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.
In the 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races that took place at Martinsville Speedway during the Car of Tomorrow era, two drivers won nine races: Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. It is a track that rewards its best competitors more reliably than other tracks do with top-performing drivers, making the event somewhat of a cinch to prognosticate. Granted each race, especially in the current ultra-competitive Cup Series landscape, is subject to a heavy dose of randomness, past performance at Martinsville does, more often than not, indicate future success.
So a hint at who Sunday’s key players will be shines through past statistics. Here is a glimmer of what we all will be seeing — and in one notable case, missing — in this weekend’s rough-and-tumble race at Martinsville.
6.208, 1,111 and 4 What are we going to miss from Sunday’s race? A driver who ranks second at Martinsville in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) with a 6.208 rating, has led 1,111 laps and won four races.
Denny Hamlin’s absence impacts this race in a major way. Not only is he a race win contender, Martinsville is arguably one of his two best racetracks (Richmond is the other), in terms of production. With him sidelined due to injury, it opens the door for other good Martinsville drivers that have been on the cusp of winning in recent events there. One of them is a household name.
9 and 0 Jeff Gordon earned nine top-5 finishes in 12 CoT races. Zero of those finishes were victories.
Gordon ranks third in PEER with a 4.958 rating — PEER being a measure of a driver’s on-track production in an “all equipment even” scenario. That mark is crazy high considering he was unable to seal the deal in all those races. For the better part of the last six years, Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson were bestowed the crowns as kings of Martinsville; however, Gordon, despite the lack of wins, is also befitting of the throne.
1,309 Gordon has led 1,309 laps across the last 12 races at Martinsville.
That is absolutely absurd. It means he has led just over 21 percent of all laps there the last six seasons. That kind of dominance isn’t for the feint of heart; in eight of those races he led at least 90 laps. Yes, when the lap counts are high — Martinsville is a 500-lap race — the laps-led totals are inflated, but his 1,309 total laps led is the second most in the series over that span and noteworthy because, again, he won nary a race in all those dominant outings. He may be overdue.
3.93 and 3.62 Clint Bowyer averaged running positions of 3.93-place and 3.62-place in last year’s races at Martinsville.
Disappointingly, Bowyer finished 10th and fifth, respectively, in those races. His attempted pass for the lead in the waning laps of last year’s spring race took out Johnson and Gordon, but outside of that, he has been a pleasant (and quiet) producer at Martinsville throughout his career. His 2.708 track-specific PEER ranks seventh out of 54 drivers and he is one of five drivers with at least eight top-10 finishes in the last 12 races there.
12.67 Mark Martin, replacing Hamlin in the No. 11 for Joe Gibbs Racing, has averaged just under a 13th-place (12.67, to be exact) finish in his six CoT-era finishes at Martinsville.
Hamlin he ain’t, but Martin is not half bad at a track that, in a perfect world (for him, that is a partial schedule), he would elect to skip each year. He finished as high as second during that time frame while driving for Hendrick Motorsports and also secured three other top-10 results. He’ll need to redeem himself from his most recent outing there, which was a 28th-place finish that saw him earn a poor 44.7 percent passing efficiency along with a 21st-place average running position.
Brad Keselowski: No Martinsville slouch, either. (ASP, Inc.)
55.1% Brad Keselowski’s passing efficiency at Martinsville was 55.1 percent across both 2012 races.
Remember when there was a mild freakout after Keselowski qualified 32nd for the Martinsville Chase race last year? And then he finished sixth, which apparently was a major surprise to fans and mainstream media alike? Well, any success regardless of track position shouldn’t be a shock when it comes to the reigning champ. Keselowski can move through traffic arguably better than anyone in the series and his Martinsville production, though in a smaller sample size than the majority, is beyond serviceable (2.583 PEER, ranks eighth). The lesson? Don’t count him out of Sunday’s race until the checkered flag falls.
4 of 6 Four of the last six NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race winners at Martinsville were Cup Series interlopers.
Those four wins are split between Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Harvick is entered into Saturday’s companion race in a third entry for NTS Motorsports, which also fields trucks for Ron Hornaday and Brennan Newberry. As of now, Harvick is the only Cup Series regular entered, which could open the door for a Truck Series point-earner to swoop in and collect a victory. Hornaday, Johnny Sauter and Timothy Peters are former Martinsville winners that warrant your watching.
Predicting the best fantasy drivers in Las Vegas so you don't have to.
Tony Stewart took checkers in Vegas last year. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season rolls on to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering up 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 Las Vegas, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag (or at least finishing toward the front):
Won last year’s race after finishing second there the year before. Has led 290 of 534 laps (54.3 percent) run in the last two races at Las Vegas.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Has the highest driver rating (110.9) in the last eight races at Las Vegas. Also has the highest average finish of 9.4 during that span. Has a victory and a runner-up finish in last five starts but placed 16th or worse in the other three starts in that stretch.
