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Fantasy Preview: A focused Harvick no good for rest of field

October 26, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Hanging on to Chase chances, former points leader could make victorious return

Talladega had the potential to be a great equalizer in the Chase and to a large degree it was. Championship contender Kevin Harvick was involved in a multi-car crash soon after the midway point of the race, which could have dropped him well down the order. Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth finished outside the top 10, however, and failed to fully capitalize on the situation, leaving four drivers -- including Harvick, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski -- within 26 points of the lead. Kyle Busch was also involved in the mid-race crash and is 40 points behind Edwards. The rest of the field was effectively removed from contention, but instead of hurting their odds that increases their value in the coming weeks as they battle for pride and victories.

Martinsville has the potential to be another wild card race, but not for the reasons most fantasy owners think. Jamming 43 cars on a half-mile bullring is a recipe for excitement. In the past, it was also a recipe for disaster, but NASCAR's new car is much more durable than its predecessor. Last week, Joey Logano was able to race competitively in a mangled Toyota and this week someone will most likely finish in the front half of the field with a flattened right side after scrubbing along the wall in the 500-lapper.

What makes Martinsville a potential wild card, however, is race control. Fewer cautions are being waved in the first half of races this season, which contributes to long green flag segments. On a short track, that means a lot of cars will go a lap down, but that is not as catastrophic as it was in the past. With the "Wave Around" and "Free Pass" rules, most of those drivers can make up lost ground and that puts pressure on the final segment of the race. In this spring's Goody's Fast Relief 500 a caution waved when Regan Smith slammed the wall in the shadow of the finish. It came on the back edge of a green flag segment of pit stops and Smith was one of only 13 drivers on the lead lap. Another six were listed one lap down. In a season of strange occurrences, the same kind of thing could happen this week.

Rhythm

If the race is not altered by cruel fate, the Tums Fast Relief 500 should be one of the most predictable on the circuit because Martinsville is prone to streaks. Drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Jeff Gordon have dominated this track for extended periods of time, but there are several others who have been able to sweep the top 10 during the past four seasons.

Some of these drivers have surprised the field such as Jamie McMurray in 2009 or Joey Logano in 2010. Others, like Carl Edwards last year, overcame generally bad efforts on the flat bullring although their standing in the points kept them from being considered dark horses. This spring -- partly aided by the ill-timed caution -- several drivers earned better than expected results. David Ragan earned his first Martinsville top-10, his teammate Kenseth finished sixth after two years of disappointments on this track, and Juan Montoya got a well-deserved top-five out of the day. While those drivers might have been a surprise in April, now that they have momentum, a repeat performance is not out of the question.

Martinsville is a rhythm track that requires drivers to hit very precise marks lap after lap. Once they get that cadence memorized, it is difficult to break. That means this week's favorites should be selected from drivers with long histories of success on this track. Fantasy owners can get a little more creative with their choice of dark horses.

The Favorites

Last week, we predicted that Jeff Gordon would not only finish poorly at Talladega, but that a late-race restart would be his undoing and that is precisely what happened. Before the green, with five races remaining, his fans clung to hope that a victory in the Good Sam Club 500 could revive his championship bid, but now he is 82 points -- nearly two full races -- out of the lead and the pressure is truly off his shoulders. He is racing for pride on a track at which he and other Hendrick Motorsports drivers have dominated throughout the years. Last year in the fall, crash damage ended a 15-race top-10 streak that included four victories and 13 top-fives. This spring, a bad pit stop mired him in the field during the closing laps and denied him a victory, but he still managed to add another top-five to his tally. This week, he could win -- unless there is another late-race caution and restart.

Jimmie Johnson is also effectively out of Chase contention, although someone probably has not informed the team. Six drivers sit ahead of him in the points with four races remaining and that means he would need to pick them off two at a time in some of the upcoming events. He won't beat Carl Edwards by 12 or 13 spots every week, which is what he needs to do to overcome a 50-point deficit, but he knows that the No. 99 could have trouble in the final races. And the only way to capitalize on that will be to run perfectly at Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead. His best opportunity to make up significant ground on Edwards and Kenseth will be to win at Martinsville and he is more than capable of doing so because he took five checkers in a span of six races from 2006 through 2009. This spring, he was caught speeding on pit road during his final pit stop, which not only relegated him to the back of the field for the restart, but also placed him behind the lap-down cars. He could not overcome the penalty with so little time remaining and finished 11th. That was only the second time in his 19-race Martinsville career that he failed to crack the top 10; his previous poor result came when he was a rookie in 2002.

