Whatever setup Kyle Busch used at Kentucky Speedway last season still appears to be working. After winning the pole, leading the most laps and winning the inaugural Cup event at the track last year, Busch jumped right back to the top of the charts in the opening practice Friday afternoon. Coming off his dominant performance in 2011, fantasy owners have to like Busch's chances of staying perfect in the Bluegrass State.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson ranked second and third in the session, and both drivers should make solid additions to fantasy rosters. They are tied for the series lead with 12 top-10s in 2012, and they ranked third and fourth in terms of average finish. Johnson is the slightly better fantasy option of the two, having finished third at Kentucky last season compared to a 30th-place run for Junior. Johnson also leads the series with nine top-five finishes this year.
Another pair of teammates rounded out the top five, as Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. put two Michael Waltrip Racing cars near the top of the charts. Neither driver ran particularly well at Kentucky last season, but the 2012 season has been a banner year for MWR. Even though Bowyer is coming off a win last weekend at Infineon, Truex might be the smarter option this weekend. Bowyer has finished outside the top 10 at the last three races at 1.5-mile tracks, while Truex has three straight finishes of 12th or better, including a second-place run at Kansas.
When Happy Hour began, Jeff Gordon jumped to the top of the charts. He finished 10th at Kentucky last year, but more importantly, he has finally been able to shake the bad luck that has plagued him most of the year. Gordon enters Saturday night's race coming off back-to-back sixth-place finishes, and fantasy owners should feel free to welcome the four-time champ back to their rosters.
The second-fastest lap in the final session belonged to Brad Keselowski, and he was also responsible for the most bizarre moment of the session. He was spun out by Juan Pablo Montoya in the first practice and returned the favor with a couple of shoves to the rear bumper of the No. 42 in Happy Hour. Extracurriculars aside, Keselowski should be a strong pick this weekend. He finished seventh in last year's race at Kentucky, and only Kyle Busch led more laps in the race.
Greg Biffle, A.J. Allmendinger and Carl Edwards rounded out the top five, and an argument can be made for all three drivers to be owned in fantasy leagues. Biffle has finished in the top five in all four races at 1.5-mile tracks in 2012, including a win at Texas. Meanwhile, his teammate Edwards finished fifth at Kentucky last year, and he has 10 straight top-10s at 1.5-mile tracks. Allmendinger is the wild card of the group, but Penske Racing had a solid setup at Kentucky last year, putting both cars in the top 10. Allmendinger will have access to the organization's info this weekend, and he could benefit in a big way.
With most teams opting to focus on qualifying setups in the opening practice, not a single driver ran 10 consecutive laps. That changed in Happy Hour, and Denny Hamlin led the way. It is worth noting that Hamlin also posted the top 10-lap average speed in Happy Hour last weekend at Infineon, but he ended up finishing outside the top 30 for the second week in a row. He also failed to crack the top 10 at Kentucky last year.
Hamlin may have posted the best 10-lap average speed, but the rest of the drivers in the top five are the more attractive options. Heavy hitters Johnson, Gordon, Keselowski and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five, and all four should be on the short list of contenders after their stout practice sessions Friday. Junior should be thrown in the mix, as well, although he didn't run 10 consecutive laps in Happy Hour.
Perhaps the most concerning performance of the afternoon came from Matt Kenseth. Days after his shocking announcement that he will leave Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the year, he ranked 19th and 35th in the two sessions. On the plus side, Kenseth finished sixth at Kentucky last season and has scored the second-most points in the series during the past 10 races at 1.5-mile tracks. However, there is no way of telling how much of a distraction his announcement will be, and long term, it is hard to imagine Roush Fenway Racing giving Kenseth its full attention. Even if it means losing out on a potential title with Kenseth, Jack Roush might keep the big picture in mind and keep any new info in house.
Happy Hour Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
10-Lap Average Speeds (must run 10 consecutive laps)
First Practice Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
About Brian Polking
Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.
Don't miss these great reports....