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Fantasy Preview: Extra effort on menu for drivers' home track

October 12, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

No one wants to disappoint friends and family, but dark horses run strong at CMS

The NASCAR season is starting to resemble an old-time movie serial that entertained our grandparents. To see the complete picture, they had to keep returning to the theater every week as the 15 minute shorts developed their continuous storyline over the course of several months. These serials often had wildly exaggerated plots and cliffhangers designed to make the moviegoer return.

You may recall last week that the three favorite drivers were Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Carl Edwards. Two of these drivers had dominant races and two of them finished in the top five, but they each had very different but dramatic experiences during the afternoon. Johnson qualified poorly -- which is his tendency at Kansas -- but as soon as he charged to the front of the pack, he established his car as the one to beat. Gordon was just as strong until a late-race restart and then a blown engine all but shattered his hope to win the 2011 championship. Meanwhile, Edwards spent much of the day trying to simply stay on the same lap as the leaders, and through a remarkable set of circumstances climbed into the top five at the end of the event. The race could not have been scripted more perfectly to keep fans tuned in at home or glued to their seats at the track until the checkered flag waved over the Hollywood Casino 400.

Edwards brought Kevin Harvick with him through the field and those drivers who started the day tied for the points lead finished nose-to-tail. Johnson's victory closed the gap among the top three drivers to four points.

With the new points system, this Chase has not taken on the same characteristics as those that went before it. With practically the entire contingent of Chasers gambling on fuel mileage at the end of the first playoff race, the Geico 400, they served notice that winning was on everyone's mind to the near-exclusion of everything else. Beating and banging at New Hampshire relegated Johnson and Kyle Busch to finishes outside the top 10. With the exception of Edwards' miraculous recovery last week, no one has seized the opportunity and swept the top 10 this season in order to make themselves a clear-cut favorite. And yet, Edwards clings to a one-point lead over Harvick and a four point lead over "the-man-who-would-be-called-Six-Time."

Now the series rolls into Charlotte, one of the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks that always seems to have something different up its sleeve. Dark horses run strong on their hometown track and everyone puts in a little extra effort to go fast in front of friends and family. Five drivers enter the weekend with back-to-back top-10s and only one of them has a legitimate shot to win the Chase. However, despite his recent strong runs, Charlotte is not one of Harvick's better tracks. Nor has it been the go-to place for Denny Hamlin since his pair of top-10s in the past two races stand alone in a four-year span. The other three drivers with back-to-back top-10s -- Joey Logano, David Reutimann, and David Ragan -- have uneven records this season overall, making them questionable starters this week.

Lastly, three other top finishers from this summer's Coke 600 earned their first career top-10 at Charlotte. Partially aided by fuel mileage, fifth-place A.J. Allmendinger, sixth-place Marcos Ambrose, and Regan Smith underscore how difficult it is to handicap a NASCAR race. Yes, fuel mileage had a lot to do with their results, but that is a reality fantasy owners are forced to deal with all too often in 2011.

This week, concentrate on marquee names, but don't be afraid of dark horses. The right one could get you maximum points if the Chase contenders stumble.

The favorites

Johnson has three finishes of 28th or worse in his past seven starts at Charlotte versus only three top-10s, but he still deserves to be considered this week's favorite. All of his poor results since the beginning of 2008 have come in the Coke 600 and nearly all of them can be attributed to the team experimenting on race strategy or setups. In the fall, when the most important points are on the line, he has been incredible with a third-place finish last year and a victory in 2009. Johnson was once unstoppable at Charlotte. From 2003 through 2006, he won five of eight races and never finished worse than third and that is the kind of dominance he brings into the weekend. He will signal his strong run with a strong qualification because in 20 career races there, he has started on one of the first five rows in all but three.

Before Harvick finished eighth in this race last year, fantasy owners needed to travel back in time more than six years to 2003 in order to find another such result. In that 13 race-span, he earned only four top-15s and averaged a result of 23.4, which hardly excited points-hungry players. He won in the most recent Charlotte race and that victory was equal parts fuel mileage, strength, and a late-race surge that is defining his career. Since then, he has finished 16th or better on the other "cookie-cutter" tracks and his past three efforts have all been in the top 10. When the checkers wave over this week's Bank of America 500, expect Harvick and Johnson to be first and second in the points.

