California Happy Hour: Martin Fastest, Hamlin Stout

FONTANA, CA - OCTOBER 10:  Mark Martin, driver of the #5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet, waits in his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway on October 10, 2009 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
McCord RobertsCorrespondent IOctober 10, 2009

Saturday’s final practice sessions helped give a little more insight to who may win Sunday’s Pepsi 500 at California Speedway. The usual suspects, who seem to be there every week, are at it again this week.

Hendrick teammates Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson showed off again in practice, each leading one the two Saturday sessions. Johnson was fastest in the first session which only ran 18 minutes because the track was running behind on the schedule due to fog on the track.

During Happy Hour, Mark Martin jumped out front early with the fast lap of 180.293 mph and no one could top him for the remainder of the hour. The current points leader and former winner on the track is showing everyone that he isn’t going anywhere in this chase.

Juan Pablo Montoya had a great day of practices and looks to be a contender again this week, not just for points, but for the actual win. He’s been knocking on the door too many times of late having cars nearly as good as the elite. Along with the great individual laps times, he was also fastest in average speeds during Happy Hour that ran at least 19 laps as he did.

What’s kind of surprising is that Martin, Johnson, and Montoya all brought their Indy Chassis’ this week as their primary car at California. First, it’s odd that all three who were the dominant drivers in that Indy race would all be thinking the same thing. Secondly, Indy’s is relatively flat with tight turns opposed to California’s sweeping turns with lots of room, yet minimal banking of 14 degrees for a track so big.

At Indy, Johnson won, Martin finished second, and Montoya had the best car of the day leading 116 laps, but was caught speeding on pit row taking what looked to be a sure win away from.

The surprise of the day came with the crew at Richard Childress Racing, They were able to place all four of their drivers within the top-16 during Happy Hour, highlighted by Casey Mears being second fastest and Kevin Harvick fourth.

Perhaps even more of a surprise than the RCR stable doing well in practice was that Roush- Fenway drivers didn’t impress as they always have since the track opened in 1997. Roush has won a total of seven races on the track by five different drivers.

Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth were good in the shortened first session, but in Happy Hour they didn’t show anything at all and were led by a fast lap of Jamie McMurray who was eighth fastest. It’s likely Edwards will be running for a top-5 in this race, but there’s also lots of evidence that suggest maybe he won’t.

Following a series-high nine wins in 2008, Edwards still is sitting on zero wins for 2009. After Roush had won the first two races of the season with Kenseth, including California, the entire team has clammed up with an output of zero wins.

It’s just practice, but it’s also just one of many signs of how far the entire team has fallen by not practicing well on a track they have always done well at.

Pole-sitter Denny Hamlin continued his strong run from Friday into Saturday’s sessions by being second fastest during the limited early practice and followed that up with a third during Happy Hour where he had the top average times among all drivers running at least 30 laps.

Jeff Gordon won the first race ever on this track and has three altogether. He finished second to Kenseth back in February and continues to run strong on these type of tracks, including the 1.5-mile tracks as well. He was ninth fastest in the early practice and sixth best in Happy Hour.

Saturday’s Final Practice (Happy Hour)

1) Mark Martin 180.293 mph - AVG 37 laps @ 174.036

2) Casey Mears 179.897 mph - AVG 40 laps @ 173.661

3) Denny Hamlin 179.252 mph - AVG 39 laps @ 175.034

4) Kevin Harvick 179.131 mph - AVG 33 laps @ 174.327

5) Ryan Newman 178.434 mph - AVG 33 laps @ 173.158

Saturday’s Early Practice (Ran only 18 minutes due to being behind schedule on the day because of early fog at the track):

1) Jimmie Johnson 180.655 mph - AVG 9 laps @ 176.940

2) Denny Hamlin 180.442 mph - AVG 8 laps @ 177.343

3) Juan Pablo Montoya 180.162 mph - AVG 13 laps @ 176.153

4) Kurt Busch 179.969 mph - AVG 18 laps @ 174.651

5) Mark Martin 179.807 mph - AVG 11 laps @ 176.728

TOP 5 Rated Drivers at California based on happy Hour, current state of team, recent past history at Cal, and this seasons performances on 1.5 and 2-mile tracks.

1) Denny Hamlin

2) Jimmie Johnson

3) Mark Martin

4) Jeff Gordon

5) Juan Pablo Montoya

6) Carl Edwards

7) Kurt Busch

8) Tony Stewart

9) Greg Biffle

10) Kevin Harvick

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