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Fantasy: Pocono should be predictable, but then again ...

August 03, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Fate keeps tossing curve balls at fantasy owners.

At Martinsville this spring, a caution flag waved during the middle of a green-flag sequence of pit stops. At Dover and Darlington, two tire stops were unexpectedly successful. Charlotte and Kansas featured fuel-mileage gambles. Three of the four restrictor-plate superspeedway races have already gone into the books, and those events are always crap shoots in terms of handicapping winners.

For those tasked with selecting a winning roster, it seems that every race has a unique set of circumstances making it hard to predict. Last week, the normally predictable Indianapolis Motor Speedway was not immune from the fickleness of fortune. Two drivers dominated much of the race, but neither of them won when gas mileage once more decided the top spot. Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon led the most and second-most laps of the Indy classic. Gordon managed to salvage a good finish in second while Kahne slipped to 18th and those two drivers are the quintessence of the Brickyard 400. The final top 10 was littered with strong and modest cars.

Consider the fate of the five drivers with the best average running position as provided by NASCAR Statistical Services. Gordon and Matt Kenseth earned the two best averages and both finished in the top five. However, David Ragan, Kahne and Jimmie Johnson had the next best averages and they finished 23rd, 18th and 19th, respectively.

The winner, Paul Menard, had the ninth-best average running position, which was respectable, but Regan Smith finished third despite earning only the 22nd-best average and fourth-place Jamie McMurray had the 19th-best running position throughout the day. It's enough to make fantasy owners scratch their heads.

Another Flat Track

Now it is time to load up and head to another flat track. Like Indy, Pocono should not hold many surprises because it is a flat track that requires rhythm. The Pennsylvania track is also measured at 2.5 miles in length, which would cause one to assume that drivers and teams won't try to gamble on fuel. But, accepted wisdom said they wouldn't gamble at Indy either, so fantasy owners cannot take comfort in that assumption.

As the third consecutive flat track on the circuit, this should have been a good time for drivers to develop some momentum with a half-dozen races remaining before the Chase. Less than a handful of drivers have been able to post back-to-back top-15s though and a great opportunity is falling by the wayside. In the past two weeks, either New Hampshire or Indy has been chemistry killers and the teams will have their mettle tested during the next two weeks at Pocono and Watkins Glen.

The season won't wait for them and it won't wait for fantasy owners either, so it's time to roll the dice and make picks for the Good Sam RV Insurance 500.

The Favorites

The fastest car doesn't always win, just the one that gets to the finish line first. Gordon was more than a second quicker than the leaders in the closing laps as they slowed their pace to conserve fuel, but Menard timed his run perfectly and the No. 24 did not have enough power to pass him at the end. Two weeks ago, Gordon was in a similar situation at New Hampshire, but he pushed too hard and burned the bead off his tire in the closing laps. He learned his lesson this week, and even though he did not get the victory, he earned a lot of points for fantasy owners. Pocono will showcase another strong run for Gordon and unless something odd happens again this week, he should be in contention to sweep the track for this first time since Denny Hamlin did it in 2006.

Hamlin started the Brickyard 400 with a deficit. After blowing his engine in practice, he was forced to drop to the back of the pack and knew that it would be a long day. With various strategies playing out, he made his way to the front for a while. But fantasy owners are not certain if his modest showing of 27th in that race was because he mistimed his charge or because others in the field had a more productive strategy. Now that the team is outside the top 10 in points, they won't waste too much time worrying about the cause of his poor finish at Indy. Hamlin either needs to make up 19 points or win another race to insure his Chase berth and both of those are distinct possibilities this week on a track that he has owned in the past.

During the past two years, no one has been more consistent than Kevin Harvick at Pocono. Others have been stronger in one or two races: Hamlin, Greg Biffle and Gordon won the past three events, but the No. 29 is the only team with three consecutive top-fives on the triangular track. That earns them a spot on your roster this week in spite of the fact that Harvick has not earned another finish of fifth or better in the past six weeks of this season since leaving Pennsylvania. Another reason to commit to Harvick this week is that his qualification attempts have been generally poor; the upside of that is he is forced to pass a lot of cars in order to get to the front and earns a great pass differential in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game.

Pocono


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Johnson was another driver who saw his momentum stalled at Indy. He entered the weekend with back-to-back top-fives from Kentucky and New Hampshire. Last week, he should have earned another and at certain times during the Brickyard 400 he was faster than Gordon. One of his recent strong runs came at Pocono in their first race this year when he crossed under the checkered flag fourth. That was his third consecutive top-10 on the triangular track, but he is only listed as a dark horse this week because he was not very strong during the most of the first Pocono race and only a late-race surge saved him.

Martin Truex Jr. found himself in a similar situation to Hamlin at the start of the Brickyard 400. He had to change a transmission and drop to the back of the pack. That virtually guaranteed he would not be on anyone's radar screen. The residual effect of this lack of respect is that he could get overlooked at Pocono, as well. If your competition misses him, Truex could be your ace in the hole, because the No. 56 has earned back-to-back top-10s last August and this spring.

Underdogs

Kahne deserved a better fate at Indy. He dominated much of the race until he drove into the grass to avoid a spinning Landon Cassill and may have damaged his car so that it was not competitive enough to overcome a miscalculated pit strategy. His strong run will resonate in your competitions' heads this week and he will probably remain on quite a few rosters. In light of how difficult handicapping races in 2011 has been, he very well could finish in the top 10, but if he does it will be his first such result at Pocono since the end of 2009. There is no need to start thinking of him as star-crossed yet, but cautious fantasy owners will want to keep the No. 4 at arm's distance for a while.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Flat tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon7.11 18.Jamie McMurray19.36 34.Travis Kvapil33.65
3.Denny Hamlin9.47 19.David Reutimann19.92 35.Scott Speed33.83
4.Tony Stewart10.45 20.Brian Vickers20.22 36.Robby Gordon33.95
5.Mark Martin11.76 21.Martin Truex Jr.20.36 37.Landon Cassill34.08
6.Carl Edwards11.95 22.A.J. Allmendinger20.59 38.Scott Wimmer35.24
7.Kyle Busch12.10 23.Joey Logano21.41 39.Andy Lally35.38
8.Jeff Burton13.42 24.Keselowski23.96 40.Mike Bliss35.64
9.Kurt Busch13.48 25.Marcos Ambrose24.69 41.Mike Skinner36.16
10.Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.98 26.David Ragan25.19 42.J.J. Yeley36.29
11.Clint Bowyer14.07 27.Casey Mears27.32 43.Michael McDowell37.08
12.Ryan Newman14.08 28.Paul Menard29.23 44.Dave Blaney37.27
13.Kevin Harvick14.54 29.Bobby Labonte30.30 45.Erik Darnell37.65
14.Juan Montoya14.55 30.Regan Smith30.63 46.Geoff Bodine39.25
15.Greg Biffle15.36 31.David Stremme31.16 47.Joe Nemechek39.29
16.Kasey Kahne16.73 32.Trevor Bayne31.37 48.T.J. Bell41.06

Carl Edwards clings to the points lead, but with only one finish inside the top 10 in his past four attempts, fantasy owners have to wonder for how long. The last time he was at Pocono, Edwards sat behind the wall for most of the race with engine woes. The only reason he got back on track at the end of the day was as a matter of pride to keep a streak of running at the end of races alive. With only a handful of circuits remaining, he limped around the track to say he had been running at the end of 42 consecutive events. He seemed to immediately rebound with back-to-back top-fives at Michigan and Infineon, but with his recent slump, that Pocono race looks more and more like an ill omen.