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Fantasy: Edwards, Stewart good bets for Vegas success

March 07, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

The Daytona 500 is always one of the most exciting races of the season and Phoenix delivers enough predictability to help fantasy owners climb out of any hole that was created by one of several Big Ones in the Great American Race. Las Vegas provides the start to the real "meat" of the season, however.

Races on the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks comprise more than 25 percent of the schedule as 10 events are contested at Las Vegas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Texas, Kansas, Chicagoland and Kentucky with their doglegged frontstretches and wide, sweeping corners. Add in another three events at the 2-mile Auto Club and Michigan speedways and unrestricted, intermediate courses make up more than a third of the calendar, so huge dividends are paid to fantasy owners and NASCAR teams alike for concentrating on this track type.

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The term "cookie-cutter" applies to Las Vegas, but only with the caveat that every track is unique in much the same way as there are varieties of cookies. This track may look the same from the air, but the addition of progressive banking before the 2010 race has made it truly distinctive. Changing the track was quite a gamble, but one would expect nothing different from Speedway Motorsports Inc. Progressive banking has been employed successfully on short tracks for several years, as well as the true oval of Homestead-Miami Speedway, but this was the first time one of the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks attempted it and the results could have been disappointing. Instead, fans have seen some of the best racing of the year at this venue.

There still is some benefit to combining its stats with the other 1.5-mile doglegged tracks because a lot of the same demands on engines and drivers' skill are in effect. To go fast on any of the similarly configured, 1.5- or 2-mile tracks, teams have to put together the perfect package of engine speed and durability, mechanical setup underneath the car, and a driver that can adjust his line to find optimum momentum. If any one of these elements is missing, it is easy to get lapped on a track that had a pole speed last year of nearly 190 mph.

A diet of cookies

The cookie-cutter tracks are not rhythm courses the same way as are the short, flat tracks, but drivers who excel on them are capable of rattling off some incredible streaks. Each year, several drivers string together four or five top-10s on this track type and at least one is nearly perfect. That flawless driver also is typically one of the top challengers for the championship, which was evidenced last year by Carl Edwards posting nine top-five finishes on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks and Tony Stewart's two victories and four top-10s in the last five races of the season on this track type.

Each season the statistics reset, as well. It is not always easy to carry momentum over from one year to the next. In fact, the top five finishers at Vegas in 2011 all finished outside the top 10 in the last cookie-cutter race of the 2010 season, but stats like that should be taken with a pinch of salt. The drivers who excelled on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks last year will be this week's favorites even if they got off to a slow start in 2010. They each race for the teams that have all the pieces of the puzzle. Fantasy owners will find some interesting dark horses among drivers with a more sporadic record and that should make for an interesting race on Sunday.

The Favorites

To say that Edwards was dominant on this track type last year would be an understatement; he almost was perfect. While it is true that he scored only one victory on these type of tracks, eight of the remaining nine races there ended in top-fives, including a second-place result in the fall Texas race. His only slight stumble came at Charlotte when he finished 16th in the Coke 600, but that is not enough of a downside to raise any concerns among fantasy players. Roush Fenway Racing has a similarly strong record on this track type, which means the organization will roll off the hauler with a great setup under the car and Edwards will be able to adjust it to perfection. Expect the No. 99 to be fast in the first practice and challenge for the pole; if he doesn't, there will be ample time to make last-minute adjustments to the roster and take one of the other favorites.

It is no coincidence that the championship came down to Edwards and Stewart in 2010, because they were both strong on these type of tracks. The No. 14 team was less consistent overall, but in many ways was stronger with victories iat Chicagoland and Texas, in the final event on this track type. Most of Stewart's solid runs came in the second half of the season, but it is notable that the rivalry between the No. 99 and 14 teams got off to a strong start at Vegas when Stewart finished second to Edwards. It can be risky to set this year's roster based on last year's finishing results in a given race, but both Stewart and Edwards have gotten off to a strong start in 2011, even if their results have not reflected as much. These are two teams that won't stay down for long.

Matt Kenseth also scored two wins on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks last year, which puts him in the same league as Edwards and Stewart. His victories came at Texas in the spring and Charlotte in the fall. And while he missed the top 10 at Vegas last year, it wasn't by much with an 11th-place finish. No one swept the top 15 on the cookie-cutter tracks last year, but Kenseth came close. His only poor finish came at Chicagoland with a 21st, so there is very little downside to starting him. Additionally, Kenseth has confidence on his side after making the most of a bad situation at Phoenix. Crashing in the first practice session meant that this team had to work overtime to record a solid result and they did just that with a 13th.

