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Fantasy Preview: Current momentum at Texas no guarantee

April 06, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Just as no two varieties of cookies are exactly alike, the so-called "cookie-cutter" tracks are not the same. With one race in the books on a similarly configured, 1.5-mile track, drivers and teams have some extra data for their setup books, but Texas Motor Speedway is vastly different from Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Texas is a much faster track than Vegas, with Elliott Sadler's pole-winning speed this past fall topping 195 mph; Matt Kenseth sat on the pole at Vegas four weeks ago with a speed of less than 189 mph and that makes a huge difference to how drivers can approach the corners on these two tracks. The progressive banking at Vegas also separates the two courses, but the races at Vegas and Fontana are going to provide fantasy owners with the best information from the first part of the season.

Races on similarly configured, 1.5- and 2-mile courses dominate the schedule with more than a third of NASCAR's events held on this style of track, so every team puts their greatest effort into running strong on them. That means handicapping those races is a moving target with drivers like Jeff Burton or Jeff Gordon dominating for a short while and then falling back deeper in the pack. At Texas, their places have been taken by teammates Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin, respectively, in recent years, but even current momentum on this course does not guarantee a strong finish.

This is one race where you will have to watch practice closely before making your final selections. Average speed over long runs and car comfort will play a critical role in who wins or loses this week. An adage in racing says "loose is fast," but the last thing a driver wants to feel entering a corner at 200 mph is the back end of his car starting to skid. If he is confident entering the turn, he can keep his foot matted to the floor and maintain momentum that allows the car to rocket down the straightaway and across the finish line.

The Favorites

Last week at Martinsville, Kyle Busch told reporters that Joe Gibbs Racing had found the problem that was plaguing the organization. Fantasy owners didn't really get a chance to determine if that was true, because Martinsville is not particularly hard on engines, but strong runs recorded by Busch, Hamlin and even Joey Logano during the running of the race are encouraging. Until all three of those drivers survive an entire event on one of the high-torque tracks, you won't know for certain, but it is well worth the risk to start them. The No. 18 team climbed to the top of the point standings last week based on its strong run at the short track and the stellar season they have experienced so far. Except for his blown engine at Vegas, Busch has finished eighth or higher in every race this year and four of his past five efforts ended in finishes of third or better. If momentum is important to you, it doesn't get much stronger than that.

Hamlin did not get the finish he deserved last week when a caution flag during a cycle of green-flag stops stranded the No. 11 a lap down. Forced to take the wave around with only 32 laps remaining and without another caution to allow him to catch up, Hamlin finished outside the top 10 with a car that was capable of challenging for the victory. While that had to be frustrating, once the driver has had a chance to reflect on the progress made by the team, he will head to Texas with renewed confidence. One cannot think about that track in recent seasons without Hamlin coming to mind. He finished second to Kurt Busch in the fall of 2009 and swept both races last year. So long as all the parts and pieces stay inside the No. 11, he is practically guaranteed to have a good day.

The only driver with more momentum than Busch is Harvick. He has developed a reputation for coming from nowhere in the closing laps and challenging for the lead. Despite difficult starts to the past three races, the team kept working on his Chevrolet until it had it right and Harvick finished sixth at Bristol after languishing deep in the field, but the best was yet to come. Harvick had the fastest car on the track in the closing laps at Fontana and executed what will be remembered as one of the most dramatic passes of the season when he bump-drafted Jimmie Johnson hard into the final turn and passed him en route to the checkers; he led only one lap in that race, but it was the one that mattered most. Last week, he spent less than one-fifth of the race at Martinsville inside the top five, but made those laps count by passing Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the end of the day to win back-to-back events. In Texas, he has recorded fifth-, seventh-, and sixth-place finishes, respectively, in his past three attempts and the prognosis for this weekend is even greater.

Texas


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Greg Biffle has experienced plenty of ups and downs so far this season, with only one top-10 and two top-15s in the books, but like Hamlin at Martinsville, this will be his week to turn things around. The driver of the No. 16 ended the 2010 season with three consecutive top-fives on the cookie-cutter tracks, including a victory at Kansas. His fifth at Charlotte and another fifth at Texas gives the team some recent notes from which to work. Better still, Biffle has been flawless at Texas for the past few years and he enters the weekend with five consecutive top-10s there.

Mark Martin has shown a lot of unrealized potential this year. His recent record on most tracks has made him a driver to watch nearly every weekend, but he hasn't challenged for a top-five since the end of last season. While he has swept the top 20, he's only recorded two top-10s and both of those were 10ths in the Daytona 500 and last week at Martinsville in what could be considered wild-card races. However, a handicapper's responsibility is to keep highlighting strength and Martin has been solid at Texas during the past two years. His worst finish on this track since the spring of 2009 has been a pair of sixths and that makes him well worth his salary cap.

Underdogs

Carl Edwards likes to go fast and he apparently loves NASCAR's bigger and faster unrestricted, intermediate speedways. This can be attested by his record on the 2-milers, but also at Texas and Atlanta. His fans will point to three victories at Texas, but before you mortgage the rest of your team to sign him, you need to look a little deeper. Edwards has been an all-or-nothing driver at Texas. His three wins are his only top-fives and in nine other starts, he has only one more top-10. He has finished outside the top 25 often enough that his average finish on this track is a modest 17.6 and his past three efforts have all been outside the top 15.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon10.00 17.Clint Bowyer17.10 32.Bobby Labonte31.75
3.Greg Biffle10.36 18.Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.30 33.Regan Smith32.85
4.Kyle Busch10.49 19.Jamie McMurray17.41  34.Todd Bodine32.90
5.Tony Stewart10.63 20.Brian Vickers17.54 35.Robby Gordon33.14
6.Carl Edwards11.22 21.Ryan Newman19.75 36.Dave Blaney35.07
7.Matt Kenseth11.79 22.Joey Logano21.18 37.Travis Kvapil35.38
8.Denny Hamlin12.99 23.David Ragan21.97 38.Andy Lally35.80
9.Kasey Kahne13.72 24.David Starr22.27 39.Tony Raines37.14
10.Kurt Busch14.25 25.Trevor Bayne22.96 40.J.J. Yeley37.24
11.Mark Martin14.44 26.Paul Menard23.83 41.Terry Labonte38.04
12.Kevin Harvick15.39 27.A.J. Allmendinger23.95 42.Michael McDowell38.67
13.David Reutimann15.45 28.Brad Keselowski25.77 43.Joe Nemechek39.26
14.Jeff Burton15.80 29.Marcos Ambrose26.14 44.Landon Cassill40.59
15.Martin Truex Jr.16.02 30.Casey Mears27.70 45.Brian Keselowski42.50

From before the green flag waved at Daytona, we had been waiting for this week to make Trevor Bayne a dark horse, but his recent efforts have called that into question. After winning the Daytona 500, he was on everyone's radar and while he has shown flashes of speed, mistakes in several of the races since then have shown why NASCAR requires rookies to put a yellow stripe on their back bumpers. Still, this is the first track Bayne will visit for a second time in the Cup Series after having a very successful debut this past fall; as an unknown driver, his 17th-place finish in the Wood Bros. Ford that week was very impressive and he could be had for bargain-basement prices in salary-cap games. No one is suggesting that Bayne will challenge for a top-10 this week, but another top-20 could be in the cards if he plays his hand correctly. So far, this team has one strong run on intermediate speedways earlier this season when it finished 20th at Las Vegas.