The action on restrictor-plate superspeedways is among the best fans will see every year. Anyone with a vested interest in the outcome of these events tends to take a different view, however. The Chase drivers know they are not in control of their own fates until Talladega Superspeedway is in their rear-view mirror and fantasy owners should have a similar response.
Talladega's slot on the schedule is typically later during the month of October, but it was moved up two weeks this season to accommodate track work for Kansas Speedway. That gives drivers and players a chance to regroup should anything go wrong this weekend and could take some of the sense of urgency out of the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500, which actually could be good news for all concerned.
The 12 Chasers account for more than a quarter of the field and the consequence of a mistake by one of them has a huge impact on the points' implications. With 28 percent of the drivers racing relatively sedately, the magnitude of the Big One is statistically lessened in this event compared to Talladega's first race of the season. As a result, the fall race traditionally has 40 percent less carnage than the spring race.
Not out of the woods yet
"Relatively" is not a very comforting word to anyone unlucky enough to get swept into another driver's mistake and that happens with regularity on the plate tracks. It will come as no surprise that Talladega is the least kind to Chase drivers, but the enormity of its disparity to other tracks is striking nonetheless. In eight previous Chase races, the drivers competing for the Cup record an average finish of 18.4 on this plate track compared to an overall average of 13.6. That skews the numbers so much, in fact, that every other track on the playoff schedule winds up being above average and the next-worst course during the Chase is Texas at 13.4.
So far during the 2012 Chase, only two drivers have finished 25th or worse. Jeff Gordon's stuck throttle at Chicagoland and Matt Kenseth's broken track bar last week have put them at a distinct disadvantage to the remaining 10 drivers, but that could all change this week. Talladega is the track on which drivers historically take a mulligan.
In eight previous seasons with the playoff-style format, an average of 4.25 drivers per race finish 25th or worse and memories of last year will probably wake the drivers with cold sweats several times this week. Seven of the 12 Chasers finished well down the order with Ryan Newman virtually sealing his fate on the heels of a 38th-place finish. Current contenders Kevin Harvick (32nd), Gordon (27th), Jimmie Johnson (26th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (25th) also were poor finishers in that event.
NASCAR is a zero sum sport. For every loser, there is a gainer and Brad Keselowski's fourth-place finish in last fall's race was as valuable to his Chase hopes as a victory on any other course. Tony Stewart survived to finish seventh and Carl Edwards probably felt reasonably comfortable with his 11th-place result, but even that underscored the inescapable fact that surviving is a matter of degree where Talladega is concerned since a slight whiff of the draft in this race could have broken the ultimate tie between those two drivers.
Since the Chase drivers approach this race cautiously, fantasy owners should, as well. There is absolutely no reason to spend huge amounts of money on any driver in hopes of them surviving the inevitable carnage. Keselowski and Johnson are the two most-expensive drivers in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game at $28, but both of them have been so good for so long, that their value has been virtually unchanged for the past seven weeks. The same thing is true for nearly every driver commanding a fee of more than $26, which means they are expendable in terms of salary caps.
The expensive drivers have just as much of a chance of winning as anyone else, but they should not monopolize fantasy owners' budgets. So far in 2012, mid-cap and bargain-basement drivers such as Bobby Labonte, Trevor Bayne and David Ragan have scored top-10s on plate tracks and they are equally capable of running that well again. Spread the wealth around this week and only hang on to an expensive driver if he was acquired before he became productive enough to make him expensive. For example, if Sam Hornish Jr. has been on your roster since Pocono when he was $11, it is probably too costly to remove him this week and reactivate him at $16.25.
In the age of parity and with ever-changing rules' packages, streaks are incredibly hard to come by on plate tracks. Add in the capricious nature of the draft and the ever-present danger of the Big One and they are almost impossible to maintain. That only makes Clint Bowyer's recent success on this track more amazing. In his past five races at Talladega, Bowyer has two victories, another second-place finish, and a perfect streak of top-10s. His latest 10 efforts on this track have resulted in a near-perfect record of top-12 finishes with only one race ending early because of a Lap 8 crash. Bowyer also crashed in his first three starts on this track and there is no guarantee the same thing will not happen again this weekend, but he currently seems to have a knack for avoiding danger.
There are no Pied Pipers on plate tracks any longer, but Earnhardt remains the driver who spends the most time in the lead pack. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports, he has recorded the best average running position at Talladega twice and the second-best on two other occasions. He has recorded a top-15 number in that statistic in all but a single race while driving the No. 88 and that single exception was because of last year's strategy employed by all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers. They chose to ride in the back of the pack until the end of the show, which was strategy that backfired after two late cautions. Earnhardt's success at Talladega is legendary and he still knows how to get to the front at the end of the show with two top-10s in his most recent three starts there. This year, the Hendrick drivers probably will still be a little conservative, but look for them to press the accelerator a lot earlier in the contest.
