There wasn't a lot of data to consider when handicapping Darlington; this week, there is an overabundance. Darlington stands alone as the only rough-surfaced track on the schedule now that the former North Carolina Motor Speedway no longer hosts a Cup Series race, but there are plenty of similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks remaining. Charlotte, Atlanta, Texas, Las Vegas, Kansas, Chicagoland and Kentucky look similar from the air although crew chiefs need to understand the subtle differences in each to make their respective drivers fast.
While each of these tracks is unique, they also require many of the same elements and there are similarities in mechanical setup, engine requirements, and even temperament from the drivers. The proof of this parallel can be found in drivers' results. On the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks, teams can often sweep the top 10 for extended periods, but there are also mid-pack entrants who spend nearly all of their time in the teens, while others record long streaks of 20- or 30-something results.
These tracks have been derided in the past as "cookie-cutter" courses and the phrase has taken on enough negative connotations that the television media goes out of their way to explain how no two courses are alike. Instead of criticizing how comparable the tracks are, however, fantasy owners need to embrace the similarities and play this week by the numbers.
Long streaks are possible on this track type, but the seven similarly configured, 1.5-mile courses were not entirely predictable last year. Several drivers were able to log top-10s in more than half of the 10 races held on this type of track, but no one was able to sweep the entire season. Carl Edwards came close with nine top-fives, but he stumbled in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600. In fact, that race was actually one of the hardest events to handicap last year.
No one expects a 600-mile race to be determined by fuel mileage; it seems as if after all that work during the evening, it should come down to stamina and endurance under the hood, but when a caution waved with a little more than 150 laps remaining in the event, that is precisely what happened. A few drivers topped off during that caution and probably would have gone the distance if not for another late-race yellow flag for a blown engine on the No. 48 that set up a green-white-checkered finish. Several drivers continued to roll the dice and some of them ran out of fuel on the final lap, which created one of the most improbable endings of the season.
Stalwart favorites on this track type like Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle joined Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson in their misfortune and failed to crack the top 10 while fresh faces belonging to David Ragan, Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger graced the top five.
The cookie-cutter tracks are iconoclastic. Top-five finishes most often go to well-funded teams with experienced drivers, but because similarly configured, 1.5- and 2-mile tracks make up more than a third of the schedule, even lightly funded teams are forced to put the lion's share of their efforts into going fast on them. Dark horses rarely get top-10s, but they can be counted on to score their share of results in the teens, and that could be the secret to this week's success.
This week's favorite is easy to identify. Johnson had the ability to dominate every segment of last week's All-Star Race, but he employed strategy and saved his equipment for much of the evening. He won the first 20-lap section of the exhibition and was guaranteed to pit from the lead for a mandatory stop so there was no reason to leave his Chevrolet in harm's way. While the stop was mandatory, service was not and Johnson surged back onto the track with a front-row start after briefly pausing in his pits. Once the green waved, there was no looking back and he drove away from the field during the final 10-lap segment. Johnson also has been the most dominant driver on the cookie-cutter tracks this season. He hasn't won, but a pair of runner-up finishes at Vegas and Texas, plus a third in the most recent event at Kansas, gives him a distinct advantage over the competition. His victory at Darlington reaffirmed this team's confidence and the field had better be aware of their strength.
Biffle is the only other driver to sweep the top five this season in three similarly configured, 1.5-mile track races; he also finished fifth this past fall at Texas so that he enters the weekend with a four-race top-five streak. Success on unrestricted, intermediate speedways is necessary to qualify for the Chase and that is all but a foregone conclusion for the current points' leader. Biffle has been strong everywhere this season, but he's been at his best on this track type. Last year, Biffle finished in the mid-teens in both Charlotte races, but he already has overcome much longer odds this season; Texas is only his 10th-best track in terms of average finishes, but that didn't keep him from winning there a few weeks ago.
If fantasy players look at Edwards' Charlotte Motor Speedway record to the exclusion of the other similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks, he would not be one of this week's top picks. A third-place finish this past fall at Charlotte is one of only two top-10s in his past seven starts on the track and he is statistically more likely to finish in the mid-teens. However, he was almost perfect on the cookie-cutters last year, with nine top-fives in 10 starts and the one race in which he failed to finish that well was largely because of errant pit strategy in last year's Coca-Cola 600. This year, he picked up where he left off and scored a fifth at Vegas. He slipped to eighth and ninth in the next two races on this track type at Texas and Kansas, respectively, but that still means he enters the weekend with a 10-race top-10 streak.
