News & Media


Fantasy Preview: Two in a row? Keselowski an NHMS favorite

September 19, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Much is made of the prevalence of "cookie-cutter" courses during the Chase and with four races at Chicagoland, Charlotte, Kansas and Texas, it is impossible to win the championship without a solid package on that track type. However, the successful team is going to also need to be strong on short, flat tracks because there are three races on minimally banked courses measuring 1 mile or less in length.

For the first seven years of the playoff-style format, NASCAR kicked off the Chase at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and that set the tone for the remainder of the season as the short track of Martinsville and another 1-mile flat track, Phoenix, awaited.

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Equal to the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks, the minimally banked courses are critical to success. New Hampshire is one of only two tracks on which Chase drivers have swept Victory Lane in eight previous years. Twice, the winner of the Chase race at New Hampshire went on to win the championship with Kurt Busch claiming that honor in the inaugural 2004 season and Tony Stewart following suit last year. This track has always provided one of the best average finishes for Chase contenders, so even during seasons in which the winner of this race did not go on to claim the ultimate victory, the champion has almost always finished in the top 10.

At Chicagoland, Chase contenders have assembled an average finish of 11.3, but since that track has hosted only two playoff races the number is slightly less meaningful than for tracks that have been on the schedule since the launch of this format. New Hampshire is the best of the remaining courses with Chase drivers finishing 12.1, and it also is notable that the other two flat tracks of Martinsville, with an average of 12.6, and Phoenix, at 12.8, are well above the mean.

Flat-track mastery

It takes a completely different mind-set to go fast on the short, flat tracks than the cookie-cutter courses. On the longer tracks, they can elect to either charge hard entering or exiting the corners, but they do not have the same choice to make this week. In order to be successful, drivers have to slow down before entering the turn so they can pick up the throttle in the center. This track type rewards patience.

Drivers can attain long streaks of top-10 finishes on short, flat tracks and it is not uncommon for them to string six or seven top-10s in the eight races held at New Hampshire, Phoenix, Richmond and Martinsville. Sweeping any track type with that many races can be difficult, but Tony Stewart was almost perfect last year with seven top-10s in eight starts. More importantly, two of his five victories during the Chase came at New Hampshire and Martinsville; he finished third at Phoenix. Roush Fenway Racing is not commonly known for its drivers' abilities on short, flat tracks, but one reason Carl Edwards was able to stay in contention with Stewart last year was because he swept the top 10 in the final three races on this course type.

The Chase contenders ended the regular season in the top 12 in points because they were strong everywhere, so it should come as no surprise that they dominated this track type, as well. Like last week, they need to anchor most fantasy rosters, but there will be some great opportunities for dark horses. Joey Logano, Aric Almirola and Jeff Burton each have one top-10 to their credit on the short, flat tracks and could record another if they find the right setup.

Watching practice is important every week, but it will be critical at New Hampshire. This is a rhythm track and drivers need to hit very precise marks to go fast. That does not happen magically during the race, so look for this week's dark horse to emerge from among those racers who have superior 10-lap averages in both of Saturday's practice sessions.

The Favorites

It is too soon to begin making predictions about who will win the Chase and with only two full seasons under his belt, Brad Keselowski still has an uphill battle. However, he served notice last week that this team has the right combination to sweep the final 10 races. The Chicagoland victory was equal parts speed, strategy and determination behind the wheel, which makes it the current frontrunner in the points. Keselowski's record on short, flat tracks is what makes him this week's favorite. In five previous starts on this track type, he has earned two top-fives and swept the top 10. He also has recent momentum on his side with 10 top-10s and two victories in his past 11 starts this season. If he doesn't win at New Hampshire, it is unlikely that he will finish outside the top 10.

Denny Hamlin ran out of gas on the final lap at Chicagoland and dropped from seventh to 16th -- the final car on the lead lap. He vowed afterward that the Chicagoland contest was one of only 10 races and promised to win at New Hampshire. That is not simply a case of arrogance; he has the record to back up the declaration. In 55 starts on the short, flat tracks, he has earned eight of his 21 career victories and 28 of 77 top-fives. One of his victories came at New Hampshire in 2007 and he has six top-fives there, as well. This 1-mile flat track is one of five courses on which he has an average finish of better than 10th and that strength is underscored by equally impressive runs at Martinsville and Richmond. Three of his past four starts on this track ended fifth or better and it is a fair bet that he will add to that record.

