Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Darlington
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
The Southern 500, while no longer held on Labor Day is still looked at as one of NASCAR’s biggest races. Darlington remains the place where, in 1950, an egg-shaped, awkward-looking asphalt track gave birth to superspeedway competition. Thirty-five years later, a million-dollar Chase by a man named Awesome Bill was another notch in the sport’s belt that wrapped the racetrack into our national consciousness. Like golf’s Masters, purists regard it as one of the sport’s crown jewels.
“I don’t know that I’ve had a win that feels bigger than this at this moment,” said Matt Kenseth on Saturday night. Keep in mind, the former Sprint Cup champ has had plenty of ‘em; well over two dozen, including two of the last five Daytona 500s. “There’s a lot of tradition here. This is one of the most storied and historic races anywhere, not just in NASCAR.”
To those Kenseth’s age and older, that will always ring true. The key is getting a new generation to embrace it. Overnight ratings at Darlington, for the 18-to-49 crowd according to zap2it.com lost out to the NBA Playoffs on ABC. “The Lady In Black” can tear a Chevrolet apart, but the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony? He slam dunks right in her face.
It’s a shame, as an initial marketing push for Darlington’s May date designed to keep the seats filled has faded through the years, leaving the “Track Too Tough To Tame” a “Track Too Easy To Forget.” For one of the most important races on the schedule, getting tucked into Mother’s Day weekend on a Saturday night makes the race now seem lost, not loved. The importance of the Chase has diminished its overall worth on the schedule; right now, it’s just another event, with no Winston Millions or even an extra $100 bill attached to the trophy. Having a track-position yawner of a race Saturday didn’t help, either, as Goodyear seems like it’s missing the mark here more often than not.
People say NASCAR has been losing its place on the national sports landscape for several years. Perhaps it’s because of simple decisions like this one, making a race its most dedicated supporters love just another notch on a long, monotonous conveyor belt. While Kasey Kahne feels like he deserves an apology this Monday, Darlington is looking for something much more simple: attention.
FIRST GEAR: Gibbs vs. Hendrick, anyone?
The brief moment sparks flew at Darlington between Hendrick’s Kahne and Gibbs’ Kyle Busch could be a sign of things to come down the road. In virtually every category you could come up with, their two organizations — totaling seven cars — have put a whooping on the 2013 Sprint Cup field. Kenseth’s win, earned when Busch had a right-rear tire go bad down the stretch, was his third in 11 races, a series high. Busch has tacked on two additional victories for JGR, as the teammates have combined for a series-leading 1,521 laps led – more than the next eight drivers on the list combined. Kenseth has been especially impressive, seizing opportunities (Las Vegas, Darlington) late in the race where others have dominated. And he did it this time with a temporary crew chief in Wally Brown, as Jason Ratcliff serves out a downgraded NASCAR penalty after an appeals court turned his Kansas engine issue into a blip on the radar screen.
Hendrick has countered with Jimmie Johnson, fourth on Saturday night and on virtual cruise control on top of the point standings. Winning twice, Johnson has just one result outside the top 20, remains a contender at every type of track and, this season, has avoided the sting of NASCAR’s inspection process. Teammates Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all look strong enough to make the Chase on points meaning 50 percent of the postseason field, at minimum, will be comprised of these two multi-car giants.
How dominant have these teams been? Just three of 11 races this season have been won by other organizations, and each can easily be explained away. Carl Edwards took Phoenix for Roush Fenway Racing in the second Gen-6 race, where rock hard tires meant no passing and track position roulette. Kevin Harvick captured Richmond for Richard Childress Racing, but he led just three laps in a bizarre, roll-the-dice green-white-checker ending. And David Ragan’s Talladega triumph last week? We know how much that race acts like your state’s lottery number machine.
So it’s clear that on the Chase tracks where handling, horsepower and head wrenches actually make the difference, HMS and JGR stand head and shoulders above the rest. With the season nearly halfway complete, it’s time for everyone else to start stepping up.
Kasey Kahne (ASP, Inc.)
SECOND GEAR: All-Star Race reuds coming?
While we’re at it, the Kahne-Busch battle is simply the latest in a long line that may need to be settled on Saturday night. While going for the lead late at Darlington, Kahne slid up in front of Busch only for the No. 18 to dive hard entering Turn 1. Whether there was contact or not is up for debate; the bottom line is it was too close for comfort. Kahne spun around, his chances to win went poof and the normally mild-mannered driver had the M&M’s Toyota to blame for a second week in a row.
“He’s got to just race me,” said Kahne about Busch. “I mean, I’ve never touched the guy in my life as far as on the race track. Three times this year, there have been other times in other years. I don’t really know what his deal is with me.”
Neither driver finished strong, as Kahne was 11th and Busch sixth to add fuel to their tempers going forward. So let’s see: that’s Kahne-Busch, Joey Logano-Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart-Kurt Busch … just the tip of the iceberg. If Charlotte’s amenable, this All-Star Race could finally see the types of settled scores that used to make it “must watch” event back in the day.
THIRD GEAR: Denny Hamlin is healthy
Perhaps the most understated run in a clean race that Gibbs dominated came from its driver of the No. 11 car. Darlington is one of the sport’s most physical tracks, as drivers take a beating on both mind and body. For Hamlin to return from an injury suffered in late May there, and not only come out of it feeling fine but running second shows that L1 Compression Fracture isn’t going to slow him much going forward.
