Saturday, March 21, 2015

Fontana Practice Notes: Kurt Busch puts on show during final practices

Kurt Busch has been dropped to 9/2 odds to win Sunday
Welcome back Kurt Busch!

After missing the first three races of the season, it didn’t take long for the controversial Las Vegas native to have his eagerness to translate to the scoreboard with a fifth-place finish at Phoenix last week.

But Phoenix is a completely different animal to the wide 2-mile layout of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA. While he looked to have a car very equal to eventual winner Kevin Harvick last week, the real challenge to see just how equal Busch and Harvick’s car comes in Sunday’s Auto Club 400. Based on Friday and Saturday practices, including sitting on the pole, it’s a fair assessment to say Busch has the good stuff from Stewart-Haas Racing, unlike teammates Danica Patrick and team co-owner/driver Tony Stewart.

It’s hard to fathom another car being set as good as Harvick’s since he comes off a championship and has finished second or better in his past seven races, but Busch appears to be right there with Harvick. In fact, he might even be better than the No. 4 this week.

If practices are any indication, which they usually are, then Busch is the driver to beat this week. Not only was he fastest in every practice session, he also had the fastest 10-consecutive lap average in the final two sessions. He should be expected to lead quite a few laps and contend for his first Fontana win since 2003.

The only reason we don’t rate Busch ahead of Harvick this week is because of the unknown. Stats from practice don’t lie, but we haven’t seen Busch run a full race on a down force track while everyone else has Atlanta and Las Vegas under their belt. Busch’s replacement in those races, Regan Smith, was very ordinary to the point where the driver isn’t the only component of the results being questioned.

Things look perfectly fine right now for Busch and the No. 41 team, but until actually seeing on race day, Harvick remains No. 1 in our ratings for the week.

Perhaps the most perplexing part of Busch jumping into the car and excelling right away is that Stewart and Patrick are still light years apart from what Harvick and Busch have shown in practices.

Much further behind the dynamic SHR duo is Jimmie Johnson, who practiced very well on Saturday. If Ryan Newman’s assessment earlier in the week is correct that Fontana runs “like a flat Atlanta Motor Speedway” that’s good news for Johnson because he led 92 laps en route to the win. If we look back on history, Johnson gets the highest of marks due to a track record five wins, including his first career win as a rookie in 2002. But after practices are factored in, Johnson is well behind Harvick and Busch in the ratings.

Everyone else looks like they're fighting for positions fourth on down the line. Brad Keselowski should have a good run, but his poor past history at Fontana (18th or worse in six starts) lingers. Joey Logano was disappointing in practice, but should still have plenty of speeds. The rest of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers all look basically the same and there might be an inclination to believe they’ll get better in the late stages like teammate Johnson did at Atlanta.

Micah Roberts’ Top-10 Driver Ratings
Auto Club 400 
Auto Club (California) Speedway
Sunday, March  22, 2015 -  12:16 pm (PT)

 1. Kevin Harvick 7/2                 12th          2nd           9th         3rd 
2011 winner; on current record-setting run of finishing first or second in past seven starts 
 2. Kurt Busch 15/1                    1st           1st            1st         1st  
2003 winner, third in 2015; fastest 10-consecutive lap average in both Saturday practices.
 3. Jimmie Johnson 6/1              5th          14th          2nd         5th 
Five-time winner, the last in 2010; site of first career victory for the El Cajon, CA native. 
 4. Brad Keselowski 8/1             4th            8th           7th         9th 
Best finish in six starts has been 18th, but had strong average speeds in final practices.
 5. Kasey Kahne 12/1                15th         19th         12th       13th  
2006 winner with 16th-place average finish; should be very good on longer runs.
 6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 8/1           6th          17th          21st       10th 
No wins in 22 starts with two runner-ups; had similar look to teammate Kahne during practices.
 7. Joey Logano 8/1                   16th         13th          14th        8th 
Expecting more power during practice like he showed at Atlanta and Las Vegas; still a contender.
 8. Denny Hamlin 20/1               2nd           6th          16th       17th 
Career-best third-place in 2008; has look similar to Atlanta, where he had a great run until wreck.  
 9. Martin Truex Jr. 15/1            3rd           12th          6th         6th 
Forget past history with him, sixth at Atlanta and runner-up at Las Vegas say he’s a live dog. 
10. Jeff Gordon 8/1                     9th            7th         19th        22nd 
Three-time winner, including inaugural race (1997), runner-up three times since last win (2004). 

Note: This seasons races at Atlanta and Las Vegas serve as a great barometer this week because of Fontana’s 2-mile layout requiring similar horsepower and being a down force track.     

Odds courtesy of the Westgate Las Vegas Super Book

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