Saturday, March 26, 2011

King Johnson of California Has His Crown in Jeopardy Sunday

By Micah Roberts

Johnson has owned Auto Club Speedway since 2002
Jimmie Johnson is a five-time winner at California with a 5.3 average finish -- both track records, but based on what we've seen this season at Las Vegas and Saturday during the final two practices, the King of California may find himself having a tougher time than he's used to on his home track.

While Las Vegas and California are two completely different tracks, many of the teams are basing what they saw from the Vegas race three weeks ago as somewhat of a practice for this race. In Las Vegas, Johnson was very un-Johnson-like where the team struggled all race to get the right set up. They felt they hit upon something good midway through the race, but Johnson still finished 16th.

During Saturday's practice, the No. 48 car didn't look like the same one we have seen dominating these type of big fast tracks over the years, and certainly not the one that owns almost every major Fontana record for excellence. In the spring race Johnson won last year, he had the third fastest lap in happy hour with the fastest average speeds and was also tops in the second practice session. When the fall race rolled around, Johnson was once again fastest during happy hour.

Knaus wasn't happy in Saturday's practice
Fast forward to this week and we see that Johnson was 12th fastest in Saturday's early session and 13th best in happy hour. In between the two practices, crew chief Chad Knaus even hinted that they aren't good or where they need to be. They improved well in the final session with good average speeds, but not to the level we have seen in the past. The standards are just too high to duplicate every week, year after year.

They've raised the bar too high and we're seeing what could be another sign that his five year reign as Cup Champion could be over. If Johnson can't dominate on these type of tracks, and start to do so quickly, there will be no six-peat. It's that simple.

Yet, still, it's hard to bet against Johnson on these tracks despite all the data that says he may not do well. However, it's not often that we see so many other drivers look better than him on his home track.

No matter how good he is, he can't mask the times and going into the race, they look like a 14th place car. Chances are that he'll make up a few spots on his own just because he's so patient, but it gives us a chance to isolate a few other drivers that could pay off large this week should the favored Johnson not be as good as he's been in the past.

Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart look to be the drivers to beat this week based on Saturday's practice and their efforts at Las Vegas. They had their cars set up perfect for Vegas and finished 1-2 there.

Stewart should be in running for win Sunday
For Stewart, he won the fall Fontana race last year, his first win on the track leaving him with only Las Vegas and Darlington as tracks he hasn't won on. He brought that same car this week and it looks to be just as good based on practice where he was sixth best early and second best in happy hour. Stewart also had the fastest consecutive 10 lap average in happy hour.

Edwards has been good everywhere and has brought a new car this week that looks just as good as everything else he's run this year. Edwards was third fastest in both of Saturday's practices.

Mark Martin is an interesting candidate to look at this week because of his last three starts at Fontana that have seen him finish no worse than sixth. In the fall race last season, he led the most laps, but had to settle for sixth-place behind the strong late runs of Clint Bowyer and Stewart. In the spring race, Martin led several different times, but gave way late to Jeff Burton and eventual winner Johnson.

Martin's race trim practices on Saturday were very similar to what he had prior to the fall race. In fact, he practiced a little better with fastest average speeds in happy hour.

Mystery debris cost Bowyer a Fontana win last fall
Clint Bowyer is still fuming about a late caution from debris that cost him a probable win in the fall Fontana race last year.

“I should have won that race last October, " Bowyer said. "There was a huge piece (sarcasm) of debris in turn three that was there for about 40 laps and it caused a caution as soon as I built a one-second lead on Mark Martin. I haven’t forgotten about it. Not to think that a debris caution was thrown to spice things up at the end, but, nonetheless, I lost because of a piece of debris in turn three.”

He ended up finishing second and his performance from that race has carried over into this week with great average speeds. Look for Bowyer to be near the front towards the end of the race.

Each of Bowyer's RCR teammates look stout as well with Harvick using the same car that was runner-up in Las Vegas last season. He was fastest in Saturday's first practice and then tried a few different things in the final session finishing 21st best.

Jeff Gordon looked solid in both of Saturday's practices with quick average times and the fifth fastest single laps in both sessions. The three-time winner on the track hasn't been to victory lane there since 2004, but has been runner-up three times with two other top-five finishes since his last win.

Matt Kenseth has three wins at Fontana, more wins than he has at any other track over his career, but what is to like most about him this week is the runner-up chassis he's using from the fall Texas race.

Kyle Busch hasn't done much in California over his last three starts there, but that should change this week after a great pair of Saturday practices. Busch was fourth and sixth best in the two sessions and will be looking for his first win there since 2005.

His brother, point leader Kurt Busch, looked awful in both practices and would be one of the top drivers expected to do well this week to stay away from. Others not faring well include pole sitter Juan Pablo Montoya and David Reutimann, who was fastest in Friday's first practice with qualifying trim on.

Top 10 Fontana Driver Ratings Following All Practice Sessions  

No comments: