News & Media


Fantasy Preview: Stakes high at high-banked Monster Mile

September 28, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Edwards, Kenseth among favorites at Dover; Busch is JGR's only shot at title

In NASCAR, there are rhythm tracks and power tracks. Just as all power tracks are not created equal with restrictor-plate superspeedways like Talladega and Daytona providing a sharp contrast to the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile courses, rhythm tracks come in a wide variety of configurations. Last week, NASCAR visited the one-mile flat track of New Hampshire; this week they stay in the Northeast and visit another one-miler. And at first glance, the two tracks seem to be very dissimilar. Dover's corners are at least twice as steep as New Hampshire's and the concrete surface this week makes the track much tougher on tires. But there are also some similarities that will allow teams to build momentum.

Both New Hampshire and Dover are rhythm tracks. The corners come up on a driver in a hurry and they have to hit precise marks lap after lap in order to set fast times. When they are clear of traffic, that is not nearly as much of a problem as when a competitor is bearing down on their back bumper, but with both courses measuring only a mile in length, cars are rarely free of traffic.

For years, Dover and Bristol acted as big and little sisters to one another. Both high-banked tracks were paved in concrete and even though traffic was much tighter on the half-mile oval in Tennessee, the skill needed to go fast on each was largely the same. The similarities have diminished some in recent years since Bristol employed progressive banking that opened up multiple grooves, but considering that the minimum banking at Bristol is now 24 degrees?the same as Dover?the two courses are close enough that fantasy owners can compare a driver's records on them and make some assumptions.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup has done precisely what NASCAR intended by taking interest to a higher level in the past 10 races of the season. Multiple rules' changes since the playoff-style system was installed in 2004 have kept fans and teams guessing. And even with Jimmie Johnson dominating the championship during the past five years, how each iteration of the points' system plays out is open for speculation every season.

At the end of the Geico 400 -- the first playoff race of the 2011 Chase -- there was already speculation that Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch might be done for the year when they ran out of gas in the final laps. It was not so much the two to three points per race they needed to make up on the competition, but the fact that they needed to finish that far ahead of nearly every other Chaser on average for the remaining nine weeks. Now, their name is being tossed into the mix as championship contenders once more despite the fact that they both actually lost ground to the leader. Gordon needed to overcome a deficit of 2.8 spots per race before the start of the Sylvania 300; now he needs to make up 2.9 positions. His odds have improved, however, because he needs to make up that ground on only four drivers instead of 10. Busch went from being 2.1 positions per race out of first to 3.3, which has him tied with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth as drivers who need to overtake five of their competitors.

The questions shifts to, how much is too great a deficit to overcome? The answer to that question is that no one truly knows and drivers will have to finish as close to the front as possible to keep their Chase hopes alive.

Now the series moves on to Dover -- another track that has been traditionally kind to Chase contenders in one regard. Like New Hampshire, no driver who has not been a part of the championship hunt has won a playoff race there, but that does not necessarily mean the Chasers are infallible. In seven previous Chases, championship drivers have earned an average finish of 12.7 at Dover, which puts this track in a tie for fifth-best with Martinsville. Stated another way: only Talladega, Charlotte, Texas, and Homestead have been less generous to Chase contenders. One of the Chasers will finish outside the top 25 this week, which will open the door for someone else to make a charge. The only question is, who will be the lucky driver?

The Favorites

Strategy has played a role in the majority of NASCAR races this year and the spring FedEx 400 at Dover was no exception. The concrete surface makes this one of the rougher tracks on the circuit and two-tire stops should not be successful. The final caution waved nearly 40 laps from the end of the race and several drivers opted for two-tires. That list included Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin. They should have dropped like stones to the back of the pack. Instead, they finished first and second. Martin has been a little too inconsistent all year to make him a favorite this week, but Kenseth certainly deserves a spot on most fantasy rosters. He finished 18th in last year's AAA 400, but his previous five Dover attempts ended in top-fives, which combines with his victory this spring to make him a very appealing selection.

Teammate Carl Edwards has been lucky and good during the past several weeks. Dating back to a ninth at Bristol, he has accumulated three top-fives and a perfect record of top-10s in his past five attempts even though he has not appeared to have a dominant car most weekends. Last week, he struggled in practice and qualified poorly. He hit a low point midway through the Sylvania 300 when he spun Kenseth, but somehow the two managed to climb back inside the top 15 in the closing laps and had enough fuel to earn top-10s as others ran out in front of them. Edwards is one of only two drivers to enter the weekend with three consecutive top-10s at Dover and that means he has hit on the right setup and strategy in the past two years. No matter how this race plays out, he should be a top-10 challenger.

