Atlanta Motor Speedway is one of 10 tracks that will host a single Cup race this season, but it is a critical race nonetheless. With two races remaining and no clear-cut favorite for the second wild card, much of the field still has an opportunity to qualify for the Chase, but implications abound for everyone regardless of whether they are locked into the playoffs or still trying to establish a berth.
The Chase is a near-perfect cross section of the entire schedule, which means there are several similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks in the final 10 races. The Chase begins at Chicagoland, travels to Charlotte four weeks later, immediately heads to Kansas after that, and then visits Texas with three races remaining on the 2012 schedule. While the final 10 weeks are liberally sprinkled with races on flat tracks 1 mile or less in length, stumbling on the similarly configured, 1.5-mile courses will keep a team from contending for the championship.
Drivers who are locked into the show can use Atlanta as a test before the stakes are raised. Drivers who are in the unenviable position of needing to win in order to qualify for the final wild card will be tempted to take serious risks like Carl Edwards did last week at Bristol. There is even a third agenda that needs to be factored into one's decision about who to start this week: Drivers just inside the top 10 in points, as well as Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman, have to balance the need for a win with cautious aggression because when the checkered flag waves over Richmond to close out the regular season, points may be just as important as victories.
All of this will be happening on a single track and just as Bristol, it will not be apparent which strategy is going to ultimately be successful until the end of the night.
Deep data pool
Until last year when one of its dates moved to Kentucky, Atlanta hosted two races per year. With Kansas also being awarded a second date in 2011, the seven similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks now make up 28 percent of the schedule, and with a few other tracks such as Auto Club, Michigan and Homestead that have at least enough similarities to make fantasy owners glance at their data, much needs to be considered this week.
The proof of one track's resemblance to another can often be found in streaks, and so far in 2012, 11 drivers have finished 12th or better in at least four of the five races held at Las Vegas, Texas, Kansas, Charlotte and Kentucky. It will come as no surprise that these drivers are among the most expensive in the game, but that same consistency tends to emerge for mid-pack drivers, which allows fantasy owners to make educated picks in the top, middle and bottom tiers of a salary-cap frame.
Last year, Gordon's victory at Atlanta may have seemed like a bit of a surprise since his latest two starts there ended outside the top 15, but his two previous cookie-cutter races ended in top-10s. Likewise, Denny Hamlin struggled at Atlanta in 2010 before finishing eighth last year and four of his previous five races on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks have ended in results of 11th or better.
One cookie-cutter track requires a comparable approach to the others in terms of engine requirements and baseline setups, so spend the most money this week on teams with proven success on all of the similarly configured, 1.5-milers and then fill in with drivers who know how to stay out of trouble.
The usual suspects are called that for a reason; they are the drivers who usually run well no matter what track type is next on the schedule. No one will be surprised to see Jimmie Johnson or Greg Biffle challenge for the win this weekend, but they are the two most expensive drivers in the NASCAR Fantasy Live salary-cap game.
To maximize one's lineup, players want to look a little deeper down the list. Matt Kenseth is equally unlikely to catch your competition by surprise, but he makes a better favorite this week than either Johnson or Biffle. Kenseth has been struggling lately with some of his misfortune attributable to bad luck and some to missed setups. The bottom line is that with a streak of five consecutive oval races without a top-10, his salary cap has dipped to $25.75 while his record on cookie-cutter tracks is as good as any of the more expensive drivers. Dating to Kansas last year, he has amassed one victory, five top-fives finishes and seven top-10s in his past eight starts. If he can avoid trouble this week, he is destined to finish that well again, but fantasy owners need to be aware of the renewed rivalry between him and Tony Stewart following their altercation at Bristol.
Kevin Harvick also should be considered one of the best values in the game. With a price tag of only $25, he is only the 12th-most expensive driver in the cap game, but he has been one of the most consistent cookie-cutter drivers in the field for the past year. Harvick finished seventh last year at Atlanta and he hasn't slowed down since. In the 10 most recent races on this track type, he has a worst finish of 13th and an average better than eighth. He is not likely to challenge for the victory with only one top-five in that span, but then again he doesn't really need to considering his expense.
One driver who is capable of challenging for the win this week is Kasey Kahne. He struggled at Atlanta last year, and then turned a corner soon afterward and ended the 2011 season with three consecutive top-fives. He got out of the gates slowly this season with a 19th at Vegas, but he has swept the top 10 since. His past two races on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks are the biggest recommendation this week, however. He won at Charlotte and probably had the best car in the closing laps at Kentucky before finishing second to Brad Keselowski. Equally important, he has momentum on his side with a nine-race top-15 streak that dates to June's race at Sonoma and that makes him hard to ignore.