“Really, it's like starting your season over,” he said, completing this distance for the first time since Fontana on March 24th. “It feels good to be competitive again. (But) I got to get back in racing shape. It will take time to get back to where I need to be.”
If that’s Hamlin in “out of shape” mode, drivers better beware. Clearly, the speed of JGR combined with a track position race helped his case. But second’s an A-plus baseline to start from when the task ahead is certainly brutal: Two-three wins, plus top 10s nearly every week to become Chase eligible by September.
FOURTH GEAR: Kurt Busch will put it together
It’s been a frustrating last few weeks for Busch, who’s been in position to win the last three races. At Richmond, he had a top-5 car down the stretch only to have circumstances and a bad last set of tires cost him. Then, at Talladega, he was in the lead pack of six cars, in position to make a run when a late caution bunched the field, jumbled up the draft and led to him being the bullseye in “The Big One.” Finally, at Darlington he won the pole at a track the No. 78 team has won at in the past, then led 69 laps only for his car to deteriorate on every pit stop once the green flag dropped. Busch stayed on the lead lap in the end, but wound up a disappointing 14th. No wonder why the driver’s been testing IndyCars, rumored to run a limited schedule in a crossover stunt later this year with Michael Andretti’s team after topping 218 mph in an Indy 500 rookie test (he won’t run that race this year).
But what’s been notable about this whole stretch in NASCAR land is how relatively calm the elder Busch has remained, even keeping his cool during a war of words post-race with Stewart at Richmond. The speed seems to be there from this team, and its presence up front makes it clear wins could come in the summer, whether at an intermediate (Charlotte? Michigan?) the road course at Sonoma or Daytona in July. Maturity finally may be making its mark. The question now may become where Busch feels his racing future should be, long-term.
OVERDRIVE Kyle Busch might be mad at what happened Saturday night, having left the track without comment, but Monday will offer the benefit of hindsight. With 265 laps led, he dominated and only bad luck kept him from Victory Lane, a curse that will change with time. Eleven times in his career he’s led 200-plus circuits in a race but scored the win in only three of them. ... As expected, the momentum for the two Davids’ thrilling one-two finish at Talladega came back to reality at a track where they just don’t have the horsepower to contend. The Front Row Motorsports cars were 29th and 39th Saturday night, with David Ragan blowing an engine and bowing out early. … What’s going on with Mark Martin? He hasn’t had a top-5 finish now with the No. 55 car since Daytona (third). The driver’s been involved in several on-track scuffles, some of his making and never so much as sniffed the top 20 at Darlington, a track right in his wheelhouse. Perhaps another indication this year will be his last in the series?
Geoffrey Miller predicts the best fantasy drivers in Darlington so you don't have to.
Dancing with The Lady. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to venerable Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Saturday evening. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller 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, Geoffrey’s fantasy predictions for Darlington ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least surviving an evening of dancing with the Lady in Black.
1. Jeff Gordon
The four-time champ survived two wrecks at Talladega to squeak out an 11th-place finish. In Darlington, he hits a track where he leads all active drivers with seven wins and 18 top 5s. In the last eight Darlington races, Gordon has a series-high average position of 8.3.
2. Jimmie Johnson
How will Jimmie screw up Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race this week? He could do it by replicating 2012 at Darlington when he led 134 laps and took the checkered flag. His two other Darlington wins came back-to-back in 2004.
3. Kasey Kahne
Kahne has yet to score a Darlington win, but he's done something nearly as impressive: Kahne has finished all 10 of his Darlington starts. We'll see if Kyle Busch has anything to say about that statistic Saturday night.
4. Matt Kenseth
All 19 of Matt Kenseth's Darlington starts have netted him a mediocre average finish of 17th, but those were also in Roush Fenway Racing cars. How will the Joe Gibbs Racing setups treat one of the strongest drivers on the circuit?
5. Denny Hamlin
He's been better than Gordon in the last seven Darlington races, but it's still not clear if Hamlin will finish Saturday night's race. That makes you wonder if he can grab top 10 No. 7 at Darlington — a feat he's accomplished in 85 percent of his starts there.
6. Kevin Harvick
NASCAR's self-proclaimed lame duck has averaged 223 laps per race in the top 15 in his last eight Darlington starts, but has just two top-5 finishes and zero wins.
7. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski's never led a lap in his four Sprint Cup starts at Darlington. That's probably legitimate because he hasn't taken to Twitter to blame another competitor for the lack of performance.
8. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer's average Darlington finish is worse than drivers like Ambrose, Bliss, Montoya, Ragan and Sadler. His 11th-place finish last season was his first lead lap Darlington result since 2008.
9. Tony Stewart
Smoke has 20 starts at Darlington since 1999, completing 6,567 laps. He's never won, though, and has led a total of only 20 laps in that period. Combine that with his No. 14's performance in 2013 and … well, you get the point.
The King's three Darlington victories came in 1966-67. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Kyle Busch
Kyle's recent average race performance at Darlington is better than most A-Listers. The ’08 winner has three straight showings of 11th or better and has averaged over 302 laps in the top 15 in his last eight starts.
2. Greg Biffle
Biffle's a little sore from his early wreck at Talladega, but a bounce back at Darlington makes sense. He led 74 laps a year ago and claims more fastest in-race laps (283) than any active driver since 2005.
