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Fantasy Preview: Three have momentum heading to Kansas

June 01, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Last week, while previewing one of the favorites, we wrote that "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." While we were wrong about one thing -- Edwards had a dominant car at the beginning of the race, but faded once the sun set -- we were correct about the other. The Coca-Cola 600 could not have been less predictable at the end. The top three spots were taken by one driver who spent the majority of the race mid-pack, another who spent most of the night with the leaders, and another who was in danger of getting lapped until literally the final run to the checkers.

The 2011 season has been a challenge for fantasy owners and handicappers, to say the least. From the pair of green-white-checkered attempts to end the Daytona 500, to the caution that flew in the middle of green flag-pit stops at Martinsville too late in that race to allow the leaders to regain their position, to a variety of fuel and tire strategies that continue to shuffle the finishing order of practically every race, this season has been one massive roller coaster. On the other hand, it is certainly making for some interesting races and NASCAR is in the midst of one of its most remarkable seasons in recent memory.

Eventually we will collectively get our heads around the strategies that define the end of these races, but until then, the best advice is to make your decisions based on the evidence at hand, but spread the wealth around. Last week was a momentum killer for several drivers. Edwards failed to crack the top 10 for only the third time in his past 14 attempts, which dates to the pair of races he won at the end of 2010. If not for crash damage at Darlington, Clint Bowyer would have entered the last week with seven consecutive top-10s and he, too, finished in the mid-teens to witness his momentum slide away.

Three of the top-five finishers at Charlotte last week finished 25th or worse at Dover, and that is something few fantasy players accounted for. In light of that, we would like to say that Kansas Speedway is a lot more predictable, but quite literally, nothing is certain about this season.

The Favorites

Before the weekend activities begin, however, fantasy owners have to make their decisions based on the information available and there are three drivers who seem to have more momentum than anyone else in the field this week -- and so, they have to be considered the favorites for the STP 400.

Greg Biffle has a knack for running at Kansas and he is one of three drivers who enter the week with a four-race streak of top-10s. His streak is close to perfection with four consecutive finishes of third or better including a victory in 2007, when that race was shortened by darkness, and another last year. Add another third in 2004 and a second in '05 and he easily has the most momentum among all active drivers. Even without last week's performance, he would have been one of this week's top picks, but he solidified that opinion by contending for the Coke 600 victory until he was forced to pit for fuel prior to the green-white-checkered finish.

The similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks have not been Jeff Gordon's strongest courses in the past couple of years, but Kansas seems to be a safe harbor where he rarely struggles. He won the first two races on this track in 2001 and '02. Then, he finished fifth in his third attempt and had a perfect record of top-15s until a broken fuel pump sidelined him in 2006. Undeterred, he came back in 2007 with a vengeance and while he hasn't won again in the past four years, he has swept the top five. Like Biffle last week, he showed flashes of speed late in the Coke 600 and that makes him an acceptable risk this year.

Jimmie Johnson rarely has two bad races in a row, so after blowing an engine last week at Charlotte, it's a safe bet that he will go the distance in the STP 400. While he has been less consistent than either Biffle or Gordon in recent seasons with a ninth in 2009, he has been just as strong with a victory in 2008, a second-place finish last year, and a third in 2007. Like Gordon, he has only one bad result on this track and that came in 2004 when he crashed out, but every other result at Kansas has been a top-15 and all but one have been top-10s.

Kansas


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Tony Stewart experienced back-to-back bummers in 2007 and '08 and both were caused by crash damage. When he keeps his mount in one piece, however, he's been solid and like the three favorites, all of the remaining attempts have ended in top-15s. Like Gordon and Biffle, he has a pair of victories on this track that has hosted only 10 Cup events in its history, which puts him on the short list of superstars and his latest win came in 2009. Last year, he finished fourth and by his Kansas numbers, he would seem to be a lock to earn another. He is a dark horse this week instead of a favorite, however, because his unrestricted, intermediate speedway program does not seem to be quite as strong in 2011 as it was in '10.

Fans of Edwards should not be too concerned about his 16th-place finish last week, because he is a good pick to finish inside the top 10 once more. The Kansas race is only 400 miles and the track is not going to go through the same drastic changes as last week's daylight-to-night marathon, which suggests the No. 99 will come out of the gates strong and maintain that speed all afternoon. Five of Edwards' past six races on this track have ended in top-10 finishes, but only two of those were top-fives. That makes him a solid pick, but not a favorite for the victory.

Underdogs

There are still a lot of Kansas natives who would tell you that Bowyer already has one win under his belt at Kansas when Greg Biffle appeared to run out of fuel in the final 200 yards in 2007. Bowyer crossed the finish line first, but NASCAR awarded the victory to the No. 16 and placed the Kansas native in second instead. That was Bowyer's second attempt on his home track and it gave him a perfect record of top-10s. The next year, he slipped slightly, but still had a perfect record of top-15s with a 12th-place finish. In 2009, he fell even further down the grid to finish 21st and last year he barely recorded another top-15 in 15th. We believe he can climb back inside the top 10 this week, but fantasy owners will have to share the faith in order to start him.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon9.41 18.Martin Truex Jr.17.16 33.David Gilliland32.18
3.Greg Biffle9.99 19.Jamie McMurray17.93 34.Robby Gordon33.30
4.Kyle Busch10.79 20.Brian Vickers18.45 35.Scott Riggs33.95
5.Carl Edwards11.05 21.David Ragan20.71 36.Andy Lally35.34
6.Tony Stewart11.10 22.Ryan Newman20.74 37.Dave Blaney35.44
7.Matt Kenseth11.32 23.Trevor Bayne21.45 38.Travis Kvapil36.05
8.Denny Hamlin12.96 24.Joey Logano21.67 39.Mike Skinner36.71
9.Kurt Busch13.47 25.A.J. Allmendinger22.80 40.Tony Raines37.82
10.Kasey Kahne14.15 26.Paul Menard22.91 41.J.J. Yeley37.85
11.David Reutimann15.37 27.Brad Keselowski24.06 42.Terry Labonte38.04
12.Mark Martin15.46 28.Marcos Ambrose24.46 43.Landon Cassill38.62
13.Kevin Harvick15.55 29.Casey Mears28.40 44.Michael McDowell38.69
14.Jeff Burton15.85 30.David Stremme28.81 45.Joe Nemechek39.29
15.Juan Montoya16.73 31.Bobby Labonte31.70 46.T.J. Bell42.00
16.Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.96

In an ironic twist that can only happen in auto racing, Dale Earnhardt Jr. became the second driver of the day racing a National Guard sponsored car to lead a major race entering Turn 4 of the final lap and yet fail to win. Earlier in the day last Sunday, a similarly liveried JR Hildebrand crashed exiting Turn 4 during the Indianapols 500 and scrapped along the wall to finish second. Earnhardt ran out of gas midway between Turns 3 and 4 of the Coke 600 and coasted across the finish line seventh, but he came close to snapping his long winless streak. His record at Kansas is not particularly good -- he has never cracked the top five and his last top-10 came in 2007 -- but he has one thing in his favor and that is confidence after last week's near-miss.

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