3. Clint Bowyer
Has finished eight or better in three of the last four Las Vegas races. Also has qualified in the top four in three of the last four races on 1.5-mile tracks (same size as Las Vegas).
4. Jeff Gordon
Has run a series-high 84 percent of his laps in the top 15 in the last eight races at Las Vegas. Also has led the most laps (370) during that time, among current drivers.
5. Kevin Harvick
Has two top-five finishes in his last five Las Vegas races and has led 15 laps during that stretch.
6. Kasey Kahne
Has three poles in Vegas, including last year, but only finished 19th in the race.
7. Matt Kenseth
Won the pole in Vegas in 2011, but has one top-10 finish in last five starts here.
8. Denny Hamlin
Has never started better than 16th at Las Vegas. Has one top-10 in his last four starts there, a seventh in 2011. Has never led a lap in a Cup car at Vegas.
9. Brad Keselowski
Has never finished better than 26th in four career starts at Las Vegas. Best starting position in that time is a 13th in 2009. Also has led only one lap there.
Kyle Busch is in need of a solid finish. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Kyle Busch
Has started no worse than fifth in the last five races at his hometown track, but has only one top-10 finish, a win in 2009, during that stretch. Does have eight top-10 finishes in the last nine races on 1.5-mile tracks in the series.
2. Carl Edwards
Phoenix winner has finished fifth and first in his last two starts at Las Vegas.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has started in the top four twice in the last three years at Vegas and has four top-10 finishes in last five races here. Started fourth and finished 10th last year, leading 70 laps.
4. Greg Biffle
Has four top-10s in last five Las Vegas races, including a third last year, and has led 57 laps during that stretch. He’s also been running at the finish a series-high 38 consecutive races.
5. Ryan Newman
Has two consecutive top-five finishes at Las Vegas.
6. Mark Martin
Has one top-10 in last four Las Vegas races.
7. Kurt Busch
Scored two top-10 finishes in the four races on 1.5-mile tracks he ran with Furniture Row Racing at the end of last season.
8. Jamie McMurray
Finished eighth at Las Vegas last year, the second time in the last four races here he scored a top-10 finish.
9. Paul Menard
Finished 11th or better in two of the last three races on 1.5-mile tracks last season, including a third at Kansas. Placed seventh at Las Vegas last year.
10. Joey Logano
Has one top-10 in four career starts at Las Vegas.
11. Juan Pablo Montoya
Placed third at Las Vegas in 2011 but finished 25th here last year.
12. Marcos Ambrose
Has never finished worse than 20th in four starts at Las Vegas, placing 13th, fourth, 14th and 20th.
13. Martin Truex Jr.
Has one top-10 finish in seven career starts at Las Vegas.
14. Jeff Burton
Did not have a top-10 finish in any of the 11 Cup races on 1.5-mile tracks last season (best finish on such tracks was a 12th at Atlanta).
15. Bobby Labonte
Has finished 26th, 24th and 38th in last three Las Vegas races.
16. Aric Almirola
Has never finished better than 24th in a Cup car at Las Vegas in four starts.
1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
One of 12 drivers to have completed every lap in the first two races of the season.
2. Austin Dillon
Making Cup debut at Las Vegas. Finished seventh in Nationwide race here last year. Won a truck race at the track in 2010.
3. Casey Mears
Has a best finish of 13th in last five races at Las Vegas.
4. Danica Patrick
Making Cup debut at the track but has three Nationwide races here with finishes of 12th, fourth and 36th.
5. David Ragan
Finished seventh at Las Vegas in 2008, only time in six starts here he’s placed in the top 20.
6. David Stremme
Best finish at track is an 18th, which came in 2009
7. Dave Blaney
Finished no better than 29th in last three starts here.
8. Travis Kvapil
Has not finished better than 24th in last three Las Vegas starts.
9. David Gilliland
Has not finished better than 30th in last three Las Vegas starts.
10. David Reutimann
Finished 31st here last year. Best finish at track was a fourth in 2009.
11. Scott Speed
Finished 22nd at Las Vegas in 2010, last time he raced Cup here.
12. JJ Yeley
Failed to finish the last two races at Las Vegas.
13. Ken Schrader
Has not had a top-20 at Las Vegas since 2000.
14. Michael McDowell
Has never finished better than 38th in three career starts at track.
15. Mike Bliss
Finished 39th in 2010 in last start at the track.
16. Josh Wise
Finished 40th here last year in only Cup start at track.
17. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish in each of his last five starts here.
Predicting the best fantasy drivers in Phoenix so you don't have to.
