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Fantasy Preview: Keep roster chock-full of Chasers in Kansas

October 17, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

The 2012 Chase is beginning to be defined and it appears this is going to a championship decided by minutiae.

For the second consecutive week and the third time in five Chase races, none of the championship contenders used a mulligan, which has been commonly defined as a finish of 25th or worse. With the exception of Jeff Gordon at Chicagoland and Matt Kenseth at Dover, the Chasers have been as close to perfect as they have ever been in the history of the Chase format. And that level of competition is increasing at a steady rate.

Sprint Cup Series

Chase Standings
Pos.DriverBehind
2.J. Johnson-7
3.D. Hamlin-15
4.C. Bowyer-28
5.K. Kahne-35

In the first year of the playoff-style format, 10 Chase contenders scored an average finish of 13.36 in the first five races. They spiked at 11.48 in the first five races of 2005, but there were many instances in both seasons of drivers finishing outside the top 25 in those opening events. The pattern of several drivers getting off to a bad start continued and actually worsened for the next few years with Chasers scoring an average finish of 15.64 in 2006, 16.18 in 2007 (the first year 12 racers were involved), and 14.28 in 2008. As the teams collectively figured out how to manage the playoffs, the average finishes have steadily improved almost every season to 12.36 in 2009, 12.65 in 2010, and 12.05 last year.

Those numbers pale in light of what the current Chase contenders have accomplished, however. Not only have they managed to almost completely avoid taking mulligans, but they have also scored a better-than-average finish in every race this season. The overall average for Chase drivers is 13.6, and the worst they have performed was with an average of 12.3 at Talladega two weeks ago. Last week was not record-setting, but it was close. Jeff Gordon finished the worst among the 11 Chase drivers entered in the Bank of America 500 and, collectively, they scored an average of 9.09 -- which was virtually tied with the 2009 Dover race for the best of all time at 9.08. Earlier this year, the Chase contenders scored an average finish of 8.4 at New Hampshire, which was the second-best outing for the collective. There is a strong possibility the strong trend will continue, as well. The best race of all time for Chase drivers came at Kansas in the 2005 Banquet 400 when they scored an 8.1.

The fantasy impact? Keep starting Chasers until they stumble.

Is this still Kansas?

Soon after the end of the STP 400 this April, Kansas began to reconfigure and repave the track. The corners now have up to 20 degrees of variable banking -- up from the relatively flat 15 degrees of uniform banking that made this one of the closest comparatives to the two-mile California Speedway or the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway. In terms of banking, Kansas now sits more or less alone. Chicagoland and Michigan have 18 degrees of banking, and could provide data that helps fantasy players set their roster. Homestead is banked at 20 degrees, but the track is shaped as a true oval without the dogleg on the frontstretch -- that makes a big difference to how the two tracks will race.

Basically, this is a new track and as such it is a bit of a wildcard. However, even though the seven similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks of Atlanta, Charlotte, Texas, Las Vegas, Kansas, Chicagoland, and Kentucky are often lumped together as "cookie-cutter" courses, they each race differently. Today's drivers have found a way to adapt quickly to the changing conditions caused by weather and advances in mechanical grip.

Kansas


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

The question of whether this track will still race like Kansas or an entirely new course will be answered differently by every driver in the field. Some who excelled there in the past will begin to struggle, like Jimmie Johnson did after Charlotte was repaved. Most of the drivers who ran well there in the past will continue to run strong because that list is primarily made up of Chase contenders who still have momentum on their side. Johnson and Greg Biffle have dominated this track in the past, and there is no reason to believe they will not continue to do so.

The Favorites

All things considered, however, Jimmie Johnson may have a slight edge this week. He has been consistently stronger during the Chase than Greg Biffle, and could grab the points' lead with a dominant performance if Brad Keselowski even slightly stumbles. Johnson has two victories, one second-place finish and two more thirds in his latest seven Kansas attempts. His worst finish in that span of races was a ninth in 2009, and his average since the beginning of 2007 is 3.7 -- which is as close to perfection as drivers ever achieve. He has been equally impressive on this track type in 2012. He started out the season with a second in the Kobalt Tools 400 at Vegas, finished second again at Texas, was third in Kansas' first race, and recently finished in the top three at both Chicagoland and Charlotte. He is due a victory and it could very well happen this week.

Biffle's first Kansas victory came amidst controversy in 2007 because he failed to maintain the pace car speed on the final caution lap and was passed by Clint Bowyer and others. NASCAR ruled he maintained a reasonable speed and awarded him the victory. He certainly deserved the accolade based on his performance before and after that race. His 2007 win was his third top-three finish in four races, and it kicked off an incredible streak of three more results of third or better. He earned his second victory in 2010 and there was no asterisk behind that one. Like Johnson, Biffle has a perfect record of top-10s since 2007 and just as many top-fives, but with a 10th as his worst result (his overall average is slightly higher at 5.4). Fantasy owners who can afford both drivers should have them on their roster.

