To win the championship, a driver must be good on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks and the short, flat tracks. The same is true for fantasy players. The final 10 races of the year focus on these two track types and drivers who sit atop the standings are well balanced and good on every course.
The short, flat tracks of Phoenix International Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, and Richmond International Raceway require a different set of skills, however. As players drill down deeper in the lineup, there are another group of racers who excel on this track type versus the 1.5- and two-milers. Drivers have to back up the corners and slow their momentum well before the apex. On the 1.5-mile tracks, an aggressive driver can attack the entry and let the banking catch the car; on flat tracks, the racer’s focus is on the exit of the turn and that takes patience.
This week, most fantasy players will want to leave the top slots of their roster alone, but the winning team will need to make adjustments to the mid-cap and bargain basement picks and there are some very interesting dark horses there.
It will come as no surprise that Jimmie Johnson is a favorite at Phoenix. From fall 2006 through spring 2011, he posted 10 consecutive top-fives on this track and four of those were victories. He leads the league in both fastest laps run during the past 17 races and quality passes, which means he is poised to earn maximum points again this week like he did at Texas Motor Speedway. Since he has been so good for so long in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game, he is probably on most rosters already and there is no reason to replace him at this late stage of the season. There is a tiny cause for concern, however; Johnson’s last two fall races have not resulted in top-10s and last year ended in disaster when he melted a bead on his tire because of excess brake heat. He pounded the wall and finished 32nd, but before that incident he had been running sixth.
Kyle Busch is a little less obvious favorite at Phoenix because two of his last five attempts on this track ended outside the top 20. Two other efforts ended in top-three finishes and the remaining race was scored sixth, so there is a better than average chance that he will wind up in the top 10. By itself, that might not be quite enough to make him a favorite, but Busch is also strong in the categories that pay points in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game. According to NASCAR Statistical Services, he is tied with Johnson for the most qualify passes during the past 17 races and he has led nearly 10 percent of the laps in that same timeframe.
Matt Kenseth lacks the raw Phoenix statistics to make good fantasy editorial, but that is largely because he spent the majority of his career with Roush Fenway Racing and that organization is not typically strong on short, flat tracks. There is nothing typical about his 2013 season, however. Kenseth spent the beginning of the year adjusting to Joe Gibbs Racing and the setups that his teammates Busch and Denny Hamlin made great on this track type. While he was getting comfortable on the minimally-banked courses, he scored four top-10s and a 14th in his first five races. He lacked the top-fives that are needed to justify his salary cap in those events and was not one of the favorites entering the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire. He won that race and came within one position and about 20 laps from winning at Martinsville. If Johnson or Busch do not score maximum fantasy points this week, it will be because Kenseth stole their thunder.
Fantasy owners wondered if Danica Patrick’s 12th-place finish this spring at Martinsville was caused by a fortunate surge at the end of the STP Gas Booster 500, especially when she seemed to struggle at Richmond and New Hampshire in the following events. Two weeks ago, she proved that was not the case by running a strong race on that short, flat track. She also has a history of success at Phoenix. Last year, she was running 12th in this race when she got spun in turn four and even with that crash, she finished 17th. She did not get a chance to defend her strong run this spring because of a cut tire, so now is the time to see if she can back it up.
Jamie McMurray has had some incredibly strong runs in recent weeks and one of these came on the short, flat track of Martinsville. He finished 10th in the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500, which was his third consecutive top-10 and fourth straight finish of 12th or better on this track type. Since he has been less consistent on other courses, his salary cap has not risen to an unmanageable level, which makes him one of the best mid-cap drivers in the field.
Jeff Burton flies under the radar most weeks, but he is strongest on short, flat tracks. That is not a well-kept secret, but casual players can easily overlook the No. 31. Burton finished 13th in this race last year and was 10th in the spring Subway Fresh Fit 500, but equally important, he has earned significant points for quality passes during his Phoenix career. In the past 17 races since NASCAR Statistical Services began tracking this stat, Burton has recorded an average of 26.6 quality passes per race and 13 to 14 points will go a long way to helping a player win this week’s contest.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. earned his first Cup top-10 on the short, flat track of Richmond and he earned the eighth-most points in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game for that 10th-place finish. That has been his best effort by a wide margin on this track type, however; and Richmond often behaves as much like an unrestricted, intermediate speedway as it does a short track. Aside from Richmond, his next best production in the game came in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire and his 27.5 points were only the 20th best in the 43-car field. Stenhouse is not prohibitively expensive, but on this track type there are better options in his cap range.
Kasey Kahne has had only one strong showing on the short, flat tracks. He finished fourth in the STP Gas Booster 500 at Martinsville this April and earned the sixth-most points for his effort. He finished 11th at New Hampshire in July, but that race added only 53 points to a player’s total, which was not enough to validate his salary cap. Most of his other attempts on the minimally-banked courses have been much worse and in the seven short, flat track races, he has averaged only the 20th-most points. Hendrick Motorsports is strong at Phoenix and that could trickle down to Kahne, but he is too much of a risk with only two races remaining.