After a Daytona 500 that took seven hours to declare a winner, the Sprint Cup Series heads out west for, what some call, the first official race of the year.
Jamie McMurray looks to join former Roush-Fenway teammate Matt Kenseth as the most recent winner of the first two races of the year, while Kenseth himself will be working with a new crew chief starting this weekend.
While another Roush driver, Carl Edwards, heads to California still on baby watch, Elliott Sadler will be leaving his little boy behind for the first time. His wife Amanda gave birth a day after the Daytona 500 to son Wyatt.
Other drivers head to the Auto Club Speedway looking to put Daytona behind them and get to real racing.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson both had a rough go of it in the biggest race of the year, as did most of Richard Petty Motorsports after starting off so strong.
Starting off strong in our Creature competition was James Broomhead, who was the only Creature to pick Jamie McMurray to win the Daytona 500 and, as such, will head to California as our point leader. The rest of the Creatures are now prepared to play catch up and are ready to keep the winning ways going.
Here are this week's picks for the Auto Club 500 at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA.
Misan Akuya: Jamie McMurray
Last year Matt Kenseth became the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 1997 to win back-to-back races to start out the season. I predict McMurray will do the same thing to start off this season.
In his first point race back with Ganassi, McMurray ended up leading the final two laps and won the Daytona 500. His track record at Auto Club is good, having an average finish of 16.38—three top fives, five top-10s, and 43 laps led.
Confidence is a big thing in NASCAR and can be huge in deciding if a driver's season will be a success or failure. No one is feeling more confident than Jamie McMurray right now, and that is why he will pilot his No. 1 car to back-to-back wins to start out the 2010 season.
Ben Bomberger: Jimmie Johnson
I have a feeling Johnson's name will grace a lot of the Creature's picks this weekend, and why not?
Johnson has been incredible at the track out west. In 14 starts at the track, Johnson has never finished worse than 16th. He has four wins (29 percent); nine top-fives (64 percent), 10 top-10s (71 percent), and an average finish of 5.8.
In terms of loop data, Johnson leads all drivers with an average running position of 5.5, a driver rating of 122.3, 382 fastest laps run, an average green flag speed of 172.025 mph, and 2,380 laps in the top 15 (95 percent). A slow start at Daytona is just enough motivation to put the Lowe's team up front this weekend in California.
James Broomhead: Kasey Kahne
After the fireworks of the 500, the real work begins here. But why Kasey Kahne?
Well, Kahne is most at home on the intermediate ovals that make up the season (like Fontana), and now he has a better chance than ever to dominate them thanks to the Ford he now wheels. Of course it's not a Roush Ford which, arguably, has the biggest leg up in California, but it's a start.
Kelly Crandall: Greg Biffle
I have to stick with the Biff when it comes to tracks like California and Michigan, as they are both Roush-Fenway dominated tracks.
After picking Biffle to win at these tracks last year, he let me down after running out of gas a few times.
But it’s a new year, and my confidence is restored in the No.16 team.
Their confidence should be high as well after they came just a lap away from winning the Daytona 500.
With his Roush powered Ford and California being one of his best tracks, look for Biffle to be a contender this weekend.
Billy Fellin: Matt Kenseth
Leaving Daytona and all the potholes behind will be much welcome for the entire Cup Series.
Last year, Kenseth owned everybody in California, and I expect him to do the same thing this year. With Roush looking pretty good at Daytona, any of them have a good shot. But I'll go with the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford Fusion.
Adam Heasley: Greg Biffle
He showed me alot at Daytona with his great run at the end, and it’s enough for me to pick him this week for California.
Christopher Leone: Matt Kenseth
This one seems like an easy call. Roush Fenway Racing Fords have won the past five spring races at California, as well as 10 of 19 races at the track overall. Kenseth won this race in 2006, 2007, and last year. His average finish of 9.2 is third best among active drivers.
Plus, a victory this weekend could propel Kenseth into the points lead.
Kara Martin: Jimmie Johnson
After last week's dismal 35th place finish in the Daytona 500, I am confident that crew chief Chad Knaus will not allow another poor performance or costly mistakes to be made from his No. 48 team.
The crew will recoup, rebuild, and perfect their Lowe's Chevrolet for this weekend's race at Fontana.
