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Fantasy: Simple guidelines to follow for unique Homestead

November 16, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Whereas Tony Stewart won the first two races at Homestead on its original layout, Carl Edwards has won two of the past three races on the current configuration. (Getty Images)

This is how championships are supposed to be contested: Two teams battling head-to-head for the top spot, completely shutting out all distractions, and racing at their peak. Occasionally fans are disappointed by a Super Bowl that is decided by a wide margin, a World Series going only four games, or a Cup championship that is decided before the final race, but the past two seasons in NASCAR have been stellar.

Last year, the lead changed in the final race with Jimmie Johnson erasing a 15-point lead held by Denny Hamlin. Under the old system that margin was pretty close to the three-point advantage held by Carl Edwards this year. With the current points structure, the only certain way to control one's destiny this year is to win, and both Edwards and Tony Stewart have proved capable of doing so during the past two weeks. Finishing nose to tail at Texas and Phoenix, the worst either driver has finished was third and that has impacted fantasy players. These teams are driving one another to greatness and the field is racing hard to keep pace.

This season has been unlike most that preceded it. It is too soon to know if the new points system was responsible for the anarchy, but the majority of races were determined by some external force: Tire strategy, fuel mileage, ill-timed cautions, or mistakes by the driver or in the pits turned the 2011 season upside down. For that reason, it comes as no surprise that the Chase also has been unpredictable. In the first seven Chase races, two were won by non-Chase contenders, which is the most since NASCAR expanded the field to 12 drivers in 2007. In addition, five drivers earned their first Cup win during the year and this was a season of unknowns.

It is fitting, therefore, that the final race of the season will be contested on one of the most unique tracks on the circuit. Homestead is a true oval and it was the first unrestricted, intermediate speedway to employ progressive banking. There are no strong comparatives to this track and that strips fantasy owners of some of their accustomed tools. It also simplifies the game because there are only two things that need to be considered: a driver's record at Homestead and recent momentum. Simplifying it even more, players can completely ignore statistics from the first four races held at a track named Homestead-Miami Speedway. The only thing shared by the first two configurations of this track during its first four seasons compared to its current iteration is the address.

Homestead debuted as a flat track that resembled a smaller version of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Two years later, the corners were bumped out and rounded, but the turns were still flat and some drivers thrived on that configuration. When track officials steepened the corners and added progressive banking, this track was transformed into one of the raciest venues on the circuit. New drivers stepped up to the plate and Roush Fenway Racing has dominated Victory Lane ever since.

However, since very little has gone according to plan this year, it is unlikely that this will be a predictable race, which leaves the door wide open for another non-Chaser to win. The series could even have another first-time winner if the cards fall the right way.

The Favorites

For the past three years, Kevin Harvick has done everything but win at Homestead. With a second in 2008 and a pair of thirds in '09 and '10, he obviously knows how to get the setup dialed in during the 400-mile race and the only thing lacking has been that one break to catapult him to Victory Lane. Determining if that break will occur on any given weekend has been one of the difficult tasks for fantasy owners, but the No. 29 team is attractive for another reason: With only one top-10 in his past three races, he is likely to have slipped under the radar screen of most of your competitors. If you need to roll the dice but don't want to risk too much, Harvick should be on this week's roster.

For the past two weeks, momentum has been one of the biggest factors in determining who runs well. No one has more impetus than Edwards, who hasn't finished worse than 11th in the previous 12 races and that single result outside the top 10 came on the wild card track of Talladega. He hasn't won since the beginning of the season, but eight of his past 12 races ended in top-fives, including back-to-back runner-up finishes at Texas and Phoenix. It's unlikely that his streak will be broken this week because Homestead is his best track in terms of average finishes. In seven races there, he has an average result of 5.7 and the only time he was outside the top 10 was in his inaugural attempt in 2004 when he finished 14th. There is practically no downside to starting him and with victories in two of the past three Ford 400s, there is a ton of upside.

