Anyone who thinks that talk about the wild-card is simply hype, should rewind the tape of last week's race. The two drivers with the best chance of securing the second berth charged to the front of the field and led in the opening laps. Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon spent most of the day inside the top five and challenged for the win. They kept their cars free from crash damage and had the perfect balance of speed and durability in their engine package to finish in the top 10. The wild-card battle with continue to be a story this week in the Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond. Busch, Gordon and even Ryan Newman have been great at Richmond International Raceway in the past.
Another storyline that will carry over from Atlanta is the surge of Denny Hamlin. Winning back-to-back at Bristol and Atlanta was a serious feat because neither of those tracks has been particularly kind to him in the past. Richmond and the other short, flat tracks are a different matter altogether and he is destined to continue to run with the leaders. He is also a good example of how powerful momentum can be as a contributing factor in setting one's lineup. Paul Menard and Martin Truex Jr. offer further proof with long streaks of top-15s on a wide variety of tracks.
The regular season ends this week and Chicagoland will mark the kickoff of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Even though there is no off week between the Federated Auto Parts 400 and the Geico 400, the dynamic between the top 12 in points and the remainder of the field will change vividly. Drivers that are not competing for the championship will still have something to prove -- a chip on their shoulder that is certain to get bigger with every passing week. And yet, the intensity will ratchet down a notch or two following the dramatic climax that has been the wild-card battle only to slowly build again during the final 10 races.
Each week, fantasy owners have to decide on their strategy of play. The best players alter their approach conditionally and momentum has been more important during the past several weeks than track record. Next week, that may change when the clock is reset. But players who were successful last week may choose to stand pat and let the money ride on their current rosters.
Streak to the finish
Luckily for fantasy players, they can combine two strategies this week. The five drivers with the best Fantasy Power Rankings average for Richmond specifically also have momentum on their side. Busch, Hamlin, Gordon, Clint Bowyer, and Kevin Harvick have each run extremely well in one or several of the races from the past month. Just outside that group of five drivers, there are some interesting dark horses like Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart who have stumbled in recent weeks, but have some incredible streaks of top-10 and -15 finishes on this track.
Streaks are going to be incredibly important in the coming weeks. Jimmie Johnson amassed his five Cup wins by practically sweeping the top 10 during the Chase. Last year, Stewart and Edwards finished tied in the points but they took two separate roads to get to that total. Edwards earned nine top-10s in the final 10 races and finished with a worst of 11th. Stewart had a greater number of disappointing days, but he made up for that insufficiency by winning five of the 10 events.
And, for the moment, winning is all that matters once more. Several wild-card contenders can secure the final berth with a win; the drivers locked into the top 10 can get additional bonus points by securing another victory. Last year's tie is foremost on their minds with this scenario. If Edwards had been able to win one more race in the regular season, he might have been the 2011 champion. Winning is on their mind, but they also have an eye on the following week and running strong is more important than finishing well. The future Chase contenders can afford to falter this week, which means they can take a few more chances. Beginning at Chicagoland, they cannot make any mistakes whatsoever.
Kyle Busch could not have picked a better place to make his final stand to protect his wild-card berth. To say he has been great at Richmond is a gross understatement, because he has been as close to perfect as is humanly possible. He started his career on this track with five consecutive top-five finishes, finished second once in each of the 2006, 2007, and 2008 seasons, and then began dominating Victory Lane in 2009. Since spring of that year, he has earned four victories in seven races and scored a worst finish of sixth. Busch's closest competition during most races on this track is his teammate Denny Hamlin, but that also factors into a favorable handicap for the No. 18 because it means the organization has a great set of notes from which to work.
Since 2009, Hamlin has a few less top-10s to his credit than Busch, but without that comparison he would easily be a favorite. Hamlin and Busch finished first and second in back-to-back races in fall 2010 and spring 2011. Hamlin won the fall event, which was his second consecutive victory in that race. Along with his victories in the past two weeks, it is a fair bet that these drivers will challenge one another once more and the difference will probably come down to one minor adjustment on the final pit stop. There won't be any team orders because Busch does not have to finish first to qualify for the Chase. So long as Gordon does not win, any result inside the top 10 will do the trick, so this could be one of the most interesting battles of the year.
