In the closing laps at Richmond the wild-card battle lived up to its billing but it did not appear that would be the case before an almost hour-long red flag created a smorgasbord of strategies.
At the beginning of the race, Jeff Gordon fell back through the pack quickly, complaining of a loose condition, rising oil temperatures, and a vibration. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch ran inside the top 10 and even if he failed to battle for the win, it seemed he would almost certainly keep his current streak of seven consecutive top-six finishes alive.
Then, the rains fell and changed everything. The impromptu halftime allowed Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson to create a game plan for the balance of the race and it worked perfectly. During the caution, they fixed all of Gordon's problems and he posted laps equal to the leader.
Gordon needed another caution to save his Chase hopes and he got it. Rain once again slowed the action with about 125 laps remaining and that sent teams scrambling in several directions. Gordon was awarded the free pass during that caution and had nothing to lose by pitting. Several others, including the previously dominant Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Chase-hopeful Busch remained on the track in case the rain was too heavy. Hamlin and Earnhardt dove into the pits, but Busch did not and immediately regretted the decision. He battled the same loose condition that plagued Gordon in the opening laps -- almost as if the setups on those two cars had miraculously been transposed.
In the final 100 laps, the points, as they ran, had Busch, Gordon, and even Ryan Newman, swapping the final wild-card slot on several occasions. And at the checkers, the No. 24 not only finished far enough ahead of the No. 18 to secure the berth, but the team almost caught Clint Bowyer to win the race outright.
Now the focus shifts to the Chase and NASCAR hopes it is just as dramatic as the wild-card battle.
Chasing the Chasers
The wild-card battle impacted fantasy rosters to a large degree and it is certain that the Chase will do the same thing. In 80 previous Chase races, 65 of the checkered flags were awarded to Chase contenders. That number actually is skewed somewhat by the first three seasons when there were only 10 Chase contenders and when Tony Stewart won three of the final 10 races while outside of playoff consideration. In the past five seasons, Chasers have won an average of nine out of 10 of the playoff races and in 2008, they ran the table and won every event.
Chase contenders have earned 70 percent of the available top-five finishes and 60 percent of the top-10s, so they have to be a big part of any fantasy rosters for the remainder of the season. That will be more important on some tracks than others. With only one Chase race in the books at Chicagoland Speedway, it remains to be seen how productive the contenders are on this course, but last year they scored an average finish of 11.4 compared to the overall average of 13.8 in 80 previous events. The Chasers swept the top five and placed eight of their members in the top 10.
It is likely that trend will continue because the second-best track for Chasers on average is New Hampshire and that kicked off the playoffs in each of the seven previous seasons. In fact, the Chase resembles a near-perfect bell curve on average. The first week of the playoffs is traditionally the most productive for the contenders with Weeks 2 and 3 also being above average. The final two weeks of the season also are very productive, with the middle five races falling below the average.
|Average finish of Chase drivers in Chase races|
Simply put, make certain that this week's lineup is heavily skewed toward Chase contenders because the winner and majority of the top-10 finishers will come from their ranks.
Hamlin ended the regular season strong and might have earned three consecutive victories if not for the unsuccessful pit strategy at Richmond. That is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that one if those wins came on another similarly configured, 1.5-mile track, at Atlanta. Hamlin has momentum on two fronts. He ran extremely well at Richmond and the team will remember that instead of his 18th-place finish. But Hamlin also enters the weekend with four consecutive top-three results on this style of track. In addition to his Atlanta triumph, he also won at Kansas, finished second at Charlotte, and was third at Kentucky.
Brad Keselowski got off to a strong start last year with top-five finishes in three of the first four weeks of the Chase. Two of these solid runs came on cookie-cutter courses with a fifth at Chicagoland and a third at Kansas. Those were part of a five-race streak of top-10s on this track type and it appears he is in the middle of another exceptional run. He stumbled for a bit at the end of 2011 and the beginning of '12, but he got back on course with a fifth at Charlotte. The driver of the No. 2 followed that with a victory at Kentucky and a third at Atlanta, which proves that this team has the horsepower and the handling to dominate the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks.
Earnhardt did not enter the Chase cutoff with a particularly good recent Richmond record, so his 14th-place finish was not much of a surprise. It was disappointing, however, especially on the heels of a 12th-place finish two weeks prior at Bristol and a 28th at Watkins Glen because momentum is such a fragile force, but the odds are good that the No. 88 team can rebound this week and finish in the top 10 once more. Earnhardt is the only driver this season to sweep the top 10 on cookie-cutter courses with an average finish of slightly worse than seventh. And seventh is precisely where he finished at Atlanta. Depending on where he qualifies, he could be one of the top-five points earners in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game.