Stewart has been far less impressive at Homestead, but he proved last week at Phoenix that his recent records are meaningless. With four victories in the 2011 Chase, he has taken the opposite approach to Edwards. The No. 99 team is relying on consistency, while Stewart believes winning will carry the day. If he wins on Sunday, that is precisely what will happen because the three bonus points that go to the victor will erase the advantage Edwards currently has. As soon as you turn your TV on this week, you will probably hear about Stewart's two victories on this track. Ignore that, because they both came on the flat track that bears no similarity to Homestead today, but just because the configuration has changed doesn't mean that the No. 14 team won't challenge for the win.

Homestead


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

If you really want to roll the dice, A.J. Allmendinger is the top contender. In fact, this driver could become the sixth to win his first race of the season and dollar for dollar he probably is the best value in the game. The 'Dinger has both recent momentum and track record on his side with a three-race streak of finishes 11th or better in his most recent attempts this season, as well as five top-11 results in his past seven attempts. At Homestead, he has never finished worse than 11th in a race he started and last year, he earned a solid fifth. He is not likely to sneak up on the competition, but he is a must-have on your roster.

If not for the uneven results shown throughout the 2011 season, Greg Biffle might be one of the favorites this week. Roush Fenway Racing has won all but two of the eight events held on this track since it employed progressive banking and Biffle was responsible for three of those victories. In fact, he earned his in consecutive years from 2004 through '06, but in the four events since then, he has added only one more top-10. Still, he hasn't been terrible in that span with a worst result of 18th and an average of 13.8, which means he should be considered if he practices and qualifies well.

Underdogs

Kurt Busch has alternated finishes outside the top 35 with top-fives in every other season from 2003 through '09 (with one-year off for bad behavior in 2005 when he was released from Roush before the end of the season). Last year was his only mediocre run when he crossed the finish line 18th and if the pattern holds, he is due to score another top-five. The team is capable, but he is liable to give fantasy owners gray hair along the way and hardly seems to be worth the aggravation.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Homestead-Miami Speedway (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Kevin Harvick6.96 18.Jamie McMurray18.25 34.Robby Gordon31.45
3.Jimmie Johnson7.30 19.David Stremme18.33 35.David Gilliland31.64
4.Tony Stewart8.36 20.Dale Earnhardt Jr.18.78 36.Cole Whitt32.50
5.Jeff Gordon10.65 21.Juan Montoya18.84 37.Regan Smith32.61
6.Kyle Busch11.28 22.Trevor Bayne19.10 38.Andy Lally34.06
7.Greg Biffle11.29 23.Joey Logano21.68 39.Travis Kvapil35.33
8.Martin Truex Jr.13.51 24.Brian Vickers23.38 40.Dave Blaney36.00
9.Jeff Burton13.91 25.David Ragan24.59 41.Reed Sorenson36.04
10.Clint Bowyer14.50 26.A.J. Allmendinger24.65 42.J.J. Yeley38.50
11.Denny Hamlin15.92 27.Marcos Ambrose25.51 43.Landon Cassill38.71
12.Matt Kenseth16.06 28.Scott Speed26.45 44.Mike Bliss40.82
13.Mark Martin16.07 29.Paul Menard26.67 45.Joe Nemechek41.19
14.Kurt Busch17.10 30.Casey Mears28.79 46.Dennis Setzer42.00
15.David Reutimann17.60 31.Mike Skinner28.82 47.Michael McDowell42.42
16.Ryan Newman17.75 32.Bobby Labonte29.79 

Kyle Busch also should be avoided. The past two weeks may well have been the most depressing in this young driver's life with NASCAR's parking directive that kept him from racing at Texas in the Nationwide and Cup series and a pair of blown engines at Phoenix. He won't find much relief at Homestead because this is his worst track in terms of average finishes. With a 26.3 in six races and only one top-15 to his credit, he is an easy choice to leave in the garage.