As the most recent winner of a cookie-cutter race, Keselowski cannot be overlooked. He also finished in the top five at Charlotte, but he gets relegated to dark-horse status this weekend for two reasons. Before finishing fifth at Charlotte, he struggled through five races on this track type without a top-10 as he has a tendency to run hot and cold on the similarly configured, 1.5-milers. He also is the third-most expensive driver in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game with a price tag of $27.50 and one would like a few more assurances before spending that amount of money and committing themselves to hiring some bargain-basement players simply to accommodate the No. 2. Keselowski finished second in back-to-back races at Watkins Glen and Michigan, but even that was insufficient to keep him out of harm's way at Bristol. Atlanta is less dangerous than the bullring, but there will be some attrition to mechanical failures and accidents and no one in the field is entirely immune.
If not for the fact that he is in a position to gamble for the next two weeks, Carl Edwards would be a favorite. Atlanta is one of his better tracks and the cookie-cutters in general have been extremely kind. He entered Kentucky with an 11-race top-10 streak on this track type and he won as recently as the beginning of 2011 at Vegas. As good as he has been, however, his results have shown a steady decline. After posting eight consecutive top-fives on this track type, he finished eighth at Texas and then ninth in back-to-back races at Kansas and Charlotte. That puts his 20th at Kentucky in an ominous light and makes him less of a surety to finish in the single digits. Still, in the cap game he is not overly expensive and that makes him a good value who is liable to provide a lot of bang for the buck.
Joey Logano has not scored a top-10 on a cookie-cutter track since May 2011 at Charlotte and that event was partially determined by fuel mileage. In the 12 events that followed, his best effort was a 12th in last year's Chase race at Charlotte and his average finish on this track type is 21st. That almost exactly matches his two most recent efforts at Charlotte and Kentucky and predicts another run slightly better or slightly worse than 20th. Richmond will be a better venue for Logano and if he struggles as predicted this week, he might even be a little more affordable then.
Stewart's frustration last week was apparent when he threw his helmet into the hood of Kenseth's Ford. He traditionally is one of the hottest drivers during the summer, but the past two seasons have not been up to expectations. He limped into the Chase last year before hitting on the right setup to win the championship, but he has to be a little afraid that won't happen twice in a row. His latest three races this season have been one disappointment after another with a spin at Watkins Glen, a blown engine at Michigan and last week's accident while battling for the lead. The cookie-cutter courses have not been much kinder in 2012. His best effort in the past four races on this track type was a 13th at Kansas, but that does not outweigh the other three efforts that ended in results of 24th or worse.
|Fantasy Power Ranking|
|Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)|
|1.||Matt Kenseth||8.42||17.||Paul Menard||18.70||32.||Scott Speed||32.64|
|2.||Jimmie Johnson||8.51||18.||Brad Keselowski||18.71||33.||Landon Cassill||33.76|
|3.||Greg Biffle||9.51||19.||Ryan Newman||19.36||34.||Bobby Labonte||34.13|
|4.||Tony Stewart||9.73||20.||Marcos Ambrose||19.55||35.||David Gilliland||34.28|
|5.||Jeff Gordon||11.14||21.||Jamie McMurray||19.71||36.||Travis Kvapil||35.85|
|6.||Carl Edwards||11.17||22.||Jeff Burton||19.86||37.||David Stremme||36.13|
|7.||Kyle Busch||11.76||23.||David Ragan||21.47||38.||Mike Bliss||36.61|
|8.||Denny Hamlin||12.20||24.||Trevor Bayne||21.94||39.||J.J. Yeley||36.87|
|9.||Kevin Harvick||12.66||25.||Joey Logano||22.45||40.||Ken Schrader||37.83|
|10.||Kasey Kahne||12.83||26.||Aric Almirola||27.38||41.||Dave Blaney||38.02|
|11.||Kurt Busch||13.59||27.||Regan Smith||28.09||42.||Michael McDowell||38.88|
|12.||Martin Truex Jr.||15.78||28.||Sam Hornish Jr.||28.15||43.||Josh Wise||40.03|
|13.||Clint Bowyer||16.20||29.||Danica Patrick||29.44||44.||Joe Nemechek||40.27|
|14.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||16.35||30.||Casey Mears||31.82||45.||Scott Riggs||41.41|
|15.||Mark Martin||16.93||31.||Reed Sorenson||32.47||46.||Stephen Leicht||42.14|