There are seven tracks on the NASCAR circuit that measure 1.5 miles in length and have either a doglegged or double-doglegged frontstretch; these are commonly known as the "cookie-cutter" courses. Just as recipes differ for a variety of cookies, all seven of these tracks have subtle differences that impact how teams approach them.
Individual track records cannot be ignored, but fantasy owners will find that looking at these courses collectively will help determine who should be started this week.
Horsepower and handling are the keys to success on unrestricted, intermediate speedways and both of those characteristics require a thick wallet, so there will not be very many dark horses driving for lightly funded owners. This is a week in which players should be conservative and evenly distribute their money among marquee teams.
In 10 races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway and Kentucky Speedway last year, more than a dozen drivers scored top-10 finishes in at least half of their starts. No one swept the 10 "cookie-cutter" races, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. came close by finishing 10th or better in the eight races that he started; he missed the fall Charlotte and Kansas events while recovering from symptoms of a concussion.
These drivers are varied enough to provide a solid list of both favorites and dark horses for the Kobalt Tools 400, while racers with fewer than five top-10s on this track type are too unpredictable to provide fantasy owners with a sense of security.
Jimmie Johnson came close to sweeping the top-10 list on 1.5-mile courses last year and he was arguably the strongest overall. His eight top-10 finishes were made up of six top fives, including a second-place finish at Vegas and a victory in last fall’s AAA Texas 500. With a Daytona 500 victory and a runner-up result last week, he has momentum on his side and is almost certain to keep his top-five streak alive.
As long as fantasy players manage their expectations, Earnhardt is going to be a solid pick. He is one of the most expensive drivers in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game and before plopping down $27.75, players would like to know he will finish in the top five. If last year is an indication, that could be a difficult proposition because the only time the No. 88 finished that well in 2012 was in Kentucky. Fantasy owners will often give up raw power for consistency.
In terms of favorites, players can vote a straight Hendrick ticket at Vegas because all of their drivers finish in the top 10 in at least half of their 1.5-mile starts. Kasey Kahne got off to a slow start in 2012 and the Kobalt Tools 400 was a particularly bitter pill to swallow. He won the pole for that race, but slapped the wall while battling for a top-five with less than a handful of laps remaining and fell to 19th. He rebounded to finish among the top-10 in seven of his next eight attempts on this track type including a victory in the Coca-Cola 600 and a second-place finish at Kentucky.
Matt Kenseth has the record from last year to make him a favorite and two of his current teammates are also among the 13 drivers who scored top 10s in more than half their starts, but there is a huge concern within this organization. Kenseth and Kyle Busch both blew engines in the Daytona 500. Last week, Busch and Denny Hamlin had trouble with their powerplants before the green flag waved at Phoenix International Raceway and the Gibbs guys have to wonder just which parts and pieces are going to fail next.
Clint Bowyer finished sixth in last year’s Kobalt Tools 400, but that was not reflective of his early season on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks. In his next five attempts on this track type, he earned a best result of 13th and had an average of 21.8. That might make him a driver to avoid if he had not finished strong with four consecutive top-10s in the fall. Only one of these was a top-five, but that was a fuel-mileage aided victory in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte.
At Phoenix, Tony Stewart was listed as an underdog and he defied that prediction by finishing eighth. At the risk of being wrong two weeks in a row, he has to be regarded as a long shot to finish with the leaders at Vegas despite winning last year’s edition of this race. After that victory, he struggled through the next five events on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks without another top-10 and most of his efforts ended well outside the top 20. He rebounded in the fall 1.5-mile races, but even then he was inconsistent and has not earned consecutive top-10s since the first two weeks of the 2012 Chase.
Stewart’s teammate Ryan Newman is another driver to avoid this week. He finished fourth in the Kobalt Tools 400 last year, but he had even more significant struggles than the No. 14 team immediately following that strong run. He finished 20th or worse in six of the next nine races on 1.5-mile tracks and the only time he showed a glimmer of strength was in the Geico 400 at Chicago after he had already failed to qualify for the Chase.
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