Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fontana Practice Notes: Harvick looks the best, but Gordon will be tough to beat

Jeff Gordon has the look of a winner this week
We were hoping for a fifth different driver to win during the first five races, and while that may still happen, Kevin Harvick, the winner of Sprint Cup race No. 2 at Phoenix, has been placed on top of our ratings chart as the driver to beat in Sunday‘s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA.

Harvick, a Bakersfield, CA native, had the best 10-consecutive lap average in the Saturday’s early practice session while also having the quickest individual lap. He also was fourth fastest in the 10-consecutive lap category during happy hour. In addition to looking like he has the car to beat, he also some great recent history going for him such as winning in 2011 and finishing 10th or better in seven of his last nine starts at his home-state track.

Before the weekend of practices and qualifying began, we were using the March 9 Las Vegas race as a guide to who might be fast, and while it still applies, it’s hard to get Harvick’s finish of 41st out of the mind. However, he did lead twice for 23 laps, and only finished poorly because of a brake issue that sent him to the garage while in second-place. It was also at Vegas during a test session that Harvick wowed everyone with blazing speeds.

So even though we don’t have the Las Vegas winner Brad Keselowski or runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr at the top of this list, Las Vegas definitely still applies to all handicapping equations. The results sheets says Harvick finished poorly at Vegas, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Keselowski would have been near the top of the chart with Harvick if he wasn’t one of several cars to have tire issues during Saturday’s practices. Keselowski also had some mechanical issues as well, but still managed to run the fourth fastest lap during happy hour. It could just be one of those things that the team got figured out and won’t be an issue, but when his teammate Joey Logano cut a tire and slammed into the wall during the same practice, it took away some of the excitement we had for both Penske cars early in the week. Logano will be using a back-up car in the race and will start from the rear.

The driver to perhaps be most excited about is three-time Fontana winner, Jeff Gordon. He was ultra fast in both of Saturday’s practice sessions, including having the best 10-consecutive lap average during happy hour. Gordon christened the track with its first win in 1997, but hasn’t been to the winners circle there since 2004. The Vallejo, CA native should be very excited about his chances Sunday because it’s not often he looks as fast before a race as he does this week. Look for Gordon to be racing for the win and maybe be that fifth different driver to win in the first five races.

Another California native that could be the fifth different winner, Jimmie Johnson from nearby El Cajon, wasn’t extraordinary in practice, but was consistent. And his past history counts for a lot here, since he‘s the best the track has ever seen. He’s also driving his winning chassis from Pocono last year. Pocono and Fontana have nothing common, but a winner is still a winner, and the driver and crew all know the stats of their cars. The thought of using a proven winner alone seems to carry some extra swagger, as if Johnson actually needed any more of that.

The best value on the board looks to be Gordon with a couple 25-to-1 long shots like Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer offering value. Who knows when Bowyer will win a race and who knows when Stewart will finally feel comfortable in a car this season, but both looked fast with average speeds in Saturday’s practices. With Stewart’s affiliation with Harvick, and team note-sharing, there’s no reason why Stewart shouldn’t compete for the win Sunday. If he did, it would be his third Fontana win in five years.

Read More Here....Final Driver Ratings  

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