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Fantasy Preview: Johnson, Kenseth good at Texas; Edwards, too

November 02, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com



Fantasy Preview: Johnson, Kenseth good at Texas; Edwards, too

NASCAR leaves one of the slowest tracks on the circuit and heads west to one of its fastest as drivers face their next challenge. With the exception of a road course, every track type is represented in the Chase and teams have to be flexible in the final 10 races to claim the ultimate prize. There is not a single aspect of their program that can be overlooked and there is no rest. In the final three weeks, they will be challenged by a cookie-cutter track, a short, flat track, and a true oval with progressive banking.

On top of that variety, this year's Chase has not yet developed a distinct character, which makes the outcome even more uncertain. The drivers currently first and second in the points have achieved their status in completely different ways; Carl Edwards has taken the top spot on consistency with a worst finish of 11th and an average of 6.1, while second-place Tony Stewart won three of the seven races in the Chase so far to offset a pair results 15th or worse. Fans might have to wait until the final lap at Homestead in three weeks to know which of those strategies will work.

This is important because the Chase influences fantasy owners. In fact, a driver's position in the playoffs is one of the critical factors impacting roster selection because the Chasers continue to dominate the front of the pack. Last week at Martinsville, eight of the top-10 positions were earned by Chase contenders, which was a mark previously set in the first playoff race at Chicagoland. At Charlotte -- another similarly configured, 1.5-mile track like Texas -- seven Chasers finished in the top 10, which insures they will dominate the list of favorites this week. And yet, in every race so far this season, at least one Chaser has finished 25th or worse with seven of the 12 drivers struggling at Talladega. That continues to make the season a difficult one to handicap.

Since this Chase has not yet developed a distinct personality, it is difficult to know who is truly out of contention. With three races remaining, Jimmie Johnson certainly is in a difficult position with a full-race deficit of 43 points and Matt Kenseth also is in jeopardy of being written off since he sits 36 points behind the leader, but if Edwards' consistency wavers and Stewart continues to run hot and cold, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick will have a chance to pounce.

Texas is going to be a chess game. This is the final race in which all of the major teams should be evenly matched since the similarly configured, 1.5- and 2-mile tracks dominate the circuit and most organizations put the lion's share of their efforts into going fast on them. The drivers will jockey for position all afternoon and, except for Edwards and Stewart, they will be more than willing to roll the dice if needed. An example of the importance of this track type was demonstrated in at Chicagoland when several teams gambled on fuel mileage and lost positions on the final lap.

If the calculators are a little less accurate this week, dark horses could run away with the show like they did at Talladega and Kansas. The good news for fantasy owners is that there are a number of sleepers who could be on your roster -- such as A.J. Allmendinger or David Ragan -- especially if they qualify and practice well. The bad news is that rain is forecast at 50 percent during the coming weekend for northern Texas and this fall has been plagued by weather.

The Favorites

Last week in Victory Lane, Stewart tried to play head games with Edwards -- saying that the next three weeks would not be easy for the No. 99 team. Coming off the win, Stewart had every reason to feel confident, but it might have been the wrong time to throw down the gauntlet. In terms of average finishes on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks in 2011, no one has been stronger than Edwards. He has been close to perfect on this track type this season and the only time he stumbled at all was in the 600-miler at Charlotte. However, nearly every favorite finished outside the top 10 in that race including Stewart. Edwards swept Texas in 2008, but he will probably settle for another top-five like the third he earned in the spring.

Something unfortunate has to happen to the five drivers ahead of him for Johnson to have a shot at earning a sixth consecutive championship, but the only fate he controls is his own. Last week, he took the first step toward running the table at the end of the season with a near-win and second-place finish at Martinsville. He's been equally strong at both Texas and Phoenix in the past and counts them among his favorite tracks in terms of average finishes. He hasn't been perfect on the 1.5-miler outside of Fort Worth with two bad results in the high-30s, but both of those were caused by crash damage. Every other result has been 15th or better and nearly half his starts resulted in top-fives. Then again, he proved he was fallible at Charlotte a couple of weeks ago when he crashed while trying to pass Ryan Newman.