3. Ryan Newman
He's never been the first to the checkered flag at Darlington, but it's not a track where Newman has his head up his posterior when it comes to performance. Since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, Newman has three Darlington top 10s in four starts.
4. Carl Edwards
Expect a solid run for Edwards at Darlington, where he's only finished off the lead lap twice. The No. 99 has two straight Darlington top 10s, too.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Driver 88 has never won at Darlington, and it's probably Jimmie Johnson's fault. Otherwise, he's got three top 5s and seven top 10s in South Carolina.
6. Martin Truex Jr.
He was fifth a year ago after leading 25 laps for his second Darlington top 10 in as many starts. In eight total starts, Truex has never been worse than 20th. Makes for a nice sleeper.
7. Jamie McMurray
Three career top 5s at Darlington, five top 10s and Big Macs are two for $4.44 right now. At least something good will come of this weekend.
8. Joey Logano
Logano's been on a roller coaster since the Fontana wreck with Hamlin. He's finished 23rd, fifth, 39th, third and then 35th at Talladega. Now, he gets to race without his normal crew chief, car chief and top engineer. Getting a first career Darlington top 5 seems like a longshot.
9. Kurt Busch
It's been 10 years since Busch lost to Ricky Craven at Darlington by roughly two inches. It's been five years since he led a lap there. It's been one year since he had a pit road dust up there.
10. Jeff Burton
The two-time Darlington winner probably still smirks at losing his battle to prevent the Rainbow Warrior from winning the 1997 Winston Million. In consolation, Darlington does provide Burton his highest top 10 per start ratio (16 of 30) of any track he's raced.
11. Mark Martin
Rejuvenated from watching the Sprint Cup whipper snappers crash everywhere at Talladega from his couch, Martin's in the No. 55 in search of his 18th Darlington top 5. He's finished 43 of 46 Darlington starts.
12. Paul Menard
Darlington is one of eight tracks where Paul Menard doesn't have a top 10. Coincidentally, he's raced just 95 of 2,161 career Darlington laps placed inside the top 15.
13. Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya leads the series in 23rd-place Darlington finishes with three. He once scored a top 5 (2010) but went back to where he felt comfortable in the next two seasons, recording 23rd- and 24th-place finishes. Lesser writers would also note he's buoyed by his lack of jet dryer collisions at Talladega despite an inordinate amount of opportunities.
14. Marcos Ambrose
He's improved his Darlington finish by some multiple of four in each of his four starts. Last year he was ninth. That pattern isn't looking good for a win.
15. Aric Almirola
His lone Sprint Cup start at Darlington came last year, and Almirola finished 19th. A top-10 run this weekend would be his fifth straight.
16. Bobby Labonte
The former Darlington winner (1997) ran 17th in his final Joe Gibbs Racing start in 2005 at the track. He hasn't topped it since.
C-List 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
First Darlington Cup start, but his Nationwide numbers are respectable, with two top 10s and a pole. He's got the best equipment of the C group.
2. David Ragan
500 miles at Darlington is a little bit different than 500 miles at Talladega for Front Row Motorsports, but I won't rain on Ragan's parade.
4. David Reutimann
Fared pretty well at Darlington with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2010 with a fourth-place start and 11th-place finish. A finish like that for BK Racing would be a real Whopper.
5. Casey Mears
Mears, never better than 15th at Darlington, will try to finish on the lead lap for the first time in his 11-start career there.
6. Travis Kvapil
With the right equipment, Kvapil can finish in the top 10 at Darlington. In his current equipment, he can hope to continue just finishing at Darlington.
7. David Gilliland
The good news is Gilliland finishes better than he starts at Darlington. The bad news is Gilliland averages a 31st-place finish.
8. Danica Patrick
Ricky’s girlfriend was 31st and six laps down at the finish at year ago in her first Darlington start. A lead lap finish would be a write-home-to-momma improvement.
9. Dave Blaney
Fun fact: Team owner Tommy Baldwin Jr. once won two of four Darlington races as a crew chief for Ward Burton in 2000 and ’01. Somebody get Jeb on the phone.
10. David Stremme
Stremme's seventh start has potential for many personal firsts at Darlington: a win, a top 5, a top 10, a top 15, a top 20, leading a lap and/or a lead-lap finish.
11. J.J. Yeley
Three-straight Darlington DNFs for Yeley don't exactly make for a good time. Or a good fantasy play.
12. Josh Wise
Start-and-parked Darlington last year, but has raced every event this year.
13. Timmy Hill
He's raced Las Vegas, Talladega, Charlotte, Kansas, Phoenix, Texas, Fontana and Richmond in his career. Someone put a Go Pro camera inside Hill's car for his first Darlington practice.
14. Joe Nemechek
Nemechek made $9,670 for finishing 19th at Darlington in 1994. In 2012, he finished 40th and won $72,050. Those are Joe's most interesting Darlington facts, aside from the sixth he had in 1999 for Felix Sabates.
Entered drivers on start-and-park watch:
Regan Smith wins a wreck-marred Aaron's 312 at Talladega Superspeedway
A wild finish to Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway once again led to confusion concerning how the sanctioning body scores finishes on the sport’s two restrictor plate tracks.
Geoffrey Miller predicts the best fantasy drivers in Talladega so you don't have to.
