California is the penultimate race in the “regular season” leading up to the Chase for the Cup, and the 2-mile facility that is the sister track to Michigan will bring the playoff picture into much better focus. Some drivers will find themselves locked in, with several “clinch” scenarios in play – while other drivers will be eliminated no matter how well they run over the course of Sunday night.
With all sorts of different scenarios in play, the decision for gamers is to figure out whether their driver will play it conservative to avoid taking a major hit in points; or, will they go for broke to take the chance of cementing themselves into the Chase? Besides that, there’s the matter of sorting out which drivers eliminated from contention are capable of positioning themselves for a strong run at the end of the season versus going through a whole set of experimental struggle for next year.
And we haven’t even gotten to the burning questions that linger after the race at Bristol this week. Could this weekend be another chapter in the Carl Edwards vs. Kyle Busch epic? Can Roush Fenway Racing duplicate their dominance from Michigan? Has Denny Hamlin shaken off the bad luck that’s haunted him all year? Can Jimmie Johnson turn around his luck from the last two weeks? All of it’s enough to make your head spin; but Picks ‘N’ Pans can keep you from spinning out as you prep for your own playoff run. Read on for this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to see which drivers should be on your roster, and which ones should be on Rodeo Drive looking for Gucci handbags instead.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
Though the Busch Brothers each made strong runs to score victories in California, in the end hometown hero Johnson scored the win on Labor Day Weekend last September – his fifth of the season. Johnson’s victory capped a solid performance by Hendrick Motorsports, who put three cars in the top 15 and led over half the laps in the 500-mile event. A hard-charging Edwards scored a runner-up finish and carried the banner for Roush Fenway Racing, who had themselves a disappointing day at a track where they’re usually strong. Other than Edwards, only Matt Kenseth finished in the top 10 for the team. The other organization making waves was Team Red Bull, as Brian Vickers scored a ninth-place finish while teammate AJ Allmendinger finished 18th, his first career top 20. DEI drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. each scored top-10 finishes, although Earnhardt’s run would come too little, too late for him to be in position to make the Chase.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
California is a wide-open track offering drivers multiple racing grooves to make their car work. Just like Michigan, there will be cars running from the bottom all the way to the top… and everywhere in between. The transition from day to night will be a challenge for the teams keeping up with the track, and it’ll be difficult to make their car handle well enough to stay near the front the whole time. But this is one race track where the car get all spread out rather quickly – making it one of the easier ones to pass on.
As for what teams to watch for, expect to see Roush Fenway Racing near the front despite their struggles at this facility last year. You’ve got to consider their strong showing at Michigan two weeks ago, Edwards’s win here in February, and their general affinity for the 2-mile tracks will put them over the top. Also, expect to see the Gibbs and Hendrick cars running at the head of the pack as well.
Crank ‘Em Up:
He may have had a late loss at Bristol, but Busch is still one of the two hottest drivers on the circuit. He still led the most laps last weekend, and has finished first or second the last three weeks on tour. Remember, Busch’s first win at the Cup level came at Fontana, and he’s been in the top 10 there the last six races in a row. Being locked into the Chase and trying to acquire more bonus points over the next two weeks should allow him to run all out for wins.
Greg Biffle is making his final push for the Chase, and he’s been running well over the last month, finishing fifth or better at the last two intermediate tracks. He’s also in Roush Fenway equipment, the class of the field when it comes to the 2-mile tracks on the schedule. A strong run this weekend would go a long way toward cementing Biffle’s place in the Chase, and it will make the race at Richmond much easier for him – especially considering he’s not a short-track ace. Look for Biffle to be focused and motivated this weekend, making him the perfect pick to finish off your fantasy roster.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Clint Bowyer has had a very up and down season this year, and the peaks and valleys have corresponded to the types of tracks that he’s been running on. In particular, the intermediate facilities have been where Bowyer’s stuck in a rut, and California falls right into that dreaded category for the No. 07. Although Harvick ran well at Michigan, the RCR cars for the majority of the year have struggled mightily on these types of tracks, and this weekend shouldn’t be any different for Bowyer – even with him on the bubble at 12th in points.
