Rain interrupted last weekend's Auto Club 400. The race had been shortened to 400 from 500 miles this season, and the field even ran to that point without any caution flags. Unfortunately, the shorter distance and faster pace weren't enough to outrun the showers. Rain came down with less than 80 laps remaining to the full distance and Tony Stewart in the lead.
That position ended up being the best place to be since the race never got restarted. Stewart claimed his second victory of the season and likely would have been a challenger had the race gone the distance anyway. The No. 14 car was one of the best handling cars in the field, and Stewart passed competitors despite angering a few in the process. Perhaps the only driver better positioned than Stewart was Jimmie Johnson. The No. 48 car started smoking badly under caution but held together just long enough to see the red and checkered flags.
Another short track is on tap this week in the form of a paperclip. Martinsville Speedway is rough on brakes, hard on drivers and even tougher on sheet metal. Drivers rarely walk away from a race at Martinsville with tempers fully in check. With feuds between teammates and throughout the field beginning to simmer under the surface, fans can rest assured that some emotion will bubble over this week.
Teams that do well at Martinsville might not always keep their noses clean, but they usually keep their brakes working and their cars turning through the tight corners. Chassis set up and adjustment, in addition to proper brake management, will be the hallmarks of this week's winning combination.
Tony Stewart - Stewart continued his roll of top 2012 results, winning the shortened Auto Club 400. Stewart now has two wins this season, and he normally doesn't really get rolling until late summer. To make things even better, he won the last visit the series made to Martinsville Speedway, last October's TUMS Fast Relief 500. He struggled in the three Martinsville races prior to that victory, but owns a career average finish of 13.4 in his 26 starts at the Virginia track. Stewart is carrying on right where he left off 2011, and fantasy owners can feel confident as they continue to ride Stewart's wave of momentum.
Jimmie Johnson - With the noise of penalties and appeals behind Johnson and his No. 48 team, they are clear to focus solely on top finishes. With two top-5s and four top-10s to his credit after Sunday, the floodgates might be ready to open. Johnson's average Martinsville finish in the last five races is 5.8. He scored six wins in his 20-race career at the track and could arguably be the best current driver on the paperclip oval. He lucked out at Auto Club Speedway as his car started to fail under the caution for rain, and the race was called before the machine had a chance to give up completely. He scored a top-10 as a result, no doubt relieved to move on to another one of his best tracks.
Denny Hamlin - Toyota showed some fight when Hamlin used its horsepower to claim pole in last week's Auto Club 400. As the race ground to a halt due to weather, Hamlin found himself disappointingly just outside the top 10. He was classified 11th on the day, but would have wanted more out of his pole effort. The Toyota engines showed might against the Fords, though, and that could be a good sign for Joe Gibbs Racing as the season continues. Hamlin is a must start when the Sprint Cup comes to Martinsville. He owns four wins in his 11-career starts at the track, and his average finish from just the last five is 4.0.
Joey Logano - A pit-road speeding penalty put Logano mid-pack early in Sunday's Auto Club 400. He won the NASCAR Nationwide event the day before and hoped to sweep the weekend, but met trouble in Sunday's Sprint Cup event. By being deep in the field after the penalty, Logano got mired in traffic and was unable to climb forward. When the rain came the No. 20 was frustratingly in 24th position. Despite last weekend, a top-5 and two top-10s in the last five Martinsville races make Logano one of the better statistical choices for fantasy owners this week. His average finish in that time is 10.2, and he only finished off of the lead lap once in that time.
David Ragan - Ragan's average finish in the last five Martinsville races is 19.2, including a top-10 finish. For a fourth driver on fantasy teams, Ragan is a solid choice in this week's Goody's Fast Relief 500. He has a better average finish over the last few races at the track than most choices in this category and hasn't run horribly through the first few races of the season, either. His classification of 31st in the Auto Club 400 was his worst since finishing last in the Daytona 500. However, despite the iffy finish last week, Ragan stands a good chance of scoring his first top-20 of the season this Sunday, and you can't ask for much more from a third-tier fantasy option.
Greg Biffle - As well as Biffle has started this season, he might slow down a bit this week. By running sixth when the rain came to California he scored his fourth top-10 of the season last weekend in California, and rebounded immediately from the 13th-place finish he had in Bristol. Ultimately, last week's finish helped him hang onto the point lead, and that is the main goal. Biffle's finishes haven't been as good at Martinsville as he has run this season, though. His average Martinsville finish in the last five races is 20.8, and he only claims two top-10s in his 18-race career at the track. One of those top-10s came as recent as 2010, but he also only scored two lead-lap finishes in the last five tries.
Kurt Busch - Busch hasn't claimed a top-5 or top-10 in any of his last five Martinsville tries. His average finish in that span is 17.2, and only includes two lead-lap finishes. He tallied his first top-10 last week with a ninth-place finish in the rain-shortened Auto Club 400, and that will give him a boost of confidence for the near term. While he does own a Martinsville victory, it came nine years ago, and his average finish at the track is 20.8. He scored just two top-5s in his 23-race Martinsville career, and that should not be enough to inspire confidence in fantasy players this week, despite his top finish last weekend.
Jeff Gordon - It may seem odd to see Gordon's name in the Downgrade column as the series heads to Martinsville Speedway, but luck has simply not been on the No. 24's side the last few weeks. Before the Auto Club 400 Gordon had fallen six places in the points. In Sunday's race he pulled his gasman out of the pit box and was reprimanded with a stop-and-go penalty that put him deep in the running order. Gordon may have had one of the fastest cars Sunday afternoon, but he was unable to pull forward again before the rain, finishing 26th. Four top-5s in the last five Martinsville races make Gordon a confident gamble this week, but fantasy owners may want to see him break this downturn before selecting him again.
Kasey Kahne - Kahne's goal in last week's Auto Club 400 was to make it to the finish. He purposefully put a conservative setup on the chassis, knowing that the car could be loosened up as the race wore on. He was just inside the top 15 when rain started to fall on the speedway after a very careful first half. The effort was just too conservative for fantasy players to look for and is indicative of a team that is struggling to gain confidence. In his last five Martinsville starts, Kahne only finished on the lead lap twice, and racked up an average result of 25.4. That resume, when coupled with the growing pains that Kahne and the team are enduring, is something fantasy owners should avoid until all the bugs are fixed.
Marcos Ambrose - Ambrose has not gotten 2012 off on the right foot just yet. After scoring two top-15 finishes in the first three races, Ambrose missed the top 20 in both of the following contests. He tumbled down the point standings to 24th and held the position after coming home 21st in California. Richard Petty Motorsports made some strides forward in competitiveness through 2011, but has yet to reflect the same progress this season. Ambrose himself may have some work to do this week in Martinsville as well. His best finish at the track was 11th in 2010, but his average finish in six career starts there is only 24.0. Ambrose has been mildly competitive at times this season, but is likely to do some more upstream swimming this week.
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