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Fantasy Preview: At Richmond, concentrate on team chemistry

September 07, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Short, flat tracks have become the domain of Joe Gibbs Racing in recent years

The two wild-card positions and updated points system did precisely what NASCAR intended by keeping the final Chase spots in question until the very end of the regular season and Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer did their best to add their own measure of drama before Tuesday's AdvoCare 500.

But the final regular season race at Richmond has always been intense. Drivers like Bowyer, Elliott Sadler, and Jeremy Mayfield have used this race to springboard their way into the championship hunt. The emotional energy expended by Sadler and Mayfield kept them from being factors in the Chase, but Bowyer challenged until the end of the 10-race playoffs in his first year as a contender.

Richmond may well be the perfect venue for the final regular season race. It's a short track that behaves like a superspeedway, combining the best of both worlds. Drivers are never out of traffic for long, so they have to set their cars up to run in multiple grooves to maneuver through traffic. That ability to run in multiple grooves is part of what makes this track behave like a speedway. Drivers can set the car up to run the high groove and sustain their momentum, or they can run low and take the short way around the track. Richmond might not only be the perfect venue for this race, it may be the perfect racetrack in that regard.

All the jockeying for wins and wild gambles by Chase contenders will be forgotten this week. If any of the locked-in drivers are in a position to roll the dice late in the Wonderful Pistachios 400, they may place a conservative wager, but fantasy owners can expect them to concentrate most of their efforts on developing some momentum for the final 10 races of the year. They don't necessarily have to win, but a strong run this weekend will improve their confidence and launch them into the Chase. If one of the top 10 in drivers' points gets the win as well, then they have two legs up on the competition with additional bonus points that can be applied to the championship.

This week, fantasy players will want to concentrate on teams with good chemistry. Previous bad luck, momentum or lack thereof, and even track record is second to how the team clicks. However, there remains a certain segment of the field that is highly motivated to go for broke. The drivers with one victory to their credit that currently are sitting in the high teens or low 20s know the only way they will make the show is to get a second win. And then there are other teams that simply need to win and become more than footnotes in the race rundown as they search for new or greater commitments from sponsors in 2012.

The weekend at Richmond will be wild, but most of that rowdiness will happen under the surface. Think of this race like a duck swimming across a lake: on the surface, the teams and drivers will appear cool and collected, but underneath the water, their feet will be frantically kicking. Sometimes, that extra effort causes one of them to make a catastrophic mistake that ends behind the wall, but on other occasions, it is the boost needed to get them into Victory Lane.

The Favorites

This short, flat track has become the domain of Joe Gibbs Racing in recent years -- at least where Victory Lane is concerned. Kyle Busch approaches much of his season with a flat out style of racing that either sees him dominate and win or make a mistake and slip down the running order with a flattened right side to his car. That is precisely what happened to him at Atlanta earlier this week. Richmond requires aggression and it's wide enough that he can find a fast groove without the risk of scraping along the SAFER barrier, however. The fact that his driving style is perfectly matched to this track can be proven by his winning three of the past five races at Richmond and finishing in the top-five in the other two events. His success is not limited to recent events, though. During his career Busch has finished outside the top-five only twice in 13 attempts.

Wild card standings

Atlanta
WC. Pos.Pts. Pos.DriverWinsPts.
12. 12. Hamlin 1 709
-- 20. Menard 1 657

It's practically impossible for Denny Hamlin to make up the ground he needs to get into the top 10 in points, but a victory is nevertheless important to the No. 11. The team languished through the end of the summer, which put their playoff hopes in jeopardy, but if he could win this week he regains some of his momentum even though he won't get a chance to carry the bonus into the playoffs. Between them, Busch and Hamlin have been the only winners on this track since the start of the 2009 season. Hamlin has two of those victories, both of which came during this final race of the regular season. Busch won in the spring, but the contest was between these two with Hamlin finishing second. In fact, these drivers have been one another's toughest competitors in the past two events with Busch finishing second to Hamlin last fall.

