After the bullring that was Bristol, the series heads out to the West Coast for another race on the wide-open California Speedway in Fontana. Your fantasy team could be taxed, as the race to the Chase winds down to its inevitable conclusion. No question about it, the pressure’s on. Drivers on the bubble will be running conservatively but intelligently, while the drivers on the outside looking in will simply be going for broke. Then, there’s that strange category of drivers already locked in – they’ll be going for the win to try and garner those extra bonus points for the Chase.
As the racing community heads straight for the desert heat, can Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards continue their own current hot streaks? Will Kevin Harvick be able to finish solidly enough to ensure a place in the Chase? This week’s edition of Picks ‘n’ Pans offers our insights into which drivers offer the best and worst for your fantasy team this weekend.
Cami’s Race Rewind
With his fifth win of the 2006 season, Kasey Kahne pulled off the weekend sweep of California Speedway and edged his way closer to a position in the Chase for the Championship. Kahne led a race high 130 laps, but had to overcome a pit-road speeding penalty and get a little luck from Reed Sorenson‘s fuel tank to score the victory. Sorenson, gambling on fuel mileage, was in the lead when his tank hit empty with just two laps remaining in the race; he would finish 21st. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, Edwards and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top five.
Behind them, Matt Kenseth came home in seventh place, which was good enough to give him the point lead heading into the final regular season race at Richmond after Jimmie Johnson finished 11th. Polesitter Busch struggled with his car’s handling all night and finished 21st.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
California is the sister track to Michigan International Speedway. Quite a bit like a good scotch, it is an acquired taste. The track is two miles long and very wide, giving cars racing grooves that run from the top to the bottom. Because of that, there are plenty of options to make a car work, meaning the team that can make their car work in multiple grooves to allow for plenty of passing opportunities will be the one that triumphs on Sunday.
The other factor to consider for this week is that this race ends at night – look for teams that are adaptable and capable of making their car work through changing track conditions. As for past history, expect to see the Roush cars near the top of the charts because of their ability to adjust with the “old” car – also, they are always strong on these two tracks, which have typically proven to be a Ford stronghold.
The Hendrick brigade will also be very strong, especially now that the top two crew chiefs are back with their teams – and Tony Stewart is also a strong contender in any race that occurs during the summer.
Crank ‘Em Up
Kenseth is having one of his typical seasons where he doesn’t qualify that well, stays out of trouble all day, and is at the front of the pack when the checkered flag falls. But while he hasn’t been out collecting wins, the Wisconsinite becomes a strong competitor whenever the series heads to Michigan or California. Seven of his 11 races there have been top-10 finishes, and he has won two of the last three races held at this track.
Edwards has had his season come around over the last few race weekends with finishes of eighth, seventh and first. He is heating up at just the right time as the series heads into the Chase, meaning Cousin Carl could very well be holding the big trophy by the time this season is over. Having locked himself into the championship battle, Edwards can let it all hang out at a track similar to one in which the young gun swept both Cup races this year – Michigan International Speedway.
With confidence in hand, the final point to remember about Edwards at California is that he has run six races at the track, and five of those finishes have ended with the No. 99 placed in the top 10. It would be no surprise to see another backflip in Victory Lane this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down
Jamie McMurray won the July race at Daytona – then promptly found his old Roush slump over the last six races to drop out of Chase contention. MAC’s best finish in the last six races was a 26th this past weekend at Bristol – that is the only finish above 30th during that stretch. While Roush typically does well at this track, McMurray just doesn’t seem to be able to run consistently near the front… at least right now. Bench him.
2004 California winner Elliott Sadler is the GEM driver to sit for the week. Simply put, GEM is continuing to struggle with getting their cars to handle on the intermediate tracks they proved so successful at last season. While they have reverted to last year’s car to try and turn their fortunes around, they are still struggling far behind most of the rest of the field as they search for the right combination. While Sadler does have a win at California, he has not scored a top-10 finish his last four races, further enhancing a season-long slump. No doubt, expect more of the same from Sadler this weekend, keeping him on the bench for another week.
Roll the Dice
Earnhardt Jr. is in desperate need of another strong finish in this race. He is 158 points out of the Chase right now, and needs to get it below 75 this weekend if he really wants to have a serious chance at making the playoffs. Junior’s average finish at California is 21.2, and he finished 40th there this spring, although he was strong before he dropped out. He is going to have to run like he did for most of the Michigan race to have a real chance.
Crank ‘Em Up
With four top 10s in the last seven races, it doesn’t seem like the pressure of the upcoming Chase is having any ill effects on Bowyer. Currently, he is the only driver in Chase contention without a victory – but that could change this weekend. In three starts at Fontana, he has no finish worse than 14th, and the Kansan’s picked up back-to-back top-10 finishes, including a third-place run in this race last year. Unlike his RCR teammates, Bowyer is heading into the Chase running well, and could get a huge momentum boost this weekend.
