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Fantasy: Look for Gordon to double down at LVMS

March 02, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Has finished sixth or better at race track in five of his past six attempts

Last week, NASCAR showed why it's never a good idea to bet on the outcome of a Sprint Cup race. The Subway Fresh Fit 500 should have been much more predictable than the Daytona 500 because massive accidents are not supposed to happen on short, flat tracks. Because of the narrow frontstretch, it's slightly more likely at Phoenix International Raceway than some other courses, but that is not where the lap-66 Big One occurred.

As Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth exited Turn 2 they made slight contact, but it was enough to cut the tire on the No. 83. Vickers' car spun, which might not have been catastrophic if he had not been battling for a spot inside the top five at the time. Instead, he collected nearly a third of the field on the wide backstretch -- a total of 14 cars -- including some of the favorites.

Further proof of the capriciousness of NASCAR fate could be found in the fact that three drivers who went on to earn top-five finishes might actually have been saved from the carnage because they were involved in an earlier incident that could have completely ended their day. On lap 59, Kyle Busch bounced off the backstretch wall and careened into Carl Edwards. Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick were collected in the aftermath of that incident and spent several laps on pit road making repairs. That forced them to start at the back of the pack and gave Gordon, Busch, and Harvick enough time to stop during the lap-66 melee without any further damage.

NASCAR's new car is a lot more durable than it once was and despite sustaining damage in the earlier incident, Gordon and Busch battled for the lead in the closing lap. Just like Daytona, there was going to be a great story at the end of the race. Busch was hoping to make a clean sweep of the weekend's major touring races for only the second time in history after winning the Camping World Truck Series race on Friday and the Nationwide Series race on Saturday; he was denied by Gordon, who snapped a 66-race winless streak and moved into a tie for fifth-place on the all-time winner's list with the legendary Cale Yarborough.

Notably, it was a victory on this same track in 2007 that tied him with Dale Earnhardt for the seventh-most wins. After tying Earnhardt, Gordon went to Talladega Superspeedway the next week and surpassed him. The Phoenix victory was his first points' win of that season and he went on to record five more that year before slipping into a slump. Since his last win during the remarkable 2007 season, Gordon has won only twice more in his last 115 starts, but he has run consistently strong and could easily add several more trophies to the mantle this year.

Progressively better

Vegas lies somewhere between Phoenix and Daytona in terms of predictability. It should not be prone to the Big One, but with its recent facelift and addition of progressive banking, drivers and teams are still building a notebook of setups there.

The newly configured Las Vegas Motor Speedway joins the ranks of Homestead-Miami Speedway and recently Bristol Motor Speedway as tracks with progressive banking. Fantasy owners probably won't find the short bullring to be very helpful in setting their rosters, but drivers who ran strong at Homestead in recent years will be worth a second look.

The favorites

Just as Jeff Gordon doubled down the weekend after he tied Earnhardt with a victory at Talladega, he could very well taste success in back-to-back weeks this year. He already has one victory at Vegas in the old configuration in 2001 and that came at a stage of his career when he was hit and miss there. His inaugural effort at Vegas resulted in a finish of 17th, which was followed by a third in 1999, a 28th in 2000, the 2001 victory, and a 17th in 2002. In recent years, he's been much more consistent on this track. Although he has not yet backed up the 2001 success, he has finished sixth or better on this track in five of his past six attempts, including a runner-up finish in 2007 and a third last year. The pressure is off his shoulders for the moment, but Gordon won't relax; he remembers what it feels like to go winless for so long and wants to make certain that won't happen again.

Last year, Gordon led the Cup Series in fastest laps run in this race when he paced the field for nearly 32 percent of the green flag laps, but his teammate was not far behind. Jimmie Johnson had the fastest car for nearly 20 percent of the race and he was up front when it mattered most.

Last week, Johnson avoided both major incidents early at Phoenix and that allowed him to score his 10th consecutive top-five there. His record at Vegas is not nearly as consistent, but he has made up for that with raw power. From 2005 through 2007 he won three consecutive races on this 1.5-mile track, which gave him the most wins ahead of Jeff Burton and Kenseth's two. He didn't stop there, however, nor did the progressive banking keep him from adding to his total because he enters the weekend as the defending champion of this race with a total of four victories. If you start him this week, you want to be aware of the fact that those are his only top-fives at Vegas during his career and three of his last four starts there have ended in results outside the top 20.

