Predicting the best fantasy drivers in California so you don't have to.
Twitter masters. And not bad in Cali, either. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads back out west for the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Auto Club — or California, if you prefer — ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Why would you take anyone else this week? He has 10 consecutive top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway (average finish of 3.3 during that stretch) and has led laps in each of those races. He had an average finish of 3.0 in the first three races of the season and was headed for another top 10 before a blown tire sent him into the wall late at Bristol last week.
2. Matt Kenseth
He’s why you might want to pick someone else. Kenseth won at Las Vegas two weeks ago in the first test of the new car at a track where horsepower and aerodynamics matter (just like Auto Club Speedway). He had a teammate finish in the top five at Vegas, showing the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing on the big tracks. He’s also led more miles (323) than any other driver this season.
3. Brad Keselowski
Then again, there’s this guy. Keselowski has not finished worse than fourth in any of the first four races this season, collecting a bevy of points for those who put him on their team. He’s also led laps in each race this year.
4. Kasey Kahne
Finished second at Las Vegas and then won at Bristol. Has shown speed this season and that’s a good sign for Auto Club where he’s finished 14th, ninth and fourth in his last three starts.
5. Kevin Harvick
Has five consecutive top-10 finishes at this track, including a win in 2011 when he passed Johnson on the last lap.
6. Tony Stewart
Rallied late to finish 11th at Las Vegas after his car was awful in the first half of the race. Never had a chance at Bristol with a flat tire that sent him into the wall early. Needs a strong race this weekend and he’s coming to the right track. He’s won two of the last three at Auto Club.
7. Clint Bowyer
Both top-10 finishes this season have come at tracks one mile or less. Although he finished 27th at Las Vegas, his teammates placed eighth and 14th, showing that Michael Waltrip Racing could have some success at Auto Club.
8. Denny Hamlin
The center of controversy the past two weeks (NASCAR fine, Joey Logano dust-up), Auto Club has presented mixed results. He won the pole last year but has finished outside the top 10 in three of his last four races there.
9. Jeff Gordon
Was the only Hendrick driver who struggled at Las Vegas two weeks ago. Was never a factor, finishing 25th. Misfortune struck at Bristol, blowing a tire and crashing while leading. Needs a strong run or risks falling further behind the leaders in the points, but he’s finished 18th or worse in three of his last four starts in Fontana.
1. Kyle Busch
Finished fourth at Las Vegas and led 27 laps, showing the strength of a team with a new car in its first race at a big track. Also has been good at Auto Club Speedway, finishing in the top three the past two years there. Overall, he has six top-five finishes in 15 career starts.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has finished in the top 10 in each of the first four races of the season for the first time in his career, rewarding those who have put him on their team. Placed seventh at Las Vegas but knew they were a little off compared to the leaders. Will he close the gap this week? He finished third in Fontana last year.
3. Carl Edwards
Finished fifth at Las Vegas and now comes to a track where he’s placed in the top 5 in seven of his 15 career starts, one of the best marks among active drivers.
4. Martin Truex Jr.
Placed eighth at Las Vegas two weeks ago. Has finished in the top 10 in 10 of the last 11 races at non-restrictor-plate tracks of 1.5-miles and larger since last season.
5. Mark Martin
Back after taking Bristol off. Started third last year and finished 12th at Auto Club.
6. Ryan Newman
Has finished seventh or better in his last three starts in Fontana. When he’s made it to the finish he’s placed in the top 10 this season, but that’s happened only twice. In the other two races he was eliminated because of an accident or a blown engine.
7. Joey Logano
Certainly ran better than he finished at Bristol. He thought he was better than his 12th-place finish at Las Vegas but a pit road speeding penalty hurt him there. Can he avoid trouble and show where he can finish?
8. Kurt Busch
His fourth-place finish at Bristol last week was only the fourth top-five finish for Furniture Row Racing in 203 career starts. Busch has four top 10s in his last six starts at Auto Club Speedway, including a ninth-place finish in last year’s rain-shortened event with the underfunded Phoenix Racing team.
9. Greg Biffle
Auto Club Speedway has not been the best place for him. Although he finished sixth last year, he has placed outside the top 10 in eight of the last 12 races there.
10. Paul Menard
This marks the fourth consecutive year he’s been in the top 10 in points after four races — the only driver to accomplish that feat. Was 10th at Las Vegas, but Auto Club has not been as good to him. He’s never finished in the top 10 in 10 starts at the 2-mile oval.
11. Aric Almirola
Placed 16th at Las Vegas two weeks ago. He and Richard Petty Motorsports have shown greater success on the bigger tracks, going back to the end of last season.
