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Fantasy: Cookie-cutter Charlotte fall from predictable

May 25, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

The Coca-Cola 600 has always been one of the most challenging events on the NASCAR calendar, but in the current age of parity, it has become more difficult still. Buoyed by free passes and wave-arounds, running well is no longer a guarantee of a strong finish as more and more cars cross under the checkers on the same lap as the leader. Last year in this race, after 600 grueling miles were in the books, 24 drivers remained on the lead lap, which meant that a mistake in the closing stages could be devastating for both the NASCAR driver who made it and the unlucky fantasy owner with him on the roster. That number was helped along by eight caution flags, and the yellow flag is bound to wave fairly often in the space of four and a half hours this week, as well.

The similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks can also be prone to surprises. Kurt Busch was having an up-and-down year when the series rolled into Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2010. He had finished outside the top 15 in two of his three previous attempts and that erratic behavior was the standard for the season. It didn't keep him from dominating the Coke 600, however, as he qualified on the outside of the front row and led 252 of the 400 laps. That success kick-started his summer; Busch went on to earn four more top-10s in the next five races and his only bad result came on the road course of Infineon Raceway.

Jamie McMurray earned a reputation for stepping up to the plate in high-profile races last year, but that was not firmly established until he finished second in the Coke 600 and then won the Brickyard 400. In between those highlights, however, he finished well outside the top 10 in five of six races, which further underscores the fact that this race can march to the beat of its own drummer.

Best Foot Forward

Once upon a time, this race was very predictable. Fantasy owners knew to anchor their team with Jimmie Johnson and then fill in around him with drivers who were on a hot streak on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks, but that has changed in recent years. A measly pair of drivers enters the weekend with top-10 streaks longer than two races and only four drivers swept the top 10 in both races last year. After winning the Coke 600, Busch finished 30th in the fall race at Charlotte as only McMurray and Kyle Busch could truly say they had dominating performances in both events with a pair of top-fives.

Deepening the data pool doesn't help very much because no one has more than two consecutive top-10s on the doglegged 1.5-mile tracks that have become known as the cookie-cutter courses. Regular standouts such as Johnson and Kyle Busch haven't earned a top-five on this track type since this past fall at Charlotte, and drivers like Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer have stepped up to take their place.

Picking a favorite is going to be difficult because so much is situational in NASCAR. A variety of tire strategies have determined the finishing order of the past couple of races and no one seems to know what the correct strategy will be until the checkered flag waves. You will need to look at a number of factors this week to determine your lineup, including current momentum, a driver's record at Charlotte, and their overall record on the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks -- and you should weight them more or less in that order.

The Favorites

No one has more momentum for now than Carl Edwards and that was enough to propel him to a strong showing at Darlington Raceway a couple of weeks ago -- a track on which he normally struggles. Likewise, Charlotte hasn't always been his strongest course, but he has been the master of several other high-speed tracks such as Atlanta, Texas and Michigan. Last week, he was the driver to beat once again at Dover until more than a half-dozen drivers gambled on two tires and mired him in the pack. It's hard to know how the end of a 600-mile race will resolve itself, but it's a good gamble that Edwards will be in the hunt in the final run to the checkers.

When Johnson started stumbling at Charlotte, Kyle Busch was right there to take his place. As soon as the driver of the No. 48's 11-race top-10 streak ended in the fall of 2007 (with a 14th), Busch picked up the mantle and has been wearing it since. His top-10 streak stands at seven consecutive races and includes five top-fives and a worst result of only eighth. Last year, he finished third in the Coke 600 and was second in Charlotte's 500-mile race in the fall, which gives him momentum and a great set of notes. His performance in the Camping World Truck Series race last weekend was impressive and worth noting because he did not have the fastest truck all night. Busch even spun with a too loose condition early in the race, but he overcame the handicap by sheer force of will and passed Bowyer in the closing laps for the victory.