It has been a long time since Jeff Burton has been one of the favorites, but an affordable salary cap and a stellar record on plate tracks during the past year makes him extremely attractive. He was Bowyer's drafting partner last year and would have challenged for the victory at Talladega if not for a last-lap caution flag. This year, he picked up where he left off and finished fifth in the Daytona 500, 10th in the Aaron's 499 at 'Dega, and second in the summer race at Daytona. In that most recent event, he was one of less than a handful of drivers to survive the night without any crash damage, which means he was both lucky and good.
Talladega is not one of Johnson's better tracks, but surviving it has been the key to his success in the Chase. With an average finish of 17.7 there, only Daytona is worse for the driver of the No. 48 and he cannot look forward to going to either venue. Most of Johnson's worst runs at Talladega in recent seasons have come in the spring race, however, with 30-something results in 2009, '10 and '12. From 2008 through '10, he improved his performance in the fall race each year to suggest he learned valuable lessons in the first event. He failed to win the championship last year and that largely was because he reversed his trend by winning the spring race and then finishing 26th in the fall. Fantasy owners reasonably can expect him to run a conservative race this week, but that is not necessarily a bad thing on a track where running in a pack equals danger.
A dark horse could come from anywhere in the field. Lightly funded teams can draft along with the powerhouses and it pays to remember that both Keselowski and Bayne's first Cup victories came for part-time teams. Talladega and Daytona are both filled with Cinderella stories and no one ever knows precisely who will be the lead character, but there is a strategy that can be employed. Looks for drivers with a solid record on plate tracks -- Ragan, Regan Smith, David Gilliland and Dave Blaney come immediately to mind -- and then chose which of them to start based on their qualification time. Pick a driver who is starting deep in the pack, hope they survive the inevitable Big One, and rely on their positive place differential to add points to their total in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game.
Luck is an undeniable part of plate racing. It does not matter how strong a driver might be if the track in front of him is blocked by a multi-car accident. Marcos Ambrose started strong on plate tracks with a 17th in the 2009 Daytona 500. He finished in the top 10 in his next two restrictor-plate starts, but after that his luck completely evaporated. In his most recent 12 attempts, he has been involved in more than 11 accidents and retired because of engine failure one time. On a many of those occasions, he was still running at the end, but he completed the full distance only four times.
Kurt Busch is one of the best plate racers in the business who has yet to win a race at Talladega or Daytona. In 47 starts on these tracks, he finished second or third nine times and he is responsible for several drivers getting the last-lap push they needed to find Victory Lane in the Daytona 500. Unfortunately, most of those stats are dated and his recent luck has been terrible. Busch has been sidelined or slowed by crash damage in 13 of his past 15 plate starts. The team minimized the damage well enough to stay tucked in the draft and finish in the top 10 on several occasions, but he has not finished on the same lap as the leaders since the 2011 summer race at Daytona, and that top-15 is his best result in the past six races on this track type. He was 20th, one lap off the pace, in this spring's race at 'Dega and that has been his best effort with his current team.
|Fantasy Power Ranking|
|Superspeedways (past three years)|
|1.||Jeff Burton||10.78||16.||Paul Menard||17.06||30.||Michael Waltrip||23.65|
|2.||Kyle Busch||10.86||17.||Brad Keselowski||17.19||31.||Landon Cassill||24.16|
|3.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||11.07||18.||Tony Stewart||17.30||32.||Sam Hornish Jr.||24.83|
|4.||Clint Bowyer||11.37||19.||David Reutimann||17.47||33.||David Gilliland||26.34|
|5.||Matt Kenseth||12.38||20.||Aric Almirola||18.53||34.||Bobby Labonte||27.09|
|6.||Kevin Harvick||12.82||21.||David Ragan||18.60||35.||Travis Kvapil||29.60|
|7.||Kasey Kahne||12.92||22.||Mark Martin||19.00||36.||Dave Blaney||29.96|
|8.||Kurt Busch||13.31||23.||Carl Edwards||19.22||37.||Terry Labonte||30.42|
|9.||Joey Logano||14.11||24.||Casey Mears||19.90||38.||David Stremme||32.38|
|10.||Martin Truex Jr.||14.74||25.||Jimmie Johnson||21.25||39.||Josh Wise||34.65|
|11.||Greg Biffle||14.93||26.||Trevor Bayne||21.33||40.||Robert Richardson Jr.||36.31|
|12.||Juan Montoya||15.04||27.||Ryan Newman||22.10||41.||Joe Nemechek||38.60|
|13.||Jamie McMurray||15.46||28.||Regan Smith||22.12||42.||Michael McDowell||39.78|
|14.||Denny Hamlin||15.76||29.||Marcos Ambrose||23.42||43.||J.J. Yeley||39.82|