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Thursday, February 19, 2009
Updated: April 22, 9:43 PM ET
Crunching numbers heading into Cali


Now that the Daytona 500 is over, it's time to move on with our regularly scheduled NASCAR season.

After all, the Daytona 500 isn't indicative of how the rest of the season will go, and in restrictor-plate races, anybody can run up front.

Proof? You're darn right I got proof.

This past season Kyle Busch led the series in points earned on restrictor-plate tracks. Second place on that list was Robby Gordon, and he led just one lap in those four races.

Now we're on to the superspeedways, where Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards combined to win 13 of the 24 races in 2008, and each of those guys had 300-plus points more than any other driver on those tracks. Now is the time to find out who's going to be in the mix this season.

But before I go any further, it's time for me to make some predictions -- some fearless, some not-so-fearless -- heading into the meat of the 2009 season:

Fearless predictions
1. After a season in which three drivers won a majority of the races, we'll see at least a dozen different drivers in Victory Lane.
2. Martin Truex Jr. will be shopping himself to a new team before the end of the 2009 season.
3. Unlike this past year, we will see a first-time winner, and David Ragan will lead it off.
4. Juan Pablo Montoya will win a race on a non-road course.
5. Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and David Ragan will get into the Chase field this year, knocking out Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart.

Not-so-fearless predictions
1. Jimmie Johnson will shave off the beard he sported during Speedweeks.
2. Johnson will rejoin the Chase field, as will Matt Kenseth.
3. Tony Stewart will yell at a reporter.
4. Kenseth will win the 2009 Daytona 500.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will take the lead and subsequently be cheered.

The champ will be back

If history holds true -- and something tells me it will -- Jimmie Johnson's going to be strong at California this weekend. And I mean strong, like World's Strongest Man legend Magnus Ver Magnusson strong.

(I should consider a similar format for my name. For the rest of this column, I shall be known as Matt van den Mattson!)

Looking at Johnson's finishes over the past two seasons at the track -- putting up two wins, a second and a third -- a prediction involving the champ may seem obvious. But it goes much deeper than that.

The last time the series ran at California, Johnson put up a perfect 150.0 driver rating -- just the seventh time that has happened since the series began using the statistic, in 2005. His average running position during that race was 1.2.

When, you might ask, is Johnson going to be at his best Sunday? Easy. Whenever he has four tires on the racetrack.

In that August race at California, Johnson ranked first in green-flag speed and speed in traffic, and was the fastest both early and late in a run, according to NASCAR's loop data. Um, I can't think of any other situations to measure. Was he fastest under caution as well?

Earn-hurt

You may not have heard, but apparently Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brian Vickers were involved in a little tangle at Daytona. Blame who you will, but the greater damage to Earnhardt in the season points standings might come this weekend at California.

Among tracks that the series visits twice a year, California is the home to Earnhardt's worst driver rating and average finish.

Junior's worst driver rating by track
Homestead-Miami, 67.7
Sonoma, 69.0
Indianapolis, 72.6
California, 75.6

It might get better, just not until later in the season. Over the past three seasons, Junior has been much better in the fall race than in the spring.

Junior's past three seasons at California
Top-10s in spring (0) ... in fall (2)
Average finish in spring (30.3) ... in fall (6.0)
Laps led in spring (1) ... in fall (21)
Lead-lap finishes in spring (1) ... in fall (3)
Laps down in spring (minus-223) ... in fall (0)

Don't get upset

Let's briefly switch gears (racing joke!) to the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Because Tony Stewart won't suit up Saturday night, we're assured of having a new points leader. But if you're just looking for a race winner, you don't have to dig too deep into the starting grid.

In the past five Nationwide Series races at California, the winner has come from the top three in prerace driver rating. Let's take a look, shall we?

2008 -- Kyle Busch, 107.8 rating (second in prerace ranking)
2008 -- Tony Stewart, 105.3 (third)
2007 -- Jeff Burton, 115.7 (third)
2007 -- Matt Kenseth, 107.9 (third)
2006 -- Kasey Kahne, 116.2 (third)

Should we rule out the driver who ranks first in driver rating? I wouldn't go that far, but don't go wild with your picks in the Nationwide race. Among drivers who will attempt to qualify for Saturday's race, here are the top five in driver rating:

Jeff Burton, 119.0
Kyle Busch, 114.9
Carl Edwards, 109.1
Brian Vickers, 106.7
Greg Biffle, 105.5