Matt Kenseth: First and third at Talladega in 2012. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Deep South this weekend to big, bad Talladega Superspeedway for the Aaron’s 499. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller 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, Goeffrey’s fantasy predictions for Talaldega ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth has the most laps in the top-15 during the last 16 Talladega races of any driver (63 percent) and he’s the defending track winner. Of course, that was before the whole “three grams” incident.
2. Clint Bowyer
No one has scored more points at Talladega in the last 10 races than NASCAR’s favorite Kansan. Seven career Talladega top 10s with two wins in 14 starts isn’t shabby, either. He might even stop by your Talladega infield party.
3. Brad Keselowski
Two wins, three top 5s and six top 10s in his last eight Talladega races. Oh, and he's back in that familiar Blue Deuce instead of that bad luck red Richmond car.
4. Kevin Harvick
Don't sleep on how good Harvick and that No. 29 were at Daytona. Talladega's a great place to continue his anti-lame duck crusade.
5. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson basically has a whole race on the rest of the field in the point standings and, after Richmond, an angry Chad Knaus. Doesn't have a top 5 at Talladega since his win in 2011.
6. Jeff Gordon
Six-time Talladega winner seems to have gotten really good at making the wrong move just in time for the checkered flag at restrictor plate tracks. Still, how much can you bet against the sport's active Talladega wins and top-5 finishes leader?
7. Tony Stewart
He'll certainly block someone on Sunday, causing a stink thanks to his outspoken anti-blocking crusade of late. It's a bit hard to believe Stewart has just one top-15 finish at 'Dega since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008.
8. Kasey Kahne
He might have an average Talladega finish of 20.3, but his last three Talladega races have produced a slightly better average of 7.3.
9. Denny Hamlin
Even if starts the race, he's not finishing it thanks to the back issues. Still, if you pick Hamlin, he starts the race, and then his substitute driver pulls off a miracle, you'll get full points Sunday. Of all the places it could happen, Talladega is it.
Beard or no, Junior is a force at Talladega. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Do you need more of a steal at Talladega than an Earnhardt in the B-list? With five career Talladega wins, Earnhardt finishes half of his Talladega starts in the top 10. He also lost the beard, so that should probably help with aerodynamics, or something.
2. Kurt Busch
Busch is winless at Talladega, but has 13 top 10s and gets to use notes from Richard Childress Racing this weekend thanks to Furniture Row Racing’s alliance. However, the possibility of a paramedic still mad from last fall’s incident on the backstretch sabotaging Busch’s car is higher than normal.
3. Jeff Burton
Burton turned in just 11 top 10 finishes in the previous two seasons. Three of those were at Talladega. Even when he’s bad, at Talladega he’s good.
4. Joey Logano
Logano has the third best average of laps completed to starts in his Talladega career of any active driver. That’s translated to four top 10s.
5. Kyle Busch
This isn’t unusual for the aggressive Busch, but it’s checkers or wreckers for him at Talladega. It should be noted that he notched impressive second- and third-place showing here last season … after finishes of 33rd and 35th the previous year (see what I mean?).
6. Bobby Labonte
Talladega gives us the chance to rank Labonte higher than we likely will at any other race in 2013, if only so we can remember when he beat Jimmy Spencer by 0.167 seconds to the Talladega checkered flag in 1998.
7. Greg Biffle
Biffle has been decidedly average at Talladega — two top 5s, five top 10s — but the recent Roush Fenway Racing restrictor plate resurgence means he’s riding a streak of consecutive top 10 finishes at the 2.66-mile track.
8. Jamie McMurray
Three of McMurray’s six career wins have been on restrictor plate tracks, including one in 2009 at Talladega.
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
2010 was Montoya’s best NASCAR season to date, and he had a pair of third-place finishes and a pole position at Talladega. There’s no telling if his Richmond momentum was a precursor to the same thing.
10. Aric Almirola
If Almirola makes it four straight top-10 finishes in the Sprint Cup Series, he’ll also mark his first career Talladega top 10.
11. Ryan Newman
Before last fall’s top 10 amid the craziness induced on the last lap by his teammate, Newman finished 23rd or worse at Talladega in six straight races. It may be his least favorite track, so don’t get your free Bloomin’ Onion hopes too high.
12. Carl Edwards
Edwards led eight laps at Talladega during the spring 2011 event, the most he’s ever strung together in one race. His best chance to win in 2009 ended with his car shredding the tri-oval fence. Talladega isn’t nice to Carl Edwards.
13. Paul Menard
Menard hasn’t shattered expectations at Talladega (only one top 10) but he has finished on the lead lap in four of the last five races.
14. Martin Truex Jr.
Every finish for Truex at Talladega has been on the lead lap, but that’s only been in seven of his 16 starts.
15. Marcos Ambrose
Ambrose finished fourth in his first Talladega appearance, but hasn’t touched the top 10 since.
16. Brian Vickers
If Denny Hamlin ultimately can’t start Sunday’s race, it’ll be Vickers getting points for the No. 11 instead. Don’t waste a start on that chance.
1. David Ragan
Trust the stats on this one. In 12 career Talladega races, David Ragan has finished on the lead lap 10 times for an average finish of 16th. No one in NASCAR has a higher ratio of lead lap finishes to starts.
2. Michael Waltrip
One of two former Talladega winners in the C-group, Waltrip could pull some nice points if he can finish while driving the No. 55 this weekend.