12. Marcos Ambrose
Has finished between 18th and 22nd in each of his four starts this season.
13. Jeff Burton
Has one top-10 finish in his last seven starts at Auto Club Speedway. Has finished on the lead lap only once this year, placing 10th at Phoenix.
14. Jamie McMurray
His 10th-place finish at Bristol last week was his first top 10 in the last 26 races, dating back to last year. Has not finished in the top 10 in his last 11 starts at Auto Club Speedway.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has not had a top-10 finish in his last 25 starts, dating back to an eighth-place finish at Michigan in June.
16. Bobby Labonte
Has finished better than 20th only twice in his last 15 starts at Auto Club Speedway.
Specifically for the "fantasy" aspect. (ASP, Inc.)
C-List 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Never run in Cup at this track but finished second and fourth in his last two Nationwide races there. One of only five drivers to have completed every lap in the first four Cup races of this season.
2. AJ Allmendinger
Car finished 21st at Las Vegas with Austin Dillon driving. Team placed in the top 10 at Auto Club Speedway in rain-shortened race a year ago with Kurt Busch driving.
3. David Gilliland
Finished 28th at Las Vegas. Has never finished better than 17th in 11 starts at Auto Club.
4. Casey Mears
Finished 29th at Las Vegas, two laps behind leaders. Has best finish of 11th in his last seven races at Auto Club.
5. Dave Blaney
Placed 24th at Las Vegas, finishing one lap behind the leaders. Has not finished better than 29th in last 10 Auto Club starts.
6. Danica Patrick
After finishing eighth in Daytona 500, she’s placed 39th (Phoenix), 33rd (Las Vegas) and 28th (Bristol). She’s been at least five laps off the leaders in each of the last three races.
7. Travis Kvapil
Has one top-20 finish in 10 starts at Auto Club.
8. David Ragan
His 21st-place finish at Bristol was the first time he’s finished inside the top 30 this year Has finished 20th or better in only two of his last 30 starts with team, dating back to last year.
9. Landon Cassill
Has not finished better than 32nd in three starts this year (did not run at Daytona).
10. David Reutimann
Since placing 16th in Daytona 500, has not finished better than 25th in the three races since. Placed 34th at Las Vegas.
11. David Stremme
Finished 32nd at Las Vegas. Placed 39th at Auto Club last year.
12. Josh Wise
Finished 35th at Las Vegas. Placed 37th at Auto Club last year in only start there.
13. JJ Yeley
Has not finished better than 35th in his last three starts at Auto Club Speedway.
14. Michael McDowell
Has run a total of 47 laps in the last two races, finishing last at Las Vegas and 42nd at Bristol.
15. Scott Riggs
Seeking to make second start of the season after failing to qualify at Bristol.
16. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish seven of his last eight races at Auto Club Speedway, finishing no better than 34th.
17. Mike Bliss
Has completed 37 of 816 possible laps in two starts this year, finishing 42nd at Phoenix and 43rd at Bristol.
18. Timmy Hill
Seeking to make first start of the Cup season.
Picking the best fantasy drivers at Charlotte so you don't have to.
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit runs the longest race of the year Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600. 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.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch in the All-Star Race
1. All-Star race, qualifying format changes in store
The most exciting NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying event of the season happens Friday night at 6:00 pm EST.
That's a fact even without the new hair-raising rule change allowing drivers to speed both away from pit road (like always) as well as enter it without a speed limit (new).
Qualifying for drivers in the Sprint All-Star Race is unique in that it demands three total laps around the track and must include a four-tire pit stop. In the past, that's been plenty exciting because NASCAR hasn't enforced a pit road speed limit after the pit stop — forcing drivers to manage 800-plus horsepower hooking up to their rear wheels from a dead standstill.
Now, they'll be doing the same coming to pit road. Lassoing a race car from the corner banking to pit road while slowing down is an event right on the edge. Nursing it down without scrubbing speed has the potential to go flying over that edge.
Additionally, NASCAR initiated the "Johnson Rule" for this season after last year's winner Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus played the strategy too well. Johnson won the first of four segments in 2012 to earn the pole for the 10-lap heat race at the end. In the remaining three segments, he sandbagged to keep his car in one piece.
This year, NASCAR will use a method that makes sense but one without a thought to how fans at the track will be able to compute it. Essentially, the 10-lap finale returns after a mandatory pit road visit. But instead of individual segment winners getting automatic priority, NASCAR will set the pre-pit road lineup by average finish.
It's a smart fix, but a silly one all at once thanks to the calculators required to know who even leads.
