Jeff Gordon broke the seal Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, claiming an overdue victory by staving off the hard-charging Kevin Harvick on the final lap. The first night race at Kansas was a strategy-filled event as track position dictated much of the proceedings.
A number of early spins dented the hopes of a number of competitors, but it was clear that the No. 4 car would be the one to beat. As the miles wore on, however, traffic and sound work from the No. 24 team kept the competition at bay. A mistake from Harvick on pit road during the final round of stops was what enabled Gordon to take the lead late in the running and hold off the race's dominant car to claim a much needed victory heading into the All-Star week.
The series will now set up camp close to home for the rest of May. The Sprint Showdown will take place this Friday with the All-Star racing coming Saturday night. Just one week later the Memorial Day classic Coca-Cola 600, the longest race of the season, will be on tap for fantasy aficionados. Let's take a look at who has momentum on their side before the festivities kick off.
Jeff Gordon - A well overdue Gordon found Victory Lane Saturday night in Kansas after being close to a win multiple times so far this season. Though Harvick may have had the fastest car, Gordon was mistake-free and did just enough to keep the charging No. 4 car behind him until the finish. Gordon led the point standings heading into Kansas, but hadn't secured that all-important win. He had come close with two second-place results, but now his passport to the Chase has at least one stamp in it. In 42 Charlotte starts Gordon has five wins, 16 top-5s, and 22 top-10s. His average finish is 16.0 in that span, and last week could be the breakthrough Gordon needed to open the floodgates to more wins.
Kevin Harvick - Aside from the win, Saturday night's Kansas race was virtually dominated by Harvick. He led 119 of the 267 laps, but and early caution after pitting put him deep in the field. He worked hi way back though, but running out of fuel on the final stop put him too far behind Gordon to make the final pass for the win. Afterward Harvick said he just ran out of the distance necessary to get by Gordon. Harvick has two points wins at Charlotte from his 26 career starts. His average finish at the track is 16.9, and he has been mighty fast so far in 2014 too. With yet another race under his belt where he had the fastest car Harvick should be brimming with confidence.
Kasey Kahne - Another driver that hadn't quite showed his muscle yet this season is Kahne, but he did turn in a better race at Kansas. The Hendrick Motorsports driver started 17th but worked his way forward to bag a top-5 finish, his first of the season. While Kahne's teammates have been either winning or challenging for a win, Kahne has been relatively quiet. He came to life on Saturday, leading 22 laps. Additionally, his third-place effort notched his second consecutive top-10 finish before the All-Star break. Kahne has a great history at Charlotte, a spot where he has won four times. When comparing careers at this 1.5-mile quad-oval, Kahne's has been one of the best. His average finish at the track is 11.4 from 20 starts, and he may be coming to life just in time.
Kyle Busch - Busch admits that Kansas Speedway is not his best track. In fact, it is the only track where he continues to lack a top-5 finish. Saturday's race didn't do much to dispel those feelings as Busch collected a speeding penalty in the pits, making his already difficult race even worse. He ended the distance in 15th position, but was able to pick up a bonus point for leading a lap. All things considered, given Busch's Kansas history, the finish is a solid one to build on. He didn't record a DNF, and still managed to pick up top-15 points. Busch will look forward to racing in Charlotte the next few weeks where he has an average finish of 15.9 in his 20 starts at the track.
Aric Almirola - After starting 12th, Almirola had a confident race and finished eighth. He may not have led any laps, but to qualify as well as he did and then traverse the race mileage while picking up four spots is nothing short of impressive from the Nationwide Series race winner. Richard Petty Motorsports is currently moving forward in form, and Almirola is taking advantage of the improved situation. Traditionally happy with top-15 finishes, Almirola has three top-10s to his credit already this season. It is his best start to a season in Sprint Cup so far, and it doesn't look like he will slow down soon. Almirola has a pole a Charlotte, and will look to add to his top-10 tally.
Clint Bowyer - After his mom waved the green flag to get Saturday night's race underway, Bowyer had an early spin that he was lucky to drive away from. The incident, however, made the rest of the race very difficult for the No. 15. The spin dropped him from the lead-lap runners and Bowyer was never able to fully overcome the hurdle. Fantasy players have been waiting for the Kansas native to overcome the bad luck that seems to be following him, but it doesn't look like that is ready to happen quite yet. At Charlotte his record includes a win, two top-5s, and five top-10s from 16 starts. His average finish at the track is 15.5 with seven finishes off of the lead lap.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin inexplicably lost control and spun shortly after returning to green-flag racing just after he had gotten himself back onto the lead lap Saturday night. The prior week's winner didn't show much speed through practice and qualifying in preparation for the Kansas race, nor was he able to make an impression at the front of the field when things got rolling. He finished 18th from a 30th-place qualifying effort, but was not a factor at any point in the weekend. The No. 11 has a better record at Charlotte with 10 top-10 finishes from 17 career races at the track, but if it hasn't been a restrictor-plate race this season, Hamlin hasn't shown too much life. Fantasy players would be well founded to put the brakes on playing Hamlin until his results show more consistency.
Marcos Ambrose - Yet another car that went for a spin Saturday night was Ambrose. As the Australian spun into the infield his car actually went airborne, but remarkably didn't have contact with any other cars or the fence or sustain major damage. He finished the race three laps down in 24th position. Charlotte has given Ambrose one top-5 and three top-10 finishes in his 10 career races at the track, aggregating to an average finish of 20.3. Unfortunately, Ambrose has only finished on the lead lap 50% of the time at Charlotte, and without showing too much momentum heading to the All-Star break, Ambrose simply doesn't make a great fantasy option until the tide turns.
David Ragan - When Ragan began to lose control off of the fourth turn at Kansas Saturday he didn't fare as well as Bowyer who avoided contact. Ragan was collected by Ryan Truex, which damaged his car enough to require significant work in the pits and relegating him to a 38th-place finish. After his promising return to Talladega Superspeedway didn't pan out this disappointing result in Kansas won't help his confidence. Despite scoring three top-10 finishes at Charlotte in his 14-race career at the track Ragan simply doesn't look like he is capable of scoring a top finish with his current equipment. Back-to-back disappointing weeks don't make for any kind of fantasy confidence, making Ragan a driver to avoid.
Danica Patrick - With her best performance outside of a restrictor-plate track Patrick finally looked like she belongs in Sprint Cup on Saturday night. She qualified in the top 10 was expected to drop backward by most observers. Instead, she ran within the top 10 for much of the night, and slowly picked her way forward in the closing segments to finish seventh for her first top-10 of the season and her best finish outside of a restrictor-plate track. She credits some of the turnaround in performance to advice she received from teammate Harvick, perhaps proving that having the best performer of the series on your team can give you an advantage. Patrick will look to continue her strides forward in Charlotte this week where she has three starts and zero lead-lap finishes.