After a forgettable 2011 season, Denny Hamlin is doing his best to show that he has recaptured the magic he had in 2010 when he won eight races and nearly won the title. With a victory at Phoenix already under his belt this year, Hamlin is looking like a real threat to capture his second win of the young season. He grabbed the pole for Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway, and he kept the momentum going by topping the charts in the opening practice session Saturday and posting the best 10-lap average speed. With numbers like those, fantasy owners have to love Hamlin's chances of running well this weekend.
Hamlin wasn't the only strong fantasy option to appear atop the leaderboard in the first practice. Three-time ACS winner Matt Kenseth ranked second on the charts, and with 10 finishes of seventh or better in his last 12 starts at the track, he should be a safe bet to grab a top-10.
Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart posted the third- and fourth-fastest laps, and Newman has posted back-to-back fifth-place finishes at ACS, while Stewart has a win and a 7.2 average finish at the track in his last five starts. Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five, and he happens to be the defending winner of this weekend's race. Fantasy owners can take their pick among the top-five drivers. All of them should have strong afternoons in Fontana.
In terms of 10-lap average speeds, a few new names crept toward to top. Hamlin and the SHR cars grabbed the top three spots, but Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards rounded out the top five. Bowyer has four straight top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway and has been off to a strong start with Michael Waltrip Racing. Edwards is still looking for a statement performance in 2012, but he does have the second-best average finish at ACS. In 13 starts at the track, he has finished seventh or better 10 times.
The pole-sitter kept right on rolling in Happy Hour, as Hamlin topped the charts for the second time. Let's recap. Hamlin is on the pole, he posted the fastest lap in both practice sessions Saturday, and he had the best 10-lap average speed in both sessions. He may not have the best overall numbers at Auto Club Speedway for his career, but fantasy owners have to like their chances with the No. 11 this weekend.
Jeff Gordon showed signs of life in the session, posting the second-fastest lap. Bowyer, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch joined him in the top five, and fantasy owners have to question the fantasy value of all the drivers with the exception of Bowyer. Gordon and Busch are both big names, but both have had terrible luck thus far in 2012. Meanwhile, McMurray has finished outside the top 15 in his last 10 starts at Auto Club Speedway. If owners are going to take a chance on one of them, Busch seems like the driver to target. In addition to qualifying on the front row, he has finished in the top 10 in nine of his last 12 starts at ACS. Last year, he led the most laps and finished third at the track.
The top five in terms of 10-lap average speeds had several familiar faces. Hamlin was followed by Kenseth, with Busch, McMurray and Jimmie Johnson rounding things out. After hovering in the top 10 throughout the first practice Saturday, Johnson appeared to dial things up in his car during Happy Hour. Considering he is a five-time winner at ACS and has finished third or better in eight of his last nine starts at the track, fantasy owners can definitely add his name to the list of elite options.
In addition to Bowyer, fantasy owners may want to continue to ride the wave of momentum Michael Waltrip Racing has been on. All three MWR drivers ranked 11th or better in Happy Hour, and all three cars are in the top 10 in owner points. After placing all three cars in the top five last weekend at Bristol, the organization's success in practice Saturday could be the sign of another big afternoon Sunday.
Owners looking for a big name to avoid might want to consider Greg Biffle. Although he qualified in the top five, he didn't show much muscle in either practice Saturday. Biffle started on the pole last weekend before fading outside the top 10 by the finish. Based on his times, he could be heading to a similar fate this Sunday.
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)
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.
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