Greg Biffle stumbled at Las Vegas early this season, but he arguably has the most cookie-cutter momentum among all drivers. Dating to his victory at Kansas this past fall, he's finished outside the top five only once in five races, which means his last outing at Charlotte was good enough to earn near maximum points with a fifth. Last year, he did not do particularly well in this race with a crash-induced 32nd-place finish, but he might have a much better overall record without that incident and he is worth a roll of the dice. He will certainly catch your competition by surprise.

Charlotte


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Kasey Kahne was disappointing on this track last year with a crash in the fall race and a modest showing of only 12th in the Coke 600, which snapped a five-race top-10 streak in which he won the 2008 Coke 600 and finished second that same fall. In 2006, he swept both races on this track while running for Evernham Motorsports, and that is proof positive that he knows how to find the handle on this track. The lost momentum from last week's blown engine keeps him from being a favorite, but he cannot be overlooked.

We almost went out on a limb and made Marcos Ambrose one of our favorites this week, and while that might be a little premature, he is definitely a driver worth starting with a modest salary cap and a huge upside. In fact, Ambrose is one of the handful of drivers to sweep the top 10 on cookie-cutters this season, along with Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch, which puts him head and shoulders above most of the competition. Ambrose's Richard Petty Motorsports organization does not have the same amount of resources as the super teams of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and others, but they are making the most of their opportunities and that could be the differentiator you need to pass the conservative competition.

Underdogs

Before it was Johnson's kingdom, before it was Kahne's house, and before it was Kyle Busch's place, Jeff Gordon reigned at Charlotte, but five consecutive DNFs from 2005 through '07 -- most of them for accidents -- have tarnished his armor. He has had occasional strong runs since, but they are not enough to cause fantasy owners to overlook his current cookie-cutter lack of momentum. His past four efforts on this track type have produced a 23rd at Charlotte this past fall, a 37th at Texas in 2010, a 36th at Vegas this spring, and a 23rd at Texas in the latest outing. His fans hope he can snap out of this lull, but their enthusiasm could cost them a lot of points.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon9.27 18.Dale Earnhardt17.34 34.Robby Gordon32.95
3.Greg Biffle9.99 19.Jamie McMurray17.71 35.Scott Wimmer33.00
4.Kyle Busch10.76 20.Brian Vickers18.09 36.T.J. Bell33.01
5.Tony Stewart10.79 21.Ryan Newman20.23 37.Scott Riggs33.75
6.Carl Edwards11.25 22.David Ragan21.42 38.Mike Skinner34.73
7.Matt Kenseth11.64 23.Trevor Bayne21.45 39.Andy Lally35.09
8.Denny Hamlin13.38 24.Joey Logano21.60 40.Dave Blaney35.27
9.Kurt Busch13.57 25.Paul Menard22.98 41.Travis Kvapil36.14
10.Kasey Kahne14.24 26.Allmendinger23.43 42.J.J. Yeley37.24
11.Mark Martin14.94 27.Brad Keselowski25.03 43.David Starr37.67
12.David Reutimann15.46 28.Marcos Ambrose25.24 44.Tony Raines37.78
13.Kevin Harvick15.63 29.David Stremme27.14 45.Mike Bliss37.89
14.Jeff Burton15.96 30.Casey Mears28.18 46.McDowell38.45
15.Martin Truex16.65 31.Bobby Labonte31.73 47.Landon Cassill38.92
16.Juan Montoya16.67 32.Regan Smith32.14 48.Joe Nemechek39.28

Despite being the last driver to win on this track in the fall and earning a second in this race last week, McMurray is a difficult pick for the Coca-Cola 600. He has been occasionally brilliant on this track; in fact, he won in his first outing there in only his second Cup start in a car originally prepared for the injured Sterling Marlin. And last year's pair of top-fives is only the tip of an eight-race iceberg of top-10s, but his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team simply doesn't seem to be as strong in 2011 as it was in 2010. His reputation as a home-run hitter did not help him in the Daytona 500 and it is unlikely to carry the day in this event either.