Saturday night under the lights at Daytona is a hallmark of the Independence Day weekend, and this season did not disappoint for its fair share of fireworks. There was a plethora of close racing, and even a few large wrecks, which is typical for a race at the Daytona International Speedway.
Few drivers managed to stay out front through all 400 miles Saturday night, but the one that made the race his own was Jimmie Johnson. The No. 48 team ran up front for the entire distance, and no one could pass it when the race ran down to the wire. This was the second week in a row that Johnson and his Lowes team played pied piper to the rest of the field.
This week the series heads to an entirely different track, New Hampshire International Speedway. Four different winners in the last five New Hampshire races make this one track that is slightly difficult to predict. There are, however, a number of drivers who consistently rise to the occasion.
Jimmie Johnson - The strongest car won Saturday night's Coke Zero 400. Johnson dominated much of the running and was able to capitalize on that strength and find a path to Victory Lane. It was the first time in decades a driver won both the Daytona 500 and the July race in the same season. Johnson's two top-5s and three top-10s in the last five New Hampshire races give him an 11.4 average finish. He finished off the lead lap just once in those five events, which shouldn't cause too much concern. The domination Johnson and his team have shown the last two races indicate that more wins could be in store as he works to lock in a Chase position.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon has the best record of any current Sprint Cup Series regular in the last five races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. His average finish is 6.0, with two top-5s and four top-10s. His average start is 8.0, and he also claimed a pole in that time. Unfortunately, despite having a strong car Saturday Gordon was caught up in a late crash that took away any chance he had at a good finish. Instead, Gordon ended up in the garage repairing the damage that had been done. The 34th-place position he was classified in does not do justice to the way he ran. The team will try to overcome that disappointment this week and unlock the promise inside the car.
Tony Stewart - As is custom, Stewart had a wonderful outing Saturday night in Daytona. His car had plenty of power to push, or maybe even jump out front. Unfortunately for Stewart no one could catch the No. 48 and the Indiana native settled for a top-5 finish. Things could get even better this week for the driver-owner with the series heading to one of his best tracks. With a win and two top-5 and three top-10 finishes in the last five New Hampshire races, Stewart recorded a 9.2 average finish. We've said time and again that summer is usually when Stewart peaks. It is no coincidence that New Hampshire falls in that time frame and is one of Stewart's best tracks.
Clint Bowyer - A consistent and relatively quiet performance Saturday night in Daytona helped Bowyer to score his seventh top-5 finish of the season so far. Saturday's finish was also the No. 15's fourth top-10 finish in a row. The team has found consistency and is second in points as a result. That story could get even more interesting this week when Bowyer returns to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He is one of our last five winners at New Hampshire, winning the September 2010 edition. His 10.2 average finish in those last five races would be better had he not recorded a DNF, but as it stands, he notched three top-5s in that span. Bowyer should be a reliable choice this week.
Ryan Newman - Newman is one of those drivers who seem to get the job done at New Hampshire no matter what has happened at other stops on the calendar. His win, two poles and four top-10 finishes in the last five races give him a 10.8 average finish. He was caught up in Saturday night's final accident and slid across the finish line while crashing. Despite the excitement, he slid across the line in 10th position, which was enough to give him eight total top-10 finishes so far this year. Newman is typically a charger at New Hampshire. Fantasy owners shouldn't miss out on that opportunity.
Matt Kenseth - As hot as Kenseth has been the last few weeks, one shouldn't expect the same sort of fire this week. His recent New Hampshire record isn't great, scoring just one top-10 finish in the last five races. He has yet to win at the track, scoring five top-5s in 26 career starts. Based on those statistics, this week could be another downer for the No. 20. As an indicator, Kenseth spun trying to avoid a crashing Denny Hamlin on Saturday in Daytona and ended up getting hit hard himself, knocking him out of the race. Saturday's result will probably be remembered as a small dip in an otherwise brilliant season, but that blip combined with New Hampshire results make Kenseth a more risky play this week.
Paul Menard - After his car gave up early in Saturday's Coke Zero 400, Menard can't be looking forward to one of his more trying tracks. His average New Hampshire finish in the last five races there is 202. He only finished on the lead lap three of those times, and failed to score a single top-10 result. The car's engine failure Saturday night resulted in the race's first retirement. It was a terrible time to have such a problem. The close points race saw Menard fall five places to 20th, even farther from what looked like a possible Chase position earlier this season. Is the early season magic gone from this team now? We can't say for sure, but fantasy owners might want to judge their Menard starts cautiously now.
Joey Logano - A tire failure on Logano's car had him turning right at Daytona International Speedway, not the normal direction of the track. This driver has worked hard to overcome his early season challenges, and he has in large. Unfortunately, his right front tire wasn't up to the job Saturday. His misfortune sent him down in the point standings and will present a greater hurdle to clear as we head for the Chase. His New Hampshire record isn't stellar either, so there is work to be done. Two top-10s and one top-5 in the last five races at the track amount to an average finish of 15.0. Fantasy owners should look for more than that each week from a driver of this caliber, and therefore should not spend too much time considering the No. 22.
Kyle Busch - Busch was involved in two accidents Saturday, yet put together an acceptable result nonetheless. The first contact damaged the right-front corner of the car, but the team persevered and got him back into the top 10 before the night ended. Perhaps a surprise to most at New Hampshire Motor Speedway through the last five events was Busch's lack of success. That is not a good surprise, and despite claiming a pole in that time, he scored just one top-10 finish and failed to finish on the same lap as the leaders twice. Many would agree that once Busch finds a bit more luck and consistency he could win a championship, but first he'll have to get through this week's Camping World RV Sales 301.
Casey Mears - There aren't many fantasy players that would be choosing Mears on a consistent basis at this point, but just to underline that sentiment one just needs to look at his recent New Hampshire record. In the last five New Hampshire events Mears has finished a grand total of zero. We don't mean zero lead-lap finishes, we mean zero races period. His best finish at the track since 2009 is 36th. There are few words to describe just how dismal that track record is, but if Mears is a third or fourth driver who might come to mind this week, do yourself a favor and remember these last few sentences, and do not select him this week.