Jimmie Johnson (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season rolls on to Phoenix International Raceway for the Subway Fresh Fit 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports will be offering up our best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, we'll break down our picks according to its NASCAR driver classes—A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, NASCAR scribe Dustin Long's fantasy predictions for Phoenix, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag (or at least finishing toward the front):
1. Jimmie Johnson — Has the highest driver rating (115.8) in the last eight years at Phoenix. Also has the best average finish among current drivers at 6.7, scoring 12 top-five finishes in 19 starts
2. Kevin Harvick — Has three top-four finishes in his last four Phoenix starts, including a win last fall.
3. Denny Hamlin — Took second in the fall Phoenix race (46 laps led) and won the spring race last year (61 laps led).
4. Jeff Gordon — In the last three spring races at Phoenix, he’s finished eighth, first and second
5. Brad Keselowski — Finished no worse than seventh in his last five races at tracks 1.1 miles and under last season, including a sixth-place finish at Phoenix.
6. Kasey Kahne — Joined Hamlin and Kyle Busch as only drivers to run every lap of last fall’s race in the top 15, finishing fourth.
7. Tony Stewart — Has never gone more than three consecutive races without a top-10 at Phoenix. Last two finishes there are 19th and 22nd.
8. Matt Kenseth — Last four finishes at Phoenix have been 14th, 13th, 34th and 12th. He’s led 52 laps during that time, leading 49 of those laps in November 2011 race before being eliminated in a crash.
9. Clint Bowyer — Has more finishes of 20th or worse (eight) in his career at Phoenix than he has top-10 finishes (five) there.
Kyle Busch (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
1. Kyle Busch — Led 289 of the 631 laps run (45.8 percent) at Phoenix last season.
2. Ryan Newman — Has finished in the top 5 in five of his last six Phoenix races, including a win in 2010.
3. Mark Martin — Has qualified in the top four in two of his last three starts at Phoenix. Also has six top-10 finishes in his last eight runs there.
4. Kurt Busch — Finished eighth at PIR last fall while driving for Furniture Row. It was part of a season-ending, three-race streak of top-10 finishes after joining that team.
5. Carl Edwards — Best news is that Daytona is behind him after he was involved in numerous incidents during Speedweeks. As for Phoenix? It’s been a mixed bag lately with a first and a second along with three finishes outside the top 15 in his last five starts there.
6. Greg Biffle — While he has four top-10 finishes in his last eight Phoenix starts, he has not led a lap in any of those races.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Has one top-10 finish in his last eight races at Phoenix. Has not led a lap in his last seven races there.
8. Jeff Burton — Has more green-flag passes for position (854) than any other active driver in the last eight years at Phoenix. Also had the most green-flag passes for position (76) in last fall’s race there, finishing 13th.
9. Joey Logano — Has had two DNFs in last six Phoenix races but has finished 11th or better in the other four races during that stretch.
10. Martin Truex Jr. — Has one top-10 finish in his last six Phoenix starts.
11. Paul Menard — Two ninth-place finishes in the last three Phoenix races are the only times he’s scored a top-10 finish in 12 career starts there. Also has never led a lap at Phoenix.
12. Bobby Labonte — Ranks second among active drivers in green-flag passes for position (783) in the last eight years at Phoenix.
13. Juan Pablo Montoya — Has finished between 11th and 19th in each of his last five Phoenix races.
14. Marcos Ambrose — Best Phoenix finish in nine races there is an eighth, which he scored in November 2011.
15. Jamie McMurray — Has one top-10 finish in his last eight Phoenix starts.
16. Aric Almirola — Has best finish of 12th in four Phoenix starts and has yet to lead a lap there.
1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Running his first Cup race at Phoenix. Never finished outside the top 10 in six Nationwide races there.
2. Austin Dillon — Also running his first Cup race at Phoenix. Finished sixth and fourth in two Nationwide races there last season.
3. Danica Patrick — Started 37th but finished 17th in November in lone Cup start at Phoenix.
4. AJ Allmendinger — Making season debut. Started in top two in three of his last five races there. Started 15th and finished 18th in spring Phoenix race last year (did not run November race).
5. Casey Mears — Last five finishes at Phoenix: 22nd, 39th, 26th, 18th, 24th.
6. David Ragan — Last five finishes at Phoenix: 33rd, 25th, 33rd, 36th, 25th.
7. Dave Blaney — Has placed between 23rd and 27th in last three Phoenix starts.
8. David Stremme — Making his season debut after Michael Waltrip drove for the team at Daytona. Finished 34th and 29th in Phoenix races last year.
9. David Gilliland — Has not finished better than 22nd in last nine Phoenix starts.
10. Travis Kvapil — Placed 20th at Phoenix last November and led four laps.
11. David Reutimann — Finished 36th and 40th at Phoenix last season.
12. JJ Yeley — Coming off top 10 at Daytona. Has not finished better than 26th in last five Phoenix starts.
13. Ken Schrader — Last start at Phoenix was November 2008 when he finished 27th. Last top-10 finish at Phoenix was in 1997.
