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Fantasy Preview: Hamlin tops list of favorites at Pocono

June 08, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Johnson failed to crack top 10 only three times since he swept Victory Lane in '04

Two weeks ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin ran out of gas in turn four on the final lap of the Coke 600 when they had just enough fuel to go the scheduled distance of that race, but did not account for the extra laps added by NASCAR's green-white-checkered policy. Last week, they seemed to have planned for all the laps that needed to be run, but there was one thing they had not accounted for: Brad Keselowski.

Fuel mileage strategies have always been part of NASCAR and they are an unavoidable element for fantasy players. Strategy adds its own drama to the end of a race and that was especially true last week at Kansas Speedway. Only three drivers were able to completely stretch their fuel and those who could not struggled to determine precisely when to make their final pit stop. Some drivers short pitted to obtain maximum benefit from fresh tires, while others stayed on track in hope that a caution would wave. Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon dominated the final stages of the STP 400, but a botched pit stop took Busch out of contention. That left Gordon to chase down the thrifty three who were trying to go the furthest on their tank of gas. For a brief moment, it appeared he might be able to catch one or two of them, but he also had not accounted for Keselowski.

Keselowski more than did his part inside the cockpit to win at Kansas. To conserve fuel, he needed to depress the clutch and coast into the corners, while maintaining enough momentum to keep Earnhardt and Hamlin at bay. Strategy races might not be everyone's favorite end-of-race scenario, but no one could say that the driver of the No. 2 car didn't earn his trophy.

Unfortunately for fantasy owners, the past four races of the season all have asterisks attached to them. From the green-white-checkered finish of the Southern 500, through the hard-to-explain success of two tires versus four at Dover International Speedway, to the pair of fuel mileage races in the last two weeks, it has been difficult to predict a winner.

The Favorites

This week, Hamlin is going to put himself in Chase contention. The start of the season has not been one expected by the driver, the team, or his fantasy owners, but he has been coming on strong in recent weeks. It took strategy to put him in contention for the win at Charlotte Motor Speedway and also at Kansas, but that nevertheless has raised the confidence of the entire organization in time to come to a track on which he's dominated in the past. Hamlin started his career at this track with a pair of victories in his rookie season and the tricky triangle of Pocono is not traditionally kind to first-year drivers. He not only won both races, he won both from the pole, which is about as dominant as one can be. He had back-to-back poor finishes in fall 2008 and spring 2009, but he rebounded and won the next two races. Entering the 5-Hour Energy 500, he sits only one point out of 10th in the standings and a victory is going to simultaneously push him into the coveted spot while giving the team some breathing room in case they slip outside that mark once more because they will have a possible wild card berth with a victory in the regular season.

Now that summertime is upon us and the tracks are getting slicker, Tony Stewart is stepping up to the plate. His eighth-place finish last week is deceptive because he was in contention for the victory throughout the STP 400 and could easily have climbed into the top five if fuel mileage had not become part of the strategy at the end of the race. Pocono has long been one of his best tracks, and a big part of the reason for that is because both of their races are run during the heat of summer. Stewart loves a slick track, which is why 10 of his last 11 attempts on this triangle have ended in top-10s. Better still, his past five attempts have resulted in one victory, two second-place finishes, and a third.

Kevin Harvick gets the final mention as a favorite this week, because he is the third driver to sweep the top five on this track last year, along with Hamlin and Stewart. The driver of the No. 29 team finished fourth in both events last year and with momentum on his side after a Coke 600 win two weeks ago, he's favored to better that result. Last week, his car owner was reprimanded by NASCAR for an altercation with Kyle Busch in the Kansas garage following a Camping World Truck Series race and that actually works in Harvick's favor. This is a team that thrives on controversy and hard times have a way of galvanizing their efforts to make them go faster.