3. Danica Patrick
She’s never raced at Talladega in Sprint Cup, but her showing at Daytona in February proved she can race pretty well in restrictor plate conditions. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her and teammate Tony Stewart ride most of the race in the back, away from the danger of the big pack.
4. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The other half of “Stenica” is also making his first Talladega Sprint Cup start. He was third in the Nationwide Series race last spring, and will have some teammates to help him in the draft.
5. Elliott Sadler
Sadler is an interesting pick because he’ll be with a Joe Gibbs Racing team that showed major promise at Daytona before engine failures systematically knocked them out. In 23 starts, Sadler has just one top 5 at Talladega. He’s also not running a full schedule, so you won’t be wasting a start better used somewhere else.
6. Trevor Bayne
Former Daytona 500 winner returns to Sprint Cup for his fourth start of 2013. At minimum, he’s got plenty of drafting friends in the field and lead lap finishes in his last three Talladega starts.
7. Travis Kvapil
After 10 Talladega starts, Kvapil’s average finish of 17.8 ranks 11th-best among active drivers. That is not a typo.
8. Scott Speed
If you’re looking to differentiate in your league (or maybe you’re just a Scott Speed fan), Talladega is about the only place I’d start him this year. He has a Talladega top 10 and three lead lap finishes.
9. David Gillilland
He’s finished 82 percent of his Talladega starts, which puts him in the top 10 of active drivers.
10. Casey Mears
Four career Talladega top 10s and 60 career laps led is … something?
11. Regan Smith
Remember when Tony Stewart was awarded Smith’s rightful Talladega win in 2008? That doesn’t have much to do with Sunday, but it shows Regan has been close in Alabama.
12. David Reutimann
The BK Racing driver has finished 50 percent of his Talladega starts on the lead lap, but has just one top 10.
13. Dave Blaney
This former start and park team comes to Talladega riding the high of its best 2013 finish (23rd) at Richmond.
14. Joe Nemechek
Nemechek has nearly as many poles (4) as top 10s (5) at Talladega. He’s also scored four straight 41st-place finishes at Talladega after starting and parking.
15. David Stremme
Stremme has failed to finish four of his 10 Talladega starts, and has just three lead-lap finishes.
16. Landon Cassill
Holds the dubious honor of being just one of four active drivers to have never led a lap at Talladega.
17. Josh Wise
He’s raced all nine starts so far this year, but Wise has only completed 10 laps in two starts at Talladega.
18. Terry Labonte
Terry has more starts and laps completed at Talladega than anyone. Still, consider him on full start and park alert.
19. Michael McDowell
Ran the full distance of the Daytona 500 to a ninth-place finish. Has start-and-parked every start since.
Geoffrey Miller predicts the best fantasy drivers in Richmond so you don't have to.
Clint Bowyer. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit up the road to Richmond, Va., on Saturday for the Toyota Owners 400. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller 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, Goeffrey’s fantasy predictions for Richmond ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Clint Bowyer
Fourteen career Richmond starts. Two wins. Eight top 10s. Thirteen lead lap finishes. Don't tell me you're gonna pick against Clint freakin' Bowyer — in anything — on a Saturday night.
2. Tony Stewart
Smoke has the most points scored in the last four races at RIR, and is the only driver with four top 10s. One would think, because it's not a 1.5-mile track, that Stewart won't continue his early season stink.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick, twice a winner at Richmond, has led two of the last four races there. But he's only got one top 10 this year, and a grand total of one lap led. His 15 career top 10s at RIR are the most of any track on his Sprint Cup resume — even with Ricky Rudd stealing one away prior to a hood stomping in ’03.
4. Jeff Gordon
In 40 career starts, he boasts the best average starting spot (7.9) of any current driver and the most Richmond top 5s (16) of all current full-time drivers. Oddly, he hasn't won there since Bill Clinton was president (2000).
5. Jimmie Johnson
Led just three laps at Richmond last season and his last win at RIR was in 2008. Most widely celebrated Richmond moment was when he wrecked Kurt Busch intentionally in 2011. More people have him on their Richmond roster than any other driver, though.
6. Kasey Kahne
Held off Stewart for his first career victory at RIR in 2005 before performing a miracle at the .75-mile track in 2011: earning a top-3 finish in a Red Bull Racing car. Average finish of 8.5 last year in Hendrick equipment, and potentially still has Richmond beef with Marcos Ambrose.
7. Brad Keselowski
As long Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans — still angry about him "causing a caution" that hosed the No. 88 at Kansas — don't run him out of town, Keselowski figures to be average in Richmond. Two top 10s last year were his best yet, but he's still never led a lap at RIR.
8. Matt Kenseth
One top 5 since 2006 at Richmond for Kenseth doesn't make Saturday night's race look promising. However, he did race unusually well at Martinsville, so perhaps the JGR equipment can help him again. Don't expect that advantage to come from the engine, though.
9. Denny Hamlin
Not racing, but still has a better chance to win at Richmond than most. Obviously, take a pass this week.
B List 1. Kyle Busch
Missed the Chase at Richmond last year, wrecked four times last week. However, picking against career win No. 5 at RIR for Busch — he’s won the last four consecutive spring races — just seems silly for a guy so good at avenging defeat. A pre-race favorite who’s an absolute steal as a B-Lister.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Had a car capable of winning Phoenix — the track most similar to Richmond this season — in February and ultimately lost on pit road. Led 67 laps last fall, finished second last spring and has three career RIR wins. Beard again approaching untamable levels.