David Gilliland has had some great runs for Yates Racing this year, but most of them came in the first half of the season. He’s struggled since June, finishing 20th or worse every race since Infineon, with half of those finishes 34th or worse. His record at California has been just as unimpressive, with an average finish of 24.8 driving the No. 38 Ford. Considering Gilliland was 26th at Michigan and 42nd at Chicago, all the pieces add up to him not really doing much of anything impressive this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
David Ragan is on the verge of making the Chase, and this weekend could be where he makes it into the top 12 in points. Ragan had a chance to win at Michigan – a very similar track to California – and he’s been outstanding on the intermediate tracks this year. This weekend is probably the closest thing to a sure bet that you can make with Ragan.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Move over, Busch: Edwards is now the hottest driver in NASCAR, and a visit to Fontana is only going to heat the No. 99 team up even further. Edwards has made eight starts at Auto Club Speedway, and along with a pole and a win has scored seven top 10s in those events. His career average finish at the track is 6.8, with a runner-up finish and a win in his last two starts. And if that’s not enough to convince you, Edwards and his No. 99 have been stellar on the intermediate racetracks this season, and are currently on a huge tear with back-to-back wins at Michigan and Bristol. Edwards was the class of the field at the Michigan race earlier this month, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be again this weekend. Not only will I call upon fantasy gamers to start Edwards… I will call on Edwards to win and win convincingly on Sunday night.
RFR is on top of its game right now, and right alongside his teammate Edwards, Kenseth is riding a huge wave of momentum into Fontana. Kenseth clawed his way back into Chase contention over the summer, and is coming off of back-to-back top-10 finishes at a track where he has enjoyed tremendous success. Kenseth has six consecutive top-10 finishes at Fontana, including two wins, making it just the track for him to cement the Chase berth he’s striven so hard for these last few months. Kenseth is one of those drivers who just has to break through before too much longer, and if anyone can challenge Busch and Edwards at the front of the field this weekend, it’s him.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Bobby Labonte just hasn’t had the magic on 1.5 and 2-mile tracks that he used to have in his career. Outside of a 16th-place at the Indianapolis Fiasco 400, Labonte has struggled royally in his last five intermediate starts, posting finishes of 31st and 27th at Michigan, 33rd at Pocono, and 29th at Chicago. Labonte’s No. 43 team had a mediocre 25th-place run at Fontana in February, the latest in a disappointing stretch of races there for the veteran. His last top-10 finish at this track came way back in 2004, and that’s not a streak I’d expect to end this weekend.
Joining Labonte in his struggles on the intermediate tracks is Juan Pablo Montoya, whose No. 42 team’s performance has dropped off considerably since the start of the season. Montoya has struggled with this configuration of oval in his entire stock car career, as he has never cracked the top 15 at either Fontana or the sister track in Brooklyn, Michigan. Montoya’s 20th-place run at Fontana in February was his best-ever performance there, and his 26.3-average career finish should not inspire the confidence of fantasy gamers. For this Colombian, Fontana is no Infineon; and expect his results to show that over the course of this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
Even last year – when Team Red Bull was still undergoing major growing pains – Vickers and his No. 83 team had Fontana figured out. After missing the Daytona 500 in 2007, Vickers scored a top 10 at Fontana the next week. He followed that run up with an eighth-place run in the September race, and had a solid 11th-place finish in the February 2008 event. Vickers and his teammate Allmendinger have been at their best all season on the circuit’s intermediate venues, and with the Chase all but out of the question for the No. 83 team, getting Team Red Bull their first Cup win will be the only priority left. There’s no question Vickers will visit victory lane by season’s end – and with a little luck, he may just get it done Sunday night.