Harvick also has a lot on the line this week. He is the one favorite without a long string of top-fives to bolster his confidence, but he could be starting a streak to rival Johnson and Gordon. Last fall during the 2010 Chase, he cracked the top five for the first time in his career on this track and he had to overcome a dismal starting position of 36th to do so. This spring, he led only a handful of laps to win the Goody's Fast Relief 500, but to grab the victory he made a dramatic late-race pass on Dale Earnhardt Jr. Like Johnson, he knows this is his best opportunity to make up ground on the leaders and a focused Harvick is a danger to the field.

Martinsville


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Logano is entering a part of the schedule that he particularly likes. Charlotte, Talladega, and Martinsville have all been kind to him in his fledgling career; in fact all three tracks are listed among his five best in terms of average finishes. Martinsville is second with a result of 13.0 in five starts and what makes him predictably good here is that nearly all of his results have come in a narrow band of results sixth through 13th. He has one bad finish in his inaugural Martinsville attempt and one stellar result of second in spring 2010, but most fantasy owners will be satisfied with a finish on either side of 10th this week. At his salary cap, that will make him one of the best values in the game.

Denny Hamlin has to be considered no more than a dark horse this week because this team is about as low as they can be. They barely made the Chase with flagging results in the summer and then immediately took themselves out of contention with an average finish of 23.5 and no top-15s in the first four playoff races. The Gibbs guys bounced back a little at Charlotte and cracked the top 10. Last week at Talladega, they struggled to find a drafting partner and finally got help on the final restart to post back-to-back top-10s for the first time in the Chase. Still, their mental game is way off the mark. If this were any other team, they would be underdogs this week, but Hamlin has won three of the past four races and if he practices strong he will get elevated to favorite status.

Underdogs

Roush Fenway Racing has not been traditionally strong on short, flat tracks and while they are turning their program around at Martinsville, Richmond, Phoenix, and New Hampshire, this is still one of the biggest hurdles Edwards and Kenseth need to clear. Edwards swept the top-10 last year, but those are two of only four such finishes that he has in 14 starts and his career average of 16.9 makes this his third-worst course behind the two plate tracks. Kenseth's top-10 this spring was aided by the late-race caution and it was his best result in two years. His career-average finish is slightly better than Edwards' at 15.8, but that modest showing is reinforced by an equally bad record at Phoenix and Richmond.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Short, flat tracks past three years
1.Jeff Gordon6.74 17.Greg Biffle19.11 33.David Stremme31.92
2.Jimmie Johnson7.20 18.Martin Truex Jr.19.19 34.Trevor Bayne32.76
3.Denny Hamlin8.08 19.A.J. Allmendinger19.22 35.Robby Gordon33.16
4.Kyle Busch9.24 20.Matt Kenseth19.84 36.David Gilliland34.38
5.Ryan Newman11.25 21.Brian Vickers19.96 37.Scott Speed35.28
6.Tony Stewart11.82 22.Kasey Kahne20.16 38.Andy Lally36.27
7.Clint Bowyer12.33 23.Joey Logano20.91 39.Travis Kvapil36.28
8.Mark Martin12.50 24.Brad Keselowski22.41 40.Josh Wise36.33
9.Carl Edwards12.61 25.Marcos Ambrose23.60 41.Landon Cassill36.84
10.Kurt Busch12.81 26.David Ragan25.38 42.Dave Blaney36.96
11.Kevin Harvick13.37 27.Casey Mears26.77 43.J.J. Yeley37.12
12.Jeff Burton13.51 28.Reed Sorenson28.52 44.Hermie Sadler37.28
13.Juan Montoya13.53 29.Regan Smith28.99 45.Michael McDowell38.52
14.Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.98 30.Paul Menard30.03 46.Joe Nemechek39.46
15.Jamie McMurray18.22 31.Bobby Labonte30.58 47.Derrike Cope40.50
16.David Reutimann18.80 32.Ken Schrader30.76 

Tony Stewart is another Chase contender who hopes to survive Martinsville. He's been much improved on short, flat tracks this year with five top-10s in six starts at Phoenix, Richmond, and New Hampshire, but the one race in which he struggled is much more significant. While running strong elsewhere, Stewart's Goody's Fast Relief 500 was a comedy of errors. Early in the race, he overdrove a corner and nearly wrecked after getting marbles on his tires and just before the mid-point of the Goody's Fast Relief 500, he was black flagged for changing lanes too soon on a restart. That caused him to lose a lap and he kept falling until he ultimately finished 34th. That was his third consecutive finish outside the top 20 at Martinsville.

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