished 38th and 43rd in Bristol races last year.
16. David Stremme
Has yet to run a lap in the top 15 in a race this season.
17. Scott Riggs
Has finished 41st or worse in each of his last three Bristol starts.
18. Mike Bliss
Finished 43rd in August race, only Bristol start he made last year. Has failed to qualify for two of the first three races of the season.
19. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish last seven Bristol races, placing no better than 39th.