2. Johnson aims for All-Star record
Defending All-Star race winner Johnson is bound to get plenty of coverage this weekend as he guns for a fourth win in the midseason exhibition race. A checkered flag for Johnson — or teammate Jeff Gordon, for that matter — would set a new bar for the most wins in the event.
Only one other driver has ever scored three wins in the race for not much else than money and pride. Of course, that's Dale Earnhardt.
Gordon and Johnson, however, haven't had the best of relationships with the All-Star event in recent seasons. For Gordon, a top 10 in the exhibition race hasn't happened since his third-place run in 2006 and he hasn't won since his epic 2001 victory in a back-up car after a rain shower on the first lap caused a massive Turn 1 crash.
Johnson, meanwhile, went three seasons (2009, ’10 and ’11) without an All-Star top 10. That's not exactly futility, sure, but we are talking about Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
3. Gibbs still looks for first All-Star win
One of the greatest oddities left in the always odd weekends produced by the All-Star Race is that Joe Gibbs Racing has never been to Victory Lane in the event.
It's not like JGR has paraded slouches into the race. The lack of checkered flag success has occurred despite drivers like Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett all giving it a go.
JGR, though, will be the hot pick this weekend. A week after a near-miss on a 1-2-3 finish at Darlington Raceway, the Toyotas from that camp have proven to be the fastest machines this season despite reliability. Matt Kenseth, riding high off win No. 3, should be the team's primary favorite.
It will also be worth watching how the recently returned Hamlin will compete Saturday night. Will he be willing to take major chances for a win so soon after his return from his back injury?
We'll find out.
4. Using the All-Star Race for Coca-Cola 600 knowledge
The All-Star weekend festivities are the traditional kickoff of the Charlotte region's own version of Daytona's Speedweeks. Between the opening of Sprint Cup practice Friday for participants in the All-Star Race and the start of the Coca-Cola 600 next Sunday evening, drivers and teams are scheduled to have four hours and 50 minutes of open practice.
That doesn't even include the race conditions teams will get to experience Saturday night.
The result of all of this track time is often a line of thinking saying the teams who fare well this weekend have the inside line to a win — or at least record a good finish — in the 600 next weekend. Results, though, tell a different story.
In fact, five of last 10 All-Star Race winners haven't even finished in the top 10 of the following Coca-Cola 600. Plus, the last 10 years has produced an average of just four drivers scoring top-10 finishes in both events.
Whether you chalk it up to the normalization of racing or blame the effects of a 600-mile race, the result stays the same: a good run Saturday night doesn't guarantee a good one the following Sunday.
5. NASCAR remembers fun-loving, hard-charging Dick Trickle
News that former NASCAR driver Dick Trickle took his own life Thursday in North Carolina spread across the sport in a startling, sad fashion. By the evening, words from every corner of the sport were spoken, typed or sent expressing remorse.
The grief for Trickle, both for his death and in the somber realization of the extreme personal baggage he carried in the waning period of his life, had no bounds and reflected the wake he left in his now long-retired career. The most remarkable part of Trickle's impact, of course, is that his NASCAR numbers were never remarkable.
Trickle didn't drive a full season in today's Sprint Cup Series until he was 47 years old in 1989. Just three times — 1990, ’92 and ’95 — did the Wisconsin short track ace ever qualify for every race on a season's schedule. He made 303 Cup starts, scoring just 15 top-5 finishes and never a Cup win. He did rope two career Nationwide (then Busch) Series wins (1997, ’98).
Trickle's mark on the sport came in both his legend from his midwest short track days and the number of drivers he raced along the way. Of course, his trademark of enjoying a cigarette during a race's caution flag was unforgettable to even casual race fans in the 1990s.
It's not a stretch to wonder if today's NASCAR — good or bad — would ever have room for a character like Trickle that helped the sport's narrative in ways that leading laps and hoisting trophies could never do.
David Smith crunches the numbers for the million-dollar payday.
Matt Kenseth is on an intermediate track roll. (ASP, Inc.)
The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race isn’t a typical all-star event.
Unlike the stick ‘N’ ball all-star “breaks” that feature lackadaisical effort and are more celebrated for the parties that supplement the fan activities rather than the actual contests, the Sprint Cup Series version of an all-star event pits recent race winners and champions in a race comprised of dash-style formats which has a $1 million carrot dangling on the end of a stick. It’s wild, unpredictable and in no way resembles a normal NASCAR race.