No one knows how the points will play out this season, but Joe Gibbs Racing's best chance at winning the championship boils down to Kyle Busch. He is the other driver with a three-race streak of Dover top-10s to his credit, but unlike Edwards, two of his three efforts have ended in top-fives, including a victory in last year's spring Autism Speaks 400. Last week, Busch finished 11th at New Hampshire and he's still looking for his first top-10. Unless he begins to accumulate single-digit results, he is not going to have a chance to catch up to the leaders and for him the future starts this week. The team will be highly focused on a track that has been kind to the No. 18. If they can't turn their season around now, it is unlikely to happen in the final seven races, which adds a sense of urgency to the situation.

Dover


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Jeff Burton still hasn't cracked the top 10 on an oval track, but he keeps coming tantalizingly close. The No. 31 finished 15th at Chicagoland in the Geico 400 and was 13th last week in the Sylvania 300. This spring, he finished 11th in the first Dover race, which is frankly as close to a top-10 as one can get without claiming the honor. Last year, he was almost perfect on this track with a pair of second-place finishes. If the team can improve even a little over recent weeks, Burton should break his streak of no top-10s on ovals. Even if they don't, a finish in the low teens is going to make him a good salary cap consideration.

Juan Montoya has a reputation for being impatient on the track and fantasy owners had a right to think he would melt down at New Hampshire last week. He was inadvertently thrust into controversy in qualification when rain delayed that session with only five drivers remaining. Montoya was in a no-win situation because if he went out with a little moisture on the track, he would not have fared well, but going out right after the jet dryers would also result in a poor effort. Instead of starting in the top 10 as he expected to do, he rolled off the grid deep in the pack with steam leaking from his ears. But he showed fantasy owners a different side to the one they are accustomed once the race was under way. He was patient, picked his way to the front of the pack, and ultimately was rewarded with a top-10 -- his first on an oval since Daytona this summer. That was also his fourth consecutive top-15 and should put him on your radar screen.

Underdogs

Fantasy owners may have been a little gun shy about Jeff Gordon last week after his poor effort at Chicagoland. He dominated the Sylvania 300 and would have challenged for the win if not for a mistake in the pits on his final stop. All things considered, he was lucky to finish in the top five and not run out of gas. That performance came on a track where he finished inside the top 10 in half of his previous 12 races, however, and he has not been quite as strong at Dover. On this track, he has not earned a top-10 since 2009 and in that season, he was able to finish in the single digits only once. In his heyday, Dover was one of his best tracks, but it has been a while since he challenged for a victory. Cautious fantasy owners might want to sit back and watch him this week without the added pressure of having him on their roster.

Fantasy Power Rankings

High-banked tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Kyle Busch8.99 18.Kevin Harvick18.83 33.Regan Smith30.91
3.Matt Kenseth10.01 19.Brad Keselowski18.94 34.David Stremme32.17
4.Carl Edwards10.02 20.Marcos Ambrose19.11 35.Andy Lally33.07
5.Kurt Busch10.42 21.Tony Stewart19.36 36.Scott Speed33.14
6.Mark Martin11.36 22.Joey Logano19.67 37.Dave Blaney33.82
7.Jeff Gordon11.48 23.Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.75 38.Travis Kvapil34.12
8.Greg Biffle12.33 24.A.J. Allmendinger21.03 39.Mike Bliss37.00
9.Ryan Newman13.11 25.Paul Menard23.78 40.J.J. Yeley37.24
10.Juan Montoya15.67 26.Reed Sorenson25.29 41.Michael McDowell38.49
11.Martin Truex Jr.15.82 27.Trevor Bayne26.91 42.Joe Nemechek38.51
12.Jeff Burton15.84 28.Brian Vickers28.50 43.Landon Cassill38.76
13.Jamie McMurray16.88 29.David Gilliland28.71 44.Mike Skinner38.89
14.Kasey Kahne17.02 30.Casey Mears28.97 45.Josh Wise39.00
15.Clint Bowyer17.83 31.Bobby Labonte29.53 46.T.J. Bell44.00
16.David Reutimann17.87 

Last week, we listed Tony Stewart as a favorite to win and he rewarded us. This week is going to be a little different. Stewart has some excellent runs on this track, but not recently. He swept Victory Lane at Dover in his sophomore season and has earned top-fives in nearly half his starts. Only one of those top-fives came in his own car, however. He finished second in the 2009 Autism Speaks 400, but prior to that one has to go all the way back to the 2004 season to find another. His latest two efforts on this high-banked concrete oval have been in the 20s. Fantasy owners should be pleasantly surprised if he keeps his current top-10 streak alive, but they shouldn't look for a victory.