Fantasy Preview: Johnson, Keselowski take show to Phoenix

NASCAR.com

The final three races of the season are contested on three distinct tracks with three different distances and drivers need to be at the top of their game to score maximum points. Fantasy owners will also need to make subtle adjustments to the lineup in order to dominate their league and make an 11th-hour charge.

Last week was the final 500-mile race of the season and it was held on a cookie-cutter course. This week, the distance is trimmed to 312 miles on a 1-miler, while next week will feature a 400-mile affair on one of NASCAR's truly unique tracks. Texas is one of the most steeply banked unrestricted, intermediate speedways on the schedule, Phoenix is one of the flattest tracks on the circuit, and Homestead was among the first big tracks to employ progressive banking.

To win the championship or to even advance one or two positions, teams have to adjust quickly and if last year is an indication of the challenges faced, there will be a variety of drivers in the top 10 each week. In 2011 only four drivers swept the top 10 in the final three races. Two of them swept the top five as Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards waged a championship battle that quickly became legendary. Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski are on pace to equal that contest in terms of intensity but they are extremely expensive in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game, so the challenge for players is to determine which of the remaining racers will join them at front of the pack.

Cream of the crop

The odds are good that the majority of top-10 finishes will continue to go to playoff contenders. Last week, the 12 Chasers posted an average finish of 9.7, which was the seventh time in the past eight races that they beat the overall average of 13.5. So far this season, this elite dozen have posted an average finish of 10.8 and that should easily eclipse the previous record set in 2008 when the Chasers finished the season with a 12.8.

On average, slightly more than three non-Chasers have earned top-10 finishes and they have provided some interesting dark horses. Martinsville is a good example as bargain basement drivers Aric Almirola finished fourth, Brian Vickers was eighth, and Bobby Labonte was ninth. In that same race, Kyle Busch finished second and he is the only driver outside the top 12 in points to consistently record single-digit results. That makes it difficult to predict a pattern, but it also creates an opportunity for players who are willing to take slight risks.

Before it was reconfigured and repaved, Phoenix was one of NASCAR's rhythm tracks. Flat corners require drivers to brake early and roll through the turns. Once that skill is learned, it can be reapplied race after race until long streaks are accumulated. Unfortunately, last year's track improvements tossed a monkey wrench into the works and only three drivers were able to back up a top-10 scored the last time a race was held on the old surface with an equally strong run during the fall. One of them, AJ Allmendinger is not even racing this week.

The news from this spring's Subway Fresh Fit 500 is not any more encouraging. None of the drivers who finished in the top 10 last fall on the new surface could back that up with a top-10 this season, so no one enters the weekend with back-to-back strong runs there and only a handful of drivers have consecutive top-15s.

That shifts the focus to the track type and the news improves considerably. In seven races so far this year contested on the short, flat tracks of Phoenix, New Hampshire, Martinsville, and Richmond, 10 drivers have earned at least four top-10s. Better still, one lesson learned at Martinsville is that these are driver's tracks on which skill often trumps horsepower, so this is a good week to differentiate one's lineup from the competition. Players may as well roll the dice this week because only one race remains after the checkers wave over the Phoenix AdvoCare 500.

The Favorites

In one of his championship years, Johnson got off to a relatively slow start in his first five races of 2007 and then strung four consecutive wins together at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix. Last year, Stewart won three of the final four races of the season, so if fantasy players believe that the No. 48 cannot win again in this highly competitive division because he has already posted back-to-back victories, then a reality check is in order. Johnson not only can win, he is virtually guaranteed to at least be a part of the battle at the end of the Phoenix AdvoCare 500. No one has been perfect in the past two seasons and Johnson stumbled to 14th last fall. Before that race, however, he had a 10-race top-five streak to his credit that included four victories. The new surface confounded the team for a very short time and the driver was back to his old form this spring with a fourth-place finish. No one has been better on a track during the Modern Era for this long and Johnson boasts an average finish of 5.3 in 18 races at Phoenix.

Pundits wondered how NASCAR could top last year's championship battle. The simple answer is that they cannot, but it appears the drivers will at least find a way to match it. Johnson and Keselowski battled for the victory last week at Texas through two late-race restarts and finished first and second. In 2011, Stewart and Edwards also finished 1-2 in that race and went on to finish within one position of one another in the next two events. History has a way of repeating itself and Keselowski seems destined to cross under the checkers in the top five and within a spot of the No. 48. His past record on a given track has not meant much this season as last week was the 17th time he has posted a career-best finish. For the record, Phoenix this spring was another track on which he beat his average and he finished fifth. Notably, that was one position behind Johnson. Keselowski is also the only driver this season who has swept the top 10 in seven short, flat track races.

