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Getting to Victory Lane
1. After winning the war of attrition at Daytona International Speedway, you may think Kevin Harvick must have a restrictor plate made of gold. Harvick tied for the second-best Average Running Position (ninth) of the race and led the most laps (28). Both of his wins this season have come in restrictor plate races, the first at Talladega Superspeedway in late April. In the Daytona 500, Harvick held the best ARP (fifth) and led the most laps (41), but settled for a seventh-place finish. Now trailing Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin by three wins, the point's leader for much of the season will continue to press for more. Harvick has run well on every type of track this season, but his dominance in restrictor plate races makes him a must-start for the final such event of the season, the seventh race of the Chase, at Talladega.
2. In a season that has been full of bad luck, Kasey Kahne finally got a break to go his way. Despite an ARP of 14th, Kahne finished as the runner-up for the second time in a span of four races. If not for an engine failure last week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kahne would likely own a streak of four straight Top Fives. Kahne finished a career-best third last year at Chicagoland Speedway, the site of the next race on the schedule. He is among the better drivers on intermediate tracks and deserves heavy consideration.
3. Jeff Gordon has always run well at Daytona, but has experienced late-race issues that kept him from getting the finish he deserved in recent years. This time around, Gordon had no such problems. In addition to leading 13 laps, Gordon's ARP of ninth was tied for second-best. Gordon now leads the series with nine Top Fives, but has only one other Top 10 finish that was a non-Top Five. In the last four races at Chicagoland, Gordon has never held an ARP worse than 10th and has recorded 91.0 percent or more of his laps in the Top 15. Put Gordon on the short list of elite drivers for Saturday night.
4. After dominating the Nationwide Series race in the No. 3 car, complete with a throwback Wrangler Jeans paint scheme, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. became the biggest beneficiary of all the late-race mayhem in the Cup race. With an ARP of only 19th, Earnhardt's 26.5 percent of laps in the Top 15 was easily the worst among anyone who finished in the Top Five. Earnhardt has now finished 11th or better in four straight races and has jumped to 11th in points. Now with the pressure to stay on the Chase bubble, Earnhardt will head to Chicagoland. After winning there in 2005 and adding another Top Five in 2006, Earnhardt has been mediocre at the site with three straight finishes ranging between 15th and 19th.
From the spotter's tower
Penske Racing looked very strong for much of the race until two of their three cars were taken out in wrecks. Kurt Busch finished seventh with an ARP of ninth in addition to leading 14 laps. Late in the race, Busch appeared set for a Top Five until he and Jeff Burton got into each other and triggered the "Big One" behind them. Over the last six races, Busch has finished seventh or better five times and is the championship contender few people are talking about. Unfortunately, his teammates were not so lucky when trouble found them.
Sam Hornish Jr. started 30th but was leading by Lap 42. He led for 14 laps and held an ARP of 10th but finished 21st after hitting the wall on Lap 159. Hornish was having one of his better runs of the season until becoming just another victim of a slick track that appeared to be very upset over the pending repaving. Brad Keselowski started 26th and also made a charge toward the front, running third by Lap 21. Keselowski finished 30th after being collected in a wreck, but deserved a better fate with an ARP of 11th. Obviously, the Penske cars had no issues getting to the front and could once again be players at Talladega. In particular, Hornish and Keselowski will have their values masked by their spoiled runs at Daytona.
After pitting early due to a loose wheel, Kyle Busch shot back through the field to lead the second most laps on the day. Before crashing, Busch led 23 of the 103 laps he completed. Busch got loose while running next to Juan Pablo Montoya and shot across the front of his car and head-on into the wall to finish 40th. Despite compiling some outstanding Loop Data, Busch has experienced trouble locking down good finishes at Daytona over the last two years.
In the last three races at Daytona, Elliott Sadler has held ARPs ranging from 11th to 13th, but only has one Top 10 to show for it. Sadler led 11 laps in this race, but finished 22nd after being collected in the large wreck. Sadler is among the most underrated drivers on restrictor plate tracks. Last year, he finished ninth at Talladega in the fall race and led 12 laps. This year, Sadler held an ARP of 14th but finished 33rd after crashing. Sadler has now led at least one lap in 15 straight races at Talladega.
The starting grid
The Top Three mostly commonly owned A-List drivers in the Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Auto Racing game all finished poorly: Tony Stewart (39.30 percent), Jimmie Johnson (30.18) and Kyle Busch (28.93). The best value came from Carl Edwards, who was only ninth in ownership (6.14) but finished third in performance.
On the B-List, the Daytona 500 winner and runner-up at Talladega, Jamie McMurray (37.52) was understandably a popular pick. McMurray was running fifth at the midway point, but finished 39th due to the wreck. He's proven himself to be among the top restrictor plate drivers and should remain a great selection in these types of races despite the stroke of bad luck. David Reutimann (11.87) was 11th in ownership and finished fifth in performance. He finished fifth in the Daytona 500 and 11th in this race. Earlier this season, Reutimann finished 14th at Talladega with an ARP of 13th. He's held an ARP of 17th or better in six of his seven career starts at the site and is an improving restrictor plate racer.
On the C-List, Robby Gordon (7.76) topped the performance chart along with several other surprises.
With 15 DNFs due to crashes and numerous other cars damaged, overachievers were all over the Top 20.
Reed Sorenson finished seventh with an ARP of 17th.
In his first race of the season with TRG Motorsports, Mike Bliss finished ninth with an ARP of 29th and only 12.7 percent of laps in the Top 15. Bliss also survived the wrecks at Talladega to finish 10th.
Scott Speed finished 10th with an ARP of 20th and only 12.0 percent of laps in the Top 15.
Robby Gordon finished 12th with an ARP of 29th and only 15.1 percent of laps in the Top 15.
In his first Cup start since 2003, Steve Park finished 13th with an ARP of 30th and only 12.0 percent of laps in the Top 15.
Kevin Conway finished 14th with an ARP of 33rd and only 5.4 percent of laps in the Top 15.
Bobby Labonte finished 16th with an ARP of 24th.
J.J. Yeley finished 19th with an ARP of 36th.
Ryan Newman finished 26th with an ARP of 18th.
Juan Pablo Montoya finished 27th with an ARP of 10th, tied for fourth best. Montoya led 11 laps and looked primed for his third straight Top 10 at Daytona. JPM finished third at Talladega and has led a lap in five straight races at the site.
Jimmie Johnson finished 31st with an ARP of 12th.
Martin Truex, Jr. finished 35th with an ARP of 20th.
Around the corner
Another Saturday night race under the lights is on the docket. Chicagoland also marks the return to the D-shaped oval, although it features less banking than the other cookie-cutter tracks. Chicagoland does not have a true straightaway but rather a curved frontstretch and a slight bend in the backstretch.
*All stats up-to-date as of 7/5.
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