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Fantasy Preview: Kenseth leads triumvirate of favorites at Dover

May 30, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM,

In many ways, Dover represents a return to the basics of racing. The past three races on the schedule have all been unique in a way that challenges fantasy owners. The reliance of the draft at Talladega, the narrow and treacherous groove of Darlington, and the marquee status of the 600 at Charlotte (which encourages many teams to concentrate a disproportionate share of the budget on running well on one of NASCAR's biggest stages), subtlety altered the results on those tracks. A race at Dover pays as many points to the championship as the three that preceded it and for drivers such as Jeff Gordon with a sponsor up the road or Martin Truex Jr. with family in the area, the spotlight shines as bright, but most of the teams will settle back into a comfortable rhythm.

And rhythm is the key at Dover International Speedway. The concrete high banks of this track require drivers to hit very precise marks, lap after lap and corner after corner. This tests drivers' physical stamina, but also their mental toughness. Dover is a track that requires a lot of laps to master and once drivers find the groove, they can string together long streaks of top-10 finishes. But this can also be a track on which drivers immediately excel.

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Jimmie Johnson swept Victory Lane in his first season at Dover in 2002, and Kyle Busch finished second in his first two attempts in 2005. Eight other drivers who are entered this week also scored top-10s in their first Dover attempts: Mark Martin finished fifth in 1982, Matt Kenseth was sixth in 1998 driving in a one-off race for Bill Elliott, Tony Stewart was fourth in 1999, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 10th in 2000, Kevin Harvick was eighth in 2001, Ryan Newman was fourth in 2002 and Scott Riggs was fifth in 2004.

The repetitiveness of the Dover rhythm also can become hypnotic and lull drivers into a momentary lapse of concentration. When that happens, the straightaways can get clogged quickly and on a course that had a pole speed of 159 mph this past fall, which was 22.6 seconds for one trip around the 1-mile track, there literally is no safe place to be when that happens.

Rough going

Like Darlington, there is no perfectly comparable track to Dover. But these two unique tracks share at least one characteristic. Since its recent repaving, Darlington is not quite as tough on tires as it once was, but the abrasive asphalt still takes its toll. Dover's concrete surface likewise creates tire wear that requires drivers to pace themselves. If they push too hard on cold tires, they will lose ground late in a run and it is not uncommon to see a car lead for a while only to fall in jeopardy of losing a lap at the end of a green-flag cycle.

Like Charlotte last week, Dover can be prone to long green-flag segments when all of the drivers on the track settle into their rhythm. On a 1-mile course, this can mean very few cars remain on the lead lap unless late-race caution flags fall perfectly to allow for NASCAR's wave-around rule to impact the standings. The good news is that even if one of your drivers falls off the lead lap, all hope is not lost. Like Kenseth last week, it is possible to finish in the top 10 without completing the distance and top-15s can be awarded to drivers two or three laps off the pace.

Dover is one in which fantasy owners absolutely need to watch practice and search for drivers who like to set up their cars for the long run. Typically, these are experienced veterans such as Kenseth and Carl Edwards. Take note when the 10-lap average speeds are mentioned because that will be one of the best measures of a driver's potential this week.

The Favorites

Three drivers stand out at Dover. These racers each have long strings of top-10s and they have all earned seven such finishes during the past eight races. Two of these three drivers earned three top-10s in the 2006 and '07 seasons, as well, giving credence to the fact that Dover is host to some long streaks.

Kenseth takes the top spot this week because he not only has one of those long streaks, but he is the most current winner among these three drivers. From 2006 through this past fall, he earned nine top-fives and another top-10 in 12 races, which means he rarely struggles. On the two occasions when he failed to finish that well, there were extenuating circumstances. He blew an engine in 2007 and made a rare mistake entering the pits in fall 2010. In that latest attempt, he locked up his tires trying to enter the pits under green and when it blew as he circled the track to make a second attempt, the debris destroyed his fender. Even with that damage, he managed to remain only one lap down to the leader and finished 18th. Last spring, Kenseth was never out of contention and he spent 374 of the 400 laps inside the top 15; he finished fifth in the fall after spending 344 laps among the top 15, so fantasy owners can rest assured that he can find a race-worthy setup.

Edwards also has 10 top-10s in his past 12 Dover races. He's earned fewer top-fives with seven results of fifth or better, but he's been more consistent overall with a perfect streak of top-15s during that span. Edwards won in fall 2007 as part of a streak that included five consecutive results of third or better and he finished third this past fall to signal the start of another streak. While he slipped outside the top five last spring, he was dominant until the final stage and out of 400 possible laps he raced in the top five for about 335 circuits -- a feat he later equaled in the fall. Place him on your provisional roster now and watch him in practice; if he has one of the best 10-lap averages in practice, then you won't have to make any last-minute changes.