Pocono


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

On the flat tracks of Pocono, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Richmond International Raceway, and Martinsville Speedway, Jimmie Johnson has been as close to perfect as it is possible to be in today's NASCAR. He's been running at the end of the last 41 races on these tracks, which dates back to the 2007 Pennsylvania 500, and most of those have ended in lead lap finishes and top-15s. In that span of races he has amassed 12 victories, 25 top-fives and has failed to finish inside the top 15 only four times. Drivers simply don't get any more consistent than that. At Pocono proper, Johnson has failed to crack the top 10 only three times since he swept Victory Lane in 2004, and two of those modest finishes were in the top 15. Even with crash damage in one race, Johnson has never failed to be running at the end of a Pocono race.

With momentum on his side, Edwards has to be considered at least a dark horse this week, but his overall record at Pocono is not enough to make him a favorite. He won in his first attempt in 2005 and finished fourth later that same season. He added another victory in 2008, a second-place finish in 2009, and was third in his latest effort on this track, but he's also finished outside the top 20 in three of his 12 career attempts on the triangle and two of his last three efforts have ended outside the top 10.

Underdogs

The driver making up the other half of last week's drama also thrives on controversy, but Kyle Busch does not have the same record at Pocono to recommend him this week as Richard Childress Racing's Harvick. He is one of several drivers to beat the odds in his first Pocono attempt with a fourth-place finish in 2005, but that is one of only two top-fives he's earned on this track in 12 attempts. He has two things in his favor, however: 1) his other top-five five was a runner-up finish in this race last fall and 2) the driver he chased to the checkered flag was his teammate Hamlin, who is likely to share some setup notes with him this weekend.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Flat tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon7.91 17.Matt Kenseth17.94 32.Paul Menard31.53
3.Denny Hamlin8.69 18.Brian Vickers19.04 33.Mike Skinner31.61
4.Tony Stewart10.15 19.Jamie McMurray19.48 34.Regan Smith31.88
5.Mark Martin10.35 20.Martin Truex Jr.19.64 35.David Gilliland32.77
6.Carl Edwards11.48 21.David Reutimann19.65 36.Robby Gordon33.66
7.Kyle Busch12.73 22.A.J. Allmendinger20.81 37.J.J. Yeley35.11
8.Jeff Burton12.93 23.Joey Logano21.56 38.Andy Lally36.42
9.Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.61 24.Marcos Ambrose24.96 39.Tony Raines37.01
10.Kurt Busch14.00 25.Brad Keselowski25.14 40.Michael McDowell37.08
11.Clint Bowyer14.12 26.Casey Mears25.70 41.Dave Blaney37.15
12.Kevin Harvick14.20 27.David Ragan26.57 42.Terry Labonte37.30
13.Ryan Newman14.69 28.Sam Hornish Jr.27.60 43.Landon Cassill37.34
14.Greg Biffle15.56 29.Scott Riggs28.53 44.Joe Nemechek37.82
15.Juan Montoya16.22 30.Trevor Bayne29.17 

Jeff Gordon dominated this track once and after a strong run last week in Kansas, he might again. His fourth and most recent Pocono victory was earned as recently as 2007, but that win almost didn't happen. He was stretching his fuel when rain interrupted the race and even so, he was almost passed by Ryan Newman that afternoon. That victory is one of seven top-10s and eight top-15s in Gordon's past nine starts at Pocono, which makes him a consistently good value, but only one of his past six races on this track has resulted in a top-five, so the raw power is somewhat lacking. Gordon is in an awkward position in the standings this week. He is only 18 points outside of 10th, but he also has to leapfrog three drivers to earn the coveted 10th position. He is also the only driver between 11th and 20th with a victory to his credit -- last week's winner Keselowski is 21st in the standings and Regan Smith currently sits 29th -- which would give him a wildcard berth if the Chase started this week. Unfortunately, the Chase is still 13 races away and that gives drivers like Hamlin, Biffle, and Mark Martin ample opportunities to win multiple races and deny Gordon's wild card status.

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