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Fantasy Preview: Look for Chasers to dominate at NHMS

September 21, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Stewart hasn't won at Loudon since '05 but has earned four runner-up finishes

Fantasy owners old enough to remember the glory days of Saturday Night Live will undoubtedly also recall a character named Emily Litella played by Gilda Radner. The character would recite long rants centering on some faux pas or misunderstanding, only to be told she was wrong at the end of her monologue, whereupon she would simply say in a meek, squeaky voice, "never mind."

Regarding last week's prediction that the Chase contenders would have to play safely and would not be prone to gambling: Never mind.

It was almost as if the entire group of Chasers -- make that the entire field -- was seized by a case of collective optimism. Like the little train that could, they thought they could make the distance on fuel when yet another caution waved on the ragged edge of yet another fuel mileage window -- something fantasy owners have seen all too often this season. Many of them couldn't. Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth ran out of gas far enough from the end to seriously damage their Chase hopes. Meanwhile one of last week's favorites drove from deep in the field and also had sufficient fuel mileage to earn his first victory of the season and propel the team into legitimate championship contention. Tony Stewart did not exactly dominate the Geico 400, but he never struggled and no one would accuse him of backing into Victory Lane.

One of last week's predictions did come true. The Chase contenders dominated the race and during most of the afternoon, at least eight of them circled the track among the top 10. In the closing laps, only Paul Menard kept them from sweeping the top 10 as Chasers occupied 10 of the first 11 spots. The final rundown of the Geico 400 was altered by cars running out of gas, but they demonstrated their strength. Their dominance and consistency also demonstrates just how difficult it will be for Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Gordon, and Kenseth to make up any ground so long as all of the Chasers continue to run that well.

For the next two weeks, look for Chase contenders to continue to dominate. In seven previous seasons, both New Hampshire and Dover have perfect records of Chase races being won by Chasers. It might not be one of the drivers we expect, however. The past four New Hampshire Chase races were won by a playoff contender that wasn't expected to earn the ultimate prize. Additionally, none of the winners from the past four years are represented in this year's Chase. Clint Bowyer won the fall race at New Hampshire in 2007 and 2010, Greg Biffle won in 2008, and Mark Martin won in 2009, so taking the checkers this week could be a double-edged sword.

New Hampshire is radically different in configuration from Chicagoland. Dover is unlike both tracks. Getting off to a good start in the Chase requires drivers and teams to be flexible and able to adapt to changing circumstances. These were also skills needed in the first 26 races to finish in the top 10 in points, so the favorites during the next couple of weeks will continue to come from this elite group.

Who will win it all?


Follow your favorite driver and explore the odds of them winning this year's title with CHASE CASTER! Predictions are updated several times a week.

The Favorites

With his Geico 400 victory, Stewart became the 16th different driver this season to win a Cup race. We expected him to turn up the heat during the summer months when tracks were hot and slick, but that didn't happen as the team struggled to find the right chemistry. Stewart solidified his position among the Chase contenders in the final regular season races by finishing in the top 10 in three of the past four races. Now that he has cracked the code to winning, he could easily do so in back-to-back weeks. He has been great on short, flat tracks this year with top-10s at Phoenix, New Hampshire, and in both Richmond races. The only place he seemed to stumble was on the half-mile Martinsville Speedway in the Goody's Fast Relief 500. Stewart hasn't won at New Hampshire since 2005, but since then he has earned four runner-up finishes including two in his past three attempts on this track.

Part of what makes Stewart-Haas Racing so strong at New Hampshire is that both teammates know how to go fast there. Ryan Newman won on the Magic Mile in his rookie season, taking the checkers in the 2002 New Hampshire 300 after first winning the pole. He grabbed another victory in 2005 and while he continued to run strong there, he did not win again until this summer in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301. Once more, he signaled his intentions by first winning the pole. Even when he hasn't wound up in Victory Lane, he has been strong in Loudon; since joining SHR, Newman has four top-10s in five starts. If he misses the top spot, he is still liable to be one of this week's best values with another top-10.

