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Fantasy Preview: Look to rhythmic drivers as Pocono favorites

August 01, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Several drivers in the field hope the third time is the charm. The Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway is the third flat-track race in the past three weeks and that has allowed teams to find rhythm. Seven drivers enter this weekend's race with back-to-back top-10s at New Hampshire and Indianapolis while another five have consecutive top-15s.

Lift the restrictor-plate superspeedway race at Daytona out of the data pool for a moment and there have been three consecutive races on relatively flat courses. Kentucky might be grouped with the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks, but it is banked at only 14 degrees, which is comparable to Richmond. In those three races held on minimally banked tracks during the past month, nine drivers have swept the top 15, which means that momentum is being established during the critical race to the Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. owes his elevation to the top of the point standings to a strong run during this span. He was helped along last week by Matt Kenseth's accident at Indy. A victory for the No. 88 at Michigan certainly did not hurt matters, either, but the cornerstone of this team's success has been consistency and they finished fourth at Kentucky, New Hampshire and last week at the Brickyard.

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Rhythmic revolutions

Momentum is critical for the next few weeks. Flat tracks are rhythm courses that demand precise corner entries and exits. Missing the line in one turn can often mean it takes a lap or two to re-establish one's cadence, but that also is true on the road course of Watkins Glen next week and high-banked Bristol. After Bristol, only Atlanta and Richmond -- another flat track -- remain on the regular-season schedule.

This stage of the season is critically important for drivers seeking a wild-card berth, but last week Jimmie Johnson proved it is just as important for those who are locked into the Chase. His third victory of the season currently places him in a three-way tie with Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski for the top seed in the Chase. All three drivers know how important bonus points are to winning the championship.

* Power Rankings: Pocono

The implication to fantasy players is no less significant. The Chase is a good cross section of NASCAR's schedule with races on short tracks, a restrictor-plate superspeedway, similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks, high banks and flat courses. It requires drivers and teams to have the best-rounded programs in order to hoist the Cup at Homestead, but it does not necessarily allow them to develop momentum.

As they are jockeying for the most points available during this more-predictable portion of the schedule, players need to follow suit. Now is not the time to take many risks; save that strategy for the Chase when one's position is either desperately low in the points or there is enough of a margin over the challengers to mitigate the threat.

The Favorites

In keeping with the theme of playing it safe this week, Denny Hamlin has been close to perfect on flat tracks. Indy was his biggest challenge on this track type and he certainly did not blister the field but, after dominating early, he overcame a mistake in the middle stage of the race to run with the leaders again in the closing laps. He narrowly missed finishing in the top five after getting passed by Jeff Gordon in the final circuits, but his sixth-place finish made him one of the better values in the game. That was his sixth consecutive top-six finish this season on minimally banked courses and he has one victory to his credit on this track type, at Phoenix. Pocono has been extremely kind to him in the past with a sweep of Victory Lane in his rookie season of 2006 plus back-to-back wins in the summer of 2009 and spring '10.

Johnson has been the model of consistency at Pocono, which wouldn't necessarily be a recommendation if not for the fact that his past three efforts ended in fourth-place finishes. Regularly finishing in the top five means that a driver is only one or two minor adjustments from getting to the checkers first and this team knows how win. In addition to those three consecutive fourth-place results, Johnson enters the weekend with five consecutive top-10s and a top-15 streak that dates from 2007. He swept Victory Lane in 2004 and has the added benefit of competing for an organization that has one of the best records of all time on this track. At $28 in salary cap, he is the most expensive driver in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game, but he is well worth the expenditure.

Earnhardt also is priced at $28 and given the fact he leads the points, that is well-deserved on the basis of his consistency. Even with his recent victory at Michigan, however, he seems to enter the weekend with slightly lower odds of winning than his teammate Johnson. He makes up for his lack of raw power with consistency. Johnson's last 18-race average of 8.7 has been positively skewed by three victories and two second-place finishes. Earnhardt has only one victory and one more runner-up result, but he has a better average of 8.0 and that means that his valleys have been much less deep than those of Johnson. Either driver could anchor a fantasy owner's roster, which means the final decision should be deferred to race day and based on practice and qualification.