Johnson was much less dominant last week than predicted. He qualified well, but never made his way to the lead. It's possible that he was biding his time and waiting for Greg Biffle to strain his equipment since the No. 16 was setting such a torrid pace, but he never got a chance to make a late-race run. With a little more than 50 laps remaining, he was penalized for removing equipment from his pit box during a green-flag stop and with no more cautions at Charlotte, he never was able to make up his lost lap. If not for that momentary gaffe, the No. 48 would be the top pick this week in light of his sweep of Dover's Victory Lane in 2009 plus another win in '10. In the most recent event on this track, he finished second this past fall.


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Busch isn't exactly a dark horse anytime the series rolls onto a track, but he can be difficult to predict. He got off to a great start at Dover with a pair of runner-up finishes in 2005; he finished fifth the following spring and seemed to have everything going in his favor until he blew an engine on Lap 110 inf all 2006. His next six attempts ended in two top-fives compared to four results outside the top 15 that included a pair of truly bad results of 31st or worse. After finishing 31st in fall 2009 with crash damage, he ran a clean race in spring 2010 and won. He hasn't looked back with a perfect streak of top-six finishes and that makes him an acceptable risk. Busch also is coming off an incredibly strong four-race streak this season in which he's swept the top five.

It has been a while since a rookie has finished in the top 10 at Dover. Most recently, Juan Montoya finished 10th in his second attempt on this track in 2007 and in '06 three drivers -- Truex, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin -- scored top-10s in their second efforts, but Aric Almirola has an opportunity to do something that no one has done since Busch finished second in spring 2005. With a little luck to help him stay on the lead lap, he could earn an inaugural top-10 one week after he won the pole in his first attempt at Charlotte. Even if he fails to finish that well, now is a good time to add him to the roster. Almirola's results continue to improve, which is making him increasingly expensive in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game , but fantasy owners still have an opportunity to acquire him for the relatively modest cost of $18. If you need a little more incentive, Almirola has one victory on this track in the 2008 K&N Series East.


Gordon finished seventh last week at Charlotte, but it is not yet time to assume his luck has radically changed. In 12 races this season, he has not yet posted back-to-back top-10s and the closest he has come was in finishing eighth at Phoenix and 12th at Vegas. In the past, Dover was one of his better tracks with four victories there. Unfortunately, he hasn't scored a top-five on this track since 2008, and his most recent top-10 came in fall 2009. He hasn't been terrible during the past two seasons with a worst finish of 17th in his latest four attempts, but for a driver of his stature and cost in the salary-cap game, there simply are better options this week.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Rough-surface tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Kyle Busch5.13 17.Clint Bowyer18.29 32.David Gilliland32.04
3.Kasey Kahne6.86 18.Regan Smith18.96 33.Scott Speed33.41
4.Tony Stewart9.78 19.Matt Kenseth19.96 34.Travis Kvapil34.19
5.Martin Truex Jr.9.81 20.Joey Logano21.73  35.Dave Blaney35.35
6.Jeff Gordon10.10 21.Aric Almirola21.89 36.David Stremme39.65
7.Kevin Harvick10.21 22.Juan Montoya22.93 37.Cole Whitt40.56
8.Ryan Newman11.90 23.Mark Martin23.69 38.J.J. Yeley40.69
9.Carl Edwards12.21 24.Marcos Ambrose23.88 39.Michael McDowell40.89
10.Jimmie Johnson13.11 25.David Reutimann23.89 40.Josh Wise42.00
11.Jamie McMurray13.65 26.AJ Allmendinger27.89 41.Joe Nemechek42.05
12.Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.96 27.David Ragan28.31 42.Scott Riggs44.00
13.Greg Biffle15.24 28.Paul Menard28.42 43.Stephen Leicht46.00
14.Kurt Busch15.50 29.Landon Cassill29.22 44.Mike Bliss46.50
15.Brad Keselowski17.71 30.Bobby Labonte30.19 

For a while, it appeared Martin was going to be a good value every time he was entered. He finished 18th or better in six of his first seven attempts and No. 55 co-driver Brian Vickers was running equally strong in the weeks Martin stayed home. The one race in which he failed to crack the top 20 showed the first kink in this team's armor -- the No. 55 blew an engine 12 laps short of the race distance at Kansas -- and last week that tear became wider as the motor expired 62 laps from the end at Charlotte. Martin's effort at Darlington also was disappointing: he never was in contention for a strong run and finished 20th after starting mid-pack in 18th. Give this team a week to find its way and consider starting it at Pocono or Michigan.