Rain delayed the start to last week's Quaker State 400. The Saturday night show under the lights started as a Sunday afternoon show under caution. The early race laps saw four caution periods and one red flag. Once the racing really got under way, however, the miles clicked off and drivers fell into a rhythm.
The bumpy Kentucky Speedway surface forced teams to work hard to find a set up that would work under the sun instead of under the stars. While some drivers struggled with grip, others flirted with two-tire strategies and started saving fuel early. One of those drivers was Jimmie Johnson, and he held his spot in the front and appeared to be the favorite for victory until spinning on the final restart. That spin opened a golden door of opportunity to Matt Kenseth, who swept through and claimed his fourth victory of the season.
July's holiday weekend means the series makes its nighttime return to Daytona International Speedway. The distance of the July race being 100 miles shorter than February means drivers can take a few more chances, and sometimes the sparks fly under the lights. The cool track tends to offer more grip allowing drives a bit more freedom to race hard.
Anytime the series heads to Daytona, fans are in for something special, and this week's race should be no different.
Matt Kenseth - The tide changed during the final restart of Sunday's Quaker State 400. Kenseth worked himself into a position to capitalize throughout the afternoon, and then claimed the victory when Jimmie Johnson stumbled. A win and three top-5s in the last five Daytona races, coupled with last week's win, prove that Kenseth should be a strong competitor this week. His average finish in those five Daytona races is 15.4, despite three DNFs. Since restrictor plate tracks can be a craps shoot, Kenseth presents one of the better options considering his ability to finish well when he does finish. This team is going to be tough to beat when the Chase rolls around.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Earnhardt has made a name for himself on restrictor-plate tracks, just like his father did. A past winner of the July Daytona race, Earnhardt still claims a great average finish in the last five races at the track, at 12.4. That average includes two top-5s and just one finish off the lead lap. He was put behind the ball Sunday when he ran over the carcass of a shredded tire. The rubber damaged the front splitter of his car, an important aerodynamic aspect on the cars at a 1.5-mile oval like Kentucky. Still, the team worked hard and overcame the trouble, finishing 12th in a nice rebound from the 37th-place finish he suffered with a blown engine two weeks earlier in Michigan.
Jimmie Johnson - This year's Daytona 500 champion is not one to be counted out as the series returns to Florida. His win was his only top-5 result in the last five Daytona races, and he only finished on the lead lap twice in those five tries. Despite a finishing average of 25.2 in that time, you simply cannot count Johnson out of the big races. He was in a perfect position to claim victory Sunday in Kentucky, but was spun on the final restart. His anger rightfully boiled and he left the track without giving any interviews. It was a disappointing result, despite it adding to his tally of top-10s for the season. Don't count Johnson out this week.
Joey Logano - Logano endured an up-and-down afternoon in Kentucky. He fought hard to come back from trouble early in the race and notched his fifth top-10 finish from the last six races. The fourth-place finish he secured Sunday put his tally of top-5s to five for the season, an impressive run from the young driver working hard to overcome lost time due to team suspensions earlier in the season. Two top-5s and three top-10s in the last five Daytona races make Logano one of the best drivers in the series through that span. Both his current trajectory of results and his past prowess at Daytona make him an ideal consideration for most fantasy rosters this week.
Paul Menard - Believe it or not, Menard has the best average finish of any driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series over the last five races at Daytona. He hasn't scored a top-5 in that time, but he does claim three top-10s. In that span, his average result is 11.6. His chances of scoring a strong finish leading to this week's race in Kentucky were dashed when he was involved in Brad Keselowski's dust up with Kurt Busch. The front end of Menard's car was damaged, but he returned to the track with plenty of bandages to finish eight laps down in the 30th position. This team hasn't finished in the top 10 since the STP 400 in April. A trip to Daytona might be the tonic Menard needs to claim a return to the top.
Greg Biffle - Biffle's string of strong finishes came to an abrupt end with an early DNF Sunday in Kentucky. The No. 16 car was unable to avoid the spinning Brad Keselowski, and the two collided hard, ripping the front of Biffle's Ford off the chassis. The result was a blow to the Roush Fenway Racing driver who was on a run of three consecutive top-10 finishes, including his win at Michigan International Speedway. This week presents a track where Biffle has raced well but has also seen his fair share of accidents. His average Daytona finish in the last five races is 16.6, and includes one DNF. Biffle could be a tough selection this week.
Brad Keselowski - After getting tapped by Kurt Busch early in Sunday's race at Kentucky, Keselowski was spun into oncoming traffic and collided with a number of cars. The contact was a terrible result from a weekend that should have presented a golden opportunity for Keselowski to consolidate his position in the Chase standings. As it ended, Keselowski's run without a top-10 finish extended one more race to four. His top-5 and top-10 finishes in the last five Daytona races help give him an average result of 17.6 in that time. He finished on the lead lap three of those tries. Neither momentum from good results nor luck is in favor of the No. 2, and that makes for a risky fantasy selection this week.
Danica Patrick - Patrick had quite a week after being criticized by Kyle Petty, but media attention is something she is certainly used to. The problem, however, is that for much of Sunday's race she was running a lap down, hoping for a caution. Her car is prepared by Stewart HAAS Racing, which we know is a winning platform, but she hasn't yet capitalized. While she made an impact at Daytona in February, scoring pole position and finishing in the top 10 in the race, Patrick is not favored to repeat. That Daytona finish is her lone top-10 from 17 races this season, and while the series returns this week to Daytona, she doesn't make a convincing case.
Denny Hamlin - Sunday's race at Kentucky Speedway gave Hamlin another week of disappointment. He lost a right-front tire and smashed hard into the wall after losing air pressure. The contact was significant and Hamlin was ginger getting out of the car and exiting the in-field care center. Since returning from a broken back, Hamlin has been fighting hard to claw his way back into contention for a wild-card entrance to the Chase, but that picture has been getting bleaker each week. Sunday's contact gave the No. 11 team its third consecutive finish outside of the top 20, and the fourth in the last five races. Fantasy owners would be wise to steer clear until luck returns to this garage.
Jamie McMurray - No finishes in the top 10 in the last five Daytona races push McMurray's fantasy value quite low this week. While the team is showing signs of life in 2013, the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team as an organization simply hasn't shown up much in the last five Daytona races. McMurray outscores teammate Juan Pablo Montoya in that time, despite not scoring any top-10s, with a 23.2 average finish. He finished second last week in Kentucky but admitted that the finishes he and the team have achieved this season aren't representative of the speed the car has shown. Certainly things are moving the right direction for this team, but a complete turnaround shouldn't be expected this week.