It also doesn’t have much bearing on the following week’s Coca-Cola 600, which, like the All-Star Race, takes place at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
3 in 13 Dating back to 2000, a span of 13 races, the All-Star Race winner has gone on to win the next week’s Coca-Cola 600 just three times.
Though they take place at the same facility, the two races don’t actually coalesce. The 600 not only requires a car capable of thriving on extended green-flag runs, but also a team that has built a setup to survive in both day and night conditions. The All-Star Race simply requires a setup for short runs, making the drivers and teams that excel at such a thing instant favorites.
3.2 Matt Kenseth has the highest average race rank (3.2) among all drivers in speed early in green-flag runs.
Kenseth, who also ranks first in the series in speed on restarts, has been a juggernaut at the drop of the green flag and for the ensuing 25 laps. While the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team has been stellar on intermediate tracks this season — two of its three wins came at Las Vegas and Kansas — it will be its affinity for immediate speed that separates it from the rest of the field in Saturday night’s event.
6 in 13 In the last 13 All-Star Races, six were won by drivers that had visited victory lane at an intermediate track in one of the prior races that same season.
The fact that Kenseth has captured two 1.5-mile (intermediate) track victories this season provides no guarantees for Saturday. It doesn’t take numbers — just common sense — to understand that this race is its own beast. A stout intermediate program like the one JGR is currently flaunting is always good to have, but the varying formats of the race don’t lend it to easy prognostication. If Kenseth becomes the victor, it will be because of the combination of car strength and short-run ability.
The All-Star Race format should benefit Kyle Busch. (ASP, Inc.)
56.89% With a 56.89 percent pass efficiency, Kyle Busch is the most efficient passer in the Cup Series.
Busch is in a good spot for this race. Not only is his No. 18 team good early in green-flag runs (it ranks second to Kenseth), but he has also been able to pass at will all season. That comes in handy when a driver is aiming for a $1 million winner’s purse. It also makes him a favorite in the bonus purse — a driver that wins all four segments of the event gets an additional $1 million — which will take both explosions out of restarts and, if that fails, adept passing. If there’s a pick to click for this unprecedented purse, it’s Rowdy.
54.55% Busch and his No. 18 team have finished in the top half of fields in six of 11 races, or 54.55 percent of the time.
So Busch is one of my drivers to watch for the All-Star race, but how about the championship? Presently there is a consistency problem, seen in that 54.55 number, which is on par with the likes of Jeff Burton and the No. 31 team and Kurt Busch and the No. 78 team. Aside from mechanical maladies, Busch has the second-worst crash frequency in the series (0.55), keeping them from recording high finishes in five races. That low of a percentage is something that can intervene in the team’s quest for a championship; it is the lowest percentage among drivers currently inside the top 12 in points.
0.64 Marcos Ambrose’s crash frequency of 0.64 is the worst in the series.
This year has been a house of horrors for Ambrose, who is currently sporting a replacement-level Performance in Equal Equipment Rating of 0.659 and sits 23rd in the standings while Aric Almirola, the driver of Richard Petty Motorsports’ sister car, is in Chase contention. It should be noted that Ambrose’s contract with RPM is up at season’s end. This likely isn’t the sort of start to the season for which the free agent-to-be was hoping.
Ambrose, by way of his 2012 victory at Watkins Glen, is entered in this weekend’s All-Star Race. It might be Hail Mary time for the struggling No. 9 team.
$1 million The winner’s share for this event, a cool $1 million, would benefit David Ragan and his Front Row Motorsports team in spectacular fashion.
Sponsorship has been hard to come by for the underdog organization that captured the surprise victory two weekends ago at Talladega. Ragan’s No. 34 team pocketed $3,524,091 in winnings during the 2012 season. It would take some radical setup strategy and a car unlike any they’ve ever had to score the $1 million jackpot, but that sum of money would represent roughly 28 percent of last year’s take. For them to earn that kind of money in one night’s work would be a miraculous achievement and go down as one of the greatest upsets in the sport’s history.
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:
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Talladega
Front Row Motorsports teammates David Gilliland (left) and David Ragan. (ASP, Inc.)
Since it opened in 1969, Talladega has been NASCAR’s racetrack of extremes. When right, the sport’s decision to slap restrictor plates on brings out maximum excitement, the best opportunity for 43 teams to compete on a level playing field. Feel-good stories emerge, like the case of Bob Jenkins, a restaurant owner who has filtered more money into his three-car team just to run 25th, than most will make in a lifetime. Since 2005, he has toiled — once suffering through a season with more than 30 DNQs — and posting only two top-5 finishes in 403 starts prior to Sunday. The dream was to pursue a Sprint Cup victory, but a look at the stat sheet would point one towards financial self-destruction … or a man in need of mental help.