14. Scott Speed — Last made Phoenix race in November 2011, finishing 39th.
15. Mike Bliss — Career-best Phoenix finish came in 2005 when he finished 20th.
16. Josh Wise — Finished 37th and 38th at Phoenix last year
17. Joe Nemechek — Has recorded seven consecutive DNFs at Phoenix.
18. Michael McDowell — Announced on Wednesday via Twitter that his Phil Parsons Racing team would not make the trip to Phoenix.
After a Daytona 500 that catered to the more intelligent teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage — track position and strategy reigned supreme — one of the two duels this season in the Arizona desert greets America’s best drivers on Sunday.
There are a lot of unknowns with the Gen-6 car taking to a surface and configuration at Phoenix International Raceway that is just three races old. What we do know, and what we could anticipate, is revealed in the numbers.
78.8% Following his win in the Daytona 500, Jimmie Johnson currently has a 78.8 percent chance of making the Chase, the highest percentage in the series through one race.
And that’s a conservative figure based on past averages. If Johnson and the No. 48 team out-performs their past selves at a few tracks during the 26-race “regular season,” then they are even more of a lock to clinch a playoff berth for the 10th time in 10 years. One such track is Phoenix, where, when we last saw Johnson, he crashed in the penultimate race of last year’s Chase that served as the first blow of the self inflicted 1-2 punch that knocked him out of contention for the championship. He is followed by Brad Keselowski (68.7 percent) and Greg Biffle (53.1 percent) in the current race to the Chase.
7.500 According to PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating), Denny Hamlin, the winner of last year’s race, is the most productive driver at Phoenix, heading into the weekend with a 7.500.
Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb scored a win in their second race together as a driver-crew chief combination, leading the last 59 laps en route to the win in 2012. Additionally, he finished second there last fall after leading 46 laps and averaging a third-place running position.
Kevin Harvick (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
3.21 In the March Phoenix race last year, Kevin Harvick finished second but had the race’s best average running position, 3.21.
Ironically, it was the fall race, in which he averaged an eighth-place running spot, that Harvick won. It’s pretty clear that, in the brief time we’ve seen this iteration of the Phoenix layout, Harvick has figured out something to his liking about this one-mile racetrack.
1,658 There were 1,658 green-flag passes in the most recent Cup Series race at Phoenix, which included eight passes for the lead.
This is actually a drop from the prior two races on the current surface. In the first race (fall 2011), there were 1,680 total green-flag passes, including 10 for the lead. In this race last season, the green-flag pass total increased to 1,995 with 26 passes for the lead.
+30 Brad Keselowski passed 30 more times than he was passed in last fall’s Phoenix race.
That plus-30 pass differential was as good as gold in a race in which, by comparison to preceding events, passing came at a premium. Keselowski and the No. 2 team endured six pit stops — Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne only pitted four times — so his ability to move forward on a track that rejected such a thing was a life saver, helping him earn a sixth-place finish.
3.78 Through three races on the new Phoenix surface, Mark Martin has the smallest finish deviation among the track’s top 10 drivers in PEER.
What does this mean? Martin has been a reliably high finisher in the last three races, with scores of 16th, ninth and 10th, so it’s a good bet that he’ll find his way into the top 10 of the final running order at the end of Sunday’s race. If he’s not able, then it might serve as indictment on Michael Waltrip Racing’s Gen-6 mile-track program.
289 Kyle Busch led 289 laps (of 631) across two Phoenix races last year.
After blowing an engine in 2011’s race, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was a force with which to be reckoned in 2012, leading 52 laps in the February event, eventually finishing sixth. He finished third last fall after leading a race-best 237 laps and averaging a running position of 1.56. Busch’s 289 laps-led tally is far and away the best of the series in the last three races; Tony Stewart has the next-best mark with 169.
1.167 A serviceable producer according to his 1.167 PEER in three races on the new PIR surface, Bobby Labonte could fare well for himself if all is good with his ride.
Labonte’s finishes there have increased from 21st to 16th to 15th dating back to the fall 2011 race. If JTG-Daugherty Racing brings a drivable setup and a fast Gen-6 to the desert, the 2000 champion is a candidate to secure a decent finish. This is a possibility; over the offseason JTG-Daugherty quintupled its roster of engineers (going from one to five) and focused on enhancing its relationship with Toyota. We’ll soon find out whether this investment for improvement pays immediate dividends.
Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart lead a star-studded field
Kevin Harvick (ASP, Inc.)
A week of pomp and circumstance is nearly over in Daytona. On the eve of NASCAR’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500, Cup cars roar around the historic 2.5-mile superspeedway in the final practice session of the week — known as Happy Hour — looking for that last little bit of speed. Or handling. Or integrity. Or answers of some sort.