3. Carl Edwards
Got hosed out of a win by NASCAR last spring; finished a lap down last fall to end a streak of five top 10s at RIR. Has a favorable chance of smiling 652 times on TV this weekend (after removing sunglasses, of course).
4. Mark Martin
Will tie Terry Labonte for most RIR starts (55) among active drivers Saturday. Carries track's seventh-best average finish (11.9) among same group.
5. Brian Vickers
Don't forget he's driving the No. 11 car that has led 1,390 laps at RIR since 2006. That said, his 24.9-place average in 14 Richmond starts is cause for concern.
6. Ryan Newman
Six top 10s in last 10 Richmond races, but only one top 5. Expect more of the same.
7. Kurt Busch
One win in 24 starts at Richmond. Seven of only nine RIR lead lap finishes have been top 10s.
8. Martin Truex Jr.
Dale Earnhardt, Inc. was still a real company for Truex's last Richmond top 5 (2008). Typically finishes eight spots worse (24.1) than he starts (16.1).
9. Joey Logano
30th and 24th last season at RIR, and that's with access to Hamlin's setup. Problem?
10. Jeff Burton
Virginia native has ninth-most laps in the top 15 during the last eight seasons at Richmond. Track is home to his best average start (15.2) and most career laps led (942).
11. Greg Biffle
Never a winner at Richmond, and his last top 5 came in 2006. Fun fact: one of four tracks where he's raced a Chevrolet in Sprint Cup competition (2002, Andy Petree Racing).
12. Paul Menard
You probably don't have to worry about a classic "where did he come from?!" top 10 from Paul this week. He's led one lap in 12 starts at RIR, and never finished better than 13th. Has averaged a sickening 26.75-place run in RCR sheet metal (four starts).
14. Marcos Ambrose
You could be like me and pick Ambrose on a short track, but then he'll likely crash. Best finishes at RIR came with JTG-Daugherty Racing (ninth and fifth in 2010). Was 22nd and 15th there last season.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya
Worth picking if you like watching the world burn somewhere just past halfway.
16. Jamie McMurray
Two top 10s in the last three races make McMurray a nice underdog pick. I'm not quite ready to get hung up on it, as he’s not scored a top-10 run at RIR since 2009.
17. Bobby Labonte
Same number of RIR starts as Jeff Gordon. 15 fewer top 10s.
18. Aric Almirola
Two Richmond starts, two 26th-place finishes. Consistent.
1. AJ Allmendinger
Eleventh at Phoenix for Phoenix Racing seems like a good omen for a guy with two top 10s at RIR (2010, ’11 with Richard Petty Motorsports).
2. David Gilliland
Early candidate for quote of the year after Kansas' "Shut up and drive" line to Danica Patrick. Best Richmond finish in 13 career Cup starts is 18th.
3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Richmond is a good place for first-time winners, but he'd be good with his first top 10 of 2013. Has finished fourth or better in last three Nationwide Series starts at RIR — not that it’ll translate.
4. Casey Mears
Typically makes it to the end of a Richmond 400-miler, as he only has two DNFs in 20 starts. Downside? He averages a 24th-place showing.
5. Danica Patrick
Never finished above 18th in three Nationwide Series Richmond appearances.
6. David Ragan
Three career top-5 finishes at Richmond is easily the most of the C-list. However, those came in primo Roush equipment.
7. David Reutimann
Has a pole at Richmond, but just four career lead lap finishes and a 23.2-place average in 12 Cup starts.
8. Travis Kvapil
Matching his best finish of 11th at Richmond would give Kvapil his first top-20 result of the year. At the very least, he hopes to not blow a fourth engine this year.
9. Dave Blaney
Finished fourth at Richmond once upon a time (2004, Bill Davis Racing) amid 24 career starts. His average in Tom Baldwin Jr.’s Chevys is a paltry 24.8.
10. Joe Nemechek
Is a former Richmond winner while driving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2003 (yes, he once drove for Hendrick Motorsports), but DNQ’d at Kansas last week in his own equipment.
11. Landon Cassill
Currently leads Sprint Cup with three separate crew chiefs used so far in 2013. It must be working: he finished a season-best 29th at Kansas.
12. David Stremme
After leading a lap at Kansas, Stremme hopes to finish on the lead lap at Richmond. It'd be a season-first for a driver with a 33.2-place average on the .75-miler track.
13. Josh Wise
Finished just two laps down in Kansas, his closest margin to the leader so far this year.
14. JJ Yeley
Two straight DNFs has Yeley at a season-low 30th in points. He did, however, snare one of his eight career top 10s at Richmond. (2007, Joe Gibbs Racing). He will not grab No. 9 this weekend.
15. Timmy Hill
Currently at a career best 42nd in Sprint Cup points with three starts. Little Timmy has even run the distance the last two weeks (36th at Texas, 33rd at Kansas).
16. Michael McDowell
One of Phil Parsons’ “Start & Park Specials,” McDowell has four more starts than Timmy Hill this year, but has completed 352 fewer laps. Avoid like a TRD push rod.
17. Mike Bliss
Leading NASCAR's start-and-park brigade with a perfect zero finishes in five races. “I want ya to be perfect, Cole.”
