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Fantasy Preview: Good time for drivers and owners to take risks

NASCAR.com

There is a difference between a cliché and a truism and this statement falls into the second category: Hindsight is always 20/20.

Perhaps fantasy owners should have seen it coming because the origin for most of Phoenix's issues could be traced to Martinsville, both two weeks ago and earlier this season. Chase contenders should have been a good value based on their historical performance at Phoenix. In 2006, they collectively posted an average finish of 9.6, which is the sixth-best of all time. They also had an average result of 10.8 so far this season, even with one bad race factored in.

However, that one bad race might have raised a red flag. Mechanical issues at Martinsville three weeks ago for Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick contributed to the fact that was the only time this season that the Chasers would finish below average. In that same event Tony Stewart lost ground on a mid-race pit stop that he never regained and that was the only time this season that the playoff contenders had more than one of their number finish 25th or worse.

Martinsville was also the venue on which the bad blood between Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer truly began. An ill-timed pass attempt by the driver of the No. 15 this spring caused Gordon to spin out of the lead and set the tone for a frustrating season. The two would rub fenders again several times throughout the year, including during the final laps of the Tums Fast Relief 500 on that same short track two weeks ago. Contact between the two was a contributory factor in the final caution period of the Phoenix AdvoCare 500 that had everyone chatting about around the water cooler Monday morning, (which for the record is a cliché).

Bowyer and Gordon were racing hard for a top-five position with eight laps remaining in regulation when contact cut a tire on the No. 24. Gordon circled the track slowly and intentionally wrecked the No. 15 in retaliation, which caused both of them to finish well down the order. They joined Jimmie Johnson, who had previously cut a tire and slammed the wall two-thirds of the way through the race, and Martin Truex Jr. who retired on lap 10 with an engine failure at the back of the pack. The two worst races of the season for Chase contenders came on two of NASCAR's flattest circuits.

Freedom

In some ways, that may have been a blessing in disguise. The stumble by Chase contenders frees fantasy owners from slavish devotion to the top runners in time to make selections on a track that traditionally has been kind to dark horses. As the last race on the schedule, this is a good time for drivers and owners to take risks and often they are successful.

The 2010 Ford 400 is a good example as Kasey Kahne and Aric Almirola both had strong runs with new teams. That was the season Kahne left Richard Petty Motorsports early and had only a handful of starts with Red Bull Racing under his belt before finishing sixth. In an equally unfamiliar ride, Almirola finished fourth. A correlation can be drawn to Kurt Busch and Regan Smith this week. In 2010, Jeff Burton was in the midst of a mini-surge at the end of the season and had an uncharacteristically strong run at Homestead, as well; he finished sixth.

One of the reasons this track is kind to dark horses is its configuration. There are really no comparative tracks to Homestead and it is one of NASCAR's truly unique venues. It was the first Cup speedway to add progressive banking in 2004 and even though it has been joined by Las Vegas Motor Speedway and recently Kansas Speedway, the shape of those two venues limits the comparison. Homestead is the only true oval 1.5-miler on the circuit and that makes a huge difference to how it drives.

However, it is still a 1.5-mile track and that puts similar demands on the motor, so dark horses have to come from teams that have a solid engine programs and that limits the pool of drivers to a manageable degree.

Because of its unique nature, Homestead is host to some long runs of top finishes, as well. Included in that number are three current streaks that will help decide this week's favorites. When looking at Homestead's record books, disregard the first four seasons. This track occupies the same real estate, but track officials had a difficult time settling on an identity and Homestead hosted two races each on two versions of the track -- neither of which match the current configuration.

The Favorites

Carl Edwards is perhaps the best pick of the week. He has struggled enough this season that the competition is going to disregard him, but Homestead is one of the tracks on which he has rarely stumbled. He finished 14th in his inaugural attempt in 2004 and has not finished worse than eighth since then. The majority of his runs ended in the top five, including a pair of victories and a second-place finish in the past four races. He carried the same kind of record into Dover this fall and even though he needed a little help from a well-timed caution flag, he managed a fifth-place finish. If he repeats that feat this week, the savvy player will not only earn major points but will do so with a driver that is largely overlooked by the rest of their league.

The reason why the concept of a mulligan during the playoffs is still discussed today is because everyone has a bad race from time to time. Martin Truex Jr. narrowly missed finishing outside the top 25 at Martinsville after he changed lanes too soon on a restart and incurred a penalty that cost him a lap. He would be even more unlucky at Phoenix when he blew an engine as the inaugural green flag waved, He finished last. Having hit the bottom, however, Truex should experience a dead bounce and Homestead is perfectly suited to that. Since his first full season of Cup competition when he finished second in 2006, this has been one of his better tracks. Since then, he has a worst result of 11th in six races and was one of the top performers last year when he finished third behind championship contenders Stewart and Edwards.

