The wild, frantic pace of Speedweeks and the Daytona 500 is now behind us, and for fantasy team owners, it’s time to get into the weekly grind of the 2008 Sprint Cup season. Unless you have a crystal ball on steroids, there is a pretty good chance your fantasy team took a hit last weekend when the Hendrick camp failed to live up to expectations and the Dodges came out of nowhere to dominate the top 10. Before you get too down on yourself, remember it’s just the first week and there is plenty of time left to make up lost ground, starting with this Sunday’s Auto Club 500 at California Speedway. So which drivers can help you get back on the path to prominence and which ones are likely to be a pot hole on the street of dreams? Read this week’s Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans to find out.
Cami’s Race Rewind
With his victory in last year’s Auto Club 500, Matt Kenseth pulled off the NASCAR equivalent to the double/double by scoring his second straight win in the February Cup event at Fontana and winning the Nationwide Series race on Saturday. Despite leading 129 laps, Kenseth’s path to victory wasn’t a smooth one. Jimmie Johnson looked to be the dominant car, building up an over two second lead during the race’s 102-lap green flag run before a flurry of late-race cautions allowed the competition to reel him back in. Tony Stewart also looked to have a strong car, but a pit-road penalty proved too much for him to overcome. Kevin Harvick was in second place, looking for back to back wins to kick off the season and his first win at his home track. It was not meant to be, as a flat tire forced him down pit road with just four laps remaining. Jeff Gordon did his best to track down Kenseth, but had to settle for a second-place finish with Johnson, Jeff Burton and Mark Martin rounding out the top five. History was made by Brian Vickers, who scored Toyota’s first top-10 finish just one week after failing to make the field for the Daytona 500.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
One of the raciest tracks on the circuit, California offers a very wide racing groove that allows drivers to find the line that allows their car to work the best. The new car configuration will be a new twist, one that could make the racing even more exciting or take away some of that racing. So far, the one thing that has held constant is tat the number one challenge for the teams has been getting the nose of the car to stick. The teams that were able to do that best early last year were Hendrick, Childress and DEI. Late in the season, the Roush cars made up ground and got closer. Knowing that the teams are closer, it is best to look at the past performance at the track for some guidance. Hendrick and Roush have the most wins at the track, so expect to see Johnson, Gordon and Kenseth to be at the forefront. The darkhorses to consider are Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler. The GEM teams have straightened out their engineering flaws from last year. Both drivers have won at California before. They just might get back to the front again.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Johnson was less than impressive at Daytona. Yes he won the pole position, but that was the lone highlight. He was not competitive in his duel race, and never seriously threatened the front of the pack in the 500. Expect the two-time defending Cup champion to come back with a vengeance at California. One thing that has been proven again and again over the last few years, if Chad Knaus feels like the team didn’t perform up to standard, he comes back with a purpose. Johnson has won at California twice, including the most recent race there, and finished second there three times. Expect the No. 48 team to make a statement that they aren’t going away without a fight this year.
Carl Edwards has taken to California like a duck to water. He has run seven races at the track in the Cup series, and has finished in the top six in six of those races. Certain tracks are better fits than others for drivers and California has proven to be one of those tracks for Edwards. While he hasn’t won at the track, he has the second-best average finish among active drivers since the series started visiting the track in 1997. Roush has also caught up to the other teams in their new car configuration packages, so expect another solid performance from Cousin Carl.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Ryan Newman has appeared everywhere from Daytona. From Letterman to Leno to the Boise State Kiwanis Club, the whirlwind of activity in the last week is bound to have an effect on the driver as he heads into the second race of the season after his victory at Daytona. Add to that an average finish of 19.5 and a single top-15 finish in the last five visits to California, and you can’t expect to see too much from the No. 12 this Sunday.
Greg Biffle had a decent finish at Daytona (10th) and just might be set to get back to the form he has shown in the past in the Cup series. But California hasn’t been the best of tracks for Biffle. He has an average finish of 20.1 at the track, and that includes a win and a second-place finish in 2005. Other than those two finishes, he has not had another top-10 finish and only two other top-15 finishes in 10 races at the track. Biffle may be shaking off the doldrums that have plagued him of late, but California is not a good track for him to get the monkey off of his back. It’s best to let Biffle ride the pine this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had his share of downs at California. He has had some ups (four top-six finishes in 12 races) but a lot more downs. However, this is a new year and a new organization, and that organization has won more than 1/3 of the races contested at this racetrack. Earnhardt was also the highest finishing driver from the Hendrick stable at Daytona. While California is certainly not one of Earnhardt’s favorite tracks, he’s in equipment now that may make it move up a little higher on his list. It is certainly a roll of the dice, but a gamble worth taking.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Kenseth is hoping 2008’s mediocre performance at Daytona leads to the same results his 27th-place finish in the 500 last year did, a win at Fontana. Nothing helps you get over the last disappointment more than the next good finish and California has been great medicine for Kenseth over his career. In his 12 starts at Fontana, he’s scored eight top-10 finishes; including five straight and has won this race the last two years. Don’t let his poor start to the year at Daytona turn you off the former champ. Consider it fuel for the fire as he goes for the three-peat this weekend.
