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Getting to Victory Lane
1. Tony Stewart won for the first time at Auto Club Speedway, a race in which seven drivers led over 10 laps apiece. After qualifying 22nd, Stewart held an Average Running Position of eighth and spent 82 percent of the race running in the Top 15. A week ago at Kansas Speedway, Stewart led a race-high 76 laps. His strength at these intermediate tracks makes him a very tempting target for Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, even though Stewart's last Top 10 at the site came back in 2007. If anything, his sketchy recent history at Charlotte serves as a "Smoke" screen for savvy owners to pounce on.
2. Clint Bowyer led 40 laps, second most among the field, and very well could have won the race if not for a debris caution on Lap 183. Bowyer would be right in the thick of the Chase hunt had the team not suffered a 150-point penalty for failing a post-race inspection following their win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Nevertheless, owners should take note that the No. 33 team is not packing it in and is eager to prove they've been doing nothing wrong. This performance is even more impressive given both crew chief and car chief were out serving the first of a four-race suspension.
3. Jimmie Johnson held an ARP of third, the best of the race, and led 22 laps. However, Sunday's performance did not exactly live up to his lofty standards at the Auto Club. Johnson had won the previous three Chase races at Fontana and led an average of 102.9 laps in the prior seven starts at the site. Still, no owner will refuse a third-place result with laps led. With only six races to go, owners need to start planning ahead on how to use their remaining starts, especially for top drivers like Johnson. He is the defending champion of the Chase race at Charlotte, where he has led at least six laps in 17 straight starts. Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix are also prime Johnson territories.
4. Kasey Kahne ended a streak of five starts without a Top 10 to finish fourth at Fontana, a site that had given him bad luck in each of the two prior events. In addition to qualifying on the pole last week at Kansas, Kahne's performance in the Golden State bodes well for his chances at Charlotte and Texas, two similarly configured cookie cutter tracks that he's excelled on in the past. Inconsistency makes Kahne a risk, but also a major bargain thanks to declining ownership.
5. Ryan Newman has been among the best drivers in the field over the last seven races, finishing no worse than 11th in that time. Despite not leading any laps or challenging for a win, Newman has been a consistent performer on tracks that have not always suited him in recent years. With his boss, Stewart, running so well lately, it would appear Newman is a benefactor of the information floating around the shop these days. Earlier this season, Newman won at Phoenix and had a Top Five at Martinsville, and looks safe enough to be a weekly fixture in lineups down the stretch.
From the spotter's tower
It was a miserable day for the three primary drivers of Roush Fenway Racing. Greg Biffle was the first to go, suffering a blown engine while running eighth and finishing in 41st. Carl Edwards' car suddenly died on Lap 58 due to issue with the ignition. Matt Kenseth would experience the same engine problem as Biffle, but not until the final moments of the race. Kenseth salvaged a 30th-place finish as the final car on the lead lap. Without any mechanical problems in their Ford equipment, Richard Petty Motorsports had three cars finish 19th or better. This appears to be a case of the Roush team pushing the envelope too far. The postseason is no time to take such big risks. Owners may want to stay away for a race or two to make sure the situation gets worked out.
Mark Martin was one of three drivers to spend the entire race running in the Top 15, along with Johnson and Bowyer. Martin would lead the most laps and finish in sixth position. This was his first Top 10 since the second Pocono race back in August and Martin's best result since finishing fourth at Charlotte in late May. It's been steady improvement over the last three races for Martin. While it's premature to assume he's back to form, Martin is clearly starting to warrant some attention thanks to basement-level ownership.
David Reutimann recorded his second Top 10 in the Chase after contact with other cars ruined his outings at Dover and Kansas. Among the most consistent drivers on 1.5-mile tracks last year, Reutimann's up-and-down postseason could present a terrific value in the coming weeks. Earlier this season, he finished fifth at Charlotte and has two finishes of 11th or better in his last four starts at Texas.
The starting grid
In Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Auto Racing game, Johnson (61.54 percent ownership) cast a large shadow over the A-List Drivers in terms of ownership. Stewart (20.24) and Martin (5.82) tied as the top performers of the week. Among the 10 drivers in this tier, Martin has been locked into ninth for quite some time and now looks like worthwhile gamble for those running out of time.
Jeff Burton (45.39) and Kenseth (55.25) both laid major eggs by finishing 11th and 12th, respectively, in performance on the B-List. Burton's crew chief was taken to the hospital with dizziness prior to the start of the race. He rejoined the team around Lap 45, but was unable to get his driver into contention, finishing 23rd with an ARP of 21st. Assuming there is no further health scares, Burton should continue to be an otherwise reliable option going forward.
Regan Smith (10.69) was the surprise top performer on the C-List. He finished 12th with an ARP of 20th and just 23.5 percent of laps run in the Top 15. Along with Paul Menard (44.41), Smith took two tires on Lap 184 to steal track position and restart on the front row before fading back as the race came to a close.
Sam Hornish, Jr. finished 15th with an ARP of 26th and ran a total of three laps in the Top 15. Outside of some late-race strategy, Hornish's season is littered with forgettable performances. He's a bottom-tier driver to avoid unless you are out of more respectable options.
Kyle Busch was running ninth and had led four laps when he heard a popping noise under the hood. His engine would blow shortly afterwards and leave him to finish in 35th spot. Unlike the Roush cars, Joe Gibbs Motorsports had only one engine problem at Fontana. Rowdy's championship hopes may be all but over, but that only gives him nothing to lose over the coming weeks. Busch owns a streak of six straight Top 10s at Charlotte, with four Top Fives. Earlier this season, he finished third at Texas and led 232 of 334 laps in last year's Chase race.
Around the corner
The stretch of three consecutive Chase races held on intermediate tracks concludes Saturday night at Charlotte. Following excursions to Martinsville and Talladega, the top performers from Charlotte should shine once again at Texas, another 1.5-mile cookie cutter.
*All stats up-to-date as of 10/11.
Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ericmcclung.
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