Now, Jenkins can point right back at his critics and towards a trophy that is rightfully his. Jenkins’ Front Row Motorsports drivers Ragan and David Gilliland produced the first 1-2 finish in team history in the Aaron’s 499, outclassing the Goliaths they race against through smarts and speed. At no other track — even Daytona, with NASCAR’s handling package — would such a victory be remotely possible. (Previous best finish for this team in 2013: Ragan’s 20th at Richmond.) It’s the type of victory that brings attention to the sport, giving executives something to sell, potential new car owners justification to compete and the backside of the NASCAR garage a reason for hope. No one will change the way these men feel about plate racing now; heck, you could strap a parachute to the car at Daytona and they’d be happy based on the parity that gives them a chance.
On the other side of the fence sits Ryan Newman whose season, if not more, was mere feet from being cut tragically short on Sunday when an entire car landed on the windshield of his No. 39 Chevrolet. As chaos unfolded in front of him, Kurt Busch’s Chevy entry landed, then rolled over Newman’s car in the midst of a 12-car melee that’s become all too common at Talladega. It’s not the first time the driver has been in physical danger; four years ago, this nasty flip (LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxE1_VZkQKI) left the roll cage bent mere inches from his head.
“We had a race here in the spring, complaining about cars getting airborne,” Newman said then. “I wish NASCAR would do something. That’s not what anyone wants to see.”
Four years later, he’s saying the same words again, this time more viciously after not feeling that NASCAR has lifted a finger on the rules. No one will change the way Newman feels about plate racing now, he just doesn’t want himself or a competitor to end up dead.
Talladega. The land of extremes, where guilt, grief, miracles, merriment, disaster, disgust, rage and redemption come together as one. It’s why everyone is pushing for change, but as they do human nature makes it impossible to look away – keeping us in the same cycle forevermore.
FIRST GEAR: Two Davids snookered the field
Make no mistake, Ragan’s slice ‘n’ dice to the front of the pack would not have been possible without two things. One: Teammate David Gilliland, sitting on his back bumper and not letting go until the two cars were sitting out front. Those feeling like the “push” of tandem drafting was completely dead need to take a second look on how these cars were stuck together like superglue down the stretch.
“I know he wishes that he was sitting in my shoes right now,” said Ragan of his teammate, now winless in 232 Cup Series starts. “I kind of wish that he would have had a chance to win the race, too.”
I’m not sure Gilliland cared much, though. His whole family was in attendance to watch Ragan’s post-race presser, a sign of the teamwork atmosphere this underdog organization has pushed since the beginning. Fact: Ragan now has as many wins with this team (one) in just 15 months as he did in five full seasons driving for Roush Fenway Racing. Turns out all the money in the world can’t buy that all-important chemistry needed for those moments when people need to bring out the best in each other.
“He was driving for a top-tier team, had UPS as a sponsor and when he left, he bought into what we were trying to do at Front Row,” said Jenkins. “His expectations of himself and his team never changed. He didn't look at it as if, ‘Hey, I'm taking a step down here, I realize I'm going to be a back marker.’ He continues to expect a lot out of himself and a lot out of his team, and I think what happened is people bought into that and they followed behind him and we've seen results.”
That belief system brings me to point No. 2: it wasn’t shared by his Sprint Cup competitors. Go ahead, you have my permission to review that final lap. Notice how Matt Kenseth drifts up on the backstretch to draft with Carl Edwards as if he needs to stick with the No. 99 to have a shot. Had he stayed in the middle, the FRM duo would have been blocked and we’d be talking about a different winner today. As for Edwards, he just didn’t see the freight train until it was too late, taking a prime opportunity to win a plate race away from a man who’s been victimized far too often there.
“David just got us,” Edwards said. “He did his job. As long as I’m not upside down, in the fence, it was pretty clean.”
SECOND GEAR: Is it all getting to Brad Keselowski?
One driver, though, was crying foul over Ragan’s miracle moment. Brad Keselowski, in several tweets after the race, felt his rival lined up in the wrong lane for the final restart. Several photos showed the cars trying to pass each other for position on the backstretch under yellow before NASCAR made the final call as to where Keselowski, Scott Speed and Ragan would line up. The verdict was Speed eighth, Keselowski ninth and Ragan 10th based on where they were at the last scoring loop when the caution came out. Were they right? Judge for yourself at the 2:42 mark of this clip. My take is that’s it’s far too close to call.
