Fantasy Preview: Differences at Dover call for roster switches
Last week, fantasy owners were advised to load up on Chase contenders because New Hampshire's fall race has exclusively been claimed by drivers competing for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. If that advice was followed, there was a good chance that three or four drivers on their fantasy roster finished in the top-seven positions, because Chasers dominated like never before.
The 12 Chase contenders posted an average finish of 8.4, which was actually the second-best record in the history of the playoff-style format. However, the lowest average finish of 8.1 has an asterisk attached. That mark is from 2005 when only 10 drivers took part in the Chase and there were fewer opportunities for one of their number to finish deep in the order.
This past Sunday, Chase drivers swept the top five for the 14th time in 82 playoff races, but the real difference was found in how consistently strong the group was as a whole and how they minimized the downside of struggling. Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kevin Harvick all failed to finish inside the top 10. The worst result was the 18th recorded by Biffle.
Denny Hamlin dominated the race, which was even more impressive because he was forced to overcome a 32nd-place qualification run. Because the NASCAR Fantasy Live game offers place differential points, that actually contributed to his being the most productive points producer. Fantasy players did not win their league if he was not on their roster. Hamlin scored 220.5 points, which was more than the next three drivers combined. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were also in a separate zip code from the remainder of the field, and the best news is that all three of those drivers were predictably strong -- if players did their homework.
Last week's highlighted favorites in Fantasy Preview were Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Clint Bowyer; they scored the most, sixth-most and eighth-most points, respectively. One of the dark horses, Brian Vickers, scored the ninth-most points and that made him one of the best values in the game at his then-current salary cap of $18. The two underdogs, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., both struggled.
And now for something completely different
New Hampshire and Dover are both one-mile tracks, but they could not be much more different. Drivers exchange flat corners that are banked at 12 degrees for ones twice that steep, and the setups required to go fast are vastly dissimilar. The load on the tires and G-forces on the drivers make this a unique experience, and it is possible to attack the corners much more aggressively in Dover than Loudon.
For all their differences, however, these two tracks have similarities as well. Both are rhythm courses and the one-mile length necessitates tight corners with unforgiving grooves. Drivers have to hit their marks lap after lap on these steep turns just like they do on the minimally-banked corners even though they can wait to brake later during each circuit.
One other similarity has even greater significance to fantasy owners this week. Chasers are likely to dominate the AAA 400 to a comparable degree as they did in the Sylvania 300. In eight previous Chase races, the playoff contenders have swept Victory Lane on this high-banked oval. They have been nearly as consistently strong as at New Hampshire. The average finish of 12.7 is the third-best among courses that have hosted more than two Chase races, behind the short tracks of Loudon and Martinsville. With the amount of momentum the Chasers bring this week, that number is liable to be even smaller after Sunday's race.
Johnson finished in the runner-up position in the first two Chase races this season and that is his best start to a championship bid ever. In 2008, he scored back-to-back top-fives with a second at New Hampshire and a fifth at Dove. He also posted consecutive strong runs in 2009 as, that season, he backed up a fourth-place finish in New Hampshire with a victory at Dover. Johnson also won the 2010 Dover event after struggling in week one of the Chase and he was second in this event last year. He won the FedEx 400 earlier this season, and his last nine attempts at Dover have produced four of seven career victories. Not much more needs to be said and it is impossible to pile hyperbole on top of those facts. If Johnson does not finish in the top five this week, it is going to be because some unpredictable catastrophe strikes the team.
Kenseth is one of only three Chase drivers who failed to crack the top 10 in the past two races along with Harvick and Biffle, but he is the most likely among them to erase that deficit. While Johnson has dominated Victory Lane since fall of 2008, Kenseth has been more consistent and the final tally shows they have identical average finishes during that span of 4.78. Kenseth has only one win in the past nine Dover races, but he has also finished outside the top five only one time. Players who had both Johnson and Hamlin on their roster last week will want to swap out the more expensive driver of the No. 11 and replace him with the No. 17, which will leave them with an extra two dollars to spend on a dark horse.
In the past four Dover Chase races, only one of the top-five finishers was outside the top 12 in points. Carl Edwards is this week's best bet to keep that streak alive. He missed the 2012 playoffs with inconsistent finishes throughout the season and his most recent two races have been equally disappointing with 19th-place results at Chicagoland and New Hampshire. Still, no one thinks he is going to stay down forever. Dover represents his best opportunity to reverse fortunes because he entered this June's FedEx 400 with an 11-race streak of top-11 finishes, only one of which was not a top-10. He finished 26th this spring, but that was attributable to crash damage suffered on lap 165 and he was running fifth at the time. Barring another unfortunate incident, he is destined to finish strong again this week and reignite his Dover hot streak.