The third favorite this week is not nearly as clear as the top two. Six drivers enter the weekend with at least two consecutive Richmond top-10s and most of them also have recent momentum on their side. At least two of them -- Bowyer and A.J. Allmendinger -- have other considerations in mind that could prove to be a distraction, and two others -- Busch and Hamlin -- have already been profiled. That means the final favored spot comes down to either Jimmie Johnson or Carl Edwards. Both drivers will probably battle to finish inside the top five and it's hard to imagine a fantasy owner going wrong with either pick. Edwards and Johnson both swept the top 10 last year and added another such finish this spring, but we will give a slight nod to the driver of the No. 99 because two of his three top-10s in that span were top-fives compared to only one for Johnson.

Dark Horses

Bowyer has too much baggage to make this team a favorite for a top-five, but fantasy owners can expect a solid top-10 or finish in the low teens. At least, that is how he's performed in recent years with three sixth-place results and a 12th in his last four attempts. He's also shown that the team is capable of putting a complete race together and winning, which he did in 2008 and that will be what he needs to do to make the playoffs in 2011 after getting into wall at Atlanta off the front bumper of Juan Montoya. If he misses the mark this week, however, it probably won't be by much since he has finished worse than 12th only one time in 11 starts. His career-average finish of 9.5 makes this one of his favorite tracks and you should take advantage of that.

Richmond


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Allmendinger is firmly in the same boat as Bowyer. In order to qualify for the playoffs, this team has to win and pass Hamlin in the points. That is a lot of pressure, but after finishing in the top 10 at Atlanta, they proved they can withstand it. The team started running particularly strong during the summer, and they could be the most dramatic storyline of the week if they have one perfect race like Mayfield did in 2004 when he seemingly came from nowhere to qualify for the first Chase for the Championship. There is an old saying that says, "if you shoot for the stars, you might land on the moon," and a solid top-10 would make this team a great value this weekend.

Underdogs

In the one season during the history of the playoffs in which Jeff Gordon did not qualify for the Chase, his Achilles Heel was Richmond. In 2005, he finished 39th in the spring, but he was still in contention for one of the coveted berths when the Series rolled back into the track for the final regular season race. He finished 30th in that event and the next year, he failed to crack the top 30 in either race. His next seven attempts were much better with a streak of top-10s and an average finish of 5.4. Unfortunately, his past two attempts on the three-quarter mile oval have been disappointing with a 12th last fall and a 39th this spring. Give him a week to catch his breath, and then expect the No. 24 team to contend for the Chase. And be glad that his third win of the season from Atlanta will give him confidence and bonus in those final 10 races.

Fantasy Power Rankings

Short tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon7.45 17.Martin Truex Jr.17.16 32.David Stremme31.30
3.Kyle Busch7.62 18.David Reutimann17.38 33.David Gilliland32.60
4.Denny Hamlin8.83 19.Greg Biffle20.00 34.Andy Lally33.63
5.Ryan Newman12.05 20.Brad Keselowski20.02 35.Scott Speed33.84
6.Mark Martin12.22 21.Marcos Ambrose20.04 36.Robby Gordon34.41
7.Carl Edwards12.85 22.Joey Logano20.08 37.Travis Kvapil35.12
8.Clint Bowyer13.67 23.Brian Vickers20.54 38.Dave Blaney36.23
9.Kevin Harvick13.93 24.Kasey Kahne20.86 39.Mike Bliss36.60
10.Jeff Burton14.55 25.A.J. Allmendinger23.38 40.Michael McDowell37.47
11.Juan Montoya14.80 26.David Ragan26.27 41.Landon Cassill38.19
12.Kurt Busch14.82 27.Casey Mears27.10 42.Mike Skinner39.31
13.Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.03 28.Paul Menard27.79 43.J.J. Yeley39.53
14.Jamie McMurray16.36 29.Regan Smith29.36 44.Joe Nemechek39.86
15.Tony Stewart16.69 30.Trevor Bayne30.33 45.T.J. Bell44.00

Like Bowyer and Allmendinger, Tony Stewart has other things on his mind this week. The first goal is to protect his points' lead over 11th place Brad Keselowski and insure that the team qualifies for the Chase. Then they can go about the business of improving the performance of the No. 14 and challenge for the championship. It's hard to play both offense and defense and this week Stewart needs to be on the defensive. His recent record on this track also leaves a little to be desired: Stewart has only one top-10 in his past four Richmond races. The good news is that relatively strong run came this spring when he finished ninth in the Crown Royal 400. His fans will also take hope in his third-place finish in the AdvoCare 500 this past Tuesday.

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