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Fantasy Preview: Roushketeers run Texas

April 11, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Roush Fenway Racing looks to keep its successes bigger in Lone Star State

There were three distinct favorites for the Goody's Fast Relief 500 and they all ran strong during the course of the race. Last year, the same predictability was evident at Texas Motor Speedway as three drivers swept the top five. Equally important, these three drivers shared a car owner and that suggests the Roush Fenway organization has a great set of notes from which to work.

When a group of drivers dominates like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have at Martinsville or the Roushketeers have at Texas, fantasy owners are met with a different challenge than most weeks. If they place the favorites on their roster, it is impossible to make up ground on the competition unless circumstances alter the finish of the race like they did in the Goody's Fast Relief 500. Playing the long odds is equally dangerous because Gordon and Johnson were destined to finish first and second before David Reutimann stalled on track and brought out a late-race caution.

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Success predicts success

Texas provides a unique solution. While it is true that Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards will be heavily favored, there are a number of other drivers for a variety of teams who have been consistently strong. Last year, two drivers who were not racing for Roush Fenway swept the top 10 and another five earned back-to-back top-15s.*

There is an even greater reason to limit the statistical pool to a driver's Texas record. Last year, 35 racers competed in both events on this track and from the very top of the order to the middle of the pack, and they backed up one run with a similar one later in the season. Edwards and Biffle's top-five finishes in both races were within a single position of one another. Edwards finished third in the spring Samsung Mobile 500 and second in the fall AAA Texas 500; Biffle finished fourth and fifth, respectively. Casey Mears was 26th in the spring and 25th in the fall, and four other drivers finished within two positions in the pair of races. In total, nearly two-thirds of the drivers competing in both Texas events last year finished the fall race within seven spots of their spring effort. It is hard to find a track with a greater degree of consistency.

The Favorites

The three current Roushketeers were not only among the most consistent drivers last year, they were the strongest. All three swept the top five and all of them finished the AAA Texas 500 within three spots of their spring effort. Just as important, the group carried that momentum over from previous seasons, which gives them a balance of recent momentum and career strength.

Kenseth may very well be the strongest of the three at Texas. His victory in this race last year was the second on this track during his career, but the first since 2002. He wasn't simply logging laps in the intervening years, however; the driver of the No. 17 earned four runner-up finishes from 2006 through 2010, as well as another two third-place results. In his last 13 attempts, he has amassed nine top-fives and finished worse than 12th only once. Moreover, he's earned these results despite a variety of circumstances that include green-white-checkered finishes, fuel mileage races and rain-delayed events. That tells fantasy owners that Kenseth and crew are capable of adjusting to any condition, and it makes him a must have racer.

Biffle should also be on nearly every roster, even if that means fantasy owners have to take a gamble and add an extra mid-cap driver. Like Kenseth, he enters the weekend with a three-race top-five streak and his string of top-10s goes back even further than his teammate. The No. 17 stumbled once in the last three years, but Biffle is riding a current wave of seven consecutive top-10s; most of these results were also top-fives, so while he has struggled on other tracks, this has been one of his safe harbors.

Logically, as the third driver to sweep the top five last year, Edwards should round-out the list of favorites. But fantasy owners might want to look a little deeper in the record book to select their third driver. Look back to 1998 and Texas is the sight of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s first Nationwide series win in the Coca-Cola 300. This is also the sight of his first Cup victory in the 2000 DirecTV 500, and he came close to repeating it in 2002 when he finished second to Ryan Newman. This has long been one of his favorite tracks and that continued through last year. While he struggled periodically in 2011, he was one of five drivers to sweep the top 10 at Texas. Jump ahead to this season, and he's running as strong as ever; Earnhardt could break his long winless drought this weekend if he and crew chief Steve Letarte can keep up with the No. 88's adjustments.


Texas


Brad Keselowksi helps pick the studs and duds this week.

