As predicted, last week's race at Watkins Glen had a profound impact on the points and playoff implications. Jimmie Johnson climbed into the lead for the first time this year with four races remaining until the Chase, while the leader entering the weekend fell to fourth. Jeff Gordon entered the race with the second wild-card berth, but on the final lap that landscape shifted three times. Kyle Busch took the white flag as the leader and would have earned his second victory if he had made it back to the checkered flag in that position. He was spun from the lead and the current wild-card contention entering the esses, giving the second seed back to Gordon, who in turn spun on the final corner and handed that honor to Ryan Newman.
The wild-card battle will continue to be one of the most interesting storylines during the coming four weeks and it continues to impact fantasy strategies. Six of the 10 drivers who currently sit 11th through 20th in the standings have at least one victory, but half of them are in a difficult position in regard to how they will play their strategies The difference between Newman and Gordon, who is seeded fourth, is equivalent to a mere 10 positions on the track. Busch is wedged between these two and any or all three positions could change in one race. These three drivers can help seal their fates with a victory, but they also cannot afford to take too great a risk on the track and that makes them dangerous and appealing to fantasy owners.
Carl Edwards could immediately snag the second wild card with a victory in the final four races, but winning is difficult at NASCAR's top level and often drivers have to employ risky strategies to find Victory Lane. The same holds true for Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano, who would improve their odds immeasurably with a second victory. And finally, the clock is ticking loudly for Paul Menard, Jeff Burton and Jamie McMurray -- all of whom need two victories even to be considered factors. These six drivers represent high-risk, high-reward options for players.
All the world's a stage
The drama is going to play out on four distinct stages. Two of the final four races will be held on short tracks, but Richmond and Bristol could not be less similar despite the fact that both are less than a mile in length. Atlanta is one of the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks that dominate the circuit, but in the past 13 weeks NASCAR has visited only one of these comparative courses when it rolled into Kentucky for the second time in Cup Series history.
Michigan should provide the best opportunity to have a relevant notebook, but that track was repaved prior to the Quicken Loans 400 this past June and remains an unknown. Four drivers who finished in the 20s last August adjusted quickly to the new pavement and scored top-10 finishes. On the other hand, five of the top performers in the June race either kept alive or started top-10 streaks on this course. The implication for fantasy owners is that many of the choices this week need to be made after the weekend activities are in the books, with decisions heavily influenced by average speed during 10-lap runs and qualification position.
For the moment, all players have to go on are historical statistics, so that is how this week's handicaps are determined. The favorites will be a mix of teams who enter the weekend with momentum established in the past six weeks, as well as drivers with a solid record on the 2-mile tracks of Michigan and Auto Club.
Brad Keselowski fits the first criteria better than anyone else in the field. In the five oval-track races following Sonoma, he swept the top 10 and won at Kentucky. That victory is important because these two tracks are fairly similar with flat corners, an intermediate distance of 1.5 and 2 miles, and Kentucky is new to the schedule while Michigan has new pavement. Pocono also was recently repaved and Keselowski finished fourth in its rain-shortened race earlier this month. In fact, he was challenging for the victory when Johnson created a traffic jam at the front of the pack that required him to take evasive action. Keselowski finished only 13th in June's race at Michigan, but he has steadily improved in the weeks that followed and should challenge for the win.
Picking Johnson to finish in the top five is nearly always a safe bet. In his past 10 efforts on 2-mile tracks, he won twice at Auto Club, posted a combined six top-five finishes on these two tracks, and finished worse than 12th only once. He finished second in this race last year to Busch and earned a second consecutive top-five this past June. He was expected to run particularly well at Watkins Glen, but he beat expectations last week and finished third, which would be his fourth consecutive top-10 if not for a flat tire on the final restart at Pocono. He has the perfect balance of track record and momentum to almost guarantee a top-five finish this week and as the new championship leader with only four races remaining, he is going to be focused on getting as many victories as possible to add bonus points to his tally when the Chase begins.
* Top four can clinch Chase berths at Michigan
Roush Fenway Racing once was the prohibitively dominant team on 2-mile tracks. It regularly swept the top 10 with all its drivers and were almost as likely to sweep the top five on a given weekend. That supremacy has waned somewhat in recent years, but Matt Kenseth has done his part to keep the tradition alive. In his past four Michigan races, he has posted three top-fives and swept the top 10. He finished only 16th in this year's race at Auto Club, but he was fourth in last year's edition of that event. He also has a reason to feel confident based on last week's performance. Entering Watkins Glen, it seemed likely that his streak of results outside the top 10 would get extended to four consecutive races, but he stayed out of trouble and finished eighth.
