Last week, every Chase contender except Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon crashed on the final lap at Talladega, which should have had major implications to the point standings. Kenseth and Gordon entered the race 12th and 10th in the standings, respectively, and they needed their good run more than anyone else in the field and yet they both made negligible gains on first place.
That was because they were quite literally the only two drivers not claimed by the Lap 189, 25-car pileup. And since everyone wrecked, the effect of the damage was minimized to them all. Points leader Brad Keselowski emerged from the wreckage to finish seventh and along with Greg Biffle, Kenseth and Gordon, they were the only Chase contenders who finished among the top 10. However, four other Chasers finished in the top 15, Jimmie Johnson finished 17th, and no one finished worse than 23rd.
Collectively, the Chase contenders posted an average finish of 12.3, which was significant for several reasons. Not only was that the best average finish for Chasers at Talladega in the history of this format, it also was the first time this event has beaten the overall average of 13.6. For the first time ever on this track, none of the Chasers finished outside the top 25 so what could have been a great day for a few ended up being a mediocre, albeit expensive day for most. Kenseth's accomplishment was significant because it was the only the fifth time in nine Talladega races that one of the drivers competing for the championship won the event, even though Talladega remains the track with the smallest percentage of victorious Chasers.
No light at the tunnel's end
After only four races Kasey Kahne sits fourth in the standings with 36 points to make up. That is almost a complete race and from seventh-place Tony Stewart on back, those drivers are more than 43 points out of the lead. The top three drivers are not safe yet, however, because Charlotte has been known to bite a few drivers in the past eight years.
As with Talladega before last week, Chase contenders never have completely survived Charlotte. On average, more than two Chasers finish outside the top 25 each race and if that happens to Keselowski and Johnson this week, while Denny Hamlin has a modest showing, the points would be virtually deadlocked once more. Charlotte can be hard on equipment and Johnson already has blown two engines this season. Keselowski enters the weekend with four consecutive top-five finishes on this type of track, but he had fuel-pump problems at both Las Vegas and Texas to start the season, so he is capable of suffering hardship, as well.
It still is too soon to know precisely how this Chase is going to be claimed. All 12 drivers in the field know they need to challenge for victories in order to be competitive. Simple consistency is not going to ultimately carry the day, but for now Kevin Harvick, with his lack of top-10s and reliable top-15s, is in no worse shape than Gordon with three consecutive top-three finishes.
A Chaser has never swept the top 10. Jimmie Johnson came close on a number of occasions with nine and last year Carl Edwards failed to claim the Cup with an equal number of top-10s and one 11th-place result. Keselowski is the only driver who could possibly set that record this season, but if anyone is going to catch him in the points, it is going to take more than a slight top-15 hiccup.
Even with a fairly wide points differential from first to fourth, this is the way the Chase should be contested with the 12 best drivers pushing one another to extreme limits and the impact continues to be felt in the fantasy games. Most of the favorites will continue to come from the top 12 in the standings, but last week also marked a turning point for the rest of the field. Several of the drivers who recorded top-10s did so because Talladega plays by its own rules, but that gave confidence to everyone else in the garage and historically the remainder of the season has witnessed a more equitable mix of drivers at the front of the pack.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have missed a great opportunity last week to score a victory, but in the long run that could prove to be good news for fantasy owners. If he wants to win another race before the end of the season, it will have to come on an unrestricted oval and will probably be on one of the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks. He has only one top-five on the cookie-cutter courses this season, but he remains perfect in regard to top-10s after finishing eighth at Chicagoland. On most occasions he has finished better than he qualified and picked up positive place differential points and that was extremely helpful at Atlanta when it contributed 28 points to his total and helped earn the fifth-highest score for the week in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game.
If Keselowski is going to falter, it probably will not be on one of the cookie-cutter tracks. After a rough start, he finished 11th at Kansas in the spring and has a perfect record of top-fives since. The No. 2 team's experiments with the fuel system at Vegas and Texas apparently worked and he has had the perfect balance of speed and fuel mileage since. That contributed to his victories at Kentucky and Chicagoland, so no matter how this race unfolds at the end, he is going to be one of the top contenders. No one has more momentum than Keselowski at the moment because he enters the weekend with 12 top-10 finishes in his past 13 races and even before that streak, he was consistently finishing in the top 15. Like Earnhardt, he is not the best qualifier in the field and he has earned positive place differential points in his most recent four races on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks.
It is only a matter of time before Harvick earns his first Chase top-10 of 2012 because he continues to hover just outside that mark with four consecutive results of 11th through 13th. He ended the regular season on a high note with back-to-back top-10s and the most encouraging thing about that statistic is that one of those was a top-five at similarly configured Atlanta. On this track type, his worst result of the season has been a 12th and he failed to crack the top 15 only three times in his past 17 attempts. If he misses the single digits this week, it will not be by much and depending on where he qualifies, he still could be one of the top points earners in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game.