Either way, Keselowski was presumptuous to predict one change in lane would have earned him a victory – or cost Ragan one. Plate races are so unpredictable that you’ll get 1,000 different endings per 1,000 green-white-checker finishes. I just wonder, after a disappointing 15th-place finish, whether pressure is starting to get to the reigning champ. The final appeal for his Penske team is Tuesday, where 25 points and suspensions of his top four crew members appear imminent. Winless this season, he’s also posted back-to-back finishes outside the top 10 for the first time since Michigan and Sonoma last June. Every superstar, no matter his or her mental strength, goes through adversity; now might be Keselowski’s time, sitting fifth in points with just a single lap led over the last six events.
He just didn’t have to drag David Ragan into his own psychological hell.
THIRD GEAR: The racing was … what it was
I know. It sounds like a copout. Well, if you ask Newman, who joined Busch in the ranks of “Big One” Demolition Derbys, NASCAR racing here needs to be thrown in the trash bin:
"I am doing this interview to let everybody know I'm alright,” said Newman, who if NASCAR has any consistency (Denny Hamlin, anyone?) will be fined for the comments that follow. “They can build safer race cars, they can build safer walls. But they can't get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep them on the race track, and that's pretty disappointing. I wanted to make sure I get that point across. Y'all can figure out who 'they' is. That's no way to end a race ... I mean, you got what you wanted, but poor judgment and running in the dark and running in the rain.”
To be fair, most didn’t share the driver’s sentiment about the conditions of the track itself down the stretch. Only sprinkles could be felt in the final minutes and, while dark, the race ended earlier than the Nationwide Series event the day before. It’s the other part of Newman’s diatribe — the plate package — that would be under greater scrutiny if not for Ragan’s headline-saving win. I felt like Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it best:
“I don’t really know,” he said. “I don’t know – I thought it was alright, I guess.”
A classic “C, C+” type of response, and clearly not what NASCAR wants out of one of its fan-favorite facilities, especially after Earnhardt raved about the racing in Daytona. But that’s the truth. 30 lead changes were the least since 2002, when Earnhardt laid waste to the field. The draft, while handling multiple grooves unlike its sister track, had a tendency to “stop ‘n’ start.” There would be times when drivers would get stir crazy, and others — like for 30 laps after the rain delay — where they fell in line and passed the time.
It still seemed like, apart from the final lap, the line that had the most cars could make a difference, with the outside groove still holding a substantial edge. There’s work to be done here, although different rules can only do so much. Drivers are smarter. They know nothing matters at these races until less than 20 laps to go. Trying to force them to stay aggressive in the wake of what happened to Newman and Busch is like throwing them in the lion’s den and asking them to play.
Matt Kenseth led 142 of 192 laps on Sunday. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Gibbs’ plate race problems continue
Plate races place even the best drivers on Lady Luck’s roulette wheel. Take Jimmie Johnson, for example: four plate races last year, three wrecks and one blown engine. In 2013? He’s two-for-two in the top-5 finish category with a win. This year, the bad karma has made its way over to Joe Gibbs Racing. Matt Kenseth’s dominating performance at Talladega, in which he led 142 laps, went for naught with one bad choice on the final lap. He wound up eighth, still a far cry from teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Busch, lost in the shuffle of the afternoon rain delay, started the race’s first “Big One” that collected a dozen cars, including himself. And Hamlin? A return to the seat, which ended quickly and safely under the first caution on Lap 23 netted him just 10 points. Sub Brian Vickers was caught up in that wreck, leaving the driver 34th and actually increasing his deficit on the top 20 in points by five, (76 points behind Kurt Busch).
Kudos to other underdogs with solid performances Sunday. Phoenix Racing, which has pulled a “Front Row” in the past here (Keselowski, April 2009) was sixth with Regan Smith, but Leavine Family Racing was perhaps more impressive. Scott Speed (ninth) scored the first top-10 result for the organization and just the fourth of his journeyman career. … Bobby Labonte, in his 700th start ran 20th for JTG Daugherty Racing. It’s a tale of two careers for the veteran; he earned 20 wins and a title in his first 350 starts behind the wheel, but just one victory since. … NASCAR’s “Air Titan” was credited for saving the day, as its track drying efforts allowed for time to finish Sunday’s race. So why did it still take two-plus hours to dry the track? I thought it was advertised as a 30-minute fix. It’s still a work in progress, in my opinion.
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.
David Smith crunches the numbers for the Aaron's 499
An ankle biter (believe it or not). (ASP, Inc.)
