Wednesday, October 7, 2009

California Pepsi 500 Preview: Biffle and Gordon Eyeing Victory

by Micah Roberts

The last time we visited the scenic landscape of beautiful Fontana, California for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race was a week after the season opening Daytona 500. At that juncture, Matt Kenseth had won two races in a row and it looked like Roush-Fenway Racing was going to dominate the year and win their third Championship.

Why wouldn’t we think that? The year prior, Carl Edwards had won nine races finishing a close second to Jimmie Johnson for the Championship. Greg Biffle charged hard in the Chase getting two wins and finishing third in points. Kenseth had made his fifth Chase in a row, and setting 2009 a blaze with two straight wins was unheard of. Even the youngster on the team, David Ragan, had a bright future in store because he barely missed the Chase and finished 13th.

Here we are now, 28 races later, and Carl Edwards doesn’t have a single win which would make him the biggest drop off in wins from one season to the next by a full time driver if he doesn’t win at least three more in the next seven races.

Greg Biffle has ran well, but still doesn’t have a win. Matt Kenseth, who started so fast, failed to miss the Chase for the first time in his career. David Ragan, for his climb up the ladder, has turned 2009 into a disaster sitting 31st in points just ahead of Paul Menard and Robby Gordon.

Needless to say, something has gone wrong in the Roush stable and we haven’t even discussed Jamie McMurray.

However, if there is one track that can get the Roush group going, California Speedway is it. Since 1998, Five different Roush drivers have won seven times. Of those drivers, Kenseth leads the way with three wins.

Last week at Kansas, Kenseth had a turnaround despite a DNF. During the final practice sessions for the race on Saturday, he had top-3 times in both practices which was a major change of pace because Kenseth hasn’t been fast in any practice on any track all season. Whatever they did made his car go faster and may be enough reason to think he may be able to duplicate what he did in February in Fontana.

Greg Biffle had a great run last week at Kansas finishing third and in this race last season he finished second. In the first race run there this season, Biffle finished fourth. Despite his good finish last week, he still lost a position in points to Jeff Gordon he finished just ahead of him. However, Biffle still feels pretty confident coming into this weeks race.

"I have always loved racing at California, said Biffle. “I think we could have won the last two races there. We just ran out of time last fall and I made a mistake in the pits earlier this year. The 3M team is at the top of their game and we should have had the win last weekend at Kansas. I made a decision to put on four tires at the end and it didn’t work out for us. I guess the way I’m looking at this weekend is that I owe these guys one, so I’m going to do everything I can to get the 16 car into victory lane."

Biffle has one win and four top-5 finishes at California. Earlier this season at California, Biffle was running the fastest laps on the track in second place and catching the leader when he stopped on the front changer’s air hose during a late-race pit stop. He restarted 11th with 35 laps to go and finished fourth.

Look for Biffle to have similar results this week, if not better.

Carl Edwards is the mystery driver of them all. How he fallen so far while using many of the same chassis’ from last season’s fantastic run is beyond anyone’s estimation. He hasn’t even come close to contending for a win. It’s not as and a fall as Ragan’s, but it could be considered worse just because of what he did last season. All year it seems like Edwards is battling for 11th place.

The winner of this race the last two seasons has been Jimmie Johnson. This is the site of El Cajon, CA native Johnson’s first career win. In 13 career starts, he has won three times. He had a little trouble after the last pit stop last week and saw him finish ninth after leading 53 laps on the day. He ended up losing eight points to current leader Mark Martin, sitting 18 points behind.

This week, Johnson is going to inducted into the California Speedway’s “Walk of Fame”, whatever that is. The honor comes for his excellence on the speedway where his three wins are tied with Kenseth and Jeff Gordon in all-time track wins.

Johnson will look to get win number four this week using the same chassis that he won at Indianapolis with in July.

Jeff Gordon won the first race ever on the track and has three wins overall in his 18 starts. He finished second in the first race there this season, just like he did last week.

"I feel like our mile and a half program has really improved this year," said Gordon.

"California was a track earlier in the year where I felt like we let one slip away. And I'm hoping that we can get that one back the next time we go."

With the way that he has ran on 1.5 and 2-mile tracks this season, Gordon could again be a good choice to win this week.

Juan Pablo Montoya used his third straight brand new chassis in the Chase last week at Kansas and finished fourth. The guy has completely transformed into a rock-solid NASCAR driver along with finally getting some good equipment. He currently sits third in points and with his run last week should be considered a real candidate to win.

"Three top-five finishes in the first three Chase races is huge, you know," Montoya said. "And it's what we need to do every weekend. A championship is beating everybody else. We come here to race and to win races and to win races you've got to beat everyone else. We know that we've got good cars. We know we're in a very good position but at the end of the day it's 10 races."

I’ve always been dismissive about his chances just because of his mediocre past in the series, but I have flip-flopped. When Theresa Earnhardt opens her wallet for the betterment of the team - a first since she took control of the team, I have to change my opinion. Too bad there wasn’t a road course race in the Chase.

TOP 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #16 Greg Biffle (12/1)
2) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
3) #2 Kurt Busch (16/1)
4) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
5) #11 Denny Hamlin (12/1)

No comments: