For some drivers, road racing is a necessary evil: a chore that must be faced twice a year with stoic resolve. Leaving either Sonoma or Watkins Glen with a top-10 finish is a rare occurrence and the top three in points this week have all struggled on this track type in recent seasons. Matt Kenseth has never scored a road course top-five and his latest top-10 came in this race in 2008. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s most recent road course top-10 came at Watkins Glen in 2005, and while Greg Biffle finished seventh in the 2010 Sonoma race, his best result on this track type since then was only 24th.
Fourth in points, Jimmie Johnson has experienced some strong runs in the past two years and so has sixth-place Kevin Harvick, so the battle for the points' lead will probably tighten up heading into the Race to the Chase -- the final 10 regular season races.
For fantasy players, the points battle provides a backdrop only for the real task at hand. Once upon a time, picking a roster for the road courses was easy. A handful of Cup regulars dominated this track type and when they got on a roll, they would rattle off long streaks of top-five finishes. Sprinkle in a few road ringers who were racing for top-notch teams and the roster practically set itself.
Changing of the guard
Recently there has been a changing of the guard and with that disorder, the challenge to fantasy owners has become more difficult. There are still a couple of drivers who set themselves apart from the competition, but the old guard is struggling to keep up and are finishing in the top five with less frequency. As they struggle to find consistency, drivers who were not traditionally strong like AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Burton, and Clint Bowyer erratically take their place among the elite, which provides both an opportunity and a temptation.
Fantasy players lucky enough to have one of those occasionally strong drivers during the right afternoon differentiate their roster from the competition and can make up much needed ground on the competition. Points are points and the goal of the game is to accumulate as many as possible. However, since a few drivers have dominant streaks, they will be on most rosters and earning points for those favorites will not advance ones' position in the league.
This week, the style of play one employs should largely be based on their circumstances. Players with a large lead or a deep deficit might want to activate the differentiators instead of the favorites. If the top tier experiences problems or executes the wrong strategy at the end of the Toyota/Save Mart 350, those occasionally strong contenders could be the best value of the day.
If not for a broken transmission on the Wood Bros.' No 21 in 2008, Marcos Ambrose would have a perfect record of top-10s on this track type. And if not for stalling his engine and falling to sixth after leading the 2010 Toyota/Save Mart 350, he would probably have two road course victories and a unspoiled record of top-fives in eight starts. He has come as close as possible to perfection on road courses, and that is going to make him an extremely popular pick this week. Players who have ever seen the V8 Supercar series will not be surprised at his Cup prowess. Those full-bodied sedans are conducive to a lot of beating and banging, which taught Ambrose to be aggressive early in his career. He can root and gouge with the best drivers on the track, but he also has enough car control to slice through the corners when he gets to the lead. Ambrose earned his first Cup victory in the most recent road course race last August at the Glen and he is liable to follow that up with another this week.
Juan Montoya developed his road course skill in a series with an entirely different personality, but there are enough similarities between Formula 1 and the V8 Supercars to have prepared him for Cup as well. In the international series, drivers also have to be aggressive. They need to attack each corner and navigate it on the ragged edge; the addition of fenders only improved Montoya's chance of getting to the front. His record on road courses is not quite as perfect as Ambrose's and some of that is because Montoya is slightly more aggressive and less patient. He experienced crash damage in this race last year and couldn't reclaim his place at the head of the pack, but his victory at Sonoma in his rookie season and another at Watkins Glen in 2010 dissipate any negative thoughts about No. 42's odds.
Tony Stewart has seven road course victories in 26 starts and that alone is enough rationale to place him on a fantasy roster. Most of these victories came in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20, including three consecutive in 2004/2005, but he finished second and then won during his first season as an owner/driver. In 2010, he swept the top-10 and continued to be one of the best values in the game, but he could straddle the fence between favorite and differentiator this week because he finished outside the top 25 in both races last year. Both of those poor showings were marred by crash damage, however; the most dramatic of these came at Sonoma when he was on the losing end of a shoving match with Brian Vickers.
NASCAR has a way of humbling drivers. One week after an impressive victory at Pocono, Joey Logano made a minor mistake with major implications at Michigan -- he crashed and failed to capitalize on his momentum and that put him back where he started in the eyes of some fans. Road courses would seem to be a strange place for Logano to regain his confidence, but perception does not dovetail with reality in this case. He is actually quite strong on this track type and that is largely because of the seat time he has accumulated in the past several years. Logano has entered the K&N West Series race for several seasons and he came close to winning a couple of times before on-track incidents robbed him of those opportunities. Last year, he finally broke through to win and that has given him added confidence. Logano swept the top 10 in both Cup road course races last year and earned a third in the Zippo 200 at the Glen and another sixth in the 2010 race at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve to give him a five-race streak of top-10s on road courses in NASCAR.