Let’s say you’re a gambler. Parading across the casino floor, you feast your eyes on the roulette wheel. It’s noted next to the wheel that the last five spins have landed on black. Your chips are now burning a hole through your pocket because you know that the next spin is due to land on red. You throw your chips down, bet on red and as the wheel once again lands on black, you’re filled with confusion. What just happened?
You’re a sucker. That’s what happened.
Each individual spin of the roulette wheel is independent of all other spins, meaning what happened in prior spins has no effect on the current spin or future spins. Trusting previous spins is fool’s gold. You know what else is foolish? Trusting previous races to determine when cautions come out and how many cars get collected. This is actually something that crew chiefs do, but it is flawed logic. A caution-filled race one year can be a green-flag feeding frenzy the next, at the same track … unless we’re discussing Talladega Superspeedway.
The 2.66-mile restrictor plate track is its own behemoth. Watching races on television don’t do the beast any justice. It’s wide, fast and scary as hell. It’s Daytona if Daytona took performance-enhancing drugs.
5 of 9+ Dating back to 2010, there have been five crashes that included nine cars or more in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Talladega.
This is probably the best running definition of “the big one.” In the last six races at Talladega, there have been five big ones. The numbers are sort of deceiving, though. The crashes aren’t spread out; those five crashes spanned just three races, meaning half of the races in that time frame didn’t have a crash that wadded up the majority of the field. Contrary to what you’ll hear on television this weekend, a giant field-cutting wreck isn’t a matter of when. The big one is a matter of if.
18 of 2 to 6 In the last six Talladega races, there have been 18 multi-car crashes consisting of six cars or less.
We’ll call these the ankle biters. The big one has given away to a plethora of mini multi-car crashes that swoop in and eliminate around 12 percent of the field at any given time. Want to know why the big one hasn’t been a big concern the past three years? It has to do with these types of crashes, the ones that systematically eliminate the competition to a point where there aren’t enough cars remaining to actually have a giant crash.
Now, let’s be careful here. This isn’t a trend. A crash is something that occurs when a driver error or mechanical malfunction happens. A trend would read as follows:
“Driver A is going to become aero loose, overcorrect himself, crash, and take out 12.7 cars.”
That thought is wrong in so many ways. At Talladega, where large pack racing is on the menu, a mistake could occur at any point in the race, triggering an accident. The magnitude of the accident is based on the radius and reaction time of the cars around the trigger. It’s also based largely on luck. The best thing to do in avoiding accidents is to be out ahead of them, as we saw last year in Matt Kenseth’s restrictor plate race efforts.
Not an ankle biter. (ASP, Inc.)
6.0 Kenseth’s average running position in four points-paying restrictor plate races in 2012 was sixth.
Based on the aforementioned crashes, the safest place to be at Talladega the last three years is eighth or better. Kenseth’s decision to covet track position not only kept him out of harms way in each of those races last season, but it led to two victories. Considering he spent over 90 percent of those races running inside the top 15 and just under 33 percent leading, winning was practically a foregone conclusion.
6.000 Kenseth’s PEER through the three Daytona races earlier this year is 6.000, which ranks as the fourth-most productive rating.
The Gen-6 race cars flipped the script on drafting. It was hard to pass at Daytona — it won’t be as hard at Talladega, but it is likely to be significantly different compared to past races — so putting an emphasis on track position as a team would on an intermediate track eventually won the Daytona 500 for Jimmie Johnson (6.500 PEER, ranks second) and allowed Kevin Harvick (7.583 PEER, ranks first) to score two quick victories in the Sprint Unlimited and his qualifying race. Kenseth was as adept, just not victorious. His engine issue soured an otherwise beautiful Daytona 500 outing in which he led 86 laps.
1, 2 and 1 Danica Patrick won the pole in Daytona, starting first. She also ranked second in average running position (5.23) and first in average green-flag speed in the Daytona 500.
Specifically, her No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy SS was a rocket ship and the team’s focus on day-long track position wasn’t dissimilar to the game plan of Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team. Talladega will be a little more frenzied for Patrick, though. While her current plate PEER is admirable (3.000, ranks 15th), the addition of another groove at Talladega will make that strategy a little more daunting for a rookie driver.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Richmond
Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Beaten down Joe Gibbs Racing should come out swinging
Matt Kenseth suffered perhaps the most crushing penalty NASCAR has ever assessed that isn't a driver suspension. Kyle Busch has a strong memory of team mistakes killing his chance to qualify for last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. And Denny Hamlin, the best Richmond International Raceway driver by advanced statistical measure in the last five-plus seasons, won't even get to suit up for Saturday night's race.
Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't had a good week, and it will be extremely interesting to see how it responds. Because it's Richmond, thinking that JGR will fold under the pressure seems almost impossible.
Since Busch joined the team in 2008, JGR six wins at RIR, just under half of the laps led (1,945 of 4,010) and 15 total top-5 finishes. It’s figured something out in the .75-mile track seemingly beyond other teams. It might have to do with Busch and Hamlin sharing similar demands from a race car at the short track, unlike other Cup venues.
"We do like similar setups there, unlike other mile-and-a-half tracks or two-mile tracks where we don’t run very similar setups," Busch says. "Richmond is one of those places where we both know what it takes to get around and we’re both similar to one another in that we both run well.”
Expect JGR to continue a streak more than a decade old Saturday night: having at least one car lead a lap. The last time that didn't happen? The fall of 2001.
Greg Zipadelli and Tony Stewart. (ASP, Inc.)
2. Racing the track, not the car, could be antidote to Stewart's slump
Tony Stewart has been in a funk. And Tony Stewart knows he's been in a funk.
“It’s not easy, for sure," Stewart says. "I mean, it was always hard as a driver, but it’s even worse as a driver-owner. When things are tough, the pressure and the burden is more on you knowing that you’re responsible for everything versus just being the guy driving the car."
A 21st-place finish at Kansas Speedway last weekend meant the No. 14 has gone nearly two months without a top-10 finish. Richmond provides relief in the form of not being a speedway track, and probably fits better into Stewart's comfort zone.
At the very least, it's an opportunity to race a track where style and line selection have more of a say than aerodynamic-focused Kansas.
"You never really get anybody who gets their car perfect," Stewart says of Richmond. "Even the guy that gets the lead still isn’t happy with his car. So, it’s really trying to find that balance and trying to figure out how to balance both ends of the track together.”
The 42-year-old led 333 laps in 1999 at RIR to win his first career Cup race. He's won twice at Richmond since (2001 and 2002) and also has four consecutive top 10s since a lap-down finish in 2010.
3. Teams bringing ideas from the desert to tackle Richmond
In a season with limited track time behind a still new car, teams are searching for methods to speed up the process and use information they've already gleaned to make setup decisions for coming race weekends. Richmond, and its similarities to the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway, is the latest example.
Every single Roush-Fenway Racing entry plus its satellite teams at Richard Petty Motorsports will use the cars they raced at Phoenix as primary cars this weekend. Carl Edwards won the race in the desert.
"Our package in Phoenix was very good," Edwards says. "I’m thinking some of that will help us with our race setup for Richmond."
The Ford teams also will use information that RPM’s Aric Almirola learned at Richmond during a test last month.
“The track was really fast which really surprised me," Almirola says, noting his first lap on the track in race trim came close to the track qualifying record. “We learned a lot from the test and felt that it helped us figure out what we need for our short-track package.”
Other teams using Phoenix cars this weekend include Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fifth at Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson (second) and Mark Martin (21st).
4. McMurray slowly leading Earnhardt-Ganassi out of struggles
Three was a nice number for Jamie McMurray in 2010, when he scored a trio of big wins at Daytona, Indianapolis and Charlotte. Last season, three stood for head-shaking disappointment as his No. 1 team mustered just three top-10 finishes in 36 starts.
But early in this 2013 season, three is starting to look better for McMurray as he looks to shed two straight frustrating seasons at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. The No. 1 now has three top 10s in just eight races after a seventh-place finish last weekend at Kansas.
He was another driver — along with snakebitten teammate Juan Pablo Montoya — who tested at Richmond.
"We have had two strong runs on short-tracks already this year," McMurray says, referring to a 10th at Bristol and a seventh at Martinsville. "I hope we can carry some of that momentum into this weekend."
5. Short schedule magnifies importance of unloading a fast race car.
Richmond isn't a place where teams can show up, miss the car setup during the first practice, and then still run well in the race. The two-day format for the Sprint Cup Series with practice and qualifying on Friday before the Saturday race just doesn't allow the track time to make wholesale changes and improvements.
Should a team find a decent setup in Friday afternoon practice, it also has to hope the setup will match Richmond's night-race conditions. Even a four-time champion struggles with that.
"When you practice during the day and race at night, you have to guess and I feel like every time we race here something is changing," says Jeff Gordon.
More unnerving for teams is how important nabbing a qualifying spot near the front tends to be. Eight of every 10 Richmond winners in the 113-race history of the track have come from inside the top 10, and an almost equally staggering 30 percent of Richmond winners have been from the front row.
The front qualifiers having an advantage isn't a trend that's going away, either. Going back to 2003 — a span of 20 races — just four winners have come from outside the top 10.