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Fantasy Preview: Dark horses, favorites on equal footing at 'Dega

April 13, 2011, Dan Beaver, special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Ten of the Cup drivers who won last year have been shutout so far this season

Handicapping a NASCAR race has never been particularly easy. It's a constantly moving target with new teams and drivers rising to prominence by displacing the old guard, but this year is even more challenging. In the first seven races of the 2011 season, six different drivers representing five owners have won. The variety of drivers in Victory Lane includes one first-time winner and two of NASCAR's legends that snapped long, winless streaks. For that matter, Trevor Bayne also broke a long winless streak for his car owner the Wood Bros.

Now the Series travels to one of the restrictor-plate superspeedways where anything can -- and often does -- happen. Statistically it would seem more likely that we will have another new winner this week because 10 of the drivers who won last year have been shutout so far in 2011 including Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin who shared 14 wins between them. Moreover, the plate tracks are prone to giving an equal shot to dark horses and favorites alike, as a casual glance at the Daytona 500's top 10 will attest.

The 2010 and 2011 seasons have very few similarities. By the time NASCAR rolled out of Texas Motor Speedway last year in week eight of that schedule on their way to Talladega, Johnson already had three victories in his pocket and Hamlin had just earned his second win of the season to set the stage for the remainder of the year.

This year, the points' lead has changed every week. Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch keep popping up at the top of the order, but they have been far from dominating and with NASCAR's new system, they are only one bad race from dropping outside of the top five. With the ever-present threat of the Big One at Talladega, the odds are 50/50 that an unfortunate incident could claim one or both of these drivers.

Changing tides

Talladega and Daytona International Speedway have always been among the most difficult races to handicap. The Big One is only one of the elements that can change the running order in the blink of an eye. Multi-car drafts, mistakes on pit road, and engine failures can decimate a fantasy owners' roster in the brief moments when they are away from the couch and getting snacks out of the refrigerator.

That tide is starting to change, however. The new nose on the cars has given rise to two-car drafts. Fantasy owners witnessed the power of these tandems at Talladega last year and with new pavement at Daytona in February, the drivers picked up where they left off in the 500. No matter what you thought of the racing action viscerally, this has the potential to be great news for handicappers and fantasy owners.

Separating the field into smaller, more manageable drafts is appealing to fantasy owners because it eliminates or minimizes two of the biggest wild cards in the weekend. Without 40 plus cars circling the track in one massive drafting pack, the risk of the Big One crash is lessened.

Gone too for the moment is the danger of attempting to make a pass only to drop 20 or more positions. In two-car drafts, when the lead and trailing cars need to swap positions to keep their engines at optimum temperature, they become vulnerable to a two-car tandem that is not shuffling, but that means a driver who was leading on one lap, might get pushed back to sixth or eighth on the next circuit depending on how many tandems are in contact with the lead twosome. The final position change can also be timed to minimize the risk of losing spots -- and rest assured that it won't come on the final circuit. The white flag lap will be reserved for passing for the win.

Eventually, this will make handicapping a race on restrictor-plate superspeedways much easier.

The key word in that last sentence, however, is "eventually." This week, fantasy owners are still learning how the new aerodynamic rules' package affects them.

The favorites

On the plate tracks, one is hard-pressed to call anyone a favorite, but some drivers have better records than others there. In 2010, however, a good record on this track meant that a driver finished among the top 10 in two of the four races at Talladega and Daytona. For that reason, the three drivers who earned three or more top-10s on plate tracks really stand out, but even they had a mixed bag of results in the Daytona 500.

By the numbers, Kevin Harvick would have seemed like a lock to earn a top-five in this year's Great American Race. He finished seventh in last year's 500, and then won the next two plate races before coming a bumper short of adding another win in Talladega's fall race. His engine failure early in the season-opener kept him from maintaining that momentum, but it nevertheless makes him a good bet this week. His two victories so far in 2011 have restored his confidence and makes him an even more appealing pick.

Teammate Clint Bowyer earned three top-10s last year on plate tracks, including a fourth in the Daytona 500 and a victory in the Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega. In the only race in which he failed to finish that well, he still managed to stay out of trouble in July at Daytona and crossed the finish line just outside the top 15. He posted an identical finish of 17th in the first plate race of this season and it would seem that he's due another strong finish. There is another stat that is not in his favor, however. Last week, Bowyer earned his third consecutive top-10, but during his career that has been a rarity and he's managed to string four or more top-10s together on only two previous occasions.

