NASCAR's remarkable start to the season continued at Bristol Motor Speedway with a fourth different winner in the first four races and there are enough strong drivers remaining that we could easily see a fifth fresh face this weekend.
Roush Fenway Racing has dominated the 2-mile tracks in the past, which combined with the fact that Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth have run strong on occasion in the first four events makes them drivers to watch. And the dramatic win for Trevor Bayne at Daytona suggests even David Ragan could get into the mix if the cards fall right.
Toyotas run strong on the unrestricted, intermediate speedways; that not only means the two winless Joe Gibbs Racing guys have a shot, but Brian Vickers won at Michigan International Speedway a couple of years ago, which gives him and Red Bull Racing teammate Kasey Kahne a reason to be hopeful.
The doglegged, unrestricted, intermediate speedways dominate the NASCAR circuit with more than one-third of the races contested on a variety of similarly configured, 1.5- and 2-mile tracks and while that favors big-budget, multi-car teams, it also gives drivers like Michael Waltrip Racing's David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr. with slightly more modest coffers at their disposal an equal chance to challenge for the victory.
Playing by the Numbers
The first three races of the year were challenging for fantasy owners with 22 different drivers scoring top-10 finishes; when half the field proves they can run that well that early in the season, all bets are off the table. That is especially true when drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Jeff Gordon were able to earn only one top-10 compared to two results outside the top 15 in those first three races, but then Bristol finally went according to plan.
True, Kenseth and Biffle became the 23rd and 24th different drivers to score top-10s this season -- and in the case of the No. 16, his previous best result was only a 20th, which made him a surprise contender by most estimations -- but for the most part the drivers at the top of the order were the ones expected to be there.
In fact, if you glance back at last week's fantasy preview, you will notice that the three favorites were (in order): Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson. If you look at last week's rundown, you notice the same thing.
A pattern is starting to emerge. Kurt Busch is the only driver with four top-10s in the first four races and that is a big part of the reason why he sits atop the point standings, but three other drivers now have three top-10s and quite a few have already logged two strong runs in the books. NASCAR wants parity and is getting it; fantasy owners want predictability, and it is starting to be restored.
Looking at this week's Auto Club 400, odds-makers should be equally divided between the chances that NASCAR will continue its streak of unique winners. This week, we will lean slightly toward keeping the streak alive because two of our favorites are winless in 2011 while the third already has one tally in the victory column.
The driver who has dominated this track in recent years finds himself in unfamiliar territory. Johnson is suffering through a dry spell of 12 races since he last tasted champagne in Victory Lane, which certainly pales in comparison to Gordon's 66-race skid, but it is starting to get the naysayers' tongues wagging. Of course, in those 12 races, he's scored eight top-fives and 10 top-10s, but two meager results came at the start of this season. Auto Club Speedway should remedy that because he has been as close to perfect on this track since 2007 as is physically possible. In the past eight races, he has finished worse than third only once and that was a ninth in spring 2009. His five total victories on this track take precedence by far and he should be on everyone's roster.
Carl Edwards had a bad season last year in California with a 13th in the spring and a 34th in the fall. Before that, however, he amassed 10 top-10 finishes in his first 11 attempts at Auto Club and all of these were results of seventh or better, including one victory in spring 2008. He has an equally strong record on the other 2-mile track in Michigan, which makes this his favorite track type. The biggest reason to start him this week, however, is his current momentum: the driver of the No. 99 has finished first or second in five of the past six races he's entered and if not for an accident at Phoenix a couple of weeks ago, that record would almost certainly be perfect.
Last week was the first time fantasy owners have seen Tony Stewart struggle all season and it was not a comfortable sight. Quite a few drivers ran strong at times and then jumped the fence on their final adjustments. Stewart seemed to be one of those drivers and even though he kept his emotions in check, rest assured that Smoke is smoldering. His only outlet is going to be on track this week and that could be bad news for the competition. Stewart does not have the same long history of success on 2-mile tracks as either Johnson or Edwards, but he does enter the weekend as the most recent winner after taking the checkers at Auto Club this past fall.
Given Jack Roush's record on 2-mile tracks, perhaps Kenseth and Biffle don't really belong in the dark horse category, but we are going to place them there this week because it took four weeks for them to earn their first top-10s of the season on the bullring in Bristol. Both drivers ended the 2010 season with as much momentum as Edwards and while they ran strong on a few occasions, they just couldn't capitalize and crack that magical mark.
Kenseth came closest at Phoenix and again in Las Vegas with 12th- and 11th-place finishes, respectively, but he should have finished among the top five in either of those events. Drivers can ignore the raw numbers for a while and concentrate on the strong runs, but there is a limited amount of time they can do so before the overall weight of that disappointment begins to crush them. For Kenseth, this is the perfect time to visit Auto Club because he has four combined victories there and on the sister track of Michigan. When he misses the top spot, it is often not by much and his 17 career top-fives on this track type far outweigh his eight results outside the top 15 in 41 attempts.
Biffle is less flashy than Kenseth, but no less fast. Roush has made a career out of placing all of his drivers in the top five at Auto Club and Michigan sometime during their career and that rising tide elevates everyone in the organization. The No. 16 has had its own share of success with one win on this track and two in Michigan. Biffle has been stronger in the Midwest than California, but there are some recent highlights that must be noted. Biffle earned back-to-back Auto Club top-fives in fall 2008 and spring 2009 and he backed that with a 10th in this race last year.
Richard Childress Racing has had a rough start to its season. With the exception of Paul Menard, who is currently carrying the banner, the seasoned members -- Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Harvick -- have all experienced abysmal luck. Every time a caution waves for an accident, fantasy owners heads are on a swivel to see if one of the RCR drivers is involved and most often they find one of them in the carnage. That could change this week because each of them had some success at Auto Club last year. Burton finished third in the spring race, but fantasy owners will want to skip him this week because that is his only top-15 on this track in his past five attempts. On the other hand, either Harvick or Bowyer should be on your roster because each of them enters the weekend with three consecutive top-10s. With a little more luck, they could have swept Victory Lane last year. Harvick finished second to Johnson in this race, while Bowyer was runner-up to Stewart in the fall.
When bad luck strikes, it can be hard to shake and that makes Joey Logano a risky proposition each week. He was a dark horse candidate to make the Chase before the green flag fell over the Daytona 500 and now he simply wants to pad his position in the top 35 in owners' points after suffering through engine failures and accidents early in the season. Last week, this team struggled early at Bristol but they finally made the car stronger in the closing laps and were climbing toward the top 10 until a loose wheel sent the No. 20 hard into the wall and several laps off the pace. If fate will forgive the kid, however, Auto Club should be a place to shine. He finished fifth in this race last year and enters the Auto Club 400 with a three-race streak of top-15s on this track.