Edwards needs to win in the next four weeks to qualify for a wild card and based on his career average finish, this would be the most likely venue. He has averages of better than ninth at both Michigan and Auto Club, which ranks them among his personal top-four, but he has slipped in recent seasons. He finished outside the top 10 only twice in his first 22 attempts on these tracks and the majority of those were top-fives. In his most recent nine attempts on the 2-milers, he has finished outside the top 10 five times, including 30-something finishes because of an ignition failure in the 2010 Auto Club race and an engine failure in last August's Michigan race. However, most of time that he missed the top 10, he finished in the top 15 and that makes him a driver to watch for a solid run. But it does not make him a driver who is likely to challenge for the victory.
Busch and Gordon could easily rise to the level of favorites as the weekend progresses, but they both have an immense amount of pressure on their shoulders. They both have stumbled recently on this track with Busch straining an engine this past June and Gordon missing the setup and slipping to 27th in the August 2010 race. Busch was stronger last week at Watkins Glen and he cannot be faulted for slipping in oil and allowing Keselowski to catch his back bumper. Gordon has been strong since leaving Michigan in June and even though he spun by himself on the final lap, it was still that pesky oil that was his undoing at Watkins Glen. Make them race-day decisions and chose whichever has the better overall experience in practice and qualification.
Denny Hamlin would be a favorite if his current luck was not so abysmal. Not even the driver was surprised when he crashed in practice and later exploded an engine during the race at Watkins Glen because these things are becoming commonplace. In the past eight weeks, he has been slowed or parked by crash damage four times in addition to last week's double-whammy. The news is not much better on this track type; dating to last year's race at Auto Club, he has experienced trouble in three of five races on 2-mile tracks that included a pair of accidents at Michigan and a blown engine at Fontana.
Trevor Bayne will look like an attractive option this week with a relatively low salary cap based on his part-time status, but starting him comes with a lot of risk. This team has started eight races this year and it has scored productive top-10s at Las Vegas and Talladega. Bayne also was worth starting at Indianapolis three weeks ago with a 17th-place finish, but the remainder of the No. 21 Ford team's efforts have been disappointing. In eight races, Bayne has finished 24th or worse five times and in June's race at Michigan, he finished last with a blown engine after qualifying seventh.
|Fantasy Power Ranking|
|2-mile tracks (past three years)|
|1.||Jimmie Johnson||7.37||16.||Kurt Busch||17.16||31.||Landon Cassill||32.83|
|2.||Tony Stewart||8.01||17.||Martin Truex Jr.||18.76||32.||Bobby Labonte||33.00|
|3.||Jeff Gordon||9.53||18.||Jeff Burton||19.04||33.||Travis Kvapil||33.68|
|4.||Matt Kenseth||9.93||19.||Joey Logano||19.55||34.||Reed Sorenson||33.98|
|5.||Mark Martin||11.33||20.||David Reutimann||21.47||35.||David Gilliland||34.39|
|6.||Kevin Harvick||11.50||21.||David Ragan||22.94||36.||Ken Schrader||34.75|
|7.||Greg Biffle||11.56||22.||Brad Keselowski||23.40||37.||David Stremme||35.67|
|8.||Clint Bowyer||11.98||23.||Paul Menard||23.61||38.||Dave Blaney||36.32|
|9.||Kyle Busch||12.01||24.||Jamie McMurray||25.17||39.||J.J. Yeley||37.46|
|10.||Denny Hamlin||12.89||25.||Marcos Ambrose||25.69||40.||Joe Nemechek||38.74|
|11.||Carl Edwards||13.85||26.||Sam Hornish Jr.||26.23||41.||Jason Leffler||40.50|
|12.||Kasey Kahne||14.61||27.||Regan Smith||26.72||42.||Scott Riggs||41.25|
|13.||Ryan Newman||15.93||28.||Casey Mears||29.47||43.||Josh Wise||41.50|
|14.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||16.20||29.||Aric Almirola||30.38||44.||Mike Skinner||42.06|
|15.||Juan Montoya||16.60||30.||Trevor Bayne||31.86|