Bryan: Well, Mike, you may be on probation now; but between Busch and Kevin Harvick, you had a pretty spectacular Bristol weekend.
Mike: It wasn’t bad… that was for sure. I thought I was going to have the winner, but unfortunately the driver leading the most laps failed to win for the sixth straight race at Bristol. It was a shame for you that Earnhardt had that bonehead move at the start, though. He was fast enough to contend for a top five, I think, but he could never get back on the lead lap.
Bryan: Story of my season Mike… story of my season. The story of your season, on the other hand, has been riding Busch, and man, has it been paying off. But Greg Biffle as your second pick? He’s been more of Roush Fenway’s darkhorse. Why does he warrant a start this weekend?
Mike: Well, he is a Roush driver, and they have always been strong at the 2-mile tracks in Michigan and California. He was fast enough to possibly win at Michigan two weeks ago, and he’s been running pretty well on the intermediate tracks of late on the schedule. Hopefully for you, the Roush team doesn’t run into a common engine problem this weekend, or you could be in real trouble with both of your drivers out of their stables. Are you sure you want to put all of your eggs in that basket?
Bryan: The way Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing in general is running? Absolutely. Plus, with Kenseth still not a lock to make the Chase and Ragan knocking on the door, I really don’t see RFR pulling a Hamlin and taking any chances with their engine packages. Roush may well put five cars in the top 10 this weekend. Another team trying to cement the Chase is Bowyer, who looked like the Bowyer of old this past weekend… and with Harvick’s team running well, you still don’t see Bowyer as having turned a corner?
Mike: Last weekend was certainly a good one for Bowyer, but RCR was strong at Bristol in the spring… so that wasn’t a big stretch. However, California is an intermediate track, and those have been killing Bowyer this year. He has been off on the bigger tracks for several months and adding the pressure of the Chase to the mix is more of a recipe for failure than success. Meanwhile, Labonte has an average finish of 17.9 at Cali and was 11th there last year in this race. Why are you dissing on him when he continues to overachieve in Petty equipment?
Bryan: Labonte has certainly overachieved in his Petty ride, but the Petty cars are not even as good as they were last year – and 2008’s results have not been Labonte’s best, even with PE. Labonte’s intermediate track performances have been less than stellar, especially in the summer months, and he was 25th at Fontana in February. The team has no momentum to suggest that this is their weekend to shine. Speaking of dissing, you’re not dissing on my boy Ragan this weekend… you buying the No. 6 car making the Chase yet?
Mike: I don’t know that I’ve bought into him making the Chase – although I think his odds are 50/50 right now – but he’s been at his best on intermediates this year, and proved how well he can run on a 2-mile track at Michigan two weeks ago. I’ve picked on him a lot this year, and told you I’d run him when the time was right… well, I think this weekend, the time is right. But I’m not the only one changing my tune… I see you coming over to the Vickers side of things. Are you finally believing that he can get it done?
Bryan: I’ve always been a believer in Vickers being able to get it done on intermediates… seeing him in-person the last two Coca-Cola 600s makes him hard to ignore. He and Allmendinger were also both top-20 finishers in this race last year… before Toyota got their act together. This weekend, they should easily both be top-10 contenders.
Mike: I think they will certainly have a shot, but I think we may be kicking ourselves for not picking a Hendrick driver this weekend. Johnson has a very good record at Cali, and they just might surprise. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is another Hendrick contender who doesn’t have the best record at this track, either, but has done very well during the second race there the last two years. I’m sure the readers will remind us if we are wrong.
Bryan: The readers will remind us… if they can stay awake for this one. I think we’re going to be OK, though. Yeah, Hendrick is always a threat to run well… but who knows? For all we know, Casey Mears or the weepers in the racetrack may put Hendrick’s Chevrolets into the fence early. We’ll just have to see how it all pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Bryan and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings, and Roll The Dice drivers can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 15.1
Sit – 10.1
Roll – 22.3
Crank – 10.7
Sit – 21.3
Roll – 18.2