Clint Bowyer has come close to sweeping the short, flat tracks to match Keselowski and he could be a much more interesting pick this week. He developed engine trouble in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 and finished 30th, which might cause the competition to overlook him. However, Bowyer was 10th on the newly reconfigured track last fall and he has been perfect in regard to top-10s on this track type since. Not only has he swept the top 10, but Bowyer's last four efforts at New Hampshire, Richmond, and Martinsville all ended in the top five with a victory in the rain-plagued Federated Auto Parts 400.

Dark Horses

Kasey Kahne has been strong enough during the Chase that classifying him as a dark horse may seem a little harsh, but last week's accident took some wind out of the team's sails. They were hovering around the points' leaders and were ready to pounce if either Johnson or Keselowski had any trouble, but a 25th-place finish in the AAA Texas 500 effectively ended that strategy. Moreover, Phoenix has been a tricky track for Kahne with only two top-10s in his most recent 11 starts there. He crashed this spring and finished 34th, but he was running strong before that happened and last fall he won the first race on the new surface. With the championship out of reach, he should be more relaxed this week and could challenge for the win once more.

Even before his accident last week, Mark Martin was a bit of a disappointment. He was rarely spotted in the top five, but he spent nearly three-quarters of the race hovering around the top 15 and might have been able to advance in the closing laps if not for the contact that sent him spinning into the infield. Martin skipped both races at New Hampshire and Martinsville this season, so he has only three previous races on this track type. The good news is that he swept the top 10 in those events at Richmond and scored a ninth at Phoenix this spring.

Underdogs

Martin Truex Jr. has been a solid value throughout the Chase, but his most visible problem came on the similarly flat Martinsville Speedway. His 23rd-place finish in the Tums Fast Relief 500 was caused by driver error when he changed lanes too soon on a restart and fantasy owners should not expect him to make that same mistake again. However, that is not the only time he has stumbled on this track type in 2012. He got off to a solid start with a seventh at Phoenix and a fifth in Martinsville's spring race, but he has finished outside the top 15 in four of the past five events on minimally-banked courses one mile in length or less and not all of those poor results were caused by mistakes.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. could be a decent value if players manage their expectations, but he commands a $25 price tag in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game and will be a good value only if he finishes among the top 10. In seven short, flat track races this year, he has earned three top-fives, but he has missed the top spots more often. He finished 21st with crash damage at Martinsville in the most recent outing on this track type and has three results in the low teens. One of those came at Phoenix this spring when he finished 14th in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 and that will only earn sufficient points if he qualifies poorly and has a positive pass differential in the salary-cap game.

Fantasy Power Ranking
Short, flat tracks (past three years)
1. Jimmie Johnson 7.35   15. Juan Montoya 15.87   29. Casey Mears 30.39
2. Jeff Gordon 8.06   16. Brad Keselowski 16.42   30. David Gilliland 33.88
3. Denny Hamlin 8.57   17. Martin Truex Jr. 17.00   31. Landon Cassill 34.44
4. Kyle Busch 9.65   18. Kurt Busch 17.06   32. Travis Kvapil 34.60
5. Clint Bowyer 10.85   19. Greg Biffle 18.10   33. Stephen Leicht 35.44
6. Ryan Newman 11.55   20. Joey Logano 19.47   34. Dave Blaney 35.71
7. Kevin Harvick 11.84   21. Jamie McMurray 20.29   35. Mike Bliss 36.75
8. Tony Stewart 12.24   22. Marcos Ambrose 22.33   36. Michael McDowell 37.72
9. Carl Edwards 13.76   23. Sam Hornish Jr. 23.62   37. David Stremme 37.73
10. Jeff Burton 14.40   24. Aric Almirola 24.67   38. J.J. Yeley 37.86
11. Mark Martin 14.84   25. Paul Menard 25.94   39. Reed Sorenson 38.00
12. Matt Kenseth 15.04   26. David Ragan 26.99   40. Josh Wise 39.82
13. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 15.50   27. Regan Smith 27.59   41. Joe Nemechek 39.86
14. Kasey Kahne 15.77   28. Bobby Labonte 28.86  
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