Saturday, October 9, 2010

Johnson a Massive Favorite at California, But Here's Why He Won't Win...Maybe

By Micah Roberts

If we put this week's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at California in terms of football betting, Jimmie Johnson would be a two-touchdown favorite over the rest of the field. The manner in which he has owned the Fontana track is almost likened to the way that the NFC beat down the AFC for 13 straight years, in the 1980s and '90s, in the Super Bowl.

OK, so maybe it's not quite as bad as the plight of those AFC teams, but it's pretty close. Johnson comes in with the points lead, having won the last two Fontana races, the last three fall races in a row and has five wins overall which have all led to him having a track-best 5.5 average finish in his 15 career starts. Equally amazing is that he has been on the lead lap of every lap run on the 2-mile track --all 3,755 of them while leading 824. 

The El Cajon, Calif. native is so good -- on what essentially is his home track -- that he won his first career race on the track in his first attempt. At least those AFC squads got to play on a neutral field; Johnson's got everything going for him this week and gets the home field advantage, too.

The other 42 drivers, or more realistically, the other 12 drivers, will not bow down to Johnson's greatness. During Saturday's final practices, several drivers emerged as candidates to topple the big favorite and end all of Johnson's streaks, much like the Denver Broncos did for the AFC as 14-point underdogs against the Green Bay Packers.

Drivers like last week's Kansas winner, Greg Biffle, who looked the best overall in practice, is ready to step up for the challenge. Bakersfield, Calif., native Kevin Harvick brought his best car to take on Johnson after finishing runner-up to him in the spring.

For Biffle and Harvick, each have gone with the strategy of bringing their Michigan cars this week. Michigan relates well to California because the sister tracks are very similar. The Aug. 15 race is still fresh on the minds of the successful teams -- one of which Johnson wasn't. In that race, Biffle led the most laps and finished fourth while Harvick took the checkered flag for his only nonrestrictor plate win of the year.

Here are a few reasons to believe Johnson could be beaten this week: 

* The spring California race that Johnson won in February was a long time ago with so much changing along the way. The most notable change is the new spoiler going from a wing to the traditional fin. Johnson won his last three California races using the "winged" spoiler, meaning that many of the winning notes from those races are of little use on a down-force track like California.

* Johnson has been more susceptible to DNFs this season than the last two years combined. His four DNFs have doubled the amount from his 2008-09 seasons, making his team look more vulnerable than ever.

* The primary car Johnson brought this week won at Las Vegas but finished 35th in its last race run at Bristol. His backup car has won three of the four races it started. The car slection gives further reason to believe there is a chance of Johnson not being himself this week.

* The Roush-Fenway program is dialed in once again for California, giving three quality candidates to rival Johnson on Sunday. Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards have combined to win five Fontana races. The three Roush drivers had won five straight years there heading into this season and Sunday is their last chance at keeping the streak alive. The horsepower that was lacking for the early portion of the year arrived strong at Indy and Pocono and they have maintained it throughout heading into this week.

* Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon, another California kid, is a three-time Fontana winner with his last coming in 2004. He had a fantastic happy hour with the second-best times and would love nothing better than to take back his California crown that Johnson sports.

It's hard to find flaws in near-perfection like Johnson has exhibited over the years at Fontana, and despite all those sound reasons to go against Johnson this week, he's still a 2-to-1 favorite at the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book. Those are the lowest odds placed on any driver since Dale Earnhardt Jr. was winning all those restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega.

Still, I'm a gambler and I'll take the points with the underdogs in this one -- just like I did in most of those AFC Super Bowl losses.     

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