By Dan Beaver
Fifty-one cars are currently entered for the Pop Secret 500, as everyone wants to be a part of the new Labor Day tradition: a prime time, night race in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country. The first race under the lights on this two-mile track will be a spectacle.
Competitive drivers love to be the first to win any major race, and this certainly counts. The cooler temperatures from racing at night and the transition from sunshine to nightfall make a team's notes from previous two-mile races of secondary concern. Of primary importance is a driver's ability to read the track and articulate the changes that need to be made to his car, as well as the ability to build room for adjustment into the setup.
Watch for the drivers to treat this race the same as they would a brand new track, and drivers who perform well in inaugural events will rule the night.
The Hendrick heroes of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have four victories in eight races (50%) and two more runner-up finishes. Between them, they have never run badly in California and have a career-worse finish of only 16th. While both of them are extremely expensive in the salary cap games, one should be on your roster because they are not only heavily favored to repeat at the front of the pack, but if one of them wins, he will improve your salary cap for the stretch run to the championship.
Kasey Kahne's prowess on the two-mile tracks is becoming legendary. At California this spring, Kahne won the pole and then spent the most laps circulating in both the top-5 (234 of 250) and the top 10 (246), as well as the second most laps in the lead (77) before he ran out of gas on the final circuit and finished 13th. He came back to the sister track of Michigan with a vengeance and was less dominant (he spent only 88 of the 200 laps in the top-5 during the latest race), but he posted much better finishes. If not for the lack of a gallon of gas, Kahne would ride a perfect two-mile top five streak into California.
Matt Kenseth's highs have not been as great and his lows have been a little more severe than the Hendrick heroes, but his California Speedway Fantasy Power Average* of 9.3 is the fifth best in the game. Only Kahne, the Hendrick pair of Gordon/Johnson, and part-timer Bill Elliott has recorded a better score. At California this Spring, Kenseth spent more than 80% of the race in the top-10 and recorded the fifth most laps in the top-10 in route to his 4th place finish. Another top-5 in 2000 and a top-10 in 2003 show him at the front of the pack with enough regularity to suggest he is capable of breaking into victory lane if the cards fall his way.
Brendan Gaughan loves L.A. He recorded a second and third place finish here in the Craftsman Truck Series and posted a victory on the sister track of Michigan in 2003. He brought that confidence with him to California this spring to earn a sixth-place finish in the NASCAR Nextel Cup race... and earn is the operative word. Gaughan qualified at the front of the pack in fifth and stayed with the leaders all day, recording the seventh most laps in both the top five and top 10 to remain in a position to record his first career top-10.
Part-timer Bill Elliott is back in the saddle in California. One wonders why he wasn't here in the spring, because he enters with a three-race streak of top-15s to his credit. Having turned his car over to Kahne in 2004, the rookie proved that Elliott's former setup was more than capable of continuing the winning tradition.
Elliott has not lost his notes, nor his knack for dominance on the two-mile tracks: In a span of 12 races from 1983 through 1989, Elliott recorded seven victories at Michigan International Speedway, and was finished in the top three in every race but one.
The Robert Yates' team of Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler have struggled at California. Jarrett has finished outside the top 20 in three of the past four California races. Worse still, he has not logged a single lap in the top 10 in the last two years, which means he hasn't been in a position from which he could capitalize on another driver's misfortune (such as the rash of fuel failures this spring).
California is another in a long list of tracks on which Sadler has not yet recorded a top-10 finish. In fact, on this two-mile track he has not even earned a top-20, with his best result of 21st coming in his first attempt back in 1999. Sadler has been defying the odds on tracks where he has traditionally struggled all year long, but eventually that streak with play itself out.
Editor Note: the Fantasy Power Average is a combination of a driver's finishing result plus the number of laps he spends at the head of the field.
Dan Beaver's fantasy analysis appears weekly on the afternoon prior to Nextel Cup qualifying. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer.