Pothole delays aside, Sunday's Daytona 500 was a tremendous exhibition for the sport. Victory for Jamie McMurray, in his first race back with Chip Ganassi after a four-year stint with Roush Fenway Racing, was as joyous as it was unexpected. Anyone with a strong understanding of the draft can win on a restrictor plate track -- three of Jamie Mac's four career victories have come at Daytona and Talladega -- but even so I can't believe there were many taking the 30-1 Vegas odds he'd get the job done. But with the ballyhoo of the Great American Race now firmly in the rear-view, thoughts turn to Fontana: a track that will be much more season-defining than Daytona. A poor showing at the famed two-and-a-half mile Florida track is one thing, failure at Fontana something else altogether.
Auto Club Speedway is a 2-mile, D-shaped, low-banked oval. Considered a sister track to Michigan, ACS will be hosting its 20th Sprint Cup race, having first appeared on the schedule in June of 1997 -- a race, coincidentally and appropriately, won by California native Jeff Gordon. While it is far from an exact science, it's fair to say that running well at ACS and next week at Las Vegas, can hugely impact your chances at success across the course of the season. The next time we return to the much maligned track will be for the second race of the 2010 Chase. It will certainly be interesting to see how many of this weekend's favorites I'll be still picking next time around.
Jimmie Johnson: Forget about the 34th place finish in the Daytona 500 (not the ending the HBO 24/7 folks wanted, for sure), this weekend will see Johnson get his 2010 season kicked off in the manner to which he is most accustomed. And even by his high standards, Johnson's stats at ACS are absolutely sick: 4 wins, 9 top 5s, 10 top 10s, an average start of 8.8, an average finish of 5.8, and 723 laps led, which is about 20 percent of his overall total number of laps run at the circuit. Oh yeah, and he has a lowest finish of 16th -- but that was all the way back in September 2005. Activate him this weekend, without a doubt.
By the numbers: Johnson, who drives the No. 48 Lowe's Chevy, is chasing victory No. 48 in what will be his 293rd Cup race.
Carl Edwards: A ninth-place finish in the Daytona 500 is a respectable start to the season for Cousin Carl, who appeared as often in the commercial breaks (Subway, Aflac, Ford, Home Tracks, Gillette) as he did during the race. He'll be looking to step it up another notch this weekend, and the stats would appear to back him up. In 11 races, he has 10 finishes of seventh or better, including a win in the early season race in 2008. Expect Carl to run well at one of his all-time best venues.
By the numbers: Edwards has an average finish of 6.6 and a average start of 17.8 at ACS.
Jeff Gordon: Two laps led and a 26th-place finish in a race he's won three times (1997, 1999, 2005) was not the ideal way to kick off a ninth attempt at a fifth championship ... but don't be fooled. Gordon will recover quickly, likely this weekend at a track where he finished second on both occasions in 2009. With an average finish of 10.5 in 19 races, Gordon's experience level couldn't be higher -- he's competed in every Sprint Cup event held at the circuit, a record shared with Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, and Michael Waltrip (who is not entered this weekend.)
By the numbers: Gordon has won three times at ACS and has completed 4708 of 4755 laps in his 19 races at ACS.
Who to avoid
If you're in a league where you have to watch allocations, one driver to avoid from the A-list this week would be Tony Stewart. But wait, you cry, Smoke finished 5th and 8th last season at Fontana en route to a stellar first season as owner/driver. However, his overall record at this track is pretty mediocre, with four top 5s in 17 attempts and to go along with an average finish of 15.2. Now because it's Tony Stewart, you're never really going to go too far wrong if you pick him, but this week might just be the week to go with the other big guns.
Jamie McMurray: What a win for McMurray in the Great American Race. And given how well new teammate Juan Pablo Montoya ran at ACS back in September, I'm backing Jamie Mac to prolong the feel good factor at least one more week with a solid top 10-15 run. After four trying years at Roush-Fenway, McMurray appears revitalized to be "back home" with Chip Ganassi -- the man who launched McMurray's Cup career. If he's now ready to take the next step, to really challenge for a Chase berth, ACS is a good place to start.
By the numbers: McMurray finished 4th (twice), 5th, 8th and 15th in his five races for Chip Ganassi before he made the switch to Roush Fenway.
Clint Bowyer: He led 8 times for 37 laps Sunday, including 13 late in the race, and wound up fourth on an afternoon where he could very well have be crowned Daytona 500 champion had his luck held. Bowyer will, however, relish a return to ACS, a track where he tends to run strongly. An average finish of 12.5 and four top 10s in 8 attempts underline the Missouri native's credentials at the circuit, and a ninth place effort in the 2009 fall race points to good things for Bowyer. Let's not forget, either, that this is a driver that finished 3rd and 5th overall in points during 2007-08. With good equipment, he knows how to get it done, and the albeit premature signs are there that RCR, as an organization, is in for a much better year in 2010.
By the numbers: Bowyer's lowest finish in 8 attempts at ACS is 20th in the second race of 2007.
Joey Logano: Sunday's race will be just the 41st race of Logano's budding Cup career and his third visit to ACS. Logano finished 26th in the first Fontana race of 2009 season but ran 14th in the Chase race there last fall. Given the likely strength of the Joe Gibbs cars, don't be surprised to see Logano better that finish and challenge for a top ten spot. After looking like Bambi on ice in the early months of his debut season, Logano is starting to show his mettle and slowly living up to the high praise that has surrounded his fledgling career.
By the numbers: Logano has an average starting position of 21.6 and an average finish of 21.3 in his brief Cup career so far.
Jimmie Johnson: Given how he's dominated this track in the last few years, it's hard to back anyone but the four-time Champ.
Next up: Las Vegas
Following on the heels of a successful December banquet, NASCAR returns to Las Vegas for the more serious matter of a points-paying Sprint Cup race for the (lucky for some) 13th time.