The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hit the wide-open spaces of Auto Club Speedway on Sunday, and it was Juan Pablo Montoya who led the field to the green flag. Denny Hamlin started alongside, but Kasey Kahne made the biggest early impact, picking up 10 positions in the first four laps.
Long green-flag runs dominated the day, and caused headaches for some drivers. The speeds were high and the race went by at a tremendous pace. While pit road violations made some driver's afternoon quite difficult, those who kept their noses clean had the opportunity to put a strong day in the record books.
Kyle Busch led the vast majority of laps in what looked to be his sixth sweep of a NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup weekend. Instead, after one final caution it was Jimmie Johnson who climbed past Busch and threatened to win. Alas, it was not to be as an extremely hard-charging Kevin Harvick closed the distance, and forced Johnson to get loose in the final turn, allowing the No. 29 past to take his first Auto Club Speedway victory.
The series packs up and ships off to Martinsville Speedway this weekend for the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500. Hamlin has been unstoppable at Martinsville, and will be gunning for his third consecutive win at the track.
Martinsville is a special track, and that means that some names you'd normally expect to see in the Upgrade column might drop in favor. The short-track racing of the Virginia requires a specific talent, and plenty of patience. Who might hold that combination?
Denny Hamlin – Sunday did not end well for Hamlin after he was forced to pull off track just past halfway. He was battling with teammate Kyle Busch for the lead throughout, but it just wasn't to be. The good news is that NASCAR Sprint Cup's most convincing competitor at Martinsville Speedway has been Denny Hamlin. He is the defending winner and hopes to score his fourth consecutive Martinsville win. He scored three wins in the last five races at the track, and his average finish is 2.0. Each of those races has seen Hamlin finish in the top-five, and there has been none better in that period. Hamlin should hold a lock on fantasy line-ups next week even though the team continues to struggle with reliability at high RPM tracks.
Jimmie Johnson – In the closing laps at Auto Club Speedway Johnson is almost always near the front of the field. Sunday's race was no different, but after an assured run Johnson did not have enough to take home the trophy. It is very hard not to be impressed with Johnson's average finish of 3.6 in the last five Martinsville events. His biggest nemesis at the track has been Denny Hamlin, splitting the wins between themselves. Johnson owns two of those victories and hasn't finished outside of the top 10 in any of the other three events. It could be a coin flip between choosing Hamlin and Johnson next weekend, and if you can choose both, you could dominate.
Mark Martin – Twentieth position was the best that Martin could muster Sunday afternoon at Auto Club Speedway. It was a difficult afternoon for the veteran, and it is becoming the norm for him in 2011. Despite fast teammates and all the resources of Hendrick Motorsports at his disposal, Martin appears to be just a shadow of his former self. Perhaps Martin's best chance to go out with a bang comes this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. His record in the last four races he has contested there produced an average finish of 9.5, three lead-lap finishes, a top-five and two other top-10s. Martin hasn't set the world alight so far in this season with Hendrick Motorsports, but Martinsville may present the opportunity to sign off with grace.
Jeff Gordon – Gordon wasn't much of a factor in California. Things just didn't click for the No. 24 team, and he spent lap after lap mired in the thick of the field. He came home in 18th position, and the speed was never there for him to climb further up the ladder. Gordon has been strong at the track in the past, so something within the team just wasn't clicking for him Sunday. After picking up his first win in two seasons, Gordon hasn't exactly opened the floodgates. Arguably, his best track is Martinsville Speedway. His average finish in the last five runs there is 7.2. He also took home a remarkable four top-five finishes in that span. Gordon is a healthy option for fantasy players this weekend.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Yet anther 2011 finish flirting with the top 10 is helping Earnhardt gain confidence and pick up the pace. He bagged a solid 12th-place result in California for a fourth consecutive top-15 finish. Earnhardt is enjoying one of the best starts to a season in recent memory, and observers can see his confidence in the team and himself building. His finishes have been potent, and his confidence is equally high. Martinsville is one of Earnhardt's best tracks, and his average finish reflects it at 12.2. Bagging a top-five and three top-10s in the last five Martinsville races makes Earnhardt a consistent driver at the track who happens to be on a roll.
Kyle Busch – Busch owned the Auto Club 400 Sunday afternoon. He led the most laps and was clearly the class of the field, and even more convincingly after teammate Denny Hamlin made his way to the garage. Despite all of this, it is a rare occasion when fantasy owners won't want to reach for Busch, but his results in the last five races at Martinsville Speedway have not been impressive. His average finish is just 16.6 in that time with only two lead-lap finishes. While he did score two top-fives in that period, the finishes have been very inconsistent. You can make a case for starting him due to his potential, but if you are looking for less risk, then Busch would not be your man.
Kasey Kahne – A top-10 performance at California Speedway is not enough to get Kahne's name in the upgrade column for Martinsville. His lackluster outings at the track definitely overshadow this weekend's strong finish. While the team's finishes thus far in 2011 have been good for Kahne, the true test will come this weekend at Martinsville. He and his team will need to come together perfectly to overcome his Martinsville results of late, and Kahne will need to outperform what he's produced there since 2006. His average finish in the last five Martinsville races is 23.0 with no top-10s. Plenty of drivers with strong pedigrees deserve a spot on your roster before Kahne.
David Reutimann – His 19th-place finish Sunday in the Auto Club 400 was Reutimann's second best of the season so far. Results like that are nothing to hang your hat on, and Reutimann knows he'll need to turn things around quickly. Next weekend's event may not present him that opportunity. Martinsville has not been good to Reutimann, and it will take a tremendous effort to overcome his recent statistics. Reutimann's average finish in the last five Martinsville races is 23.0 with only one lead lap finish. Michael Waltrip Racing has definitely taken a step forward in 2011, but Reutimann has not had the finishes he would like at the short oval. Pass on Reutimann this week.
Greg Biffle – Eleventh place in California gives Biffle two promising finishes in the last two races. The first few races of 2011 are ones Biffle would like to move past and put deep in his memory bank. He has a hole in the points that he will need climb out of, and looking forward is the only that that feat will be accomplished. Having just one top-10 finish in the last five Martinsville races doesn't push Biffle to the top of the heap for this weekend's race either, though. His average finish in that span is 21.6, and he finished a lap or more down three of those five times. Biffle doesn't make the cut this week.
Kurt Busch – Busch's momentum might have left him last weekend at California. He found himself a lap down in the closing stages of the race, and was never a factor. He managed to climb back to 17th in the final laps, capturing valuable points from a difficult day. No top-10 results and only two lead-lap finishes in the last five Martinsville starts is the elder Busch's mountain to climb. His average finish in that time is just 22.0, and that indicates that Busch is not a top performer at the Virginia oval. Although Busch may be a strong contender in 2011, fantasy players should look for a more reliable Martinsville racer to slot into their roster next weekend.
Tony Stewart – The Auto Club 400 looked like it could be Stewart's race, but on the late race restart he faded quickly. Prior to the final caution it looked like Stewart would be finishing second or third, but just couldn't get his car to take off after the final green flag waved and finished a frustrating 13th. After having a respectable afternoon in California, Stewart looks less appealing this week. His average finish at Martinsville in the last five events is 17.6, and he only led one lap in that period. Stewart only managed to finish on the lead lap twice in those five tries, and while he's on a bit of a hot streak, next week may not be the optimal time to expect the most from him.