The Chase for the Sprint Cup continues this weekend at the Auto Club Speedway, as Sprint Cup Series teams prepare for the Pepsi Max 400. It’s the fourth race of the Chase, and by this the point the championship contenders are beginning to separate themselves from the pretenders.
Most of the Chasers are still within 100 points of new leader Jimmie Johnson, but most will surely find it hard to top the four-time defending champion.
Clint Bowyer, after losing his appeal on a car that failed to meet specifications after New Hampshire, has conceded the title fight, but the other 10 are still looking to do the impossible.
California thus marks a pivotal race in the Chase, as Cup drivers now look to stay close to Johnson now that he may have taken the points lead for good. Johnson aside, who looks good at California?
Kyle Busch isn’t the best active driver at California, with an average finish of 10.8. But eight top-10s in 12 starts and a victory show that he can get the job done.
After battles with David Reutimann sabotaged his Kansas finish by knocking the car out of whack, he’ll have no choice but to do just that. That extra motivation is why he’s my pick this week.
As for a dark horse, look to Richard Petty Motorsports’ soon-to-be-departing lead driver Kasey Kahne. In 13 California starts, Kahne’s got a win and seven top-10s at the track. It’s only been bad luck at the track as of late that keeps him from having a better record.
Three more—again, staying away from Johnson, if only for a week:
Matt Kenseth began to inject a little life into his Chase hopes with a top-10 finish at Kansas. Even though he would be 12th in the Chase if not for the Bowyer penalty, Kenseth should be a threat at California—he’s finished in the top 10 there in 12 of 17 attempts. It’s a Roush Fenway thing—the team employs (or has employed) five of the 10 best active drivers at the track.
Kurt Busch has seen a little less success at California than his brother, with only eight top-10s in 16 starts at the track. But he, too, has visited victory lane at the track, albeit back in 2003. Still, his past six California starts have resulted in five finishes of 13th or better.
As for a left field pick, consider Jamie McMurray and his 16.4 average finish at the track. McMurray was my dark horse pick at the track earlier this season. He struggled at the track with Roush, ironically, but has been considerably better at the track while driving for Chip Ganassi.
In his first go-round with the team, between 2003 and 2005, his average finish was 7.2; earlier this year, he qualified on pole.
Let’s admit something, though, before we wrap up: Johnson is the ultimate pick here, as he is at about half the Chase tracks. From his 5.5 average finish and five wins, including four in his past six starts, you would think that his home track would also be his best. It’s actually not—it’s only his third best. Talk about a testament to how good this guy is.