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Fantasy Preview: Chasers expected to continue success at Kansas

October 05, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Playoff drivers have won past three there; Gordon, Johnson among favorites

During the Chase, there are different hurdles that need to be cleared for each team. That fact has been occasionally lost during the past few years because of the dominance of Jimmie Johnson during his five championship runs, but with him stumbling ever so slightly in the first two races it has been much more apparent in 2011. Last week, our two underdogs -- Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon -- did not magically improve at Dover and clear their personal hurdles despite recent strong runs in 2011. In the first week of the Chase, Kyle Busch did not radically alter the course of his "cookie-cutter" season at Chicagoland.

Even with fuel mileage playing a role in the Geico 400 and the Sylvania 300, those races were more predictable than many fantasy owners have seen throughout the season. Predictable, that is, in determining who would run strong even if circumstances altered the finishing order.

This week, the series rolls into what might be the most predictable course of all. Four drivers enter the weekend with at least four-year top-10 streaks; two more have three top-10s during the past four Kansas race, and another driver has a worst finish of 12th in those same events. Identifying strong contenders this week should not be difficult.

The first three Chase races have all been won by championship contenders, which kept several perfect streaks alive. In the eight-year history of the playoff-style format, the first two weeks have always been won by Chasers. Additionally, the tracks of New Hampshire and Dover have perfect records that were kept intact by Stewart and Kurt Busch respectively.

Of the 73 Chase races run so far, 60 of them have now been won by Chase contenders, which equals 82.2 percent. Since NASCAR added the 11th- and 12th-place drivers in the mix, 93 percent of the races have been won by Chasers and that suggests another one will win this week.

It's not that simple, however. This week, NASCAR visits a course that has been much more egalitarian during its history. Kansas is one of eight tracks that have been on the Chase schedule since 2004 and non-Chasers have fared better there than on any course except Talladega. Three of the previous seven races on this track have been won by a driver chasing the Cup and each of those races was won by a different person.

Of course, those three races all came in the first four years of the Chase, which means playoff drivers have been perfect for the past three seasons and leveled the playing field. More importantly, of the seven drivers with perfect or near perfect records of top-10s during the past four years only Greg Biffle is not in the top 12, so fantasy owners can reasonably expect the Chasers' perfect record of winning Chase races to continue for at least one more week in 2011.

The Favorites

Whether last week was a success or failure for Jeff Gordon depends entirely on perspective. He hasn't run well at Dover in several years, so a 12th-place finish was respectable and kept him in the championship hunt. In fact, despite slipping to ninth in the standings, he actually made up a little ground on first place. Last week, he needed to beat the leader by 2.9 positions per race; this week, he needs to make up 2.7 spots in each of the remaining seven events. Last week was a missed opportunity, however, and the driver who eventually wins the Cup cannot afford to have those. The good news is that this week NASCAR visits one of Gordon's best tracks. He has been uneven in the past few years on several courses, but not Kansas. He enters the weekend with a perfect record of five top-fives since 2007. He won the first two Kansas races when the track was first added to the schedule and hasn't revisited Victory Lane since, but that could change this week.

As soon as fans and experts began counting Johnson out, he stormed to the front of the pack at Dover and had one of his most dominant performances of the season. The majority of points are paid at the end of the afternoon and his average finish of 14th in the first two Chase races left him slightly vulnerable, but he told everyone who would listen in Delaware that there were extenuating circumstances at both Chicagoland, when he ran out of gas on the final lap, and at New Hampshire, where he made contact with Kyle Busch late in the going. The team didn't view the loss of points in the same way as the fans and still had a ton of confidence in their driver's ability. That self-assurance paid off last week at Dover and it will pay dividends again at Kansas. He enters the weekend with five consecutive top-10s and an average finish of 4.4 during that span.

Carl Edwards is looking like a legitimate Chase contender and that is not only because he shares the points lead with Kevin Harvick. This team is hitting on all eight cylinders at the moment and last week's third-place finish was his sixth consecutive single-digit result. In those races, he has four top-fives and an average finish of 5.2, which should have been improved even more at Dover since he had the car to beat before he incurred a pit road speeding penalty that dropped him one lap off the pace at a critical time during the middle stages of the AAA 400. His streak at Kansas is not quite as long as that of Gordon or Johnson, but his record of top-10s has been perfect for the past four years. Expand the reference a little, and he has six top-10s in his past seven attempts at Kansas and is virtually guaranteed to get another.

