Bristol Motor Speedway produced an excellent race Sunday with plenty of drivers challenging at the front of the field, and many who encountered the troubles of short-track racing. Teammates collided with teammates, and other drivers just lost their patience and forced competitors out of their way.
Greg Biffle lead the field to the green flag and bucked the season's trend by leading the opening laps. Shortly after, other challengers made their way forward. Seven leaders for 13 lead changes made for an exciting race up front.
At the end of the 500 laps, it was Brad Keselowski who withstood pressure from Matt Kenseth to take the victory. Brian Vickers turned in an exceptional first performance for Michael Waltrip Racing, finishing fifth, while Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were forced to have a post-race conversation about how Gordon ended up in the wall.
This week, we turn to Auto Club Speedway and the Auto Club 400. Traditionally, Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing have dominated the speedway, winning eight of the last 10 races. Kevin Harvick scored the latest victory at the track, while Jimmie Johnson owns the most victories with five.
Brad Keselowski - Keselowski made all the right moves Sunday in Bristol to take home victory, his second at the track. He now owns back-to-back victories at the short track and should be a favorite there again, despite not scoring a top-10 in his first three attempts on the bullring. Keselowski showed what muscle he has in the series last season, scoring three wins en route to a spot in the Chase. Brad doesn't have the greatest record at Auto Club Speedway, but he is one of the drivers who goes on streaks once he scores a top finish. His average finish at the California oval is only 24.3 in the last three events, but he should be considered a decent play given the momentum he carries with him.
Jimmie Johnson - Chad Knaus was again found guilty of violating rules at Daytona in the team's initial appeal, but Hendrick Motorsports will continue the appeal process as far as it can go. The drama hasn't affected the team, and most likely won't, even if the penalties are upheld. Johnson scored two top-5s since the Daytona debacle, and finished ninth in Bristol last week. His average finish in the last five Auto Club Speedway races is an impressive 3.2, with nothing but wins, top-5s and top-10s in his last five starts there. Johnson should be a favorite this week, and fantasy owners should lock him into their rosters. The off-track issues will not derail the No. 48's efforts for another championship.
Clint Bowyer - Bowyer was one of the fastest cars on the track as the Food City 500 neared completion. He already has a top-10 this season, and was agonizingly close to another at Daytona International Speedway. Bowyer is showing that he doesn't need a top-tier team to be competitive and could extend this run with another good week in California. He owns the third best average finish of active drivers at the track over the last five races and finished in the top 10 each of the times he managed to finish on the lead lap. His average finish in that time is 9.0, and he should be valuable as a starter this week for fantasy rosters.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon didn't finish the Food City 500 the way he wanted. He made contact with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and had a ruined rear tire, which put him into the wall and ended his chances for a decent finish. Gordon hasn't had a DNF since the Daytona 500 and had been racing in and around the top 10 for the three races since that incident. There was no intent behind the incident in Bristol, and Gordon can put it behind him as soon as this weekend. He has been a top performer at Auto Club Speedway, owning two top-5s in the last five races at the track. With his average finish in that time of 10.2, Gordon should be able to put Sunday's disappointment behind him, and fantasy owners should play him with confidence.
Kurt Busch - Busch finished 18th in Bristol last week. A solid outing for the small team and definitely more in line with the results Busch expected when he decided to sign up for duty. The result marks two top-20 finishes for the new pairing, and both will be hoping for even more as the season continues. In California, Busch has been a stout competitor. He owns a top-5 and three top-10s in his last five California starts. Given Hendrick's domination at the 2.5-mile oval through the past years, Busch stands a really good chance at pulling off an upset this week. He is learning that he can score top results with the team, and leveraging Hendrick knowledge in California, Busch should be an excellent utility play this week.
Dave Blaney - Blaney found himself off track early in Sunday's running at Bristol. That effort was somewhat disappointing after leading the Daytona 500 and finishing in the top 30 in each of the races so far this season. Blaney could be used as a decent fourth-driver option for many fantasy rosters this season, but disappointments like Sunday won't encourage that. This week may signal more of the same from the No. 36. His average finish in the last five Auto Club Speedway races is 38.0. One finish on the lead lap in any of those last five attempts, Blaney is not a driver owners should consider this week.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin came out of Bristol with a disappointing 20th-place finish. The result is his second consecutive 20th-place result after scoring back-to-back top-5s in the opening rounds of the season. Fantasy owners usually shouldn't reduce their expectations of Hamlin, but given the past two finishes and his recent record in California, he isn't a driver who should be expected to dominate. He scored top-10 finishes in each of his two lead-lap finishes at California in the last five tries, but three finishes of 29th or worse demonstrate his inconsistency on the oval. Hamlin could certainly surprise, but statistics indicate a safer play elsewhere this week.
Jeff Burton - A solid day in Tennessee gave Burton his second top-10 finish of the season. After a dismal 2011 season, Burton is clearly on the rebound, and frankly couldn't do much worse. He is still climbing his way back up the ladder, though, and Auto Club Speedway has not been a great track from him in the past. His average finish in the last five races on the oval is 20.6. He failed to finish on the lead lap two of those five times, and chalked up one DNF too, though he did land a top-5 there in February 2010. Burton could be a driver to look to more often in 2012 for fantasy owners, but this week in California presents something of a gamble.
Kasey Kahne - Three races with three crashes is not how Kahne wanted to get things going with Hendrick Motorsports, but that is what has happened. He had a fast car at each of the first four races but has been tailed by bad luck in the actual races. His finish of 19th in the Kobalt Tools 400 is his best of the season so far, and he started that race from pole. Kahne was caught in early contact again at Bristol, and circulated the rest of the race more than 100 laps behind the pace. While Kahne does lay claim to a top-5 and a top-10 in his last five California races, fantasy owners should wait to play him until his luck takes a turn for the better.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - After coming home 15th in the Food City 500, Earnhardt looks less likely to impress at Auto Club Speedway. His worst finish this season before Sunday was 14th in the Subway Fresh Fit 500. Junior is definitely figuring out how to operate at Hendrick and has progressed the past two seasons, but may struggle again in California. Despite Hendrick's domination at the track, Earnhardt hasn't scored any top-10s in his last five outings. His average finish in that time is 24.8, and only includes two lead-lap finishes. In 2008 he scored an 11th-place finish at the track, and to date that represents his best finish on the oval. This week would be one to not expect as much as you normally would from the No. 88.
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