Ryan Newman has struggled at Dover in recent years with a pair of 20-something results in 2011 and a modest 15th this spring. Perspective is gained by looking at his complete history, however, and that result this June was his 16th top-15 in 21 career Dover races. It was also his seventh top-15 in the past nine races there, which makes him one of the most consistent drivers in the field. That might not be enough to recommend him if not for a recent upswing in performance this season. Back-to-back accidents at Bristol and Atlanta were part of what kept him from making the Chase, but he has finished 11th or better in nine of the past 11 races. Along with Joey Logano, he is the only non-Chaser to sweep the top 10 in the latest two events, leaving his fans wondering what might have been.
Marcos Ambrose is another solid dark-horse contender this week because of his recent performance at Dover. His first career top-five on an unrestricted oval came on another concrete high-banked track in Bristol back in 2009 and those results were still somewhat uncommon when he came to Dover in spring 2011. He finished second in that race, partly as the result of tire strategy, but that has given him added confidence each time the series returned to Delaware. Ambrose now enters the weekend with three consecutive top-10s on this track. His most recent four efforts this season have not been stellar, but immediately preceding those events, he accumulated four consecutive top-10s, including a fifth on the little sister track in Tennessee.
Denny Hamlin's effort at Dover will suffer by comparison to last week and it is highly likely that he will slip outside the top 10. Dover is not only one of his three worst tracks with an average finish of 20.5, he has not cracked the top 15 there in his last three attempts. He beat the odds in 2010 with a pair of top-10s, but those are two of only four strong runs in 13 previous starts. Fans should cheer for him from afar, but remove him from the roster for a week to make room for one of the other marquee drivers in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is another Chaser who should be content with a solid top-15 finish this week because they have been extremely rare at Dover in the past five years. He finished fourth this spring when he had unprecedented momentum on his side; additionally, he has a pair of 12ths in 2011 and 2009. Unfortunately, six of his last seven fall Dover races ended in the 20s or 30s and the last time he showed a glimmer of strength in this event was in 2007. In the past six races of this season, Earnhardt has earned three top-10s and three results in the low teens. This week, the numbers point toward a finish of about 12th.
|Fantasy Power Ranking|
|Concrete high-banks (past three years)*|
|1.||Jimmie Johnson||4.85||17.||Ryan Newman||17.41||33.||Danica Patrick||33.40|
|2.||Matt Kenseth||8.25||18.||Juan Pablo Montoya||17.56||34.||Travis Kvapil||34.73|
|3.||Jeff Gordon||9.62||19.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||17.95||35.||Jason Leffler||35.20|
|4.||Kyle Busch||10.97||20.||Denny Hamlin||18.16||36.||Scott Speed||35.41|
|5.||Kurt Busch||11.63||21.||Marcos Ambrose||18.64||37.||Dave Blaney||35.51|
|6.||Carl Edwards||12.08||22.||Paul Menard||19.34||38.||Mike Bliss||36.35|
|7.||Martin Truex Jr.||13.42||23.||Tony Stewart||20.81||39.||David Stremme||36.53|
|8.||Greg Biffle||13.96||24.||Aric Almirola||23.13||40.||Landon Cassill||36.56|
|9.||Mark Martin||14.61||25.||Regan Smith||28.19||41.||Kelly Bires||37.00|
|10.||Kevin Harvick||14.82||26.||David Ragan||29.57||42.||JJ Yeley||37.07|
|11.||Kasey Kahne||14.93||27.||Bobby Labonte||29.94||43.||Michael McDowell||37.96|
|12.||Jeff Burton||14.96||28.||David Gilliland||30.11||44.||Joe Nemechek||38.67|
|13.||Clint Bowyer||15.98||29.||Cole Whitt||30.50||45.||Josh Wise||38.97|
|14.||Brad Keselowski||16.15||30.||Sam Hornish Jr.||31.32||46.||Scott Riggs||39.63|
|15.||Joey Logano||16.18||31.||Reed Sorenson||31.33||47.||TJ Bell||40.01|
|16.||Jamie McMurray||16.75||32.||Casey Mears||32.18|