Kansas


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

If not for last week's mistake by the driver, it would be tempting to make Biffle one of this week's favorites. He always runs well on this track and he has won at Kansas as both a Chase contender (last year) and as a spoiler (in 2007). Even while he has struggled on other tracks this season, he cracked the top 10 this June in the STP 400. The only time he failed to break into the top 12 was because of an accident in his first attempt in 2002. However, accidents are part of this sport and they become more predictable when drivers are desperately seeking wins. Last week, one camera angle in the AAA 400 suggested there might have been contact between Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Biffle, but the driver of the No. 16 tweeted an apology to his team later in the day and said the crash was his fault because he was trying too hard. He deserves a spot on your roster, but enter the weekend with your eyes wide open.

Denny Hamlin has all but conceded the Chase. He would need to beat the leaders Harvick and Edwards by nearly 10 positions per race and even catching the 11th-place driver in the standings is going to be difficult since he trails Ryan Newman by nearly four positions per race. At this point in the season, Hamlin is racing for pride and that is a strong motivator. His best opportunities to win in the next seven races will come on the short, flat tracks of Martinsville and Phoenix, but he needs to stop the bleeding immediately. To that end, he will be pleased with a top-10 finish this week at Kansas and that is in the cards if the team plays their hand correctly. In the past four Kansas races, the No. 11 team has two top-fives accompanied by an 11th in 2008 and a 12th in 2010.

Underdogs

This season's Chase resembles a bike race in which racers jockey for position early and will sprint at the end. Tony Stewart won the first two playoff races and appeared to be the frontrunner to win the championship, but after last week's struggles the pundits are starting to turn their backs on him. The same thing will probably happen to Kurt Busch this week. Kansas has not been a particularly good track for this driver during his career. In 11 previous starts, he has never cracked the top five and only three of his efforts resulted in top-10s. With momentum on his side, he will almost certainly beat his career-average of 18th, but fantasy owners should be prepared for the fact that it probably won't be by much.

Fantasy Power Rankings

Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon9.21 18.Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.40 33.Reed Sorenson31.42
3.Carl Edwards10.41 19.Jamie McMurray18.22 34.Bobby Labonte32.41
4.Greg Biffle10.71 20.Brian Vickers19.39 35.David Gilliland32.45
5.Tony Stewart10.78 21.Ryan Newman20.49 36.Robby Gordon33.76
6.Matt Kenseth10.91 22.David Ragan21.26 37.Andy Lally34.21
7.Kyle Busch11.54 23.Paul Menard21.78 38.Landon Cassill36.20
8.Denny Hamlin12.27 24.Brad Keselowski22.01 39.J.J. Yeley36.76
9.Kurt Busch12.29 25.Joey Logano22.16 40.Travis Kvapil36.98
10.Kevin Harvick14.71 26.A.J. Allmendinger22.88 41.Mike Bliss37.13
11.Kasey Kahne15.40 27.Trevor Bayne23.21 42.Mike Skinner37.15
12.Juan Montoya15.96 28.Marcos Ambrose24.33 43.Dave Blaney37.10
13.Clint Bowyer16.03 29.Casey Mears28.83 44.Josh Wise38.31
14.Mark Martin16.47 30.Regan Smith30.80 45.Michael McDowell39.26
15.Martin Truex Jr.16.81 31.David Stremme31.13 46.Joe Nemechek39.64
16.Jeff Burton16.97        

Likewise, younger brother Kyle should struggle this week. It was with some confusion that fantasy owners listened while experts on TV said that the driver of the No. 18 would be happy to kick off the Chase on the flat similarly-configured, 1.5-mile track of Chicagoland. In 2011 Busch has not been particularly strong on any of the "cookie-cutter" courses with the single exception of Kentucky and there was little reason to believe his trend would magically reverse. Kansas certainly hasn't been kind to Busch at any point in his career. He has only one top-10 there in eight starts and an average finish of 22.4 makes it his third worst track after Homestead and Talladega -- two other venues that happen to be in the Chase.