Kevin Harvick has been the week’s big winner thus far, posting wins in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race last Saturday and his qualifying Duel 150 on Thursday. But he hasn’t been the week’s big story. Danica Patrick cornered the publicity market on Sunday, when she won the pole for the 500 and became the talk of American motorsports — or more accurately, the face that NASCAR’s marketing machine has been all-too-happy to advertise to the public.
“Can I win? Yeah, absolutely,” Patrick proclaimed. “I feel comfortable in this kind of race situation; I feel comfortable in the draft; speeds are not a problem.”
A bold statement indeed, if not a bit naïve.
Danica was not just a big story for nearly five days, she was the story, as rash claims and inflated tails of hope ran amok, the sport bathing itself in Danica-mania.
That said, it was only after Patrick was assured of the point that FOX sold out its commercial space for the 500, so from a financial standpoint at least, the hype is warranted.
The adoration tempered a bit on Thursday, when the Budweiser Duels set the field for Sunday’s race. Actual cars on the track, actual competition, and actual winners gave all a much-needed change of focus.
Meanwhile, traditional heavy-hitters have skirted under the radar, seemingly content to let a hungry media focus on the week’s trendy topic while they go about the business of figuring out a new car. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been as invisible as Dale Earnhardt Jr. can be. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin … nary a word. It took Brad Keselowski giving what NASCAR deemed a “we need to talk, son” interview with USA Today to get the defending champ some serious pub.
With that in mind, it’s well past time to seriously examine which drivers have a realistic shot at winning stock car racing’s most celebrated race. When the engines fire at 1:19 pm EST on Sunday, the media-run of the prior week, the pomp and circumstance of a marketing-driven sport, will fall prey to the reality of performance.
The aforementioned Harvick has a sterling record thus far in 2013, though points aren’t paid until Sunday. Harvick has been the pied piper of the low groove that most have been unwilling (or unable) to utilize. He has dexterously maneuvered through the field on two occasions, finding the point and holding off all comers.
“I think it's a matter of how you came down here with the balance of your race car,” Harvick said after his Duel triumph. “Gil (Martin, crew chief) and I talked about what we thought we needed coming down here after the (January) test, went a particular direction. It's worked out for us.”
Don’t be misled — Harvick’s deftness in the draft has worked to his advantage, as well. And should again on Sunday. However, no driver has come to Daytona and pulled the trifecta — winning the Unlimited, a Duel and the 500 in the same season. But this team seems primed.
“You're going to have multiple pit stops and you're going to have to change fours tires at some particular point,” Harvick says. “You're going to see the field get mixed up because people are going to be on varying strategies.
Despite Harvick’s excellence, no driver is a more popular pick for Sunday than Tony Stewart.
Confident to the point that he sat out Happy Hour on Saturday, Stewart has displayed a calm swagger throughout Speedweeks even though he has yet to finish among the top 3 in … well, anything.
Still, his Stewart-Haas Racing team appear ahead of the curve with the new car, showing impressive speed. And apparently he’s found the feel.
“I’m really happy with my car,” Stewart said after Saturday’s second practice session. “I got out and looked at Steve Addington (crew chief) and he’s like, ‘I’m content if you are.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know what else to ask for with the car.’
“It’s a good scenario — there’s not a scratch on it and it’s ready to race. It’s a position that I don’t know we’ve ever been in — I think we’ve always run final practice.”
Shut out in 14 attempts in the Daytona 500, Stewart hasn’t quite reached a Dale Earnhardt-esque frustration level, but at the moment, this race tops his career bucketlist.
The pieces are in place for a win, but the 500 is wrought with pitfalls.
Kenseth makes any list of favorites on his 2012 plate brilliance alone. The winner of two of the last four 500s, Joe Gibbs Racing’s heir to the coveted No. 20 averaged a 2.0-place finish on the plate tracks last season.
The Wisconsin native was racy in the Unlimited, leading 26 laps, and was running second late in his Duel before being shuffled to fifth at the finish. Kenseth’s big problem throughout Speedweeks hasn’t been speed or handling, but a lack of dancing partners. One would think with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch serving as teammates, he’d have plenty of help. But more often than not, he’s been the man overtaken with a lack of help than the driver doing the passing when the money’s been on the line.
Like Stewart, Kenseth passed on Happy Hour, which speaks to the strength and confidence of his bunch. Ever the silent assassin, this is the guy who could very well spoil Harvick’s and Stewart’s fun.
Kasey Kahne (ASP, Inc.)
Hendrick’s 5/24 Shop
Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne have been the stronger of the two shops on the Hendrick campus during Speedweeks.
Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson have been working on speed and drivability throughout the week, and for as strong as they’ve been, aren’t 100 percent sure what to expect on Sunday. Still, they elected to skip Happy Hour — most likely because they wanted to dodge any potential bullets.
