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Fantasy Preview: Hedge your bets but focus on experience, reliability at AMS

August 31, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Montoya a dark horse, but only driver with three-race top-10 streak at Atlanta

It is fitting that one of the final two races before the Chase comes on a cookie cutter track. All seven similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks are different, but the effort to go fast on each of them is comparable and that allows drivers and teams to carry momentum from one to the other. Six drivers have finished 17th or better in the five races run on this configuration so far in 2011 and most of them have more results inside the top 10 than in the low- to mid-teens. It probably won't surprise anyone to know that the majority of these drivers are the ones currently in Chase contention. Several others have come close to sweeping the top 15, with only one bad finish on this track type.

NASCAR travels this week to Atlanta for its first and only visit of the season. And that is significant for two reasons. First, while Atlanta is obviously unique compared to the other doglegged or double-doglegged mile-and-half tracks, it requires a similar approach in terms of power versus handling. It's not a short track on which teams can get by with slightly less horsepower so long as handling makes up for the difference, or a superspeedway on which the engine is maxed out for an entire lap. Secondly, because this is the only time NASCAR will visit Atlanta in 2011, teams have to react quickly and get the handling perfect with year old notes that may not be 100 percent reliable. In three weeks, they will have to do the same thing at Chicagoland for the first Chase race and the stakes will be even higher.

This is the next-to-last race of the regular season and on paper, Atlanta should require unique skills compared to Richmond. Even though Richmond is only half the distance of Atlanta, the two tracks are not that dissimilar, however. The three-quarters-mile short track in Virginia is wide and has a sweeping frontstretch that allows drivers to keep their momentum. Someone who gets on a roll this week is liable to run strong next week as well. Everyone currently in the top 20 in points knows they can make the Chase if they can put together two perfect races and the pressure has rarely been greater.

Strong impression

There is yet another reason why everyone wants to do well at Atlanta. Since it joined the senior circuit in 1960, this track has always held at least two races per year, which means that it has always been a NASCAR staple. Drivers like Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson, and Marvin Panch join Richard Petty, David Pearson, and Bobby Allison as winners on this track and while it lacks the raw prestige of the Daytona 500 or Brickyard 400, a victory at Atlanta is capable of making a driver's career.

There are very few unknown names in Atlanta's record books. But as tough a track as this can be, six drivers have earned their first victory on its surface. Three of those came in the 1960s before veterans took control of the track. The three most recent came during this century and two of those drivers are among the best in the business. Kevin Harvick earned a dramatic win in 2001 mere weeks after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Carl Edwards bested the field in the 2005 Golden Corral 500. Jerry Nadeau won the fall 2000 race in a Hendrick Motorsports entry.

Regan Smith, David Ragan, Paul Menard, and Marcos Ambrose have all earned their first career Cup victory this season, and it's not out of the question that someone else with etch their name in the records books. Unrestricted, intermediate speedways -- including the mile-and-half tracks -- are where teams put the majority of their efforts. And this season has proved, teams are not timid about rolling the dice.

Some dominant drivers have won in 2011, but it is equally likely that someone will gamble late or get the right adjustment on the final pit stop and steal a victory. Fantasy owners need to hedge their bets for the AdvoCare 500, but concentrate mostly on experienced teams with reliable engines.

Atlanta


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

The Favorites

Edwards not only earned his first Cup victory at Atlanta, he has long considered the track one of his favorites. In his first attempt, he qualified fourth. No one expected him to stay there, but he ran with the leaders all afternoon and finished third.

His next two attempts during the 2005 season featured starts on one of the first two rows and ended in a sweep of Victory Lane. His third win at this track came in the 2008 Pep Boys Auto 500 after he started fourth. And in this race last season, another fourth-place start resulted in a second-place finish. If he starts up front, he absolutely has to be on your roster, but he is a threat from anywhere in the field as long as he stays out of trouble. He has finished worse than seventh only four times at AMS. Two of those were because of engine problems, once was after he suffered crash damage, and the fourth was last spring when he was black flagged by NASCAR for retaliating against Brad Keselowski who wrecked him earlier in the afternoon.

Kurt Busch has run hot and cold this year, but he has been consistent on one track type. The No. 22 team is the only one in the field to sweep the top 10 at Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte, Kansas, and Kentucky . Only one of those races resulted in a top-five when he combined speed and fuel mileage in the Coke 600. And with the remaining four events ending in either ninth- or 10th-place finishes, there are others in the field with a better average on the cookie cutter courses. At this stage of the season, however, fantasy owners should be willing to give up dominance for consistency, and that makes Busch a very compelling pick. If they make the right calls in the pits, Busch could be worth much more than a simple top-10 finish. Last year, he won one of Atlanta's races and finished sixth in the other.

Atlanta Favorites

Career statistics (cookie cutter tracks)
DriverRacesWinsTop-fiveTop-10Average StartAverage Finish
Carl Edwards16117639516.212.0
Matt Kenseth261 147813619.513.5

Another driver that seems to be hitting on all cylinders at the right time and has dominated the cookie cutter tracks this year is Matt Kenseth. In fact, dating back to the 2009 NASCAR Banking 500 at Charlotte, he has amassed a near-perfect record of top-15s on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks. His only poor result was a 20th at Texas last spring, but since then he has an average finish of better than eighth in his past 11 attempts on this track type. A win and a second-place finish at Texas this spring and last fall respectively, makes him even more appealing because these two tracks are among the most similar on the circuit and regularly battle one another for the top speed record. Kenseth knows how to stay out of trouble and that comes in handy at Atlanta.

Dark Horses

Several drivers deserve to be mentioned this week, such as Brad Keselowski with his remarkable run after breaking his ankle or Jeff Gordon who finally seems to be in championship form. While neither of them will catch your competition by surprise -- Juan Montoya might. His record this season on cookie cutters has been solid with a worst finish of 17th in five races, but he's flown under the radar with just one top-10. That was a third in the Kobalt Tools 400 at Vegas and since then, he has been a good pick only as filler for your last slot. Along with Kurt Busch, Montoya is the only driver who swept the top 10 on this track last year with a third in the spring and a ninth in the fall. He can also lay claim to something even Busch cannot. With a third in the fall 2009 Atlanta race, he is the only driver with a three-race top-10 streak on this track.

Marcos Ambrose got off to an excellent start on this track type with three consecutive top-10s at Vegas, Texas, and Charlotte, but his two most recent efforts at Kansas and Kentucky fell flat just when a Tasmanian-themed bandwagon was starting to form. His victory at Watkins Glen rejuvenated interest in the No. 9 team. They failed to capitalize on the momentum at Michigan the following week, but Ambrose was strong at Bristol and finished in the top 10. That track is radically different from Atlanta, so there are no assurances he will pick up where he left off at Charlotte, but that is why he's a dark horse instead of a favorite.

Underdogs

At the beginning of last week, fantasy owners might have assumed Tony Stewart was kidding about not belonging in the Chase. During the Bristol weekend, it appeared he was actually being diplomatic because his car never got out of the starting blocks with poor practices, a bad qualification, and a dismal run. It's hard to know if he made a self-fulfilling prophecy and drove down to the standard he had in his mind or if the team really has completely run out of steam, but if they cannot control the mental aspect of this sport, there is very little hope at Atlanta either. Whether he makes the Chase is for others to decide, but fantasy owners want to look elsewhere for a contender among drivers in his price range.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Cookie cutter tracks (past three years)
Pos.RiverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon8.89 18.Martin Truex Jr.17.40 34.Bobby Labonte32.47
3.Greg Biffle10.41 19.Jamie McMurray17.88 35.Robby Gordon33.16
4.Carl Edwards10.85 20.Brian Vickers19.23 36.Andy Lally35.36
5.Tony Stewart11.19 21.Ryan Newman21.02 37.T.J. Bell36.33
6.Matt Kenseth11.31 22.Trevor Bayne21.26 38.Travis Kvapil36.62
7.Kyle Busch11.46 23.David Ragan21.66 39.Dave Blaney37.07
8.Denny Hamlin11.76 24.Joey Logano21.68 40.Landon Cassill37.77
9.Kurt Busch12.88 25.Paul Menard22.11 41.Mike Skinner38.00
10.Kasey Kahne14.71 26.A.J. Allmendinger23.05 42.Mike Bliss38.18
11.Kevin Harvick15.36 27.Brad Keselowski23.43 43.Michael McDowell39.05
12.Juan Montoya15.53 28.Marcos Ambrose24.59 44.Joe Nemechek39.44
13.David Reutimann15.68 29.Casey Mears28.04 45.J.J. Yeley39.45
14.Mark Martin15.93 30.David Stremme29.32 46.David Starr42.04
15.Clint Bowyer16.16 31.Scott Speed30.26 47.Jeff Green43.00
16.Jeff Burton16.59 32.Regan Smith31.17 48.Geoff Bodine47.00

Denny Hamlin earned a top-10 finish last week at Bristol, but he is not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination. Clint Bowyer is still ahead of him in the points and a single win would knock the No. 11 out of the playoffs. A.J. Allmendinger is not far behind Hamlin in 14th and Richard Petty Motorsports has come close to winning on several occasions and did in fact take the checkers at the Glen with Ambrose behind the wheel. Hamlin's biggest concern this week has to be engine reliability. Conceding a flaw in their own power plants, Joe Gibbs Racing is switching to Toyota Racing Development motors, but they too have experienced occasional problems in 2011. The team will be tempted to push a little harder this week and that could result in a shortened race that ends behind the wall.