Younger drivers are not content with letting the more experienced veterans upstage them this year and Clint Bowyer has two chips on his shoulders. In his first Chase appearance in 2007, he got off to a strong start with a victory at New Hampshire and then went on to finish 12th or better in all but one of the remaining Chase races. He felt that he was not taken seriously as a contender that year even though he ultimately finished third in the standings. He also wants to prove that Michael Waltrip Racing is a considerable force and there is no better way to do that than keep pressure on the competition with consistent top-10 results. He has finished that well in six of his past seven attempts this season and while the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks will continue to provide a challenge later in the Chase, he should battle for the lead at New Hampshire.

New Hampshire


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Dark Horses

It has proven to be a good decision to put Brian Vickers in the lineup every time he has climbed into the cockpit of the No. 55 MWR Toyota. With the single exception of a blown engine at Watkins Glen, he has finished 18th or better in his remaining five starts this year. He could easily be a favorite and might achieve that status at Martinsville later this season if he runs well. He is counted among the dark horses this week, however, because both of his two previous short, flat track attempts in 2012 ended in the mid-teens with an 18th at Martinsville and a 15th at New Hampshire in the LENOX Industrial Tools 301. With a salary cap of $18.50 in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game, however, he is still well worth the price tag.

The short, flat tracks are not particularly kind to Roush Fenway, but in order to battle for the championship it will have to overcome that deficit. Last year, Edwards minimized the damage on this track type and so far his teammate Greg Biffle has been largely up to the challenge. In five starts at Phoenix, Martinsville and Richmond this year, he has recorded one top-five and three top-10s. Two of his strong runs came in the two most recent events at New Hampshire and Richmond with a pair of ninth-place results. If he misses the top 10, it will likely be by a narrow margin because Biffle has eight top-15 finishes in his past nine races this season.

Underdogs

Kyle Busch won on a short, flat track earlier this season at Richmond and he has a sixth-place finish at Phoenix to underscore his ability on this track type. He is capable of recording another strong run this week, but he is just as likely to finish outside the top 25. In his past 10 efforts on minimally banked tracks 1 mile or less in length, three top-10s are outweighed by four results of 27th or worse. His past two efforts ended in 16th-place finishes at New Hampshire and Richmond, but even if he finishes a little better than that and cracks the top 15 it is difficult to justify starting him in the salary-cap game because he is the seventh-most expensive driver.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Short, flat tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Denny Hamlin7.99 18.Brad Keselowski17.59 34.Reed Sorenson34.96
3.Jeff Gordon8.16 19.Greg Biffle19.02 35.Landon Cassill35.05
4.Kyle Busch9.71 20.Brian Vickers20.37 36.Travis Kvapil35.39
5.Ryan Newman11.11 21.Joey Logano20.46  37.David Stremme35.78
6.Clint Bowyer11.53 22.Jamie McMurray20.47 38.Dave Blaney36.32
7.Kevin Harvick11.69 23.David Reutimann22.49 39.Scott Speed36.73
8.Tony Stewart11.86 24.Marcos Ambrose22.64 40.Mike Bliss37.02
9.Mark Martin13.59 25.Sam Hornish Jr.24.46 41.J.J. Yeley37.47
10.Carl Edwards13.80 26.Aric Almirola26.69 42.Michael McDowell38.08
11.Jeff Burton13.98 27.David Ragan27.58 43.Scott Riggs38.29
12.Juan Montoya14.41 28.Paul Menard27.77 44.Josh Wise39.41
13.Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.80 29.Regan Smith28.10 45.Joe Nemechek39.89
14.Kurt Busch16.06 30.Bobby Labonte29.05 46.Jason Leffler39.91
15.Matt Kenseth16.40 31.Casey Mears29.72 47.Jeff Green41.40
16.Martin Truex Jr.17.18 32.Stephen Leicht33.72

Martin Truex Jr. is another racer who has practically priced himself out of consideration. Consistently strong runs have elevated him to the position of the third-most expensive driver in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game behind Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson and while he could score another top-10 this week, it would be his first on a short, flat track since April. He came close in New Hampshire's first race of the season with an 11th in July, but to justify starting him, fantasy owners need to believe he has a legitimate shot at finishing among the top five.