It has been a relatively quiet year for last year's championship runner-up, but after delivering a clean sweep in both of Saturday's practice sessions at Martinsville Speedway, he could be ready to deliver the breakout performance fantasy owners have been waiting for. Not only did Bowyer post the fastest lap in both practices, but he posted the best 10-lap average speed in both sessions, as well. Signs of a potential breakout run at the track began to emerge last year when Bowyer finished 10th in the spring and fifth in the fall, posting an average running position of fourth or better in both races. A career run could be on tap for Bowyer Sunday, and fantasy owners should take advantage.
Of course, any driver that wants to win Sunday will likely have to deal with Jimmie Johnson. The seven-time track winner didn't disappoint Saturday during the practices. After posting the 11th-fastest lap and fifth-best average speed in the opening session, he surged to second on the charts in both categories during Happy Hour. As if starting on the pole and owning the series' best driver rating and average finish at Martinsville weren't enough, Johnson's stout practice times cement his status as the safest fantasy option available.
Two other big names that delivered impressive results Saturday were Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon. Busch posted the second-fastest lap in first practice to go along with the third-best 10-lap average speed, and although he slipped to 12th on the charts in Happy Hour, his 10-lap average speed actually jumped to second overall. Busch can be a bit of a wild card at Martinsville, but with four finishes of fourth or better in his last seven starts and a very fast car, Busch is worth the risk. Meanwhile, Gordon got started with the third-fastest lap and second-best 10-lap average speed in the opening session and also logged the sixth-best 10-lap average speed in Happy Hour. Throw in the seven career wins and 4.9 average finish at Martinsville in the last 20 races, and Gordon can pretty much be penciled in for a strong run.
While it was no surprise to see Johnson, Gordon and Busch near the top of the charts, the same can't be said for Roush Fenway Racing duo of Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. Edwards owns a 16.1 average finish at Martinsville and has just a single top-five finish while Biffle has a 21.4 average finish and has never finished in the top five at the track. However, both cracked the top five in Happy Hour Saturday, and both ranked seventh or better in terms of 10-lap average speeds. Fantasy owners looking for options outside the obvious favorites may want to take a chance on Edwards and Biffle. Both tend to salvage decent finishes even on bad days, and there is definitely some upside after the speed they showed in the final practice.
As far as sleeper options go, Brian Vickers tops the list as he tends to do whenever he gets a chance to drive. He put down the fourth-fastest lap and sixth-best 10-lap average speed in the early session and followed it up with the eighth-fastest lap and 11th-best 10-lap average speed in the final practice. Vickers is also starting third Sunday, and last fall at Martinsville, he started second en route to an eighth-place finish. Expect a similar top-10 effort this weekend.
Fantasy owners looking for a bit of riskier option that could pay off should consider Jeff Burton. In the first practice Saturday, he posted the eighth-fastest lap and the 15th-best 10-lap average speed. He improved on both in Happy Hour, logging the fifth-fastest lap and the 10-th-best 10-lap average speed. Granted, he had a rough year at Martinsville in 2012, but he did finish sixth at the track in the fall of 2011 and has a win and a15.0 average finish in 37 starts. Burton could be a sneaky source for a top-15 this weekend.
Unfortunately, there were also a couple of big names that disappointed during Saturday's practices, including Tony Stewart. After ranking 27th in the first practice Saturday, he only managed to climb to 26th on the charts in Happy Hour. Stewart did bump his 10-lap average speed from 22nd to 15th between the two sessions, but he never showed the speed that one would expect from a three-time Martinsville winner. Throw in the fact that he is having a miserable start to the 2013 season, and fantasy owners will probably want to pass on him again this weekend.
The usually reliable Mark Martin was also unimpressive on the charts. Subbing for the injured Denny Hamlin, he posted the 17-th-fastest lap in the first practice and slipped to 20-th in Happy Hour in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11. More concerning was the fact that Martin ranked 26th and 27th in terms of 10-lap average speeds in the two practices. It would make sense that a quality driver like Martin would be able to join a team that has had a ton of success at Martinsville and immediately deliver great results, but there could also be a big difference between what Hamlin needed in a car at Martinsville and what Martin needs. There could also be a bit of an adjustment period as Martin and his crew chief develop the level of communication needed to adjust and dial in an ill-handling car. Whatever the reason, Martin doesn't appear to be in position to help fantasy owners this weekend.
Happy Hour Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
10-Lap Average Speeds (must run 10 consecutive laps)
Second Practice Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
10-Lap Average Speeds (must run 10 consecutive laps)