“How is your car leading, how is your car on the top; in the back? That’s what you have to work on,” Gustafson said. “We feel fairly comfortable but you can’t get it completely worked out until you get in the race.”
But have they found that “it”?
“We’re close,” said Gustafson. “It’s going to be a moving target — you still don’t know the weather conditions tomorrow or what situation you’ll be put in (on the track). But we have a very good opportunity to succeed.”
Kahne has been equally fast, and played the role of Gordon’s wingman well in the Duel. When Gordon was penalized for speeding, Kahne did the work himself, powering by a strong Kenseth to finish second.
“Our car has been pretty fast, but we’ve run in smaller packs in practice to not tear it up,” Kahne’s crew chief, Kenny Francis, said. “It’s harder to tell what you’ve got in those packs, but we’re happy with the way it ran in the 150, so we’re basing everything off that.”
Don’t let Gustafson or Francis fool you. The 24 is as strong at Daytona this season as it’s been in some time, and Kahne may have as much pure power as anyone.
Busch is a charger, which can work both to his advantage and his detriment on a plate track. And he just may have learned a thing or two by competing in the Truck Series race on Friday, in relation to putting runs together on the top and bottom lanes.
As for the car, crew chief Dave Rogers says, “Kyle’s really happy with his 500 car. We didn’t go out in Happy Hour because there was no reason to — not because we’re worried about tearing something up.”
Always the wild card, it is assured Busch will make his presence felt. Can he control the aggression that trips up so many at Daytona? If so, he’s in the conversation.
Sunday's Daytona 500, the 55th in the long, storied history of The Great American Race, officially has the field set. There are endless stories emanating from NASCAR's biggest event, but here are the five that will most impact Sunday's race.
No horsing around: Harvick is the favorite
There's just one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver batting 1.000 with trophies on the line in 2013: Kevin Harvick. Both of those trophies, of course, have come in the last week at Daytona where NASCAR's resident "lame duck" has scored impressive wins in the last Saturday's Sprint Unlimited and the first race of Thursday's Budweiser Duel at Daytona.
But statistics aren't the only thing supporting Harvick's case as the head-turning favorite before Sunday's race. Instead, it's the manner in which Harvick has taken control at the end of both races and held on with the grip of a vice.
In the Sprint Unlimited, Harvick first moved to the lead on lap 34 of the 75-lap, three-segment race. Just twice, and for two total laps, did the No. 29 not cross the start-finish as the designated leader. And when the heat turned up on the final lap, Harvick was able to play both lanes and make a bold, sweeping block of Greg Biffle on the backstretch of the money lap. He wasn't pressured again before the checkered flag.
Thursday was much the same in his 150-mile qualifying race, except Harvick was better. A savvy move exiting pit road pinned Trevor Bayne — the only other driver to lead Duel No. 1 — against the infield grass and then behind him as the two rushed through the gears to get up to speed. Bayne never recovered and eventually ended up in a crash while Harvick maintained his position. Even the restart wasn't a hassle for the No. 29, as Harvick managed the high then low line to keep competitors at bay and the Budweiser victory lane bath in sight.
Afterward, many of his competitors noted handling played a huge role in their ability to challenge. Harvick seemed almost incredulous at the thought.
"We never experienced any of that," Harvick said. "I think it's a matter of how you came down here with the balance of your race car."
Translation: the No. 29 is good. You can bet the field has taken notice.
Follow the leader
One factor playing into Harvick's hand as he has dominated so far is the apparent advantage held by the leader in the Gen-6 chassis when drivers form the long, snake-like lines of cars. Just seven different drivers led in the qualifying races Thursday, with just four of them leading for more than one lap.
"It's hard to pass the leader," Kyle Busch said after winning the second Duel race. "Just stay out front when you can get out front and you can run pretty good and just try to hold everybody off behind you."
That showed on the final lap of Busch's race when Kasey Kahne, with a push from Austin Dillon, edged under Matt Kenseth in second but couldn't punch past Busch. Kahne never even got alongside Busch.
"It's really tough to pass. When another car gets near your rear tire, it's like you threw the parachute out," Jimmie Johnson said.
Harvick and Jeff Gordon said Daytona now requires more planning to make a pass for position — not just finding someone to push like the recent years of tandem racing at restrictor plate tracks. The consequences can be dire.
"You've just got be precise in your moves," Harvick said. "If you get yourself in the wrong spot like we did at the beginning of the race in the middle, you just can't go anywhere. The only place you're going is backwards. It's hard to get yourself into the hole that you need when you make a mistake."
Gordon agreed, saying Daytona in 2013 feels like the Daytona of old.
"This is a real thinking race now. It comes down to the way it used to," Gordon said. "You get yourself in position. Everybody kind of rides, and thinks about what they have. You have to have your car handling pretty good, which is tough to do further back in traffic."
But Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, doesn't think passing the leader will be completely impossible come Sunday”
"You have got to have somebody go with you; you can't do it by yourself. But you can get a run, definitely. No doubt about it.”
Handling the unexpected
In order to get the kind of run Gordon is talking about, and to time it at the point where it'll put a driver in prime position to walk away with that coveted Harley J. Earl trophy, a driver has to first be in the position to make that move. In a 500-mile race, that's no easy feat.
No, the Daytona 500 isn't the same test of attrition that it once was. Parts last longer. Teams hit setups with more regularity. Drivers, typically, are smarter.
But 500 miles is still 500 miles — especially with a new car putting drivers more on the edge than they were with the stuck-to-the-track Car of Tomorrow chassis. Ryan Newman found that out during Wednesday's practice, and Denny Hamlin found it out late in the first qualifying race Thursday. Both suddenly lost control of race cars that weren't handling particularly poorly before they encountered a set of aerodynamic variables strong enough to send the car into a spin quicker than a blink of an eye. That will happen again Sunday and a driver (or drivers) in contention will pay the price.
It's a measure of the new car that has several, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., searching for answers in the two days of practice left before the 500.
"I didn't anticipate really the balance being a big deal because the car does have a good downforce package; we thought the balance would be pretty close," Earnhardt Jr. said. "(I) figured we would be fighting loose a little bit. We have to work on it."
Should drivers withstand that challenge, they'll have to be ready to execute flawless pit stops, too. Kyle Busch took the lead in the second qualifying race thanks to a call for no tires during his pit stop. Trevor Bayne lost his lead in the first race partially because he locked up his tires coming to pit road under green, necessitating a change. Busch wound up winning his qualifying race; Bayne wrecked.
"Pit crews are going to make a huge difference on Sunday," said Tony Stewart. "That's going to be the difference between which pack you come out in. You're going to have to have good stops to stay up there all day."
Like Gordon said, Sunday will feel more like Daytona of old. Carl Edwards, despite wrecking four times at Daytona, is looking forward to that.
"There will be groups of cars that separate themselves, some pit strategy and some guys that slide around and can't keep up," Edwards said. "I think it will make it a really dynamite, fun race."
Not everyone will leave Daytona Sunday night using the words Edwards did, but you can bet one of NASCAR's three competing manufacturers will be celebrating well into the night.
For the first time since the 1990s, cars in the Sprint Cup Series actually resemble their showroom counterparts. It's been a concerted effort by NASCAR, after pressure from those manufacturers, to make those comparisons easier.
It also introduces the realistic potential of Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota having a slight advantage come race day thanks to their body design. NASCAR has worked to prevent the issues, but competitors are competitors, and competitors like to complain.
Just look at the starting lineup for Sunday's race: seven of the top-10 are Chevrolets. If the finishing order resembles that, Jack Roush's comments won't be far behind.
Danica Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson. (ASP, Inc.)
And of course, especially at the start, all eyes will be on the most historic moment Daytona has seen in years as Danica Patrick leads the field to green as the first woman to ever win the pole position of a Daytona 500 — or any NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Patrick, 17th in her qualifying race, didn't do much to turn heads in the one dose of racing experience she's had at Daytona this year. Her team's goal Thursday was to play it conservative and finish with the green No. 10 intact.
Mission accomplished — even if Patrick didn't feel she gleaned much from the racing.
"I'll be really honest, I didn't feel like I got a lot of experience on how to pass or the draft so much. I was able to hang with the group," Patrick said.
Patrick and Co. were worried about the car being too loose during the race and tightened the car up more and more leading to Thursday's 150-miler. She did later confirm that turning 60 laps in race conditions did prove at least somewhat valuable.
"I guess I did learn that being too tight is pretty detrimental here," Patrick said. "If you can't keep your foot in it and run up behind cars, then you're going to struggle to make moves. It looks really hard to pass, to be honest."
Patrick, who crashed on lap two in her first Daytona 500 start one year ago, should drastically improve her showing this time around. Expecting a win, though, is way too much.
by Geoffrey Miller. Check back each Friday, as Geoffrey Miller examines the five storylines to watch entering each NASCAR weekend. And follow Geoffrey on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
The theme of NASCAR Speedweeks in Daytona thus far?
New cars that do not line up square and are volatile in the draft; a supposed lack of quality body parts back at the team shops in North Carolina; valued information gleaned on specific cars that crew chiefs don’t want sacrificed.
For these reasons — and possibly because there’s no need to show one’s hand just yet — the action has been relatively staid at Daytona International Speedway.
In Thursday’s Budweiser Duel No. 1 — historically the crazier of the two — the much-ballyhooed No. 10 car of Danica Patrick led the field to green and, with teammate Tony Stewart, promptly drifted to the rear of the pack — part strategy play, part over-adjusted car.
