Monday, February 15, 2010

California Auto Club 500 Preview: Hendrick vs Roush

by Micah Roberts

What a thrilling Daytona 500 we witnessed last week with Jamie McMurray capturing the win as a 30 to 1 underdog. Despite over two hours of delays due to a hole in the track’s asphalt, the race featured all kinds of passing, multiple leaders, and lots of drama throughout. The change to widen the hole in the restrictor plates giving more throttle response made this one of the more exciting races in Daytona 500 history.

Hopefully for McMurray’s sake, he can build off this win like Jimmie Johnson did in 2006 rather than what the last three winners did. Johnson won the first of his four straight Championships the season he won at Daytona to kick off the year, while the last three have been curses.

In 2007, Kevin Harvick won in dramatic fashion denying Mark Martin his first ever Daytona win of any kind in a points race. Harvick made the Chase that season, but hasn’t won a race since.

In 2008 Ryan Newman won in dramatic fashion with his teammate Kurt Busch pushing Newman past the days best two cars in Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch. Newman failed to make the Chase that season and hasn’t won a race since.

Last season Matt Kenseth not only won at Daytona, but he won the following week as well at California. It was too easy and it looked like the Roush program, who had never won a Daytona 500, was going to dominate the season considering that in the previous year drivers like Carl Edwards reeled off 9 wins and Greg Biffle chipped in with two.

The curse on Kenseth not only forced him to miss the Chase for the first time in his career, but it also cursed the entire Roush organization. Edwards, nor Biffle won a race for the entire season. After Kenseth’s win at California, he would go on to place in the top-5 only five more times in the remaining 34 races.

McMurray may have the means to be successful this season away from a restrictor-plate race this season. We saw what kind of equipment teammate Juan Pablo Montoya was getting last season where he had the best car on the track on a few occasions, and McMurray could be the beneficiary of landing into something that’s working well.

Montoya excelling never rubbed off on former teammate Martin Truex Jr, but it’s possible knowing he was a lame duck driver that the organization figured it would be a waste to give him the good stuff when he wouldn’t be around for 2010.

We’ll learn a lot more at California this week, not only from McMurray, but the entire series. When they jump in the car for Friday’s practice it will be the first time we get to see the cars run on this type of track which requires massive amounts of horsepower for the long straights and lots of down force.

This track features lots of green flag runs where usually the best car does win because they’re able to put such a big gap between them a second place. This is an elitist track where you won’t see anyone like a Jamie McMurray sneak up on the win. 15 of the 19 races run have been won by either a Roush or Hendrick driver who were listed as one of the favorites.

In the other instances, top drivers like Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield from a good Penske team won. Elliott Sadler won in a souped up Yates engine as Dale Jarrett’s teammate and Kasey Kahne won when he was dominating the down force tracks. It’s pretty much a “No Hobo’s allowed” to win track.

Needless to say, the top teams are always consistent at California. What we saw last week with just about every team run well with restrictor-plates on will not apply. The top teams in NASCAR always win at California. Fenway-Roush has won this race seven times and is on a current streak of winning five in a row in the spring race.

The main question all the bookmakers have to ask themselves is how good do they think the Roush cars will be this week. There is indication to believe things could be restored to past glory with the new Ford RF-9 engine. Last week Kenseth used it for the first time along with other Ford drivers from other teams.

As of now, it isn’t known what engine the Roush drivers will be using, but it’s a better bet to believe that the Roush organization will be closer to 2008 when they won all those races on these type of tracks than the 2009 version that couldn’t get over the hump.

The main candidate to do well is Carl Edwards who has a California career average finish of 6.6 since 2004. He won this race in 2008, and even without contending for the win last season, he still managed to get a seventh-place finish in this race and a sixth in the fall.

California native Jimmie Johnson is the track’s all time leader in average finish position at 5.8 per race. He has four wins on the track, including the fall race last year, but hasn’t won the spring race since his rookie season back in 2002. Johnson has been traditionally a slow starter and seems to take a few weeks to get him going. Last year he didn’t have a top-5 finish until week five at Bristol.

Mark Martin had a slow start to last season getting acclimated with his new team, but once they got it going, they were tough to beat on these type of tracks. He won on the sister track of Michigan and had a fourth place finish in the California fall race. He won the second race ever at California Speedway while driving for Roush and has five career top-5 finishes on the track.

The driver that could benefit from Martin’s success the most is Dale Earnhardt Jr who has been sharing a garage at the Hendrick Motorsports headquarters with Martin. The two teams collaborate on everything and have almost all their cars set-up identical for each race. It’s all new and good stuff for Junior this year and he should have a good run this week.

Jeff Gordon had two second place finishes at California last season giving him 10 top-5 finishes for his career in 19 starts. He’s a three-time winner on the track which has him tied with Kenseth for second most in tracks history. His career average finish is 10.5.

Drivers that stop the Roush and Hendrick winning party at California are Kurt and Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, and quite possibly the new and improved Childress drivers. Busch brothers each claim a win and combined to average less than 13th place in all their races.

Kahne is a definite wild card because no ones quite knows how his new Ford will run at California. His past history has been great with one win and a couple other top 5’s.

Look for Roush to get back on track this week.

Top 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #17 Matt Kenseth (15/1)
2) #99 Carl Edwards (12/1)
3) #5 Mark Martin (8/1)
4) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)

NASCAR has never seen so much hoopla surrounding a driver debut than what was witnessed last week as Danica Patrick made her NASCAR Nationwide series debut at Daytona. Other than Jimmie Johnson, most of the NASCAR drivers that spoke about her used sarcasm with hints of animosity when asked anything about Patrick.

Hundreds of reporters followed her every move just wanting any story about Auto-Racing’s most beautiful driver. The crossover following for Patrick is amazing. Juan Pablo Montoya has a huge International following and lots journalists from everywhere covering NASCAR for his fans, but NASCAR has never had so many representatives for a race that crossover into pop culture.

Station Casinos sports books offered odds on the Nationwide race and listed Patrick at 50 to 1, the longest shot on the board. She has great JR Motorsports equipment to do well, but couldn’t get the hang of the draft and plummeted positions rapidly until finally getting involved a wreck and finishing the day in 35th place, a wreck not caused by her.

She’ll be racing this Saturday in California where she should do much better just because of no drafting. Because it’s close to Hollywood with so many media outlets, don’t look for any less of a media circus than witnessed at Daytona.

I may be in the minority of hard core race fans, but I hope she does really well and eventually makes the jump to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series next year. The combination her spunky attitude, no fear of going full throttle, and looking absolutely perfect in a bikini has my attention.

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