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Win at Indy can be harbinger for title success

July 25, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Tony Stewart is always a good bet at Indianapolis, as he's finished in the top five in 46.2 percent of his starts there. (Getty Images)

Drivers want to win every week; if they did not have that overwhelming sense of competitiveness, they would not be in the top tier of the sport. But as important as every race is to them as competitors, a few take on added significance. The Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, and Southern 500 are legendary contests in which a single victory at any point during one's career can solidify a place in NASCAR history. From its inception in 1994, the annual race at Indianapolis has taken on that same aura.

This year, the race will be officially named the Crown Royal presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard, but it will be known in drivers' hearts as the Brickyard 400 and winning it brings accolades and opens doors to future sponsorships almost on par with taking home a championship. In the 18-year history of this race, only 11 drivers have claimed the brick-shaped trophy and they read like a who's who of stock car racing. Only four drivers have won this race more than once and all of them are Cup champions.

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This race is a kingmaker. The final 10 regular season races -- the Race to the Chase -- started a few weeks ago, but the Brickyard kicks off a stretch run that goes into and through the playoffs. Nearly half of the winners of this race went on to claim the championship later in the year. Three of Jimmie Johnson's Cups were earned after he won at the Brickyard in 2006, 2008, and 2009, Jeff Gordon won this race and the Cup in 1998 and 2001, while Dale Jarrett (1996), Bobby Labonte (2000), and Tony Stewart (2005) round out that list. Dale Earnhardt almost added his name to the rolls when he finished second in the points after winning Indy in 1995. Gordon's 2004 and Jarrett's 1999 Brickyard victories preceded third-place points finishes.

Winning at Indianapolis is not a guarantee of success since Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray finished 17th and 14th in the points in the 2011 and 2010 seasons respectively, but the vast majority of the winners of this event finished sixth or better in the standings. And that is an added incentive to run well this week.

Few surprises

Menard's fuel-mileage-aided victory last year underscored the value of dark horses on this rectangular track. The Ganassi guys put a lot of effort into this race, so McMurray's win in 2010 and fourth-place finish last year was a pleasant break from the familiar lineup at the top of the order. Juan Montoya is also capable of rattling off a strong run on this track, and both of them fit well into a salary cap budget. Brian Vickers' fifth-place finish in 2009 and David Reutimann's eighth that same year were inconsistent with their usual performance; so were top-10 finishes for AJ Allmendinger in 2008 and Dave Blaney in 2007 to make this a reasonable track for sleepers.

Even five-time champion Johnson has experienced rollercoaster luck at the Brickyard. His three victories are ringed by results in the 30s and his past two performances ended outside the top 15, which means setting this week's roster is not as simple as looking back at previous records, even though that is all players have to go on before the weekend begins. Qualification is an important piece of the puzzle because it means a driver rolled off the hauler fast, but there are other matters to consider as well.

Indy is a rhythm track, so practice speeds need to be taken into consideration before hitting the submit button for the final time. Drivers who post fast 10-lap averages need to be highly regarded if they fit fantasy players' salary cap needs, but don't forget about the sleepers who can suddenly awaken on race day.

The Favorites

It took most of the season for Gordon to become a consistently good value, but that moment seems to have arrived. Since the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan, he has challenged for top-fives whenever his fate was under his control. In the most recent five races, Gordon finished fifth at Kentucky and was sixth three times including last week on the similarly flat track of New Hampshire. It remains to be seen if this will ultimately fall in the category of "too little, too late" in regard to his championship hopes, but it is safe to place him on fantasy rosters. Not only does Gordon have momentum on his side, he is statistically the best active driver in the field. He is among the handful of drivers to make every Brickyard 400 and his top-five percentage is head and shoulders above the competition. With 10 results of fifth or better, he is the only racer in the field batting better than 0.500 and those numbers are not simply skewed by early-career success: Gordon has earned three top-fives in his past five Indy attempts, including a second-place finish in 2011.

Stewart has started only 13 races at the Brickyard, but he is Gordon's closest rival in terms of top-five percentage. Gordon's 10 top-fives in 18 starts equates to 55.6 percent; Stewart has six top-fives that equals 46.2 percent and only one other active driver has been that close to the front in more than a third of their starts. Like the Rainbow Warrior, Smoke has been just as impressive in recent seasons as during his career with two victories and six results of sixth or better in his past eight starts. He enters the weekend with a three-race streak of top-10s at Indy and needs to erase the negative momentum that a 12th in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 threatens to create.

It took a while for Greg Biffle to get the hang of Indy, so his career records are not nearly as impressive as Gordon's or Stewart's. In nine starts, he has only two top-fives, with top-10s in slightly more than half his starts, but he makes up for that in recent momentum. In his first five efforts, Biffle's best result was a sixth in 2004; the remainder of those starts ended 15th or worse. He found the groove in 2008, however, and has been unstoppable since. Biffle is now the only driver in the field with a current four-race top-10 streak and he has run well enough in 2012 to extend that record this weekend.


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Along with Gordon and Stewart, Kevin Harvick is the only driver in the field with top-fives in more than a third of his starts; he gets relegated to dark horse status this week because he has been inconsistent in recent seasons. When Harvick brings his "A" game, he is capable of challenging for the victory and he finished second to McMurray in 2010. He won in 2003, but last year he did not have the speed or strategy to finish inside the top 10. Harvick didn't miss by much in 2011, however, and his 11th-place finish makes him a good value if he fits the final slot of a fantasy player's salary cap.

Mark Martin should be well-rested after taking a four-race break from the Cup Series and he returns to a track that has been incredibly kind in recent years. He lacks the top-10 streaks of Stewart or Biffle by the narrowest of margins because he has finished 11th or better in his past seven attempts. An average finish of seventh makes him well worth a salary of $23 even if he has only two top-fives during that span. Martin is a streaky driver where Indy is concerned and so long as he has momentum on his side, he is an easy pick for anyone spreading the wealth among several mid-cap drivers.

Underdogs

At Indy, Johnson is alternately excellent and star-crossed. In his first eight attempts on this track, he won three times and finished ninth once. The other half of his races were not quite as kind with a blown engine and two accidents sending him to the garage early with 30-something results. That left his sophomore race and an 18th-place finish as his single mediocre run prior to 2010, but that has been his pattern in the most recent events. Johnson qualified well for the 2010 and 2011 Brickyard 400s with efforts that landed him in the first two rows when the green flag waved, but that is not good news in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game because his start/finish differential took a beating with a pair of results outside the top 15. Save Johnson for the unrestricted, intermediate speedways and if he runs poorly enough this week and at Pocono, he could be slightly more affordable when the series rolls into Atlanta.

Fantasy Power Rankings

Flat tracks (past three years)
Pos.Driver*PA Pos.Driver*PA Pos.Driver*PA
2.Jeff Gordon8.17 18.AJ Allmendinger18.08 34.David Gilliland33.75
3.Denny Hamlin8.63 19.Brad Keselowski18.56 35.Ken Schrader34.07
4.Kyle Busch10.58 20.Martin Truex Jr.19.08 36.Landon Cassill34.22
5.Tony Stewart11.88 21.Joey Logano19.47  37.Stephen Leicht34.47
6.Kevin Harvick11.91 22.Jamie McMurray20.54 38.Travis Kvapil34.87
7.Clint Bowyer12.40 23.David Reutimann22.48 39.David Stremme35.14
8.Ryan Newman12.69 24.Marcos Ambrose23.42 40.Scott Speed35.68
9.Mark Martin13.45 25.Aric Almirola25.68 41.Dave Blaney36.37
10.Juan Montoya13.59 26.Sam Hornish Jr.26.21 42.Mike Bliss36.45
11.Carl Edwards13.95 27.Paul Menard26.25 43.JJ Yeley37.77
12.Kurt Busch14.70 28.David Ragan26.84 44.Michael McDowell38.35
13.Jeff Burton14.72 29.Regan Smith28.06 45.Scott Riggs38.95
14.Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.57 30.Bobby Labonte29.95 46.Josh Wise39.14
15.Matt Kenseth16.07 31.Casey Mears30.07 47.Joe Nemechek39.34
16.Kasey Kahne16.28 32.Trevor Bayne31.57 48.Mike Skinner39.80

Denny Hamlin has easily been the best value on flat tracks this season with results of sixth or better in the five races at Phoenix, Martinsville, Richmond, Pocono, and New Hampshire. If not for a miscommunication in the pits, he would have handily won the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 to bookend another victory in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix and that would give him momentum, but Indy has not been particularly kind to him during his career. If he is going to struggle anywhere on this track type, this week will show the effect because he has only one top-five and two top-10s in six starts on this 2.5-miler. While the other flat tracks are among his best in terms of career average results, Indy ranks only 18th and that means there are only a handful of tracks where he has been less successful.