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Hendrick gap has closed

Feb 19, 2008 6:38 AM

The top story coming into the NASCAR Cup race this week at California Speedway will be the element of uncertainty with the new car running its first race on an intermediate cookie cutter track.

The series has run on every type of track for the last year other than what they actually run the most on. They practiced plenty at both Las Vegas and California, but actual race conditions can’t be duplicated.

The intermediate tracks have always been where certain teams focused their attention since they compile almost half of the season’s races. Teams like Roush-Fenway Racing won championships with the method of focusing so much at the intermediate tracks.

It’s not to say they didn’t want to be better at restrictor plate races. The Daytona 500 is nice, but it is only one race with only four total plate races on a season. It would likely better serve a team, if they had to concentrate on one area, to make it on these type of tracks.

Jack Roush became the king of the cookie cutter tracks with almost everyone of his drivers performing at the highest levels on these tracks. Mark Martin started the run, was then aided by Jeff Burton, then Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, and now with Carl Edwards. Kenseth and Busch put together Championship seasons with the philosophy of being really good in one area.

You have to believe that Roush will have that same type of edge with the new cars, but there is that uncertainty. In years past, a Roush driver has always been considered the favorite to win at California. Kenseth comes into this race as the third choice to win at 7-1 behind Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

Hendrick has done well at California as well, but it has more to do with the dominating success in the new car where the team has proved to be better than everyone on all types of tracks.

Will the Hendrick advantage continue in venturing into the realm of the unknown? Based on the time trials at both Vegas and California, it appears that the gap has closed on the huge advantage they had last season. The Toyotas led by Joe Gibbs’ trio of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Tony Stewart all look dialed in and ready to go.

We can’t use Daytona as a barometer because of the restrictor plates used, but there was a similar case of the test times from Daytona preseason being relevant to what actually happened in the race. The same occurrence is likely to happen again this week as the Gibbs drivers perform well enough to compete for the win. Hamlin posted the fastest overall time while Kyle Busch was third fastest.

One of the surprises that came from the testing was how fast Ryan Newman was in the testing. The Penske team, now owners of a Daytona 500 trophy, has struggled over the last few seasons trying to get back to the days where Newman was a contender in every cookie cutter track. At the test session, Newman posted the second fastest times.

Another driver who used to be great on these types of tracks but slipped last season was Kasey Kahne. Perhaps some organizational changes and the Budweiser sponsorship will have Kahne back in the mix contending for a win. Their new car performance really improved drastically as the 2007 season progressed.

We’ll stick with tradition and Jack Roush’s knowledge of setting up a winning car at California.

1. #99 Carl Edwards 13-1
2.  #18 Kyle Busch 13-1
3. #11 Denny Hamlin 13-1
4. #24 Jeff Gordon 5-1
5. #17 Matt Kenseth 7-1
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