Clint Bowyer had an amazing season when he qualified for his first Chase, but it doesn't hold a candle to Brad Keselowski's. If not for a stumble at Dover two weeks ago, the driver of the No. 2 Dodge would be within a few points of the leader on the backs of three top-fives in the first four playoff races. Since finishing ninth at Indy in the Brickyard 400, the AAA 400 at Dover has been the only time he finished worse than 12th -- and that 20th-place result has done little to hurt his average finish of 5.8. On the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks, he's been equally impressive. After winning the STP 400 at Kansas, the worst he's done in five races on this track type was seventh and that makes him a good value in any fantasy game.

Charlotte


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark horses

Despite having the points lead, Carl Edwards has to be relegated to dark horse status this week for two reasons. First, his recent record at Charlotte leaves much to be desired with only one top-10 in his past six starts. With a pair of 16ths and a 12th in the past three, he hasn't been terrible and should remain in Chase contention at the end of the Bank of America 500, but you expect more from a driver that demands such a hefty salary cap. Secondly, last week's struggles at Kansas are fresh in fantasy owners' minds and he could continue to grasp for the right setup this weekend.

Joey Logano is flying far enough under the radar screen this week that snakes are ducking when he passes over them, but that could be in your favor. Charlotte is his best track of all those visited by NASCAR, and with a 7.4 average finish in five starts, he's never struggled there. Logano has never failed to finish on the lead lap and his worst result is a respectable 13th. Don't worry too much if he qualifies modestly, because his average starting position is about 14th, but he has improved from start to finish in all but one race.

Underdogs

Jeff Gordon started the season by struggling on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks. Actually, his problems on this track type dated back to the 2010 edition of the Bank of America 500 when he finished 23rd. A 37th at Texas last fall and three results of 20th or worse this spring on "cookie-cutter" tracks caused many to question his odds of winning the championship. He seemed to turn things around in the middle of the year with a fourth at Kansas, a 10th at Kentucky, and a victory at Atlanta, but it wouldn't last. Chicagoland was disastrous even before he ran out of gas in the closing laps and last week, he proved that his Achilles heel is his ability to move forward or protect his position during double-file restarts. This is not a good time to visit Charlotte, where his past two results have been in the 20s and where his past six seasons have produced an average finish of 19.2.

Fantasy Power Rankings

Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)
1.Jimmie Johnson8.50 17.Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.32 33.David Stremme31.79
2.Jeff Gordon9.32 18.David Reutimann17.59 34.Bobby Labonte32.58
3.Greg Biffle10.46 19.Jamie McMurray18.21 35.David Gilliland32.64
4.Carl Edwards10.50 20.Brian Vickers19.79 36.Robby Gordon33.76
5.Tony Stewart10.62 21.Ryan Newman20.57 37.Andy Lally34.21
6.Matt Kenseth10.64 22.Brad Keselowski21.31 38.Landon Cassill34.64
7.Kyle Busch11.44 23.David Ragan21.34 39.David Starr35.00
8.Kurt Busch12.32 24.Paul Menard21.60 40.Travis Kvapil36.38
9.Denny Hamlin12.41 25.Joey Logano22.75 41.Mike Bliss36.71
10.Kevin Harvick14.66 26.Trevor Bayne23.03 42.J.J. Yeley37.23
11.Kasey Kahne15.07 27.A.J. Allmendinger23.18 43.Mike Skinner37.29
12.Clint Bowyer15.81 28.Marcos Ambrose24.20 44.Dave Blaney37.36
13.Juan Montoya16.25 29.Casey Mears29.38 45.Michael McDowell39.17
14.Mark Martin16.27 30.Regan Smith30.60 46.Joe Nemechek39.84
15.Martin Truex Jr.16.89 31.Scott Speed31.52 47.Josh Wise40.77
16.Jeff Burton17.28 32.Reed Sorenson31.63 

Charlotte is also going to be a hurdle that Tony Stewart has to clear if he wants to remain in Chase contention. At Dover, he showed that simply being in the top 12 in points is not a miracle cure and Charlotte has been equally unkind to him in recent seasons. He hasn't earned a top-10 on this track in more than three years and his past seven starts have produced an average finish of 16.3. His worst result in that span of races was a 21st, so his fans can take comfort in the fact that he probably won't finish in the back half of the pack, but he is not going to earn very many fantasy points.