While Sunday’s race provided a wild, exciting finish, the Daytona 500 wasn’t too kind to many people playing fantasy racing. With pre-race favorites like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch all finishing 30th or worse, you clearly weren’t alone if you found your team struggling to earn points in week 1. But a new week and a new track are ahead of us, and there is plenty of time to make your way back up to the top. So, what drivers can help you strike gold in California this weekend and which ones will likely make you go bust? Let’s find out in this week’s Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Matt Kenseth ended his winless drought by completing a Roush Racing sweep of California in last year’s Auto Club 500. Kenseth, who led a total of 40 laps, bested Johnson to the line by three car lengths following a green-white-checkered finish after Scott Wimmer blew an engine on lap 246. Greg Biffle had the dominant car of the day, leading an amazing 168 of the first 218 laps before mechanical problems forced him out of the race early. Stewart also had a strong car, and despite suffering a flat tire, led 28 laps before he experienced engine woes that relegated him to a 43rd-place finish. Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Burton rounded out the top five, while Roush cars claimed four spots in the top 10.
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. There are racing grooves from the top to the bottom, meaning there are plenty of options to make a car work. Because cars run all over the track here, 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.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Kenseth drives for Jack Roush, and Roush cars are dominant on the Michigan and California tracks. Kenseth started out the season strong despite what the final results sheet says; he was sure to finish at least fourth at Daytona before the last-lap wreck. Look for the team to continue their strong ways as they head into the warm climate of California.
Johnson has been quite consistent at California. Coming off of a terrible Speedweeks, look for the No. 48 to rebound and put in a strong performance at Cali. With the added incentive of starting a new streak of consecutive weeks in the top 10 in points, as well as Hendrick power under the hood, the No. 48 team should be near the front by the end of the race.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Dale Jarrett was the top-finishing Toyota at Daytona, but the best he could do was 22nd place. While R&D and driver skill can move you a lot closer to the front at Daytona, handling and aerodynamics will play a huge role at California. Because of that, look for the brown mobile to struggle and end up near the back of the pack by the end of the race, another sign that Toyota has a long way to go before they become competitive.
Sterling Marlin proved once again that he can plate race with a solid Speedweeks and a 17th-place finish in the 500. While that is good for Ginn Motorsports, this week is about handling, and they have still yet to prove that they can perform exceptionally well at a downforce track. Look for Marlin to contribute to your team later in the year… but not now.
Roll the Dice:
Earnhardt Jr. made some great progress on intermediate tracks last year. The downforce tracks had given the DEI stable fits for years, but they finally got their setups close to what they needed to be competitive. California has never been Junior’s strong suit, but watch for the No. 8 to be closer to the front than he’s been in a while after a below-average Speedweeks.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Edwards had a top-10 run going at Daytona before getting caught up in a late-race accident. But this weekend at California, he should find the top 10 with no problem. In fact, when it comes to Nextel Cup Edwards has done nothing but finish in the top 10 at Fontana. In five starts, he has an average finish of 4.4 with no finish lower than sixth (2004). Look for Edwards to be strong this weekend; with a little luck, he might even notch that first Fontana win.
Hmmm… guess I’m feeling nine is a lucky number this week. Kahne is another driver who should do well on the left coast. He escaped Daytona with a top-10 finish and should go two for two this weekend at California despite being without regular team director Kenny Francis. No question about it, Kahne was dominant here in September, leading 130 laps on the way to victory lane and securing a spot in the Chase. This type of track tends to favor Kahne’s driving style; in 2006, he scored two wins and four top fives at California and its sister track at Michigan.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Most drivers like to do well in front of their home-state fans, but that hasn’t come to pass for Robby Gordon at California’s second track. While he breezes around the track at Sonoma, Robby has had troubles getting similar results at Fontana. He managed to score a ninth-place finish back in the fall race of 2004, but in the four races since, he has failed to finish in the top 25. Gordon came out of Daytona with a decent 15th-place run, but I don’t see another finish like that this weekend.
Another driver who is unlikely to see his Daytona fortunes carry onto California is Joe Nemechek. Since California Speedway opened for business in 1997, Nemechek has scored just one top-10 finish there and has a 24.5 average finish in 13 races. Add to that the fact that he is no longer with the crew that he was with last year, and Nemechek could be in for some tough finishes while he gets settled into this new seat.
Roll the Dice:
I know this pick will get some odd looks, especially from Mike, but Jamie McMurray could pull out a strong finish this weekend in California. In the seven races, he’s run there he has five top-five finishes and an average finish of 8.9. Throw in the fact that he’s now in a Roush Fenway Ford, a team that has dominated this track in the past, and it’s the formula for a good run this weekend for the Crown Royal guys.
Mike: Glad to see you went out on such a thin limb with your Edwards pick.
Cami: Well you never know… I didn’t think Smoke was a thin limb pick last week, and that twig busted on me. But that’s not gonna happen two weeks in a row.
Mike: I hope not, for your sake. On the other hand, I’m thinking I’m pretty safe putting a Roush car in my Crank ‘Em Ups. Kenseth was poised for a good finish this weekend until he got taken out.
Cami: Yeah, any Roush car isn’t a bad bet out in Fontana. That’s why I used your pal McMurray as my Roll the Dice pick.
Mike: Good luck with that. He’s just still not impressed me in any equipment since his one win.
Cami: You’re just anti-McMurray, Mike; you wouldn’t pick him if he was the only car racing. He has five top 10s there in just seven races, you can’t discount that.
Cami: But speaking of going out on limbs… sitting DJ isn’t much of a stretch.
Mike: Hey, he was the top-finishing Toyota at Daytona… I think that is a bit of a stretch.
Cami: Well, look at what his competition was… at least that’s probably a safe pick for you. Not quite sure about Jr. though.
Mike: DEI has turned their intermediate program around. I think you’ll see Junior and Martin Truex Jr. finish near the front quite a bit on cookie cutters this year.
Mike: MACMurray might actually be a good pick. He’s had some surprising success at Cali.
Cami: I bet it killed you to say that. But looking at how bad we did week 1, we both could use some good luck this weekend. Our picks weren’t bad… they just had bad luck.
Mike: No doubt. We had some terribly bad positioning for our drivers… I guess we’ll have to wait and see how Cali pans out.
Crank ‘Em Up – 31.5
Sit ‘Em Down – 16.0
Roll the Dice – 18
Crank ‘Em Up – 35.5
Sit ‘Em Down – 29.5
Roll the Dice – 35