The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have such a statistical advantage over the remainder of the field that it is meaningless to try and manufacture a third favorite before the weekend starts. Gordon would be that third pick, but the likelihood of his winning is not great because even though he runs strong on this track, bad luck or a mis-timed adjustment often keeps him from challenging for a top-five. Three of his last four races on this track ended in results of 12th or worse and that far outweighs his third-place finish in this race last year and his second-place result at Atlanta. He will miss the Chase, but fantasy owners should be prepared to start him in the Federated Auto Parts 400 because he is going to keep Busch honest by finishing in the top five.
Carl Edwards is another driver who is going to see a lot of hard work come to naught. Richmond races a lot like one of the dog-legged, similarly-configured, 1.5- and two-mile tracks and that has played into his favor in recent seasons. He enters the weekend with a five-race top-10 streak that includes a second in this race last year. He is winless in 16 starts at Richmond, however, and three top-fives is not enough success to suggest he will improve drastically this week. His salary cap of $24.25 is relatively affordable and he will be a great value in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game.
Tony Stewart suffered his fourth consecutive disappointment last week with a 22nd-place finish in the AdvoCare 500. In that event, he not only finished badly, he failed to find the setup for the entire evening and frustration dripped from his voice every time he keyed the radio. Richmond is a great place to bounce back, but it is impossible to make him a favorite with his current state of mind. Still, he enters the weekend with three consecutive top-10s there and he posted three runner-up results in the span of four races from 2007 through 2009. He should not be removed from a fantasy roster, but he might not be worth completely readjusting the lineup to accommodate the No. 14.
Greg Biffle has been a great value in recent weeks, but with back-to-back results in the teens he has less momentum than several drivers in the field. He also has one of the worst recent records at Richmond among the top 10 in points. In his last 11 starts on this track, his best finish was 13th. He scored that twice, including this race last year but with that as a high water mark and an average finish of 19.6 during the past six seasons, it will not be a hard decision to leave him in the garage. It is not out of the question that he will defy this prediction because he scored five consecutive top-10s from 2004 through 2006, but that is distant enough in the past to make him a bad gamble.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. defied the odds last week and finished in the top 10 after struggling most of the evening. The ability to capture a strong finish in spite of mid-race difficulties will make him one of the frontrunners once the Chase begins, but it is difficult to handicap him as one of the favorites on certain courses. He won the 2000 Pontiac Excitement 400 during his rookie season and, for a while, it appeared this would be one of his better tracks. He posted two more victories on this three-quarter miler with the most recent coming in 2006, but in the 12 races that followed, he posted only two more top-10s. What will make starting or parking him this week a difficult decision is the fact that one of his strong runs came this spring in the Capital City 400 and he finished second to Busch that afternoon.
|Fantasy Power Rankings|
|"Cookie-cutter tracks" (past three years)|
|1.||Jimmie Johnson||7.22||16.||Martin Truex Jr.||16.72||31.||David Gilliland||32.73|
|2.||Jeff Gordon||7.97||17.||Kurt Busch||17.12||32.||Stephen Leicht||33.44|
|3.||Kyle Busch||9.33||18.||Jamie McMurray||17.46||33.||Reed Sorenson||33.69|
|4.||Denny Hamlin||9.73||19.||Joey Logano||18.10||34.||Travis Kvapil||33.99|
|5.||Kevin Harvick||12.13||20.||Greg Biffle||18.64||35.||Landon Cassill||35.10|
|6.||Clint Bowyer||12.89||21.||Kasey Kahne||19.12||36.||Ken Schrader||35.14|
|7.||Carl Edwards||13.23||22.||David Reutimann||22.49||37.||Dave Blaney||35.69|
|8.||Ryan Newman||13.36||23.||Marcos Ambrose||23.12||38.||David Stremme||35.88|
|9.||Matt Kenseth||13.38||24.||Paul Menard||23.92||39.||Mike Bliss||37.11|
|10.||Juan Pablo Montoya||13.75||25.||Aric Almirola||24.46||40.||Michael McDowell||38.27|
|11.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||14.56||26.||David Ragan||26.67||41.||Scott Riggs||39.66|
|12.||Mark Martin||14.99||27.||Regan Smith||27.56||42.||Josh Wise||39.84|
|13.||Jeff Burton||15.51||28.||Casey Mears||29.47||43.||JJ Yeley||39.99|
|14.||Brad Keselowski||16.42||29.||Sam Hornish Jr.||29.87||44.||Joe Nemechek||40.10|
|15.||Tony Stewart||16.71||30.||Bobby Labonte||30.10|