Johnson hit a bit of a speed bump last week at Bristol when he finished 21st, but look for him to get back on his hot streak this weekend at California. The home state favorite won his first time out at Fontana in 2002 and hasn’t finished worse than 16th there in nine starts. When the series ran at Fontana in late February, Johnson started deep in the field in 23rd, but managed to gain 20 positions and led 31 laps. With 10 extra bonus points on the line and a chance to take the lead once the Chase field is set, look for Johnson to be gunning for the win this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down
One driver that is approaching the Chase not running as well as hoped is Harvick. It’s been four races since Harvick last finished in the top 10, and he hasn’t run up front to lead any laps, either. Could his frustration with Juan Pablo Montoya be getting in his head? You probably can’t blame the mini-slump on Montoya, but something is a tad bit off with this team. Throw into the mix the fact Harvick has just two top 10s and an average finish of 20.7 in 10 Fontana starts, that’s a recipe for leaving him off your team for now.
Another driver who has seen his performance drop off precipitously is David Stremme. Earlier this season, it looked as though Stremme’s fortunes might change. But after posting two top 10s in the first half of the year, his results have been less than stellar. Other than his 14th-place finish at Bristol last week, it had been 11 races since he scored a top-20 finish. Looking at his California record, he’s not likely to fare much better this weekend. In three starts, he has two finishes of 33rd or worse and an average finish of 29.3. Plenty of other drivers run well at California; you’d do well to pick one of them.
Roll the Dice
Can one weekend of success spark a turnaround in a team that has struggled all year long? We’re going to find out this weekend with Kahne. After winning the Busch race on Saturday, Kahne looked poised for the sweep before settling for second behind Edwards. What we saw last weekend was the Kahne of old, but was it just a flash in the pan? California has been good to Kahne, who won this race last year, and he ran well here in February; leading 30 laps before an engine failure put him back to 38th place. This pick might be a gamble, but it is one worth taking because it could pay off big.
Cami: How lucky were you to have Denny Hamlin last week when he got only his second career DNF?
Mike: Yeah, tell me about that. I told you I was worried about having two drivers from Gibbs in my Crank picks. I couldn’t believe he ran from the back to the front, only to blow up and finish dead last. Meanwhile, you didn’t get either of your drivers in the top 15 and yet you had a better average finish thanks to that unfortunate turn of events.
Cami: I’ll take any help I could get. But I was surprised how far off Gordon was there at the end – I thought I had a good shot to make up some decent ground on you. Alright, on to this week. I notice that Dale Jr.’s fifth-place finish at Bristol has you all excited about using him again.
Mike: I know I’m riding that bandwagon a little too much, but Junior ran well at Michigan until the very end, and he had a decent run at California this spring. He also really needs to keep the pressure on in order to have any hope of making the Chase. Meanwhile, I thought your pick to sit Martin Truex Jr. was going to bite you even worse than it did last week. He had a very strong effort compared to his previous runs at Bristol.
Cami: I know it – that guy is killing me. I was tempted to sit him this week and not take the easy road like you – but even with his crappy record at California, he would have probably finished in the top 10. Maybe that’s a sign to the readers not to pick Truex, because I didn’t sit him.
Mike: What about choosing to roll the dice with Kahne this week? I still don’t think that GEM has their act together on the big tracks. Kahne was pedestrian at best at Michigan. I think Bristol was more the exception for that team this year.
Cami: Sometimes my woman’s intuition pays off. I think they’ll get a spark from Bristol’s performance and do well this week. Not necessarily a contender for the win, but he is the defending champion of the race and has finished well at California more often than not. Meanwhile, you are making your Sit ‘Em Sadler pick this week. Can’t really fault you for either one there.
Mike: No, I felt bad not sitting a GEM driver last weekend, so I had to get back on the bandwagon this week. Finally, I am going to be curious how your contrarian RCR picks are going to work out. My guess is they’ll either both do poorly or both do well, so one way or the other, you’ll come out OK in one of the two categories.
Cami: Well, I only had scraps to pick from after you stole Kenseth and Edwards. I thought about Gordon for a split second, and then remembered how the No. 07 did at Bristol. This could be Bowyer’s big weekend. Harvick is struggling even while Bowyer is running well, so I don’t think it’s one or the other with RCR.
Mike: Well I have to think I’m in good shape – Kenseth is going to run well because he is Mr. Consistency, and Edwards is finally putting it all together with solid runs over the last few weeks. I guess we’ll just have to see how it all pans out.
Crank ‘Em Up- 14.0
Sit ‘Em Down- 22.4
Roll the Dice- 18.5
Crank ‘Em Up- 13.0
Sit ‘Em Down- 22.8
Roll the Dice- 17.0
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