Kurt Busch was not happy with his car or team last week and in typical fashion, he made those feelings known over the radio. Nevertheless, he spent most of the afternoon racing inside the top 10 and finished sixth in the final rundown. That was his worst result in the past three weeks, coming off back-to-back top-fives at Atlanta and Richmond. Busch can be uneven during a season, but the variety of tracks on which he's run well this year suggests he should be considered a threat to win the championship. At New Hampshire, he has been practically perfect in the past four seasons. Starting with a victory in the June 2008 race, he has swept the top 15 and earned top-10s in all but one of those seven events. Consistency is king for fantasy owners.

New Hampshire


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

It is unlikely that a non-Chase contender will win this week, but New Hampshire has been host to a few surprises in the past. And given the right set of circumstances, A.J. Allmendinger could steal the show. If he misses the top spot, he is still quite likely to earn a top-10 or finish in the low teens. At least, every statistical indicator points that way. Last week was uncharacteristic for this team when they lost a lap in the middle stages of the Geico 400 and couldn't get it back. Prior to Chicagoland, however, Allmendinger had five consecutive top-15s in the most recent races and an average finish of 10.4. On short, flat tracks this year, he has swept the top 15 with a best of seventh at Richmond. And at New Hampshire proper, he enters the weekend with a three-race streak of top-12 finishes.

Roush-Fenway Racing has not always been known as a contender on short, flat tracks, but that has changed in recent years. David Ragan is helping solidify their reputation on this track type in 2011 with very strong runs. He blew a tire on lap 125 of the Subway Fresh Fit 500k at Phoenix and finished 36th, but in the four races held on flat tracks measuring one-mile or less in length since then, he has swept the top 15. Three of these strong runs were eighth or better including a pair of fourths at Richmond. He finished only 14th at New Hampshire earlier in the year, but at his salary cap level, the ability to threaten for a top-10 makes him a worthwhile gamble.

Underdogs

We expected Jeff Gordon to keep his drive going at Chicagoland and not stumble until in the middle third of the Chase. He accelerated that prediction last week by running poorly from the drop of the green flag. This team was able to show only flashes of speed in the Geico 400 that never lasted for more than 25 laps or so and that has shaken our confidence going forward. Someday, someone will have to explain how a team with 11 consecutive results of 13th or better can lose all their momentum in a single race weekend. Until then, we don't have to understand it in order to be worried about it. By the numbers, fantasy owners could go either way with Gordon at New Hampshire. He has swept the top 15 in his past 12 races there, but half of those efforts have been outside of the top 10 including an 11th in his most recent outing.

Fantasy Power Rankings

Short, flat tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon6.94 17.Greg Biffle18.99 32.Trevor Bayne32.76
3.Denny Hamlin7.47 18.Martin Truex Jr.19.10 33.Robby Gordon32.83
4.Kyle Busch9.72 19.A.J. Allmendinger19.22 34.David Gilliland34.29
5.Tony Stewart11.98 20.Matt Kenseth20.17 35.Travis Kvapil34.89
6.Carl Edwards12.08 21.Kasey Kahne20.68 36.Scott Speed34.93
7.Ryan Newman12.10 22.Brian Vickers20.82 37.Mike Bliss35.65
8.Kurt Busch12.22 23.Joey Logano21.45 38.Andy Lally35.81
9.Clint Bowyer12.35 24.Marcos Ambrose23.01 39.Mike Skinner35.95
10.Mark Martin12.60 25.Brad Keselowski23.16 40.Dave Blaney37.10
11.Jeff Burton13.01 26.David Ragan25.65 41.Landon Cassill37.17
12.Kevin Harvick13.72 27.Casey Mears26.22 42.Michael McDowelL37.81
13.Juan Montoya13.87 28.Regan Smith30.00 43.J.J. Yeley38.33
14.Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.52 29.Paul Menard30.31 44.Joe Nemechek39.55
15.David Reutimann18.30 30.Bobby Labonte30.50 

Carl Edwards got his Chase off to a strong start with his fourth-place finish at Chicagoland, but he is going to have a much bigger challenge this week. New Hampshire has not been overly kind to him with only two top-10s in 14 starts. The last of these came in 2008 and in five races since then, he has finished an average of 17th. If he is going to overcome his recent track record though, this is a good opportunity to do so. Last week's top-five finish was his fourth straight top-10 of the season, so at least he has momentum on his side.