The first night race of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was run Saturday evening at Texas Motor Speedway.
In most night races, when the lights come on, the action heats up. Texas was no different Saturday night. Fast cars, jaw-clenching pit strategy and a fair share of smoke and fire created a perfect atmosphere for the series, and a really interesting race.
Despite Matt Kenseth looking like the man to beat all night, there was plenty of competition. Tony Stewart nearly found his way into Victory Lane via pit strategy, but blew it when he was caught speeding on pit entry. The rest of the field was left to chase Kenseth to the checkered flag, and many were forced to rely on fuel mileage to chase down the Wisconsin native.
In the end, Kenseth's speed was just too much. Stewart ran out of fuel, despite his gamble in the pits, as did Jeff Gordon, leaving Clint Bowyer to cruise home in second.
The excitement is expected to roll right into the next race weekend at Talladega Superspeedway. Restrictor-plate racing puts an emphasis on teamwork, horsepower and patience. With a fair amount of luck thrown into the mix in trying to avoid monster crashes, the race promises to thrill.
Clint Bowyer – After a rocky start to the 2011 season, Bowyer has found his groove. Running in the top five in the closing laps of Saturday night's Texas race is just another example of the corner having been turned. He packed the car into the hauler with a third-place result to boast, his first top-five of the year. He'll hope to take that energy with him to Talladega, where his average finish is 12.8 in the last five tries. The Richard Childress cars have found their way back to the front of the field on restrictor-plate tracks, and Bowyer will have that technical advantage with him into this weekend. A win, two top-fives and three top-10s in those five runs make him a healthy option for fantasy rosters.
Carl Edwards – Edwards came home in third position Saturday night. It was another clear case of Roush Fenway Racing hitting the chassis settings and race strategies perfectly. The team had one driver on the pole and put three in the top five. In the last five Talladega races, Edwards has not recorded a top-five or top-10 result. His average finish is 19.0, though, while two DNFs would have dragged that average down. With Roush Fenway Racing regularly flexing its muscle this year, it would not be surprising to see the majority of its teams competing at the front of the field in the Aaron's 499. Edwards is your new point leader, why not put him in your lineup?
David Ragan – Ragan has seemed like a perennial struggler the past few seasons. After the last two races, however, he owns a pole with two top-10 finishes. He started on pole in Texas and admirably finished seventh. Is this imagination, or is there substance behind the positive turn? Believe it or not, Ragan has the best average finish of any current NASCAR Sprint Cup driver at Talladega in the last five races at 11.8. He finished on the lead lap each of those five times, avoiding the pile ups that most other competitors get caught up in at least once. With a top-five and another top-10 in that span, he becomes a decent fantasy option for the Aaron's 499.
Tony Stewart – Speeding on pit road ruined the charge Stewart was putting together to win the Samsung Mobile 500. He put himself in a position that would have allowed him to win the race with pit strategy, but all was for naught when he ultimately ran short of fuel anyway, finishing 12th. Stewart's average finish of 21.2 at Talladega in the last five events is nothing that would get anyone excited. When you look deeper at his stats you see that he has a win and three other lead-lap finishes, though. While the numbers don't immediately wave the flag for Stewart, his prowess in the draft, as well as the power he showed at Daytona International Speedway, make him a tasty choice for fantasy rosters.
Juan Pablo Montoya – Running at the front of the field all evening Saturday serves to cement the step forward he and the team have taken in 2011. He has turned himself into a weekly contender, and soon will find Victory Lane. Consistent and respectable results seven races into the season are giving Montoya fans a lot to smile about in 2011. Those fans may have more to smile about in the Aaron's 499. Montoya's average Talladega finish is 14.0 with two top-five results and two pole positions. For a road course racer, Montoya has certainly come up to speed quickly on how to work the draft. Look for him to run up front most of Sunday afternoon, just as he did in Daytona.
Matt Kenseth – The No. 17 team virtually dominated the Samsung Mobile 500. The Roush Fenway Racing cars had their acts in gear, and Kenseth made the most of it, taking his first victory in 2011. It was an outstanding Samsung Mobile 500 last weekend for Kenseth, but has not had the same kind of afternoon at Talladega in any of the last five races there. His best finish in the last five events there is 16th last October, and his average finish is 22.2. While he only recorded one DNF in that span, he was also forced to finish off the lead lap one other race as well. Owners shouldn't be too expectant following last week's performance. Momentum helps, but the track could temper production.
Mark Martin – A difficult night for Martin got worse when Martin Truex Jr. spun in front of him. There was nowhere Martin could steer to avoid the crash, and his evening finished with him against the inside wall with a DNF. Martin has been quietly stepping up his game in 2011. If Talladega were any other track, Martin's consistency so far this year would make him another top fantasy selection this week. Unfortunately, in the last four races at the track, he only finished half. Earning a top-five and a top-10 in the last five visits there is acceptable, but not desirable. Martin would not be the most foolproof driver to put in your Talladega lineup.
David Reutimann – Texas proved to be a frustrating night for Reutimann. Early mistakes on pit road damaged his car, and he anonymously rolled home in 29th position. Combining a DNF with a top-five and two other lead-lap finishes calculates an average finish of 21.4 at Talladega recently. While restrictor-plate racing can be somewhat of a crapshoot, Reutimann hadn't finished better than 14th prior to finishing fourth in his last visit to Talladega. He holds a top-five in the Daytona 500 too, but there aren't enough of those results to impress fantasy owners this weekend. Reutimann will need to improve his superspeedway finishes before he becomes a valid fantasy option at those tracks.
A.J. Allmendinger – Allmendinger continued his string of respectable finishes in 2011, finishing 19th in Texas. Top-20 finishes are a positive step forward for a team that didn't know if it would meet the opening bell just weeks before the start of the season. The 'Dinger may be off to a great start in 2011 so far, but his performance at Talladega has been abysmal in the last four races. He failed to finish two of those races and only finished on the lead lap once in the two he did finish. The average finish he scored in that time is only 29.8, while his average starting position is just 30.5. Allmendinger and Richard Petty Motorsports are improving, but the hill may be too steep to climb at Talladega.
David Gilliland – An awful evening at Texas makes it an even tighter fight to remain in the top-35 in owner's points for Gilliland, thus earning him a guaranteed starting position at each race. He will now come to Talladega as a driver who has only competed in three of the last five events there. He started an average of 35.7, and was unable to make much improvement, finished 37.7 on average. Sometimes the drivers hanging inside the top-35 in points make good fourth-driver fantasy options because of their hunger, especially one with potential like Gilliland. Unfortunately, the No. 34 does not carry that distinction to Alabama, and fantasy players should remain wary.