Trevor Bayne inherited the lead and the field largely ran in formation in the high groove until lap 32 of 60, when Kevin Harvick led a train on the inside that propelled him to the lead with 14 laps to go. Like Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, when Harvick grabbed the point with 13 laps remaining en route to the win, it was a lead he would not relinquish.
He was forced to fight for it, though.
On lap 52, Denny Hamlin’s Toyota abruptly broke loose off of Turn 2 and collected Bayne, Carl Edwards and Regan Smith, setting up a four-lap dash when the green flag waved.
But with Jimmie Johnson planted on his bumper, Harvick held the lead, again utilizing the high groove after the restart. Greg Biffle and Juan Pablo Montoya tried in vain to mount separate assaults, but as in Saturday’s event, the No. 29 Chevy was too strong out front.
“Today, both lines were side-by-side and you were able to kind of feed each line a little bit of air (while leading) and try to keep ’em even,” Harvick said. “That's the best way to keep them at bay is keep them side-by-side.
“If we can get to that point and be able to dictate whether you need to block, move up, move down, side draft … you have options as the leader. That's the position I want to be in.”
Harvick, for certain, looks strong. In his final year with Richard Childress Racing, he’s started the year off by leading 40 of 75 laps in the Unlimited and 23 on Thursday, making him a favorite entering Sunday’s Daytona 500. He’ll do his best to downplay it, though, knowing the unpredictable nature of restrictor plate racing.
“We've been fortunate to win the first two races of Speedweeks," Harvick said. "We just got to keep a level head on our shoulders, not get too high over what we've done, just do the same things that we've done. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. I think we definitely have the car and team to be in contention to do that.”
Kyle Busch celebrates Duel No. 2 win. (ASP, Inc.)
Duel No. 2 provided an even more docile 60-lapper. Jeff Gordon started on the pole and led the first 38 laps as the field, once again, largely flew in single-file formation.
However, a wacky round of pit stops on lap 39 shuffled the deck, as Gordon was penalized for speeding on pit road. It was a mistake from which he would not recover.
And that was when Kyle Busch took over.
Antsy running fourth prior to the stops and with no partner willing to work to make something happen, Busch’s crew chief obliged, making a call for no tires and a splash of fuel. That brief stint on pit road allowed the No. 18 Toyota to emerge second. When Gordon ducked to pit road to serve his penalty, the lead was handed to Busch — and that was that.
Busch led the final 19 laps, holding off a charging Kasey Kahne as teammate Matt Kenseth ran cover in the waning laps to capture the fourth starting spot for the 500.
“Our original plan was two tires, but he (crew chief Dave Rogers) called it,” Busch said. “They were just harping on me to make sure, don’t slide your tires. Because you don’t want to slide a left front (tire) and then have to take four.
“So, I felt like I got a really good pit road entry. I felt like I ran good pit road speed all of the way down pit road and getting into my box was great. The guys just filled the tank for five seconds. It’s all we needed and we ended up back here. We got out front where it mattered most and got teamed up with a couple of Toyota’s which was great."
So have the Unlimited or the Duels given any insight as to what Sunday’s 500-miler may provide? Possibly. Passing is at a premium, but it seems that if the race runs unimpeded for any number of laps, the giant packs of four-wide racing may not be as prominent. Drivers are complaining — quietly — that the Gen-6 cars are frightfully unstable in the draft and have them weary of taking unnecessary risks.
Therefore, the high groove acts as a cruising line of sorts, where drivers can click off laps. And with that in mind, the first half of the 500 may resemble Thursday’s Duels, as teams play it conservatively to be assured of simply seeing the finish.
Alternately, the low lane is a power groove to be utilized when it’s time to make a move. Harvick and Tony Stewart have demonstrated that a strong car can pull two or three others along if the drivers are willing to work together. If the Great American Race is to get crazy in the final laps, this is where the challenge will come.
And lastly, who are the favorites now that an exhibition race, pole day and two qualifying races are in the books? Harvick, obviously, has made the biggest statement with two wins in two races. And Biffle, with two runner-up showings in two starts, can’t be overlooked.
Neither can Stewart, whose name has been on most everyone’s lips in the garage since the Unlimited. And then there’s Busch, Gordon and Kenseth, who have all shown strength at one point or another.
All that said, an unknown rookie won the 500 in 2011 and another rookie is on the pole now. And with as many questions that remain concerning the behavior of the cars, the unexpected is almost assured.
A look back at last season with our own NASCAR awards
They’re the best of the best and worst of the worst in NASCAR. The pretty and the ugly, the cool and the lame. They made us cheer, laugh and, as Robert Plant once said, taught us “to weep and moan.”
They are the recipients of the Athlon Awards — back by popular demand — recognizing excellence (and lack thereof) from the 2012 NASCAR season. Some are fairly obvious, others off the wall. But none pull any punches. So, without further ado, the Athlon Awards.