With Johnson behind the wheel taking stern orders from Knaus, the pair will prove to be the winning team that we, as race fans, have grown accustomed to.
Dustin Parks: Greg Biffle
This track owes him a victory.
He dominated here a few years ago, only to have engine failure ruin what was to be an incredible run. He has also run well at Michigan, the sister track to California, where last year two dry gas tanks cost him victory.
The Biff is also way overdue for any victory. His last win came at Dover during the 2008 Chase—45 races ago.
He has run so well and come so close, but has yet to taste victory. At a track that has been very good to Roush-Fenway, I think he's got a chance to put the 3M Fusion in victory lane.
My pick is the No. 16.
Patti Rodisch: Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon is heading to a track where has won three times before (his in 2004), and he finished second there in both races in 2009. Gordon is more than capable and ready to get back to victory lane on Sunday.
The key to his success is to be able to sustain the car's handling the entire race. Something this team has struggled to do throughout a race is adapt to changing track conditions. His average running position at the southern California track is 9.3, so he runs in the top 10 and finishes there too, with 10 top-10 finishes.
Gordon will break his victory lane drought this weekend at ACS.
Sal Sigala Jr.: Kasey Kahne
Fords have won the last five Auto Club 500 races, and my thinking is that it had to do with cooler temperatures, along with the altitude.
Kasey won here back in 2005, but it was in a Dodge and it was also the Labor Day race.
After watching Kahne run as well as he did throughout Daytona Speedweeks, he definitely is a driver who now has the tools to win again. The Roush-Yates engine package looks like it will give the HMS package some strong competition this season, and this should be the race that starts it all.
Rob Tiongson: Jeff Gordon
Perhaps I've jinxed him for the rest of the racing weekend, but someone's got to pick him.
And he is a legit pick—he finished runner-up at both events at Auto Club, but with two relatively different types of second place finishes. While he was somewhat in the shadows in the October race last year, he was in contention last year when he lost to Matt Kenseth.
If the 24 team can find that base setup and improve it even the slightest, the DuPont car will be tough to catch.
Also, it's shut up or quit time for LeTarte as far as fans believing in him. Most doubts about his abilities as the head wrench for Gordon could end with a win on Sunday.
David Yeazell: Denny Hamlin
There’s really no set reason on why I’m picking Hamlin. It just sounds good, as good as redeeming himself for the mistake he made on a late restart when the series was in California last fall.
James Broomhead (190)—Jamie McMurray won (1)
Adam Heasley (175)—Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second (0)
Kara Martin (175)—Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second (0)
Rob Tiongson (132)—Mark Martin finished 12th (0)
Ben Bomberger (126)—Kyle Busch finished 14th (0)
Kelly Crandall (126)—Kyle Busch finished 14th (0)
Misan Akuya (97)—Tony Stewart finished 22nd (0)
Christopher Leone (97)—Tony Stewart finished 22 nd (0)
Dustin Parks (97)—Tony Stewart finished 22nd (0)
Patti Rodisch (97)—Tony Stewart finished 22nd (0)
Sal Sigala Jr. (97)—Tony Stewart finished 22nd (0)
Billy Fellin (78)—Kasey Kahne finished 30th (0)
David Yeazell (78)—Kasey Kahne finished 30th (0)
When picking a winner for Sunday’s Auto Club 500, our Creatures may be on the right track, as the last six winners have either been Hendrick Motorsports drivers or Roush-Fenway Racing drivers.
Jimmie Johnson has three wins, Matt Kenseth has two, and Carl Edwards has one.
Other strong contenders would be the Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano. Busch captured his first career win at California in 2005, while Hamlin led late in last fall’s event and Logano took home the fall Nationwide Series win.
But don’t count out the Ford horsepower that is now under the hood of Richard Petty Motorsports. Drivers Kasey Kahne and new father Elliott Sadler have also visited victory lane at California, Kahne in the fall of 2006 and Sadler in the fall of 2004.
Summary of Picks
Greg Biffle – 3
Kasey Kahne – 2
Matt Kenseth – 2
Jeff Gordon – 2
Jimmie Johnson – 2
Jamie McMurray – 1
Denny Hamlin – 1