With only three weeks remaining, it is time for fantasy players to make some bold moves in their league if they are lagging in the points and this is a good stage of the season to do so. It appears the Cup championship is becoming a two-man race. Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin have their work cut out for them to beat Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski by the eight to 10 positions required each week to overtake the leaders, but there are more points in play in NASCAR Fantasy Live game, which gives fantasy owners more flexibility.
The expensive drivers cannot get much pricier and clear patterns have emerged in regard to the final track types. Player fatigue is taking its toll on casual players as they get distracted by football and basketball, but the avid fan has a lot of data at their fingertips. Two of the past three races have been contested on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks. More than a handful of drivers have scored seven of more top-15s in the nine races already held on these so-called "cookie-cutter" courses, and most of those are in narrow ranges from best to worst.
The Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas proved that there are still plenty of surprises to be had, but even with the unique situation created by the reconfiguration and repaving of that track, most of the top finishers had statistically predictable runs. Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle were the only two drivers who finished well below their 2012 pace on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks. Even if players want to assume that race reversed a trend for that duo, there are still plenty of solid options at the front of the pack.
Texas traditionally hosts its pair of races very early and late in the season. That makes the weather conditions quite different from race to race, but even so five drivers swept the top 10 last year. In fact, four of those drivers had results that were only three positions different from spring to fall. Carl Edwards finished third in the spring and was second in the fall, Greg Biffle finished fourth and fifth respectively, Matt Kenseth was first and fourth, and finally Dale Earnhardt Jr. was ninth and seventh. That pattern repeated itself through the field so that 16 of 36 drivers (44 percent) entered in both events finished the AAA Texas 500 within five spots of their Samsung Mobile 500 effort. Another seven drivers finished within six or seven spots.
Biffle, Kenseth, and Edwards led the charge again this spring and kept streaks of top-fives or -10s alive, but they were not alone. Seven of the top 10 finishers this spring finished in the top 10 last fall and two of the remaining three had top-15s in last year's AAA Texas 500.
Success predicts success.
The Chase continues play an important role in determining the final running order of Cup races. Last week was one of the worst overall for the playoff contenders and it was the first time this season that more than one of them finished 25th or worse. Tony Stewart finished 27th, while Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin had mechanical issues that sent their teams home with 30-something results. Six of the remaining Chasers finished in the top 10, however, and one of those had a dramatic performance.
No one was surprised to see Johnson leading much of the race. This was widely accepted as his best opportunity to make up significant ground on Brad Keselowski, who had not only struggled traditionally at Martinsville, but posted his worst qualification effort of the season. The No. 2 team methodically worked their way into the top 10, however, and finished the Tums Fast Relief 500 sixth. Keselowski lost the points' lead and currently trails by two, but passing Jeff Gordon on the final lap of the race was a symbolic, moral victory that did not go unnoticed by the team. And that strong run might not have been possible if Kez did not have the added incentive of winning a championship.
Of the nine drivers mentioned in the introduction with back-to-back top-15s at Texas, eight of them are Chase contenders including the surprisingly strong Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Johnson is also included in their number, but just barely with a 14th in this race last year. Keselowski is not only missing from the list, he has only one top-15 at Texas in eight career starts and that came back in 2010.
Last week's three-best racers were easy to identify. The same thing is true this week and they all report to the Cat in the Hat. Texas has become a Roushketeer Playland largely because of the recent efforts of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Not only have they won two of the past four races with Kenseth taking the Samsung Mobile 500 in 2011 and Biffle winning last year's edition of this race, they have swept the top five in eight combined starts. Kenseth won the most recent "cookie-cutter" race at Kansas and would seem to have a little more momentum, but Biffle has something to prove and that could make a huge difference.
Carl Edwards would seem to be the odd man out in regard to his recent performance, but that could play into fantasy owners' hands. If a player had Johnson, Gordon, and Hamlin on their roster last week they cost you $82.50, but the three Roushketeers will run only $74.00 and Edwards is the cheapest of the bunch. That leaves a sizable surplus to upgrade the dark horse driver and could make the difference between winning or losing the league. Edwards finished seventh and 14th in the two most recent "cookie-cutter" races and that shows some promise, but he also finished fifth at Dover, which has traditionally been one of his most productive tracks. In terms of career averages, Texas pales in comparison, but Edwards was one of the three drivers who swept the top five there last year and he added an eighth this spring.
Martin Truex Jr.'s poor finish last week at Martinsville dropped his salary cap a little in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game and that makes him a slightly better value at Texas. He got off to a great start on this track with a five-race, top-15 streak that culminated in a third-place result. Since then, he has struggled nearly as often as he has finished in the top 15, but his two most recent events show a lot of promise. He finished eighth in last year's edition of the AAA Texas 500 and was sixth this spring. Better still, he has finished worse than 12th only one time in his past 10 races on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks and he had a car capable of winning the Hollywood Casino 400 two weeks ago.
Johnson is having the kind of year that could produce his sixth championship in seven years. He has the experience to maintain his points' lead and great records at the next two venues. He should be one of this week's favorites largely because he finished second in the Samsung Mobile 500 this spring and has only one result worse than 11th in nine races on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks in 2012. It is not that simple, however; Johnson has been hit or miss at Texas in the past seven years. In those 13 races, he has one victory and five runner-up results, but he has also finished outside the top 10 five times. This week, Johnson and Keselowski will be paying a lot of attention to one another and that could drop them several positions down the running order.
While a finish in the high single digits or low teens would be a disappointment to Johnson and his fans, Keselowski would view it as another moral victory. A single top-15 has done little to improve his overall average finish, which is currently worse than 25th at Texas, and that makes this his third-worst track behind Las Vegas and Daytona. His previous record has not meant very much on a number of venues this year, but last week's effort at Martinsville can be viewed two ways. Ultimately Keselowski prevailed on the short track, but he did struggle for a significant part of the race and that could have devastating consequences on an unrestricted, intermediate speedway. Fantasy owners can fully expect Keselowski to finish close to the No. 48 and keep the pressure on, but both drivers are just as likely finish outside the top five as inside that range and they are the two most expensive racers in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game.
Last week, matters went from bad to worse for Kevin Harvick. He entered Martinsville as the only Chaser without a top-10 in the past six races, but he was expected to finish in the top 15 since that is where he has spent much of the second half of the 2012 season. Engine trouble finally caught up with him about 25 laps from the end of the race and sent him to the showers in 32nd. If not for that misfortune, he would be considered a dark horse because Harvick has earned six top-10s in his last 11 races there. Only one of those has been a top-five, however, and his average Texas finish of 13th since 2007 simply does not look all that promising by comparison.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has four top-10 finishes in his last five Texas races and his fans hope that predicts a solid run this week. Unfortunately, he finished 25th in fall 2010 and three of the four races preceding that were also in the 20s. Earnhardt was poised to have a solid comeback after missing two races to a concussion until he was spun in heavy traffic. The box score showed him in 21st, which was earned on the heels of a 20th at Talladega. Along with his four 20-something results in his past eight races on this track, it seems like a better idea to wait and see if he can reclaim his rhythm before spending hard-earned salary cap on a driver who may not be 100 percent.
|Fantasy Power Ranking|
|Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)|
|1.||Matt Kenseth||8.09||16.||Brad Keselowski||17.48||31.||Casey Mears||33.07|
|2.||Jimmie Johnson||8.28||17.||Paul Menard||17.96||32.||Bobby Labonte||33.78|
|3.||Greg Biffle||9.68||18.||Ryan Newman||18.63||33.||David Gilliland||34.21|
|4.||Tony Stewart||10.43||19.||Marcos Ambrose||19.30||34.||Danica Patrick||34.34|
|5.||Carl Edwards||11.25||20.||Juan Montoya||19.53||35.||Travis Kvapil||35.11|
|6.||Kyle Busch||11.26||21.||Jamie McMurray||19.67||36.||Reed Sorenson||35.94|
|7.||Jeff Gordon||11.58||22.||AJ Allmendinger||19.96||37.||Mike Bliss||37.13|
|8.||Denny Hamlin||11.85||23.||Joey Logano||20.63||38.||Dave Blaney||37.63|
|9.||Kevin Harvick||12.38||24.||Jeff Burton||20.76||39.||JJ Yeley||37.67|
|10.||Kasey Kahne||12.85||25.||David Ragan||21.92||40.||Ken Schrader||37.83|
|11.||Clint Bowyer||14.56||26.||Aric Almirola||23.71||41.||Michael McDowell||38.73|
|12.||Kurt Busch||14.70||27.||Trevor Bayne||23.85||42.||David Stremme||38.85|
|13.||Martin Truex Jr.||15.13||28.||Sam Hornish Jr.||24.64||43.||Joe Nemechek||40.47|
|14.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||16.46||29.||Scott Speed||32.51||44.||Josh Wise||41.35|
|15.||Mark Martin||16.58||30.||Landon Cassill||33.06||45.||Stephen Leicht||42.63|