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Fantasy Preview: Chasers continue to dominate reality and fantasy

NASCAR.com

When the Chase starts each year, there are two races commonly identified as wild cards. Talladega certainly lived up to its reputation in the final corner of the final lap but, with so much carnage among the Chasers, the net effect was no effect at all. The impact of last week's race was quite similar.

Half of the Chase contenders ran into trouble during the afternoon and yet nearly all of them finished in the top 15 and, as a collective, they scored their third-best average finish during the history of this format -- as predicted in last week's preview.

Brad Keselowski got the ball rolling when he scraped the wall just past lap 25; Tony Stewart's team left a wrench in his car during a pit stop about 50 laps later; and, during that same caution period, Greg Biffle was penalized for speeding for the first time this season. Both Stewart and Biffle would later spin or crash in separate incidents. Jimmie Johnson spun by himself on about lap 135 and backed hard into the wall, while Matt Kenseth flattened the side of his Ford nearly 40 laps later during a frenetic restart. Kasey Kahne did not make contact with the wall or another car, but he failed to keep up with the pace car when trying to save fuel during the final caution and was dropped from second to sixth.

Biffle's second incident on Lap 176 sent him to the garage for extended repairs and dropped him to 27th in the final order. That was only the third time during this Chase that one of the 12 men competing for the Sprint Cup finished 25th or worse. Their mastery of races continues, as none of the teams would minimize the risk at a bullring like Martinsville, but it is difficult to imagine much will change on Sunday -- the Chasers will continue to be the cream of the crop.

In 70 combined starts during the past six races, Chasers have averaged a 10th-place finish.

One of the biggest reasons for the Chasers' success is the current durability of NASCAR's machines. Record-setting speeds and new pavement made last week a treacherous affair for everyone in the field. But with all of the contenders refusing to have a genuinely bad day, the stakes are much higher than ever before. Last week, that was apparent by Johnson's spin and Keselowski's contact with the wall, both of which preceded top-10 finishes.

Bargains

The Chasers will continue to dominate the front of the pack, but that knowledge will not be nearly as valuable as determining which of the mid-cap or bargain-basement drivers should be started so players can take those more expensive options. Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart all earned top-five points in last week's NASCAR Fantasy Live game and none of them could be described as dark horses. Before the race began, Regan Smith seemed like a dangerous proposition with his 39th-place qualification effort. But, largely because of 37 points earned in the pass differential column, he was scored the third-highest.

Players found some even better values deeper in the field. Timmy Hill scored the 11th-most points by virtue of racing until the checkers waved and improving 20 positions over his 42nd-place qualification effort. David Gilliland scored the 12th-most points and Travis Kvapil earned the 13th-most -- and those three drivers could be had for the spare change one might find in the couch.

The key to success this week might be in drafting a team of poor qualifiers. Traditional wisdom once held that track position was key on a bullring like Martinsville because it was simply too easy to get swept into an incident or knocked off the lead lap. But now, the durability of NASCAR's new body style combined with the free pass and wave around rules is forcing players to rethink their strategies.

Just as this year's Chase will likely be won by minimizing bad races, fantasy owners are going to win their league by maximizing the bargains on their roster.

The Favorites

No one will be surprised by the three favorites this week, but then again no one has been as consistently perfect at Martinsville as Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. They have not recorded perfect finishes in the past two seasons, but they have raced as flawlessly as humanly possible. Hamlin and Johnson were both hindered by circumstances in the spring 2011 race after a caution flag waved moments after they pitted under green. Johnson and Gordon were both wrecked on a late-race restart when Clint Bowyer attempted an ill-advised three-wide pass for the lead in the Goody's Fast Relief 500 earlier this season, but all three earned top-fives in this race last year and they account for the lion's share of top-fives since the beginning of 2007.

Ranking these three drivers is as much a function of personal preference as it is of statistics. Hamlin is stronger overall on short, flat tracks during the past few years; Johnson is legendary at this stage of the season regardless of the track; Gordon's six top-three finishes in the most recent nine races continue to give him momentum. That means the decision may come down to salary cap management. Johnson and Hamlin remain among the most expensive drivers in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game, while Gordon is slightly cheaper. That makes the No. 24 a better value overall, and he is the favorite this week as a result. In the end, however, the battle is liable to come down to these three for the victory -- so long as no one tries to take the fight three wide.