Jamie McMurray should have had a breakout race at Darlington. He ran well, but sustained damage in an altercation with Allmendinger that sidelined both drivers. He should be able to rebound at Charlotte, although a top-five is probably out of the question. McMurray has been great on this track in the past; in 2010, he finished second and first if the two Charlotte races and his recent performance on cookie-cutter tracks also has been solid. So far in three races in 2012, he swept the top 15, which is in stark contrast to last year's performance when his best effort on this track type was a 16th. The No. 1 team is a gamble, but it's one worth taking.
Logano needed the top-10 finish earned at Darlington to restore some of his confidence. The season has been a roller-coaster that appears to have more valleys than hills, but Charlotte is a place that has been kind in the past. Logano has never really struggled on this track with a worst result of 13th in six starts and a pair of top-fives as his personal bests. The news has not been uniformly good on cookie-cutter tracks this season, but it could certainly be worse. In three starts at Vegas, Texas and Kansas, he finished in a narrow band of 15th through 19th and he is almost guaranteed to improve on that record in the Coca-Cola 600.
The No. 24 team needs to switch to Plan B and concentrate on winning races if it wants to make the Chase. That is going to make it unreliable on a number of occasions as it rolls the dice on aberrant tire strategies and fuel-mileage wagers, which could leave fantasy owners scratching their heads at the end of several races. Even if not for the desperate situation faced by Gordon, Charlotte would not be one of the places predicted for a strong run; his past three attempts on this track ended in the 20s and that is a consistency fantasy players would prefer to avoid.
Ryan Newman is a difficult pick in salary-cap games. He ran so strong from Weeks 3 through 6 that his value spiked and another 15-place result at Richmond a few weeks later has kept it from coming back down. Unfortunately, that top-15 stands alone amidst four race results of 20th or worse. His past two cookie-cutter attempts also ended in the 20s, which leads one to suspect that is about where he'll cross under the checkers again this week. If the No. 39 could be had for a bargain-basement fee, that would be acceptable, but there are simply better bargains in his price range.
|Fantasy Power Ranking|
|'Cookie-cutter' tracks (past three years)|
|1.||Matt Kenseth||8.52||16.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||17.30||30.||Casey Mears||31.84|
|2.||Jimmie Johnson||8.59||17.||Ryan Newman||18.90||31.||Scott Speed||31.92|
|3.||Tony Stewart||9.31||18.||Brad Keselowski||19.00||32.||Bobby Labonte||33.43|
|4.||Greg Biffle||10.29||19.||Paul Menard||19.27||33.||David Gilliland||34.06|
|5.||Carl Edwards||10.80||20.||Jamie McMurray||19.59||34.||Landon Cassill||34.16|
|6.||Jeff Gordon||11.29||21.||David Reutimann||19.67||35.||David Stremme||35.34|
|7.||Kyle Busch||11.60||22.||Jeff Burton||20.13||36.||Travis Kvapil||35.45|
|8.||Denny Hamlin||12.19||23.||AJ Allmendinger||20.14||37.||JJ Yeley||36.70|
|9.||Kasey Kahne||12.80||24.||Marcos Ambrose||20.16||38.||Mike Bliss||36.73|
|10.||Kurt Busch||13.05||25.||Joey Logano||21.36||39.||Dave Blaney||37.43|
|11.||Kevin Harvick||13.55||26.||Trevor Bayne||21.38||40.||Michael McDowell||38.96|
|12.||Martin Truex Jr.||16.04||27.||David Ragan||21.48||41.||Josh Wise||39.02|
|13.||Juan Pablo Montoya||16.43||28.||Aric Almirola||27.86||42.||Scott Riggs||39.15|
|14.||Mark Martin||16.72||29.||Regan Smith||28.15||43.||Joe Nemechek||39.99|
- Greg Biffle
- Carl Edwards
- Charlotte Motor Speedway