Dark Horses

Clint Bowyer is the fifth and remaining driver to sweep the top 10 at Texas last year. At the start of this season, fantasy owners greeted his move to Michael Waltrip Racing with caution because Bowyer was leaving one of the marquee teams in racing for one with fewer resources. In NASCAR's age of parity, however, the amount of money spent on a car has diminished in importance and driver skill is taking a front seat. Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin are making a difference in the cockpit of their Toyotas, and they should be judged by their records instead of the perceived value of their organization. Bowyer's second-place finish in this race last year was a great feat in itself and it was confirmed by a ninth-place finish in the AAA Texas 500. This season, Bowyer has nearly swept the top 15 again in the first six races and the only time he stumbled was at Phoenix after cutting two tires in the opening laps of the Subway Fresh Fit 500.

Fast tracks like Texas should not be particularly kind to dark horses, but they have run well on this course in the last couple of years. Paul Menard has run consistently strong in his last three events and given his modest salary cap, he could be the most pleasant surprise of the week. He finished 10th in the fall 2010 race, improved to fifth at Texas in spring 2010 and completed a sweep of the top 15 during the fall. He has not lived up to his potential in the last two races of 2012 -- with a 19th at Auto Club and a 26th at Martinsville -- but he started the year with three top-10s in his first four attempts. Menard will still have some of that momentum to carry him over into the Samsung Mobile 500.

Underdogs

Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon seem to have had a contest to see who would experience the worst luck in the opening weeks of 2012. Kahne has consistently sustained crash damage, while Gordon's list of misfortunes has been much more varied. Both of them have cost fantasy owners a lot of points after showing promise early in the season. Perhaps the off week will allow them to reset and hide from cruel fate, but until they get to the end of a race in one piece and earn a top-10 finish, it is best to leave them in the garage.

Joey Logano is another driver who has shown a lot of unfulfilled promise this season. He started out strong with a pair of top-10s in the first two races of 2012. Back-to-back 16ths at Vegas and Bristol weren't all that bad considering his career record on those tracks. Unfortunately, he continues to slip down the order with a 24th at Auto Club and last week's 23rd at Martinsville. He is still one of the most talented drivers in the field and, given time, he will flatten out these peaks and valleys. Fantasy owners want to cheer for him from a distance until that day comes.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Cookie-cutter tracks (past three seasons)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Matt Kenseth8.69 17.David Reutimann18.19 32.Casey Mears31.98
3.Jimmie Johnson8.98 18.Paul Menard18.63 33.Bobby Labonte33.69
4.Greg Biffle10.39 19.Jeff Burton18.98 34.David Gilliland33.80
5.Carl Edwards10.64 20.Ryan Newman19.16 35.David Stremme33.99
6.Jeff Gordon10.81 21.Brad Keselowski19.64 36.Landon Cassill34.01
7.Kyle Busch11.56 22.Jamie McMurray20.14 37.Travis Kvapil35.43
8.Denny Hamlin12.67 23.David Ragan20.55 38.Mike Bliss36.29
9.Kurt Busch12.77 24.AJ Allmendinger20.66 39.J.J. Yeley36.47
10.Kasey Kahne13.46 25.Trevor Bayne20.71 40.Dave Blaney37.58
11.Kevin Harvick15.02 26.Marcos Ambrose20.77 41.Scott Riggs37.86
12.Juan Pablo Montoya16.12 27.Joey Logano21.23 42.Josh Wise38.29
13.Clint Bowyer17.13 28.Regan Smith28.44 43.Michael McDowell39.09
14.Mark Martin17.14 29.Aric Almirola30.98 44.Joe Nemechek39.82
15.Martin Truex Jr.17.66 30.Reed Sorenson31.54 

* The complete list of drivers with a sweep of the top 15 last year are: Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, Marcos Ambrose, David Ragan, and Paul Menard. Ryan Newman did not sweep the top 15, but he finished 14th in the spring and 16th in the fall Texas races.