Juan Montoya has a fiery personality and that is usually a bad thing on plate tracks. Losing one's composure in a race where inches can mean triggering a massive crash often has dire consequences, but during his career, the former F1 driver has held a steady wheel on NASCAR's biggest tracks. Last year, that converted into three top-10s at Talladega and Daytona; better yet, he was the only one of the three strongest drivers from last year on this track type to earn another top-10 this year. Montoya finished sixth in the Daytona 500.

Talladega


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark horses

We could fill the category of dark horses and underdogs with the remainder of the field, because anyone who makes the show is capable of finishing in the top 10 on a plate track given the right set of circumstances. The Daytona 500 is proof of that: two of the drivers who finished in the top five this February finished outside the top 30 in the final plate race at Talladega in 2010 and failed to earn a single top-15 last year.

In fact, David Gilliland failed to even qualify for last year's 500 before finishing third this year, and Bobby Labonte improved from 21st to fourth. Regan Smith finished seventh in the Daytona 500 this year, but three of his plate races last year ended in the 30s. And, of course, there was Trevor Bayne who won in only his second Cup start to completely turn the finish upside down.

Fantasy owners can't count on luck alone when setting their rosters, however. When filling out the remainder of your team, you want to minimize risk by selecting drivers with solid records on the plate tracks. Kyle Busch finished eighth in this year's Daytona 500 and he probably spends more time with the leaders on this track type than anyone in the field, but unfortunately, since winning back-to-back races at Talladega and Daytona in 2008, he's earned only two top-10s there.

On the other hand, Carl Edwards finished second in this year's 500 and he has been much more consistent in recent seasons. He hasn't always earned the most points, but his last seven plate races have produced two top-fives, four top-10s, and worst finish of 17th to give him an average result of ninth. The upside of starting him is great with minimal risk considering that he hasn't been involved in an accident on a plate track in his past seven attempts.

Kurt Busch is another consistently strong driver on the plate tracks, but when he misses the top 10, it is often by a much wider margin. He finished 30th in the past two fall races at Talladega and was 23rd in the 2010 Daytona 500. However, the remainder of his nine plate races dating back to the start of the 2009 season all ended in top-10s and those six strong results outweigh his three struggles.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Superspeedways (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Kyle Busch8.96 18.Mark Martin17.38 33.Robby Gordon25.54
3.Trevor Bayne9.62 19.Brad Keselowski17.89 34.Steve Park25.83
4.Juan Montoya11.44 20.Jamie McMurray17.99  35.A.J. Allmendinger26.84
5.David Ragan12.42 21.Kasey Kahne18.04 36.David Gilliland26.98
6.Kurt Busch12.92 22.Carl Edwards18.38 37.Marcos Ambrose28.38
7.Denny Hamlin12.93 23.Paul Menard19.13 38.Terry Labonte30.28
8.Kevin Harvick13.12 24.David Reutimann19.22 39.Mike Skinner30.92
9.Jeff Burton13.56 25.Casey Mears21.36 40.Joe Nemechek32.20
10.Clint Bowyer13.59 26.Greg Biffle22.08 41.Bill Elliott33.04
11.Jeff Gordon14.67 27.Landon Cassill23.50 42.Andy Lally33.11
12.Brian Vickers15.19 28.Ryan Newman23.69 43.Tony Raines33.27
13.Matt Kenseth15.4 29.Regan Smith24.46 44.Dave Blaney33.84
14.Tony Stewart15.68 30.Travis Kvapil24.47 45.Kevin Conway34.67
15.Martin Truex Jr.16.08 31.Bobby Labonte25.05 46.Michael McDowell34.84
16.Joey Logano16.46 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is yet another type of dark horse this week. His recent performance on this track type has not been overwhelmingly consistent. In his past 10 restrictor-plate races, he has earned only three top-10s, but those efforts were stellar. Junior's skill in plate racing is unquestioned and he nearly added to his seven superspeedway victories at Talladega in 2009 (finishing second to Brad Keselowski) and in last year's Daytona 500 (finishing second to Jamie McMurray). With solid runs in his past six attempts this year, he finally has momentum on his side again and is ready to resume his rightful place as the leader of the pack.