Dark Horses

The favorites this week are going to be expensive and fantasy owners will need to find some mid-cap drivers who demonstrated consistency in 2011. Juan Montoya fits that description perfectly. He does have a tendency to allow his emotions to run unchecked on the unrestricted, intermediate speedways, and that is one of the reasons why he scored only one top-10 on these type of tracks last year, but his skill behind the wheel partly made up the deficit. In his past 10 starts on this track type, Montoya finished outside the top 20 only once, at Kansas in the fall, and the majority of his efforts ended in top-15s. Fantasy owners can reasonably expect another result in that same range this week and if Montoya keeps all four fenders intact, he could provide a repeat of last year at Vegas when he finished third.

Las Vegas


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Brad Keselowski is a different kind of dark horse. Last year, he did not have the same kind of consistency as Montoya since five of his 10 races on this track type ended in results outside the top 15. His other five races were much more productive; he swept the top 10. In fact, he finished seventh or better in five consecutive races on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks from the spring race at Kansas -- where he won with a little help from fuel mileage -- through the fall date at that same track. Given his struggles at the beginning and end of last season, Keselowski is not a "must-have" pick, but he is likely to tip his hand in practice and qualification. If he posts one of the fastest laps in these sessions, he will be worth the gamble.

Underdogs

Kyle Busch likes to charge the corners. This is part of what makes him so good, but it also is part of the reason why he often is a difficult pick for one's roster. In a given race on this type of track there are some 250 to 400 laps and Busch's style of racing means that he has to hit a precise mark in 500 to 800 corners. When he achieves perfection, he wins like he did last year at Kentucky or finishes well like he did as the runner-up in the fall at Charlotte. When he misses, however, he likely is to slap the wall and often the contact is severe enough to knock him off the lead lap. In nine races on this track type last year, Busch failed to complete the distance five times. One of his incomplete races was caused by running out of gas in the closing laps and he blew an engine at Vegas last year.

Several years ago, Jeff Gordon was the driver to beat on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks, but that is becoming a distant memory. His past 12 attempts on this track type have been filled with enough misery to last a lifetime and it seems like the No. 24 team has found every possible way to lose a race in NASCAR. Gordon crashed and failed to finish last year's race at Vegas, as well as the previous fall at Texas, had ignition problems in fall 2010 at Charlotte, ran out of gas and was penalized for speeding on pit road at Chicagoland, blew an engine at Kansas in the fall, and was slowed by crash damage in last year's fall race at Charlotte. It's hard to know what malady will befall this team in 2011, but it is a good bet something will.

FANTASY POWER RANKING

Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)

1. Tony Stewart 8.65 (Power Average); 2. Jimmie Johnson 8.88; 3. Jeff Gordon 9.94; 4. Matt Kenseth 10.04; 5. Carl Edwards 10.22; 6. Greg Biffle 10.79; 7. Kyle Busch 11.37; 8. Kurt Busch 12.13; 9. Denny Hamlin 12.27; 10. Kasey Kahne 13.67.

11. Kevin Harvick 14.90; 12. Juan Montoya 15.85; 13. Mark Martin 16.81; 14. Clint Bowyer 16.83; 15. David Reutimann 17.68; 16. Martin Truex Jr. 17.83; 17. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 18.16; 18. Jeff Burton 18.22; 19. Ryan Newman 19.41; 20. Paul Menard 19.96.

21. Jamie McMurray 20.14; 22. Trevor Bayne 20.44; 23. Brad Keselowski 20.56; 24. David Ragan 21.60; 25. A.J. Allmendinger 21.74; 26. Marcos Ambrose 21.78; 27. Joey Logano 21.85; 28. Regan Smith 29.03; 29. Casey Mears 31.85; 30. Aric Almirola 32.38.

31. David Stremme 32.49; 32. Bobby Labonte 32.77; 33. David Gilliland 33.37; 34. Landon Cassill 33.75; 35. Robby Gordon 33.93; 36. Travis Kvapil 35.50; 37. J.J. Yeley 36.08; 38. Josh Wise 37.37; 39. Dave Blaney 37.58; 40. Scott Riggs 38.27.

41. Michael McDowell 39.09; 42. Joe Nemechek 39.23.

The Power Average is the average finish during the past three years, plus the number of laps spent in the lead, in the top five and in the top 10 expressed as if they were finishing results. For example a driver who has led the most laps receives a hypothetical first-place finish, the driver who leads the second most laps receives a hypothetical second-place finish, and so on. This rewards drivers who competed at the front of the pack for the majority of the race, even if an unfortunate event takes them out of contention at the very end of the race. A driver's recent record in the support series also is factored in, as is his average running position as provided by NASCAR Statistical Services. Failures to qualify are credited to the driver as if they were a finishing position (i.e. the first non-qualifier is assigned a 44th-place finish).

* Power Rankings: Las Vegas