Pocono


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Dollar for dollar, Gordon may well be the most valuable player in the game at the moment. It is taking a while for his salary cap to adjust to his current performance and that gives players a chance to climb on his bandwagon while he is relatively inexpensive. In the past six weeks, his cost has risen from $21.50 at Michigan to $26 this week on the back of five results of sixth or better, but he continues to look for that elusive first win of the season. With five victories to his credit, he is the active driver with the most wins at Pocono so there is no doubt he can add another this week; circumstances have to play into his favor, however. So long as there are late-race caution flags, he is liable to be denied the victory because restarts have been his Achilles' heel in recent seasons, but solid top-fives are good enough for fantasy players.

No one seriously expected Paul Menard to challenge for the victory last week, but he was destined to be one of the most-hyped drivers in the field on the back of his 2011 Brickyard win. He missed the top 10 but proved to be a good value nonetheless with a 14th-place finish and now that he is fading from the competition's radar screen, he could be a great addition to the fantasy roster. His top-15 last week is reinforced by five consecutive results of 16th or better at Pocono, which included back-to-back top-10s in his most recent attempts. The media should lose interest in this driver this week and if so, that will play into astute players' hands because he could be the greatest differentiator between their lineups and the rest of their leagues.

Underdogs

If flat tracks are supposed to behave like road courses, someone forgot to tell Marcos Ambrose. He will be one of the first to tell anyone who listens that he fails to see the similarity between the two and from his perspective it is difficult to argue the point. Ambrose scored four consecutive 30-something results from 2009 through the first '11 race; he finished modestly in 20th in this event last year, but there could be a light on the horizon. Ambrose's inaugural attempt as a rookie in 2009 resulted in a sixth-place finish, so he knows that a good line around this track is indeed achievable. He didn't climb back into the top 10 this past June, but he did not miss by much with a 13th-place finish.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Flat tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon8.04 17.Greg Biffle16.97 31.Reed Sorenson33.33
3.Denny Hamlin8.55 18.Brad Keselowski18.15 32.David Gilliland33.49
4.Kyle Busch10.36 19.Martin Truex Jr.18.9318.93 33.Landon Cassill33.70
5.Tony Stewart12.14 20.Joey Logano19.55  34.David Stremme34.77
6.Kevin Harvick12.20 21.Jamie McMurray20.76 35.Travis Kvapil35.04
7.Ryan Newman12.70 22.David Reutimann22.48 36.Stephen Leicht35.29
8.Clint Bowyer12.76 23.Marcos Ambrose23.47 37.Mike Bliss36.88
9.Mark Martin13.56 24.Aric Almirola25.04 38.J.J. Yeley39.89
10.Juan Montoya14.00 25.Sam Hornish Jr.25.89 39.Joe Nemechek39.36
11.Carl Edwards14.33 26.Paul Menard25.95 40.Scott Riggs39.37
12.Kurt Busch14.01 27.David Ragan26.97 41.Josh Wise39.44
13.Jeff Burton15.18 28.Regan Smith27.65 42.Tony Raines39.53
14.Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.30 29.Bobby Labonte29.78 43.Mike Skinner40.04
15.Kasey Kahne16.16 

Martin Truex Jr. is a high-profile driver who occasionally has run strong on this track. In 13 attempts he has one top-five, four top-10s and six top-15s. Three of his stronger runs have come in the past four races at Pocono, but he is heading in the wrong direction. After finishing ninth in the 2010 summer race and 10th in June '11, he slipped to 12th last August. He finished even further down the grid this past June with a 20th and while that result was marred by crash damage suffered in the pits, it was his fourth 20-something result during his career on this track. He could bounce back this week, but starting the No. 56 comes with at least a little risk.