Commentary

Kenseth at California? Nah, go with his teammate Edwards

The Eliminator: California

Updated: March 7, 2008, 5:22 PM ET
By Matthew Willis | ESPN.com

It's like eating your dessert first, or whatever part of your meal you enjoy most. I don't know, I'm not here to be a food critic … or am I?

Memo to self: Write ESPN.com about possibility of a food column.

NASCAR starts its season with the biggest event, when everybody is on equal footing in the points, and then there's a 36-race season that tests stamina and versatility. Major League Baseball will start and finish its season by the time the Sprint Cup arrives at Homestead and crowns a new champion.

But that's looking too far into the future. Let's just look at California, where drivers will be close to Hollywood, perfect for NASCAR's newest star, Ryan Newman. Newman was previously known just for his poles, which he had more of than a ski resort (hey-oh). But after winning a Daytona 500, Newman's name will always be a part of NASCAR history.

We forgot about the Dodges at Daytona, with the Hendrick Chevrolets and the Gibbs Toyotas getting the majority of the attention. But the Dodges finished 1-2 and also took home positions 5-6-7-8, which is not only a great showing but also the start of a number of notable dances.

Trivia break!!! Before Newman, who was the last driver to take a Dodge to victory lane at the Daytona 500?

Let's move on to California, for the first showing of the new car on a 2-mile oval. An even 50 drivers are on the entry list for California, each hoping to become Sprint Cup's second winner of 2008, although one of them will look to become the first repeat winner of the season. Of those 50, 49 cannot win, and I'll tell you why. After all, this is The Eliminator.

California hasn't proved an effective place for drivers looking to rebound from a poor season. Since California started hosting two races a season, the winner of the first race had won at least once in the previous season. There were 16 different Sprint Cup race winners last season, and all of them will be at California. That will eliminate the 34 drivers who put up an oh-fer last year.

When setting your fantasy lineup for this week, simply check out the results of the last California race. The last four Sprint Cup winners at California all finished seventh or better in their last start there. That will take out 10 more drivers, like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer, and leave us with just six drivers left in contention.

Chevrolets and Toyotas dominated the headlines at Daytona, but then a Dodge won the race and the manufacturer took up more than half the spots in the top 10. The new forgotten car make is Ford, and the best-finishing Ford at Daytona was Greg Biffle in 10th. This weekend, look for a performance that will make all the Fords proud. I'm talking about Edsel, Henry, Gerald, Betty and even Whitey.

Fords have won this race each of the last three years, and a Ford has won the season's second race each of the last six years. The last non-Ford car to win the second race of the season was Steve Park in 2001. Roush Fenway cars were responsible for five of those six wins, and that's all that will be left after we eliminate the four remaining non-Fords. Just two are left.

Trivia break!!! Prior to Newman, Ward Burton was the last driver to win the Daytona 500 in a Dodge. He drove the CAT car to the win in 2002.

Matt Kenseth has won the last two runnings of this race, and in his last five races at California has finished 7-1-7-1-7. That sounds like a pretty decent reason to pick him, but I'm going to eliminate him for this reason: Kenseth has won two straight runnings of a race twice in his Sprint Cup career and once in his Nationwide career, but never pulled off three in a row.

In Sprint Cup, he won at Las Vegas in 2003 and 2004, but finished eighth in 2005. He won two straight night races at Bristol, but then finished 39th there last season. Earlier in his Nationwide career, Kenseth won at California in 1999 and 2000, but finished 20th there in 2001. So, let's eliminate Kenseth and go with his Roush Fenway teammate this week.

Carl Edwards won two races in the new car last season, at Bristol and Dover, and he'll win the first race with the car at California because the numbers don't lie.

Eliminator breakdown

  1. Since the track began hosting two races a season, the winner of the first race at California won at least one race the previous season (34 drivers eliminated, 16 remaining).
    Drivers eliminated: A.J. Allmendinger, John Andretti, Dave Blaney, Patrick Carpentier, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bill Elliott, Dario Franchitti, David Gilliland, Robby Gordon, Sam Hornish Jr., Dale Jarrett, Kasey Kahne, Travis Kvapil, Bobby Labonte, Burney Lamar, Kevin Lepage, Mark Martin, Jeremy Mayfield, Paul Menard, Joe Nemechek, Ryan Newman, Kyle Petty, David Ragan, David Reutimann, Scott Riggs, Elliott Sadler, Ken Schrader, Mike Skinner, Regan Smith, Reed Sorenson, Brian Vickers, Kenny Wallace, Michael Waltrip, J.J. Yeley

  2. The last four winners at California finished seventh or better in their last California race (10 drivers eliminated, six remaining).
    Drivers eliminated: Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart

  3. Ford has won the second Sprint Cup race of the season each of the last six years (Four drivers eliminated, two remaining).
    Drivers eliminated: Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr.

  4. Matt Kenseth has never won three straight runnings of an event in his Sprint Cup or Nationwide career (One driver eliminated, one remaining).
    Driver eliminated: Matt Kenseth

    And your winner is: Carl Edwards.

Matt Willis is a studio researcher at ESPN.

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