Sunday's Aaron's 499 produced some of the most exciting racing we've seen this season, at least since the Daytona 500. Two-car drafts dominated the day, and remarkably many of the same pairings we saw at the start of the race finished it.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who started off as a pairing, defeated the other Hendrick teammate pairing of Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. Interspersed with those tandems were the Richard Childress Racing teammates of Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, and Roush Fenway Racing pairing Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle.
The finish was the closest top-eight finish of all time and tied the closest one-two finish in NASCAR history at 0.002 seconds. You can't script a top eight of teammate pairings coming across the finish line 500 miles after they set off.
It was 15 races without a win for Johnson, but what a win to take. He gave the checkered flag to Earnhardt, who pushed the No. 48 across the line. Sunday was a banner day for the Hendrick shops, with four cars in the top eight, also having started with four in the top five.
This week we look to Richmond International Raceway. It will be a completely different style of racing, and we'll look for a somewhat different look to the top-five finishers as a result. The usual suspects should be in contention, but it is Joe Gibbs Racing that has dominated the last four races there, with teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin splitting the last four victories evenly between themselves.
Kyle Busch Busch was taken out of contention from the Aaron's 499 when he was pushed loose and smacked the wall. He was scored in the 35th position, a very disappointing result for Saturday's Nationwide Series winner. Talladega is always somewhat of a gamble, and Busch has proven time and again that he can come back from disappointment. Short-track racing is one of Busch's fortes, and his average finish in the last five events at Richmond International Raceway is 4.8. He owns two wins, four top-fives and a pole in that short span. He has the best recent record at the track of any current driver and should be a definitive lock for anyone's fantasy roster.
Denny Hamlin Hamlin was a ghost in Sunday's race. His name wasn't mentioned after the opening stages of the race as he fell backward into mediocrity. It certainly was not a typical Hamlin performance, but one must take restrictor-plate races with a grain of salt. Hamlin and teammate Busch may not have performed Sunday, but when the series returns to more traditional tracks, they should surge again. Second in recent Richmond results to Kyle Busch, Hamlin's average finish is 6.0 in the last five races there, and he also has two wins, the same as teammate Busch. The only difference between the two is Busch's pole and one extra top-five. Hamlin is a safe bet this Saturday night.
Jeff Gordon One of the top eight finishers at Talladega, Gordon had a stellar day, but came up short with pusher Mark Martin right behind him. The third-place result was Gordon's third top-five of the season and puts him in a very strong position as he works on earning his fifth championship. Gordon's average Richmond finish in the last five races is 6.6. He is a solid short-track driver, who continues to get the job done. He took home two top-fives and four top-10s in that time and didn't finish off of the lead lap in any of those tries. With Gordon's strong start to 2011 and a strong Richmond resume to boot, he becomes a very attractive fantasy option for this week's Crown Royal 400.
Jeff Burton An optimistic Sunday afternoon, which included a miraculous save after being pushed loose, resulted in a disappointing finish for Burton. The No. 31 contender was scored in 16th position, after running in the top 10 for nearly the entire afternoon. Burton has been knocking on the door of a top-10 in 2011, but hasn't quite stuck his foot past the threshold. His best finish was 11th in the Samsung Mobile 500, but he has the chance to seize a great opportunity this week in Richmond. His average finish at the track is 8.8 in the last five starts there, with two top-fives and three top-10s. He hasn't finished off the lead lap in that time, making him a safe fantasy play this week.
Clint Bowyer The Aaron's 499 featured a potent run from Bowyer. He was in contention until the very end, challenging for the lead in the closing laps and finishing second in what would tie for closest finish of all time. The No. 33 is now on a string of three consecutive top-10 finishes in 2011 and looks like a Chase contender. Bowyer's average finish in the last five Richmond races is 10.8. He only finished in the top 10 in two of those five attempts and has the lowest average finish of that span among this week's Upgrades. With three straight top-10 finishes before the Aaron's 499, the No. 33 should be a consistent and levelheaded option for a second or third driver in this weekend's Richmond race.
David Ragan Ragan's great record at Talladega ended against the wall Sunday afternoon. He was involved in a multi-car pile up that saw him on fire prior to the contact, and then being towed to the pits after. It wasn't the weekend he hoped for, nor was it in line with previous results this season. With an average finish of 27.0 in the last five Richmond races, Ragan is not a selection fantasy owners should consider. Despite his respectable start to the 2011 season, the record at Richmond doesn't hold water. His lead-lap finishes in that time only total two despite running at the finish each of those five tries. With no top-10s in the last five Richmond races, Ragan isn't a driver on whom to rest your hopes.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt's gift for seeing the air paid off Sunday at Talladega when he pushed teammate Jimmie Johnson to victory. Earnhardt was scored in fourth position and drove a fantastic race, running in the top five all afternoon. Scoring his third top-10 result in a row caps off an incredible start to the season. A stereotypical NASCAR Sprint Cup favorite would be expected to have an attractive Richmond resume. Unfortunately, though, in the last five races at the short Virginia oval, Earnhardt has only amassed an average result of 23.6. He did post a top-five in that period but also only finished on the lead lap twice. Earnhardt may be knocking on the door, but his effect might be blunted in Richmond.
Matt Kenseth Contact ruined Kenseth's day in the Aaron's 499, being scored in 36th position and a DNF. Certainly, the afternoon was one to forget, and the No. 17 team will do just that. This week might be another bump of the path to the Chase, though. Kenseth's average finish in Richmond in the last five races is 20.8. Having led only two laps in the five events, he isn't a driver fantasy owners should rely on for points. Kenseth is off to a strong start in 2011, but his past results at the Virginia short oval should caution fantasy owners from trying to ride his momentum. Look for more from Kenseth in later races.
Greg Biffle Coming from a slight dip in speed on the final lap at Talladega, Biffle pushed teammate Carl Edwards to sixth position and notched a seventh-place result for himself. The afternoon produced Biffle's third top-10 in a row and shows that he is starting to overcome the struggles he endured at the season's onset. A stuttering start to the current season, along with a fairly bland Richmond resume makes Biffle an unlikely contender this Saturday. His average finish at the track is only 19.6 in the last five races, and he hasn't tallied a top-five or top-10 in that time. Biffle could still come into his own this season, but fans should be cautious of a return to consistent form within the next week.
David Reutimann The Michael Waltrip Racing cars looked very powerful in the opening laps at Talladega but were nowhere to be found when the finish came. Reutimann was present, but only because he seemed to be in close proximity to most accidents. He still has no top-10 results this season and needs to turn things around quickly. Scoring one top-10 in the last five Richmond events may alert fantasy owners to a potential dark-horse option, but it would be wise to avoid the signal. His average finish in the last five races is disappointing at 18.2. He only finished on the lead lap three of those five times, and one of those was the aforementioned top-10. For consistency reasons, fantasy players should not be fooled by the attractive top-10 tick mark in Reutimann's favor.