The year has certainly not been going the way Carl Edwards wanted it to. He was never able to develop any momentum this season after ending last year tied in points with the champion Tony Stewart. But one suspected his performance would improve once the Chase began and the pressure was off his shoulders. It did not -- at least not immediately. He finished 19th in back-to-back races at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, but that did not keep him from being one of the favorites at Dover. He rewarded that confidence with a fifth-place finish. A wreck at Talladega could have stalled his momentum, but he raced with the leaders much of the day and finished seventh in last week's Bank of America 500. At Kansas, Edwards is a not-so-distant third to Johnson and Biffle in reference to his recent record. He enters the weekend with six consecutive top-10s and an average finish of 6.2 in that span. He has not yet won, but he finished second to Johnson in the 2008 Camping World RV 400.

Dark Horses

Who will win?


The Chase for the Sprint Cup? This week's race? Check out the up-to-date predictions.

Talladega plays by its own rules, and while Matt Kenseth was happy to have won there, it did not factor into his handicap at Charlotte. He cut a tire and spun early in the Bank of America 500, which forced him to spend much of the race trying to overcome a lost lap. Once he finally got back onto the lead lap, he spent most of his time outside the top 10 and eventually finished 14th while a variety of fuel strategies were played out. His Talladega victory is his only top-10 during the Chase and four top-20s are not enough to make him a favorite this week. However, Kenseth has a great opportunity to rebound at Kansas. If not for a blown engine in the 2009 Price Chopper 400, he would have a record similar to Edwards and nearly as strong as Greg Biffle or Jimmie Johnson. Kenseth has also failed to win on this track, but his two best results of fourth came in the two most recent races.

It is hard to imagine Kevin Harvick going much longer without a top-10. He is the only Chaser who has failed to break that barrier a single time this year, but he came close on a number of occasions with results in the low teens. The final tally showed him in 16th last week, which was his worst finish in eight races, but he was running much better than that until fuel mileage worked against the team. At Kansas, he enters the weekend with back-to-back sixth-place finishes and a worst of 11th in his latest four attempts. He probably will not crack the top five, but the Hollywood Casino 400 could provide his first playoff top-10 of 2012.

Underdogs

Hindsight will reveal if the tide has completely turned for Clint Bowyer on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks after he stretched his fuel mileage sufficiently to win the Bank of America 500. That was his second consecutive top-10 on this track type, and it made a statement about the seriousness of his title bid. The fact remains, though, that he has not been particularly strong on "cookie-cutter" courses this season. Before finishing 10th at Chicagoland, he failed to crack the top 10 in five previous attempts on this track type, and had an average finish of nearly 22nd. For a while during the middle portion of last week's race, it appeared he would struggle again. But, while the team found the right setup before the checkers waved, the Kansas event is 100 miles shorter and it could prove to be a challenge to dial the car in before the checkers.

Fantasy Power Rankings

Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)
1.Jimmie Johnson8.14 16.Juan Pablo Montoya18.85 31.Landon Cassill33.37
2.Matt Kenseth8.63 17.Paul Menard19.01 32.Bobby Labonte33.95
3.Greg Biffle9.38 18.Ryan Newman19.22 33.David Gilliland34.34
4.Tony Stewart9.90 19.Marcos Ambrose19.42 34.Danica Patrick34.54
5.Kyle Busch11.11 20.Jamie McMurray19.55  35.Reed Sorenson34.90
6.Carl Edwards11.30 21.AJ Allmendinger19.89 36.Travis Kvapil35.73
7.Jeff Gordon11.32 22.Jeff Burton20.46 37.Cole Whitt37.00
8.Denny Hamlin11.72 23.Joey Logano21.08 38.Mike Bliss37.04
9.Kevin Harvick12.78 24.David Ragan22.45 39.JJ Yeley37.45
10.Kasey Kahne12.99 25.Trevor Bayne23.35 40.Dave Blaney37.65
11.Kurt Busch14.49 26.Sam Hornish Jr.24.80 41.Timmy Hill37.85
12.Clint Bowyer15.16 27.Aric Almirola25.03 42.David Stremme38.00
13.Martin Truex Jr.15.42 28.Regan Smith27.87 43.Michael McDowell38.76
14.Mark Martin16.40 29.Casey Mears32.06 44.Joe Nemechek40.48
15.Brad Keselowski17.30 30.Scott Speed32.30 45.Josh Wise40.88

Joey Logano is another driver who seems to have turned his luck around in the past two "cookie-cutter" races. He failed to crack the top 10 in his first six attempts at Vegas, Texas, Kansas, Charlotte, Kentucky, and Atlanta, which made him a long shot to finish that well in the Geico 400 at Chicagoland. He crossed under the checkers seventh, and that started a surge of consecutive top-10s that was momentarily interrupted by an early accident at Talladega. Last week, he was back inside the top 10 once more at Charlotte, but that track has always been kind to him. Kansas is much less so and his career best there is only 15th. The good news is that the 15th-place was scored this spring in the STP 400, so he could defy this prediction. It seems safer to leave him in the garage this week and then climb back on his bandwagon at Martinsville and Texas if he keeps his top-10 streak alive, however.