Allmendinger lacks the top-10 streak of Logano, but he has been more consistent for a longer period of time. Dating back to the 2008 Watkins Glen race when he was competing with Red Bull Racing, he has a perfect record of top-15s. In his past seven races on this track type, he hasn't finished worse than 13th and that consistency gives him a great set of notes from which to work. Speed hasn't been Allmendinger's problem in 2012; however, he needs to stay out of trouble this week if he wants to keep that streak alive, but he is worth the gamble if players are looking for a great differentiator.
Like Logano, Martin Truex Jr. has a victory in one of NASCAR's support series, but his came at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez racing against an elite group of international drivers in Nationwide competition. He hasn't run very many support races since then, but his focus on Cup has paid huge dividends. Last year, he swept the top 10 on NASCAR's road courses and has a 15th at the Glen in 2010 to give him three consecutive top-15s on this track type. Truex represents a bit of a gamble at Sonoma and his luck has not been uniformly great in recent weeks, but his most recent five races in 2012 are highlighted by one top-five, two top-10s, and only one result worse than 12th, which makes him a risk worth taking.
Road ringers were fashionable for a while, but fantasy owners have scored fewer points with them in recent years. When the ringers included drivers like Scott Pruett and Ron Fellows in Chip Ganassi or Dale Earnhardt Inc. equipment, they could record top-10s on a regular basis and even challenge for victories. With points becoming increasingly important and the competition so close, full time drivers cannot afford to give up their ride for a weekend, however, and that has limited the number of strong cars available to these drivers. There are not very many road course specialists this week, but two are worth mentioning.
Boris Said was tagged early in the week to drive the No. 32 at Sonoma. With support from Hendrickcars.com, this team is on the cusp of having the strength necessary to contend for a top 10 and Said could push them over the top. Even if he misses and scores a top-15, he could be extremely valuable to a fantasy lineup if he allows a player to start both Ambrose and Montoya. Said is capable of winning in NASCAR's top three series on road courses. He scored a victory in the Truck Series at Sonoma in 1998 and more recently won the 2010 Montreal race in the Nationwide Series. If he practices well, he could be this week's bargain basement special.
Robby Gordon was forced to trim his schedule early this season when funding could not be found and without a full-time ride, he can be regarded as a road ringer for the moment. He will be tempting to some players, but that might cost them a lot of points. There is no doubt that Gordon has the skill to race with the leaders after sweeping the two road courses in 2003 for Richard Childress Racing. He also has runner-up finishes in his own equipment at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen, but his second-place result in the 2010 Toyota/Save Mart 350 is the only top-15 in his most recent eight road course attempts at the Cup level. Too often, he is forced to push his equipment too hard in these opportunity races and that has been disastrous in the past.
|Fantasy Power Ranking|
|Road courses (past three years)|
|1.||Marcos Ambrose||3.60||16.||Brian Vickers||19.35||30.||Mike Bliss||28.50|
|2.||Juan Montoya||6.18||17.||Ryan Newman||19.55||31.||David Stremme||29.07|
|3.||Jimmie Johnson||7.52||18.||Jamie McMurray||20.65||32.||Mark Martin||29.35|
|4.||Tony Stewart||8.95||19.||Boris Said||21.22||33.||David Ragan||30.04|
|5.||Kurt Busch||10.72||20.||Greg Biffle||21.33||34.||Regan Smith||30.23|
|6.||Kyle Busch||13.11||21.||Joey Logano||22.57||35.||Scott Speed||30.55|
|7.||AJ Allmendinger||13.50||22.||Jeff Burton||23.67||36.||David Reutimann||32.13|
|8.||Carl Edwards||13.51||23.||Aric Almirola||24.05||37.||Bobby Labonte||32.56|
|9.||Jeff Gordon||14.43||24.||Matt Kenseth||25.02||38.||Tomy Drissi||35.67|
|10.||Kasey Kahne||15.18||25.||Robby Gordon||26.30||39.||Dave Blaney||37.64|
|11.||Brad Keselowski||15.58||26.||Paul Menard||27.41||40.||Travis Kvapil||37.69|
|12.||Martin Truex Jr.||16.12||27.||David Gilliland||27.90||41.||Josh Wise||38.50|
|13.||Clint Bowyer||17.10||28.||Casey Mears||28.27||42.||Joe Nemechek||39.86|
|14.||Denny Hamlin||17.51||29.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||28.39||43.||J.J. Yeley||40.89|
- Watkins Glen
- Marcos Ambrose