Joey Logano's streak of top-10s came to a crashing halt last week when he was collateral damage in an early accident at Talladega. His Toyota continued to run in the lead pack, but the team never could make up the lost track position and get him back on the lead lap. Troubles on that wild-card course rarely affect drivers on the unrestricted ovals, however. Before finishing seventh at Chicagoland, the No. 20 team struggled on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks, but the organization was building solid mounts for Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Logano finally was able to make that work for him, as well, and during his career he has amassed 12 top-15s in 37 attempts on this track type. Many of those strong runs came at Charlotte, including a third in the 2011 600-miler and a fifth in the 2009 Chase race there.
While bad luck at Talladega rarely affects drivers the following week, it is far more likely to do so with young, inexperienced racers. In another season, that might minimize the odds of Sam Hornish Jr. having a strong outing at Charlotte. The part-time driver of the No. 22 has shown so much poise in 2012, however, that fantasy owners reasonably can expect him to pick right up where he left off before getting swept into the massive melee on the last lap at 'Dega. His worth will depend on how one views the handful of races that preceded Talladega. He finished in the 20s at New Hampshire and Dover, but those are tracks on which he always has struggled. His past two cookie-cutter efforts ended in 11th-place results at Atlanta and Chicagoland, and that is much more reflective of his potential this week.
Tony Stewart got his Chase off to a solid start with a sixth-place finish at Chicagoland and he remained in contention with another top-10 at New Hampshire. He did not look particularly stout at Dover in Week 3, however, and last week could have broken his championship spirit. Stewart was leading the race when he attempted to block a charging Michael Waltrip and the result was disastrous, but that is not the only reason he is listed as one of the underdogs this week. Before finishing sixth at Chicagoland, he suffered through five consecutive races on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks with a best result of 13th and an average of only 23rd. That is enough to make fantasy owners cautious about starting the No. 14 at Charlotte, but they should keep an eye on him during the weekend because if he manages to run well there, he could be a good value next week at Kansas or three weeks from now at Texas.
Another Chaser with a tall hurdle to clear this week is Greg Biffle. He began the season as one of the top performers on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks with four consecutive top-fives at Vegas, Kansas, Texas and a fourth-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May. He also had a top-five in the final race on this track type last year and would have seemed to be an easy addition to most fantasy rosters at Kentucky. He finished only 21st, however, and failed to crack the top 10 at Atlanta or Chicagoland. He has been fairly consistent in those recent races with top-15 finishes, but for a driver demanding more than $25 in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game, one would prefer to see much stronger results.
|Fantasy Power Ranking|
|Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)|
|1.||Jimmie Johnson||8.30||17.||Paul Menard||18.47||33.||Landon Cassill||33.42|
|2.||Matt Kenseth||8.44||18.||Juan Montoya||18.73||34.||Bobby Labonte||34.00|
|3.||Greg Biffle||9.63||19.||Ryan Newman||19.19||35.||Reed Sorenson||34.19|
|4.||Tony Stewart||9.83||20.||Marcos Ambrose||19.29||36.||David Gilliland||34.67|
|5.||Jeff Gordon||11.20||21.||Jamie McMurray||19.39||37.||Travis Kvapil||35.82|
|6.||Kyle Busch||11.29||22.||Jeff Burton||19.93||38.||Cole Whitt||36.44|
|7.||Carl Edwards||11.33||23.||David Reutimann||20.67||39.||Mike Bliss||36.99|
|8.||Denny Hamlin||12.09||24.||Joey Logano||21.37||40.||T.J. Bell||37.22|
|9.||Kevin Harvick||12.83||25.||David Ragan||21.79||41.||J.J. Yeley||37.23|
|10.||Kasey Kahne||13.28||26.||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||22.15||42.||Dave Blaney||37.44|
|11.||Kurt Busch||14.06||27.||Trevor Bayne||23.07||43.||David Stremme||38.22|
|12.||Clint Bowyer||15.51||28.||Sam Hornish Jr.||25.36||44.||Michael McDowell||39.03|
|13.||Martin Truex Jr.||15.60||29.||Aric Almirola||26.63||45.||Joe Nemechek||40.37|
|14.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||16.55||30.||Regan Smith||27.71||46.||Josh Wise||40.71|
|15.||Mark Martin||16.81||31.||Casey Mears||31.85||47.||Scott Riggs||40.93|
|16.||Brad Keselowski||17.70||32.||Scott Speed||32.33|
- Matt Kenseth
- Jeff Gordon
- Brad Keselowski
- Jimmie Johnson
- Greg Biffle