Kevin Harvick is another driver heading in the right direction at the right time. Amidst rumors that he will leave Richard Childress Racing in 2014, and with a relationship to the organization that has been rocky at best, he could have allowed the distraction to contribute to yet another subpar race during the 2012 Chase. He worked his way to the front and held off determined Joe Gibbs Racing teammates on two late-race restarts to win the Phoenix AdvoCare 500. On the final lap, he was the first driver to race through Danica Patrick's oil and could easily have slipped into the wall, but his luck matched his skill that afternoon. If he did not have those factors in his favor, an excellent record at Homestead might not make him a favorite, but his numbers are great there. Harvick finished second in 2003, which was the first year this track hosted a race in its current configuration. He has not won yet, but he finished outside the top 10 only one time and three of his last four efforts ended in second- or third-place results.

Dark Horses

Kurt Busch crashed on the final lap of the AdvoCare 500 and finished eighth. Both halves of that sentence are important because they define his season. Busch has not been bulletproof and he has torn up a lot of equipment in 2012, but no one has ever doubted his ability behind the wheel. He is prone to overdriving from time to time, but when he is given a good car he maximizes its potential, which is something he did in back-to-back weeks for the first time this season at Texas and Phoenix. He was not quite as strong at Martinsville, but his 15th-place result there was the third consecutive race in which he finished on the lead lap and that is also a record for this season. If a fantasy owner can put the emotions associated with this controversial racer aside, they will have another driver along with Edwards that is not going to be on many competitors' rosters and the gamble could pay off big.

Homestead has become one of the best tracks for Roush Fenway Racing and that gives fantasy owners a great opportunity to pick up a bargain basement driver. The announcement that Matt Kenseth would leave that organization at the end of the season elevated the status of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but he has not been in enough races during the 2012 season to adjust his salary cap to a measurable degree. With a $6 price tag on his head in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game, players will not find a better value even if he only manages to finish in the mid-teens, because that modest salary will allow them to make some changes at the top of the order. Stenhouse can be traded for any low or mid-cap driver on last week's roster and free up enough salary cap to allow a player to take virtually any marquee driver in exchange.

Underdogs

After missing the Chase by a narrow margin, Kyle Busch shifted his priorities and was determined he would be the best of the rest of the field. He will finish 13th in the standings, but that is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how he has run during the past nine weeks. The team has fielded a car capable of winning every event and last week at Phoenix was not the first time he dominated but failed to reach Victory Lane. Ultimately, this takes a toll on a driver and Busch is not immune to frustration. There is another and probably more important reason to leave him in the garage this week, however; Homestead is not one of his better tracks. He has only one top-15 in seven previous starts there with an average finish of 26th. His last two efforts ended outside the top 20, so even if he improves a little it will not be enough to warrant spending hard earned salary cap on the No. 18.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 11th in last fall's Ford 400, but that is the closest he has ever come at Homestead in any of its configurations to cracking the top 10. The remainder of his eight efforts on the progressively banked version of this track ended in results of 19th or worse with an average of 27th -- and in fact, this is his worst track on record. His seventh-place finish in the AAA Texas 500 aside, he has not quite returned to pre-concussion levels and is probably looking forward to the offseason so he can heal properly. A potential but unlikely top-15 is not enough of a reason to give him the start this week and it is time for the No. 88 team to prepare for 2013.

Fantasy Power Ranking
Homestead (past three years)
1. Carl Edwards 5.96   16. Denny Hamlin 17.70   31. Bobby Labonte 34.08
2. Tony Stewart 7.00   17. Kurt Busch 17.74   32. David Gilliland 34.96
3. Kevin Harvick 7.60   18. Jamie McMurray 19.29   33. Mike Bliss 35.07
4. Jimmie Johnson 8.93   19. Joey Logano 20.80   34. Ken Schrader 35.56
5. Matt Kenseth 9.80   20. Trevor Bayne 20.93   35. Dave Blaney 36.00
6. Martin Truex Jr. 10.48   21. Paul Menard 21.36   36. Travis Kvapil 36.48
7. Jeff Gordon 12.13   22. Brad Keselowski 21.52   37. David Stremme 36.85
8. Greg Biffle 12.41   23. Juan Montoya 22.96   38. Landon Cassill 37.06
9. Kasey Kahne 13.02   24. Marcos Ambrose 23.60   39. J.J. Yeley 38.83
10. Ryan Newman 13.06   25. Aric Almirola 24.07   40. Joe Nemechek 39.38
11. Clint Bowyer 14.43   26. David Reutimann 24.98   41. Reed Sorenson 39.40
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 14.70   27. Sam Hornish Jr. 25.54   42. Josh Wise 41.09
13. Kyle Busch 14.87   28. David Ragan 25.87   43. Michael McDowell 41.51
14. Jeff Burton 16.54   29. Regan Smith 27.41   44. Scott Riggs 42.67
15. Mark Martin 17.52   30. Casey Mears 31.44  
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