Kyle Busch is another driver who could use his frustration from the season opener to turn in a strong performance this weekend. After leading nearly half of the race at Daytona, Busch came up short in the end and had to settle for a fourth-place finish. His aggressive driving style shows that he will do whatever it takes to get into victory lane with his new team, and he should have a shot at that this weekend at Fontana. He got off to a rocky start at California in his rookie year, but in the five races since he’s scored a win and five straight top 10s.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Last weekend the Dodges were the surprise story at Daytona, but duplicating that success at Fontana will be a chore. Sadler made a late-race push to score a sixth-place finish last week, but it will be a tall order for him to make it two in a row to start of 2008. With Yates power he was able to score a win at Fontana in 2004, but since joining the Dodge camp his results have taken a hit. Since coming to GEM, he’s managed just one finish in the top 15 and didn’t break the top 20 last year. Don’t get too excited about last week. Wait and see if GEM has really turned the corner before taking the gamble on Sadler.
Reed Sorenson provided plenty of surprises during Speedweeks which was capped by a fifth-place finish in the Great American Race. A bigger surprise would be if he could repeat that performance this week at California, a track where he has yet to finish on the lead lap in four starts. Sorenson’s stock may be on the rise, but don’t jump on the bandwagon just yet. This team has a lot to prove that they can get it done on non-plate tracks before he’s a strong pick each week.
Roll the Dice:
Roush Fenway Racing has been one of the strongest teams at California Speedway. While Kenseth is usually the one in the limelight, you can’t overlook Jamie McMurray. In just over half of his nine career starts at Fontana, McMurray has found a way to score a top-10 finish. He may not qualify well, but by the end of the day he has usually found a way to make it up to the front. He might not be the class of the field, but with an average finish of 12.8; he’s worth the gamble.
Mike: Well I think we should start with a little shout out to you for actually having your Sit ‘Em drivers finish with a better average finish than your Crank ‘Em drivers last week. There aren’t many Fantasy goddesses who can accomplish that. You should be commended.
Cami: I have the No. 24 team and their suspension problems to thank for that. And you were close to being in the same boat if Casey Mears hadn’t thought he was clear when he moved up and Tony Stewart ran into him.
Mike: That is very true. At least you had some suspension issues to blame it on. The No. 48 was just bad from the drop of the rag and never really explained why. We’ll have to see how things work out this week. I see you steered clear of the Hendrick brigade completely this week.
Cami: I didn’t want to test my luck two weeks in a row. Plus I was being nice and left you Johnson. I see you plucked the two drivers from the top of the board as far as average finishes go.
Mike: Well yeah, I’m dumb, but I’m not stupid. As I stated in my blurb about Johnson, Knaus has got to be pissed off about the showing at Daytona. After the first weekend they were non-factors. Knaus has shown one thing consistently, when they underperform, he comes back with a purpose. I expect the No. 48 to be near the top all day on Sunday. I see you think the Toyota power at Daytona was not a fluke. You think Shrub can be dominant again?
Cami: Maybe not dominant, but I think he’ll be up there giving the Fords a run for their money. His record at Fontana is great, plus I think he’ll be fueled by the desire to finish what he couldn’t at Daytona. Speaking of which, I see you’re not giving the 500 champ any love. He was pretty good out there in testing last month.
Mike: Yes, he was good in testing, but what have we always known about Newman? He can go really fast for a lap. So seeing him at the top of speed charts isn’t something new. I’m still skeptical about Dodge’s power compared to the other manufacturers. I see you’re bagging on a couple of the Dodge boys yourself. That has to mean something.
Cami: True, but neither of them has really done much at California to write home about. I am a bit hesitant on Sorenson, but to play the game within the rules the options for drivers to sit were very limited. California seems to be a track where the top drivers always perform decently.
Mike: I am curious to see how Sorenson does. I think this could be a break out year for him. It is interesting that the most tenured driver at Ganassi is 22 years old. Speaking of older Ganassi drivers, thanks for ensuring I would beat you in Roll the Dice this week with your Jamie MAC pick. You still don’t realize that he just isn’t that good.
Cami: He isn’t as bad as you want to believe. Roush runs well at Fontana, with the exception of Biffle according to your picks, and McMurray falls into that category. I wouldn’t put all my eggs in one basket with your Earnhardt pick. I would make that the poll question for the week, but Earnhardt would win on popularity alone.
Mike: Roush runs well at Fontana, but it is predominantly Kenseth and Martin/Busch. The Biff, besides 2005, and McMurray in Roush equipment have been subpar to say the least. I think it is a great poll question because it will prove in the end that our fantasy readers are some of the smartest readers on the Internet.
Cami: I don’t doubt their intelligence at all. But Dale Jr. has never lost an internet poll in his life, no matter what it’s about. We’ll just have to let the performances speak for themselves.
Mike: We certainly will. Lord knows, with the new car configuration at this big track, it’s hard to say what will happen. Neither of us jumped on the Stewart bandwagon, and he’s got to be pissed coming off of Daytona. I guess we’ll just have to see how it pans out.
Crank – 21
Sit – 18.5
Roll – 29
Crank – 18
Sit – 30.5
Roll – 38
Which Sit ‘Em driver do you think will actually run well?
Hamlin – 41%
Mears – 39%
Truex – 13%
McMurray – 7%
Hamlin – 17th
Truex – 20th
McMurray – 26th
Mears – 35th
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