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Texas Motor Speedway
Eddie Gossage with spring 2012 pole winner Martin Truex Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
1. NASCAR finding Texas race sponsor to be questionable fit
When Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage announced the naming rights to Saturday night's race, eyebrows were raised in circles far wider than those just in the NASCAR garage. That'll happen when you allow a political group on one side of this country's hottest political debate to stake it's name to an event broadcast on national TV.
The buzz over the National Rifle Association's sponsorship of the NRA 500 this week has picked up steam once again, and NASCAR released a statement Thursday that seemed to indicate that it will review such sponsorships in the future. Tracks procure naming rights deals themselves, but each are subject to approval from the sanctioning body.
“The NRA’s sponsorship of the event at Texas Motor Speedway fit within existing parameters that NASCAR affords tracks in securing partnerships,” said NASCAR spokesman David Higdon in a statement that also noted NASCAR takes no stand in the gun rights debate. “However, this situation has made it clear that we need to take a closer look at our approval process moving forward, as current circumstances need to be factored in when making decisions.”
NASCAR's review of the approval likely stems from how the sport is being viewed by outsiders and, perhaps more importantly, by new fans. But it's a fine line for the sport to walk that has a considerable section of the fan base — especially in Texas — who share the same political views of the NRA.
NASCAR can't afford to alienate both sides of this debate or any other. How it handles situations such as these will be quite fascinating to watch.
Meanwhile, Gossage thinks the scrutiny is overblown.
"The only questions are coming from less than 10 reporters," Gossage said Thursday. "The public isn't asking (us) questions."
2. Let's hope you like the Gen-6
Back on track, NASCAR made another interesting announcement Thursday during the half-day open test afforded to teams as a way to get a better handle on NASCAR's latest model. Basically, don't expect major rule changes on the Gen-6 platform anytime soon.
"I think we're in a fairly good spot," NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said. "The teams — one of the things we've learned over the years is if you keep moving the targets, people have a tendency to … it's harder for them to keep chasing that. We feel like the playing field is fairly level."
After the small sample size of the latest two races for the Sprint Cup Series, shying from changes makes sense. Auto Club Speedway put on a show easily rivaling the best ever at the track for stock cars, and Martinsville Speedway seemed unfazed by the new body style. That's a good thing.
Pemberton's remarks bring the Gen-6 car nearly full circle after the sanctioning body used a test at Texas last fall at the track to narrow down what kind of speedway aerodynamic and mechanical package would be in use with the new car. That day, teams experimented with various levels of downforce and multiple tire combinations. Today's product isn't far from what the drivers tested that day.
"As long as the input is (that) it's still pretty rock solid as far as being positive, they've got plenty to work with. We feel like there's no reason to move the target on them right now," Pemberton said.
As you watch Saturday night's race and judge the Gen-6 on its third intermediate track visit of the season, remember that last year's spring Texas race was the impetus for many to wonder why NASCAR had lost the number of incidents and cautions everyone was used to. The caution flag waved just twice for 10 laps in last year's 334-lap event, both times for debris.
Defending race winner — and Ford driver — Greg Biffle. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Fords need Texas to get back in the mix
Carl Edwards may have won the season's second race at Phoenix International Raceway, but he won it primarily on track position and pit strategy. Since then, 2013 has been a season of catch-up for teams in the Ford camp.
Look at it this way: in 1,983 laps turned in 2013's six races of competition so far, Ford has led just 312 laps or 15.6 percent. Distilled further, Ford has led just 14 laps in the two races so far at the intermediate tracks most similar to TMS in Auto Club and Las Vegas.
By comparison, Jimmie Johnson, in a Chevrolet, has led more laps than all Ford drivers combined (21.7 percent).
Can this weekend in Texas be the perfect antidote? History is on the side of the Blue Oval gang in Fort Worth, as 11 of 24 races have been taken by a Ford. Nine of those have come from Roush Fenway Racing drivers, including last year's race won by Greg Biffle.
4. Has Hall of Fame nominee Bruton Smith hit the campaign trail?
One new nominee for this year's NASCAR Hall of Fame class was speedway magnate and renowned racing pot stirrer Bruton Smith. The chief of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., was nominated for his career of building racing facilities, track promotion and a litany of other contributions to the sport.
Thursday, if only subliminally, Smith seemed to be hitting all the right lines and making all the right proclamations for a guy hoping to become a first ballot Hall of Fame entrant. This is a guy, after all, who once threatened to "move" Charlotte Motor Speedway only to later have the road in front changed to honor him. A little bit of sly posturing isn't entirely out of the question.
First, Smith told reporters he was "delighted" his name came up and that if he was inducted he would "do whatever I can to help the grow the (Hall of Fame) facility in Charlotte" as well as the sport. Smith, who in 2005 was listed by Forbes being worth north of $1.5 billion, carries some significant clout in the Queen City.
Later, Smith found out that another Charlotte event — the annual pit crew challenge during the week of NASCAR's All-Star race — had been canceled for this year after Sprint opted to switch sponsorship to the preseason exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway. Quickly, he vowed to find a sponsor and host it at his still-new zMAX Dragway next to CMS.
Knowing how Smith works, that will likely happen. What isn't clear is if his benevolence is merely coincidental.