Kenseth is in the same boat as Johnson. He has to sweep the top five in the final three races in order to have a shot at overtaking Edwards and he could not ask for a better track to make another statement. His win at Texas in the spring delivered a message that he would be a contender during the regular season. As dramatic as that victory was, it was par for the course for Kenseth at Texas because he has finished in the top five in eight of the past 12 races there; in fact, six of those were either second- or third-place results. Look for Edwards, Johnson, and Kenseth to dominate the top five during the race and track position will determine the final outcome.

Texas


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

To qualify for the Chase and be competitive once it starts, teams must have a solid cookie-cutter program. Brad Keselowski did not get off to a particularly strong start this year with a 26th at Vegas, an 18th at Texas, and a 19th at Charlotte, but as soon as he successfully gambled on fuel at Kansas in June, all that changed. Beginning with that victory, he strung five consecutive top-10s together on this track type until he stumbled slightly at Charlotte in the Chase. His gaffe is the reason he is relegated to dark horse status, however, because it backed up a similarly modest showing in that track's first race. The No. 2 team was not overly strong at Texas this spring, but they have improved immeasurably in the intervening months.

Marcos Ambrose has run hot and cold on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks this year. His first three attempts were excellent with a fourth at Vegas and sixth-place results in the next two races at Texas and Charlotte. Just when a bandwagon formed, however, he struggled through the next four races on this track type. Ambrose then reversed his fortune once more in the Chase race at Kansas with a top-10 finish. Another fifth at Charlotte has the team heading in the right direction and given their modest salary cap, he could be one of the best values in the game.

Underdogs

Jeff Gordon has the opposite record of Ambrose this year. He struggled early on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile courses, improved in the middle of the season, but has fallen back into the clutches of the field since then. His three most recent efforts on this track type have all been outside the top 20 and this team realizes that its 1.5-mile program has been its weakest link since the end of 2010. Fantasy owners need to pay attention to that statement and save Gordon for the short, flat track of Phoenix.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon9.85 17.David Reutimann17.67 32.Reed Sorenson32.46
3.Tony Stewart9.88 18.Jeff Burton18.44 33.David Stremme32.58
4.Matt Kenseth10.01 19.Jamie McMurray18.65 34.David Gilliland32.96
5.Carl Edwards10.17 20.Ryan Newman20.27 35.Bobby Labonte33.26
6.Greg Biffle10.80 21.Paul Menard21.06 36.Robby Gordon34.00
7.Kyle Busch11.06 22.Brian Vickers21.07 37.Landon Cassill34.32
8.Kurt Busch12.02 23.Brad Keselowski21.29 38.Andy Lally35.16
9.Denny Hamlin12.12 24.David Ragan21.38 39.David Starr35.33
10.Kevin Harvick14.70 25.Trevor Bayne22.15 40.J.J. Yeley35.86
11.Kasey Kahne14.74 26.Joey Logano22.29 41.Travis Kvapil36.39
12.Juan Montoya15.43 27.A.J. Allmendinger22.69 42.Mike Bliss36.81
13.Clint Bowyer16.84 28.Marcos Ambrose23.10 43.Dave Blaney37.28
14.Mark Martin17.24 29.Regan Smith30.35 44.Michael McDowell39.27
15.Martin Truex Jr.17.38 30.Casey Mears30.50 45.Joe Nemechek39.75

Kurt Busch has the capacity to run strong on the cookie-cutter courses and prior to the Chase race at Kansas, he was the only driver with a perfect record of top-10s on that track type in the first seven races. Only two of those results were top-fives, however, and even while he was favored a number of times, fantasy owners waited for the other shoe to drop. He hasn't been terrible in his two most recent cookie-cutter races, but with back-to-back 13ths he hasn't exactly earned maximum points, either. If the downward trend continues and he slips outside the top 15, you will be happy that you left him in the garage. And if he defies predictions and runs strong this week, you probably won't lose much ground to the competition since he is not the most popular driver among fantasy players.

Watch all the highlights from the spring race at Texas: