Usually at this juncture of the season, right after Daytona and just before California, I always talk about how Jack Roush can never win the big one.
I mention that Roush doesn’t care about that big victory because he’s all about being master of the cookie cutter tracks. The theory goes that Roush never put any effort into the restrictor plate program because it only equated to four races a season, just two more than the road courses.
Why waste energy on developing a program that isn’t going to help win championships?
And so Roush went on to dominate cookie cutter tracks like California, Michigan, and the 1.5 mile tracks. He won his championships with Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, but the Daytona 500 always eluded him. Sure it would have been nice to win it, but he always shrugged it off to give the appearance not winning the 500 didn’t bother him.
There was a broader picture.
Last Sunday’s rain-shortened Daytona 500 victory by Kenseth was a great moment in NASCAR. Not only was it Roush’s first Daytona 500 victory, but Kenseth’s first restrictor plate win.
Sure they needed some assistance to win. They didn’t have the best car by any means, but they were in the right place at the right time. In particular, they were out of the way of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s rage which took out every top car.
Years down the road, all the records will show is that Roush and Kenseth won the 500. Congrats to these gentlemen on a great achievement.
On to California!
Heading to Fontana this week, of course a Roush car is favored once again. All five of his cars are going to be stout, but Carl Edwards is the leading candidate to win. Last season Edwards came into California as a 22-1 choice. This season, Edwards is in the 4-1 range.
The cars all figure to run similar to 2008. There wasn’t any preseason testing so we have to assume all are pretty much the same. In years past, we always had the late January test sessions in Las Vegas to shed some light on which teams have improved their cookie cutter programs.
Those sessions were a great barometer for the player and bookmaker alike.
Edwards and teammates Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle and David Ragan will all be very good this weekend. Roush drivers have won this spring race the last four times out and collected six victories overall. Edwards has been the most impressive of the group even though he has only one win there compared to Kenseth’s two.
Of Edwards nine starts, he has finished sixth or higher eight times. In Kenseth’s last seven races at California, his worst finish has been seventh. Ragan has been steady and cautious with quality finishes at Cal. His maturity and growth as a driver could reap rewards with a top 10 finish, which would be his best.
Biffle may be the wild card this week. His team really came together in the latter half of 2008 and should be dialed in for this race. In the fall race at Cal last year, Biffle finished second to Jimmie Johnson.
As for Johnson, he would be the top candidate to spoil Roush from starting the season doing a two-step victory dance. All he’s done at Cal was win his first career race there and the last race held there. Oh yeah, he was born just down the road from Fontana in El Cajon.
Despite a poor performance at Daytona, history shows the past two years that Johnson prevailed mightily after rough 500 outings. In 2007 he finished 39th and then went on to place third in Cal. In 2008 he finished 27th at Daytona and then came home second the next week. Johnson is the top California driver of all time with an average finish of 5.9 with three wins in 12 starts.
What’s up Junior?
Johnson is part of the super team owned by Rick Hendrick who actually has more wins than Roush with 7. While Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon have all experienced success on the track with wins and quality finishes, Earnhardt Jr has been terrible.
This may be Junior’s worst track on the circuit, littered with two 40th place finishes and four in the 30’s. If you’re thinking that must have been at the end of the DEI reign with no emphasis on its cookie cutter program, well, last year he finished 40 and 11 with a team that has the most track wins.
I hate to go back to the subject, but Junior’s move at the end of the Daytona 500 was something a rookie does, or even worse, Robby Gordon. Junior is under tremendous pressure to win because of the equipment he now has, but restraint and respect needs to be shown, especially when a lap down.
At some point in this Sprint Cup season the honeymoon will be over with Hendrick Motorsports. After all the National Guard Amp Mountain Dew gear is sold, wins and quality finishes will be expected. It’s time Junior to Cowboy up!
The most interesting team this week is the Stewart/Haas duo of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman. They were extraordinary during SpeedWeeks and showed that Stewart’s move to Chevy actually had some pull in Detroit despite the economic climate.
The real test will be this week. A Hendrick motor can do wonders for restrictor plate horse power, but can it make a quality cookie cutter car? There are so many more variables at tracks like California that make it tough to do well. Stewart never won at California. In fact no one for Joe Gibbs ever won at Cal.
This is a great opportunity to pick on the new kids on the block while their value and respect is high. It’s likely that betting matchups will include both Stewart and Newman against top flight drivers.
With the unknown, it’s a better guess they’ll do poorly than well.