5. Truck Series returns to Rockingham for second year of track's comeback
A story not getting near the same attention it did one year ago is where the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will be racing Sunday.
For the third time this season, the trucks will take the green flag when Rockingham Speedway hosts the series for just its second NASCAR national series event since the venerable facility was shuttered amidst race realignment in 2004. Kasey Kahne won last year's event, but isn't entered to defend his title this year.
For the sake of what's good in NASCAR — and let's make it perfectly clear that racing at Rockingham is about as good as NASCAR gets, no matter the series — I hope Kahne's reluctance to return isn't indicative of what Sunday's crowd will look like. Track owner and former NASCAR driver Andy Hillenburg has poured plenty into reviving “The Rock,” and with a flood of nostalgia the track was an extremely popular stop last year.
More importantly, though, was that the on-track racing was great. There were multiple grooves, tire wear and drivers forced to manage their equipment in a way too often cast aside in today's NASCAR. Sunday's race will come early after the late night 500-miler in Texas, but it'll be well worth watching.
by Geoffrey Miller Check back each Thursday to get Geoffrey’s take on what to watch for in the upcoming NASCAR weekend. For daily insight, follow Geoffrey on Twitter:@GeoffreyMiller
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.
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. 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
“Humdrum” is a word typically used to describe the racing action at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The two-mile Michigan clone was originally designed — it has received some touch-up work since being completed in 1997 — to be optimal for IndyCar-style race cars. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race might not offer much in terms of outright excitement, but there are some meaningful story lines hidden within a four-race sample size of advanced metrics.
Several driver and teams need a good outing — two of them are mentioned below — to right a wrong or two from earlier races this season. The hottest driver in the sport typically leaves California under a deluge of disappointment. As usual, if we focus on the stories behind the numbers, the overall game becomes far more intriguing.
7.000 After four races, Brad Keselowski has the highest Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) — a measure of a driver’s on-track production in an “all equipment even” scenario — in the Cup Series with a 7.000 rating.
The last time the No. 2 Penske Racing entry was this good, it was 1993, Rusty Wallace was the driver and the car was probably running on traction control. Keselowski’s bunch is a little more buttoned up, allowing him to capitalize on driving for the most consistent-finishing team in the Cup Series (a finish deviation of 0.6; a zero deviation is perfectly consistent). Keselowski has earned pairs of fourths and thirds to comprise his 3.5-place average finish, two of which were on tracks at which he has previously been a mundane producer (Phoenix and Las Vegas). Even more amazing is that the team has finished higher than its average running positions — 18th at Daytona, seventh at Phoenix, fifth at Las Vegas and ninth at Bristol — in each race. The team is frighteningly strong, but the ever-improving driver is earning his keep.
-1.188 Keselowski ranks 48th out of 49 drivers in PEER at Auto Club Speedway after averaging a finish of 22.8 in his only four Cup Series starts at the facility.
So yes, a driver off to a tremendous start to the season comes up against racetrack that has historically been a buzz killer for him. Something is sure to change on Sunday.
15.4 The start to Kasey Kahne’s 2013 season is 15.4 positions better than his first four-race effort last year.
To think that Kahne has essentially cut his average finish after four races in half is pretty nutty, though, when he was averaging a 29.8-place result following Bristol last year, it too was unfathomable for the consistently strong producer. To be fair, his win last Sunday and his second-place outing at Las Vegas are carrying his current 14.5-place average and his 16.5 finish deviation is the fourth-least consistent in the series. Kahne’s start to the season isn’t as explosive as Keselowski’s jump out of the starting blocks, but it is a foundation on which to build and can allow Kahne and his crew to focus more comfortably on Chase preparation rather than digging out of a hole created by spinning its tires at the start of a new year.
Kyle Busch owns 53 career Nationwide Series wins. (ASP, Inc.)
40.6% Kyle Busch has led 333 laps, or 40.6 percent of laps, across four NASCAR Nationwide Series races this season.
Busch’s return to Joe Gibbs Racing in America’s favorite Saturday series has been lucrative, paying out a currency of dominant performances. He has two victories, including last Saturday’s woodshed whipping at Bristol, and has spent 95.5 percent of the last four races running inside the top 15. He now heads to Auto Club Speedway this weekend where JGR has captured wins in the last eight Nationwide races. Uh oh.
7.375 Jimmie Johnson’s 7.375 PEER across the last eight races at Auto Club Speedway is better than Keselowski’s four-race 2013 sample size that is presently the most productive of the series.
Johnson’s10th-place finish there last season almost seems like an aberration. During the CoT era the California native protected his home turf, winning three times and finishing second twice and third once across eight races. That 3.62-place average finish is, by far, the best average among drivers in that timeframe.
100% Other than Johnson, the only driver to have finished in the top half of fields in all eight races of the CoT era at Auto Club is Clint Bowyer, for a relevance percentage of 100 percent.
We can actually take this a step further; Bowyer has never finished in the bottom half of a Cup Series field in Fontana. His average finish through 12 races of “Gen-4” and “Gen-5” technology is 10.8. That average drops to 7.8 in the five races dating back to the summer of 2009. Hitting that average would be helpful to a No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team looking to make up ground lost in its 27th-place finish at Las Vegas. Outside of that result, Bowyer and team have earned finishes of 11th, sixth and fifth for an average of around 7.3, in the neighborhood of the driver’s average performance on the Golden State oval.