Kenseth is another favorite to win the Kobalt Tools 400. Controversy often galvanizes a team and after last week's incident with Vickers that left several drivers upset, the best way to move forward is to drive into victory lane. The driver of the No. 17 won back-to-back races at Vegas in 2003 and 2004. He added a runner-up finish in 2006, finished fourth in 2007, and posted his fifth top-five last season, but what makes him a great value this week is the way he recorded those results. Kenseth is not a particularly strong qualifier on this track with an average starting position of 21.3 during the last three years, but he knows how to slice through traffic. In four of five attempts when he finished fifth or better, he qualified outside the top 10, which means that he should earn major points with a positive place and pass differential in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game. Last year he led the field in total green flag passes with 78.

Las Vegas


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark horses

Harvick was one of the drivers last week who could have seen his race end in a puff of smoke and after blowing an engine early in the Daytona 500 that would have been devastating to his points' standings. In NASCAR it pays to be lucky and good; at Phoenix, Harvick was both. His spin a few laps earlier put him out of harm's way during the Lap-66 accident and his speed earned him a top-five finish. Last year, Harvick maintained his early season momentum with a strong run at Vegas in the Shelby American and his confidence remains high. During the past three years at Vegas, Harvick has earned two top-fives with a worst finish of 12th and for the most part, he's had to overcome poor qualification efforts to finish that well. His average starting position of 20th in the past three races has been improved by 14 spots to an average finish of sixth, which will make him a major points' earner in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game alongside Kenseth.

His teammate in the No. 31 car has had almost equal success at this track. Like Harvick, Burton has an average start of 20.0, and his average finish of 6.3 is practically the same. Burton has logged two top-fives and a worst of 11th and that makes him just as consistently strong as Harvick. Burton was not as lucky as the driver of the No. 29 last week: after blowing an engine at Daytona, he suffered crash damage in the "Big One" at Phoenix and had to spend a lot of time in the garage making repairs. The team knows that they have to start making a positive move in the points with only three more race starts guaranteed by last year's standings and that is going to make them highly focused on earning a top-10 finish.

Underdogs

Momentum is a powerful force in NASCAR. No one is ever quite certain how long it will last and very often it seems to come out of nowhere, but fantasy owners need to pay attention to it. For now, David Gilliland has it. On the heels of a third-place finish in the Daytona 500 and a 22nd in the Subway Fresh Fit 500k, the No. 34 team is 10th in the standings and they are ecstatic to breathe the rarified air. With Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson lined up immediately behind them in the standings, it's unlikely they will remain a top-10 team after this week, but they might be one of the better values at Las Vegas in light of their modest salary cap. We're not suggesting that Gilliland will threaten for the victory, but a top-20 could be in the cards for this West Coast native if he manages to remain on the lead lap.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Intermediate flat tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Carl Edwards5.61 17.Jamie McMurray18.60 31.David Gilliland29.96
3.Kyle Busch8.50 18.Kurt Busch19.06 32.Paul Menard30.94
4.Jeff Gordon8.66 19.David Reutimann22.92  33.Travis Kvapil31.16
5.Jimmie Johnson9.22 20.Joey Logano23.12 34.Robby Gordon31.58
6.Greg Biffle9.73 21.David Ragan23.44 35.Regan Smith32.46
7.Tony Stewart10.72 22.Juan Montoya23.78 36.Andy Lally32.63
8.Jeff Burton10.92 23.A.J. Allmendinger26.37 37.Brian Keselowski33.00
9.Mark Martin12.74 24.Brian Vickers26.37 38.J.J. Yeley33.31
10.Matt Kenseth13.92 25.Bill Elliott26.38 39.Dave Blaney34.79
11.Denny Hamlin14.90 26.Casey Mears27.19 40.Landon Cassill36.88
12.Martin Truex Jr.14.96 27.Bobby Labonte28.71 41.Tony Raines37.55
13.Kasey Kahne17.10 28.Mike Skinner29.36 42.Joe Nemechek40.33
14.Clint Bowyer17.25 29.Brad Keselowski29.64 43.Michael McDowell42.42
15.Dale Earnhardt Jr. 18.06 

Momentum works both ways, however. Just as it's difficult to predict when a driver will obtain it, teams can lose it almost as quickly. With a five-race top-10 streak at the end of 2009, Joey Logano was riding a wave of motion that should have carried into this season. Not even a crash-induced 39th at Homestead dulled the kid's enthusiasm as the Series rolled into the Valley of the Sun, but in hindsight, his Homestead hardship seems to have started an avalanche of misfortune. At the start of this season, Logano was also swept into one of the several accidents at Daytona and limped home two laps off the pace in 23rd. Last week, the No. 20 dropped a cylinder and eventually blew an engine to finish 33rd and Logano has to wonder when the bad luck will end.