Dark Horses

By the numbers, the remainder of the field has to be considered dark horses, and one has to look a little deeper in the record book to decide who is going to join the terrific troika in the top five. Brad Keselowski is having a championship year and that is making him a good value on tracks where he traditionally struggled. Martinsville can be characterized as either a short track -- with comparisons to Bristol and Richmond -- or it can be defined as a short, flat track with parallels to Richmond, Phoenix and New Hampshire. Keselowski is the only driver in the field with a perfect record of top-10s on the short, flat tracks and last week's Hollywood Casino 400 proved he has a little luck on his side as well. Fantasy players will not save any money by starting the No. 2, but if they want to differentiate their roster from the competition, Keselowski is a great alternative to the three favorites.

Bowyer's banzai move on the leaders during the first green-white-checkered attempt in the Goody's Fast Relief 500 did not work out the way he planned and the No. 15 crashed along with the No. 24 and 48 cars. Bowyer recovered quickly, however, and salvaged a 10th-place finish. Since then, he has been perfect in regard to top-10s on short, flat tracks -- and both of his New Hampshire efforts ended in top-fives. He has been even more consistent on the short tracks. Bowyer finished fourth and seventh at Bristol to supplement his solid performances at Martinsville and Richmond, which makes him the only driver in the field to sweep the top 10 on short tracks.

Brian Vickers will be back in the No. 55 this week, and he has been one of the best values every time he takes the wheel. In seven races this season, he has earned four top-fives, a top-10 and virtually swept the top 15 when he has been running at the end of a race. He failed to make a single lap at Watkins Glen when an engine failed, which leaves Martinsville as the single outlier. He finished 18th in that race, and was two laps off the pace at the end, but it was also only his second start of the season. It is not out of the question to expect another top-five this week, but if he finishes anywhere in the top 15, he is well worth starting.

Other dark horses this week will be situational. Just as Hill, Kvapil and Gilliland were top-15 points' producers in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game at Kansas, this week is going to see someone improve 20 or more positions. Make a list of favorite drivers in lightly funded teams and if they qualify poorly but practice well, go ahead and roll the dice. After all, there are only four weeks remaining and not much time to make up ground.

Underdogs

Ryan Newman won this spring's Goody's Fast Relief 500 and, at that stage of the season, it appeared he had a good opportunity to make the Chase. Soon after, he struggled and slipped down the standings and his circumstances are radically altered entering the Tums Fast Relief 500. Last week, he and Kyle Busch got into a shoving match at Kansas from which neither emerged unscathed. Both the No.'s 39 and 18 sustained significant damage and Busch vowed to get even before the end of the season. While it is unlikely that he will make good on that threat in the very next race, Newman's 30th-place finish in the Hollywood Casino 400 was his third result of 20th or worse in his last four races.

It seems impossible that one of the Cup contenders could go the entire Chase without earning a top-10, but Kevin Harvick has only four more attempts to keep from suffering that ignominy. He keeps missing by the narrowest of margins by compiling 11th-place finishes at New Hampshire, Talladega and last week at Kansas. He finished 12th at Chicagoland and was 13th at Dover, which would make him a decent value if not for a salary cap in excess of $25. With the three favorites commanding such a high price tag, dark horses need to be modestly priced and an average finish of 12th in the past six races does not make him worth his salary.

Fantasy Power Rankings
Short, flat tracks (past three years)
1. Jimmie Johnson 7.36   17. Kasey Kahne 16.83   32. Casey Mears 30.03
2. Jeff Gordon 8.13   18. Martin Truex Jr. 17.14   33. David Gilliland 33.83
3. Denny Hamlin 8.19   19. Kurt Busch 17.30   34. Ken Schrader 34.43
4. Kyle Busch 9.76   20. Greg Biffle 18.54   35. Landon Cassill 34.62
5. Ryan Newman 10.99   21. Joey Logano 19.61   36. Travis Kvapil 35.02
6. Kevin Harvick 11.24   22. Brian Vickers 20.33   37. Dave Blaney 35.86
7. Clint Bowyer 11.26   23. Jamie McMurray 20.38   38. Scott Speed 36.64
8. Tony Stewart 11.50   24. Marcos Ambrose 22.40   39. Mike Bliss 36.68
9. Carl Edwards 13.61   25. David Reutimann 23.14   40. Reed Sorenson 36.76
10. Jeff Burton 14.13   26. Aric Almirola 25.41   41. David Stremme 37.26
11. Mark Martin 14.35   27. Sam Hornish Jr. 25.43   42. JJ Yeley 37.81
12. Matt Kenseth 15.00   28. Paul Menard 26.25   43. Michael McDowell 37.87
13. AJ Allmendinger 15.24   29. David Ragan 27.13   44. Scott Riggs 38.41
14. Juan Pablo Montoya 15.33   30. Regan Smith 27.59   45. Josh Wise 39.72
15. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 16.11   31. Bobby Labonte 28.91   46. Joe Nemechek 39.83
16. Brad Keselowski 16.68  
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