Video: Fantasy Showdown
Second verse; same as the first.
Track representatives and announcers are quick to eschew the term “cookie-cutter” by pointing out that no two courses are alike. That is certainly true. Even two courses built to the exact specifications would soon develop different characteristics because of the effects of weather on the asphalt. However, fantasy players will find an advantage in comparing the seven similarly configured 1.5-mile tracks of Kansas Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway and Kentucky Speedway.
This two-week span on the schedule is particularly beneficial because Texas and Kansas are adjacent to one another, just as they were in 2012. Last year, eight drivers scored top-10s in both races with a difference between their Texas and Kansas results being less than five positions. Jimmie Johnson was the most successful of these drivers with a second at Texas and a third at Kansas. Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle also swept the top five in both races.
That pattern repeated itself throughout the grid and two drivers had perfectly matched results at Texas and Kansas. Jamie McMurray finished 14th in both races while Paul Menard scored a pair of 18ths. If a fantasy player was successful last week, this is a good time to stand pat.
Greg Biffle gave fantasy owners a scare last week when he pushed badly during qualification and rolled off the grid 35th. In the past three seasons, only seven drivers overcame poor qualification attempts of 25th or worse to finish inside the top 10, and that made Texas the third-worst place for drivers to come from the back of the pack. It took a while for Biffle to challenge the leaders, but he ultimately finished fourth and earned the third-most points in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game. He has been great at Kansas as well with two wins and a seven-race top-10 streak entering last fall’s Hollywood Casino 400. He suffered his first speeding penalty of the 2012 season in that race and finished well down the order, but he will bounce back this week.
Joey Logano still has a lot to prove after a dramatic few weeks. His feud with Denny Hamlin and close scrutiny by NASCAR inspectors at Texas has put him in the limelight in a way that is not desirable, but he has risen to the challenge. He had one of the cars to beat at Auto Club Speedway and clawed his way into the top five at Texas, which gives him momentum entering Kansas. There is no doubt about the strength of the Penske Racing cars -- teammate Brad Keselowski enters the weekend with a 10-race streak of "cookie-cutter" finishes 11th or better, and that makes both of them solid choices this week.
Kyle Busch can be uneven on the similarly configured 1.5-mile tracks, but he is also a streaky driver. For the moment, he holds the hottest hand in NASCAR with a five-race top-five streak that includes a fourth-place finish at Vegas and victories at Auto Club and Texas. His Kansas record is spotty and he has never cracked the top five there, but the odds are great that he will score a career-best finish of better than seventh in the STP 400.
Only time will tell if the strong run or poor finish Saturday night has a lasting effect on Jeff Gordon. He had just caught Kyle Busch and was about to make a pass for second when the right front hub broke on his Chevrolet. Until that moment, he had spent as much time in the top five as eventual first- and second-place finishers Busch and Martin Truex Jr. and they were making this a three-man race. The broken suspension raises as many questions as it answers, however; it appears the No. 24 team has found a way to go fast on the unrestricted intermediate speedways, but will that speed come at the cost of reliability?
Brian Vickers simply finds a way to get to the front of the pack when it counts. He has not been dominant in most of his recent events, but ultimately he challenges the leaders in the closing laps and he enters the weekend with a worst finish of 11th in his last six attempts. Most of these efforts came on short tracks of one-mile or less in length and that keeps him from being a favorite outright, but it does not keep him from being a good value. In the NASCAR Fantasy Live game this week, players have an opportunity to acquire a $26.50 team for Vickers’ cap of only $20.75 and that will allow them to upgrade one of their other mid-cap drivers.
Two new drivers in the field this week bear close scrutiny as well. Note that Sam Hornish Jr. and Elliott Sadler are entered in the STP 400, and as part-timers their salary caps are going to be affordable. Hornish was great in his relief role for Penske Racing last year, and there is no reason to believe he cannot repeat. Sadler has Joe Gibbs Racing power under the hood and fantasy players saw the effect of that last week in Busch’s No. 18.
Fantasy owners were willing to give Dale Earnhardt Jr. the benefit of the doubt last week at Texas. Martinsville Speedway is often considered a wild-card race, and finishing poorly there does not automatically mean a driver will lose momentum. Last week’s dead battery and speeding penalty that sent the No. 88 home 29th may well have robbed this team of the good will created by five consecutive top-10s to start the season. Last year, Junior was very consistent on the “cookie-cutter” courses with a sweep of the top 10, and he added another one at Vegas this spring. Only one of those was a top-five, however, which makes him a questionable value with the third-highest salary cap of $27.50 in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game.
Stewart-Haas Racing continues to struggle on the unrestricted intermediate speedways. At Vegas, Auto Club and Texas, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick have a combined average finish of 22nd and have scored only two top-10s. Both of those belong to Newman, and both of them barely count with a 10th in the Auto Club 400 and again last week. Moreover, Newman failed to dominate in any of those events and climbed into the top 10 with late-race surges that make him a risky proposition in a 400-mile race.