Busch narrowly missed the Chase. The team's pit strategy and a loss of handling in the final stages at Richmond dropped the No. 18 three positions too deep in the field to stay tied with Gordon in the standings and secure the final wild-card berth. The driver now has something to prove and if he cannot win the championship, he would like to play the role of spoiler and capture the most wins like Stewart did in 2006. At this point of the season last year, that would seem to be a huge undertaking because Busch entered Chicagoland with only one top-10 in six previous cookie-cutter races of 2011. He finished a disappointingly 22nd that afternoon, but turned his fortunes around at Kansas with an 11th-place result. In the seven races he has run on this track type since then, he has earned five top-10s and an 11th, which will make him an attractive proposition this week.
By the numbers, Gordon should probably be a favorite, but there is one intangible factor that makes him a little risky. He has been tremendously strong on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks this season with five top-12 finishes in six starts. Like Hamlin, he also has recent momentum on his side with a third at Bristol and back-to-back runner-up finishes at Atlanta and Richmond, but those solid numbers are only half the equation. Last week, Gordon struggled for a long period at the start of the race and the emotion associated with overcoming that deficit is a double-edged sword. After such a huge adrenalin surge, it would be natural to fall off the following week, which is why Gordon should be considered as a dark horse only.
Clint Bowyer made a statement last week by rolling the dice and winning at Richmond on fuel mileage. Michael Waltrip Racing has two drivers in the Chase and this probably is the most improved organization in the field, but Bowyer cannot be happy that the playoffs begin on a similarly configured, 1.5-mile course. He has been mediocre at best on this track type all season with a single top-10 in six starts -- and that came way back in the spring at Las Vegas. If he can survive with a result in the low teens, he should be highly regarded at New Hampshire in Week 2 of the Chase, but this is a good week to let him rest.
Like Busch, Newman also has something to prove after barely missing the Chase, but he will need to wait a week to do so. His best effort on a similarly configured, 1.5-mile track came at Vegas and he fell off precipitously in the five events that followed. Newman has only one top-15 in that span of time and an average finish of 25th, but even that is not the worst news. His past two efforts at Kentucky and Atlanta both ended with crash damage and results in the 30s. His most recent start on a 2-mile, doglegged oval ended with a blown engine at Michigan.
|Fantasy Power Ranking|
|Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)|
|1.||Matt Kenseth||8.41||17.||Brad Keselowski||18.28||33.||Landon Cassill||33.24|
|2.||Jimmie Johnson||8.69||18.||Paul Menard||18.54||34.||Danica Patrick||33.28|
|3.||Greg Biffle||9.61||19.||Marcos Ambrose||19.31||35.||Bobby Labonte||33.78|
|4.||Tony Stewart||10.11||20.||Ryan Newman||19.57||36.||David Gilliland||34.39|
|5.||Jeff Gordon||10.87||21.||Jeff Burton||19.88||37.||Travis Kvapil||35.87|
|6.||Carl Edwards||11.40||22.||Jamie McMurray||19.89||38.||David Stremme||36.48|
|7.||Kyle Busch||11.50||23.||David Ragan||22.00||39.||Mike Bliss||36.82|
|8.||Denny Hamlin||11.80||24.||Joey Logano||22.12||40.||J.J. Yeley||37.16|
|9.||Kevin Harvick||12.37||25.||Trevor Bayne||22.42||41.||Dave Blaney||37.76|
|10.||Kasey Kahne||13.32||26.||Sam Hornish Jr.||26.73||42.||TJ Bell||38.33|
|11.||Kurt Busch||13.88||27.||Regan Smith||27.84||43.||Michael McDowell||38.91|
|12.||Martin Truex Jr.||15.37||28.||Aric Almirola||28.02||44.||Josh Wise||40.42|
|13.||Clint Bowyer||16.33||29.||Casey Mears||31.83||45.||Joe Nemechek||40.49|
|14.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||16.42||30.||Scott Speed||32.49||46.||Scott Riggs||40.76|
|15.||Mark Martin||16.63||31.||Jason Leffler||32.50||47.||Stephen Leicht||42.63|
|16.||Juan Montoya||17.58||32.||Reed Sorenson||33.22|
- Jeff Gordon
- Kyle Busch
- Denny Hamlin
- Clint Bowyer