There have been several pleasant surprises in the first five weeks of the season, some bitter disappointments, and drama that threatens to have a dire impact on fantasy rosters. Rivalries that carried over from the end of 2012 and new conflicts could conceivably make the short tracks of Martinsville Speedway and Richmond International Raceway more unpredictable than ever. The ever-present threat of the "Big One" at Talladega looms large on the horizon and the current stretch of six races before the all-star break in May be pivotal in one’s fantasy season.
Not much can be done about the three wild-card races, but an understanding of which teams got off to a solid start will be important at Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Darlington Raceway, and perhaps even Richmond if the drivers mind their manners on the .75-mile oval.
Off and Running
There are a few drivers who would prefer to head straight to Martinsville and keep their momentum alive rather than take the week off for Easter. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is foremost of these. Last week’s runner-up finish at Auto Club Speedway not only gave him the points lead and extended his current top-10 streak to six races, it solidified the best start to a season in 14 years of full-time competition. While 2013 has been exceptional, the trend on Earnhardt has been precisely that he gets off to strong starts. During his career, Earnhardt’s average finish in the first half of a season is more than three positions better than he experiences at the end and he scores nearly 60 percent of his top-10s in the spring. With momentum on his side, he is a place-and-hold driver.
Brad Keselowski does not typically get off to a strong start, but his career is short enough that this trend is not yet well-entrenched. In three full-time seasons plus an abbreviated rookie year, he is the polar opposite of Earnhardt with 60 percent of his top-10s coming during the fall. Winning the 2013 championship kick-started this season, however, and he came out of the gates strong with four consecutive top-fives. Last week at Auto Club, a blown engine sent him to the back of pack to start the race and a speeding penalty midway through the event dug too deep a hole for this team to keep their streak alive. That could stall their momentum, but drivers have selective memories and Keselowski is liable to pick back up where he left off at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Keep an Eye on
In his last three races, Paul Menard has gotten consistently better each week. He finished 10th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, was ninth at Bristol, and eighth at Auto Club. That is only the second time in his career that he has managed to string three straight top-10s together and he has never earned a fourth consecutive. With Martinsville being only his 17th-best track in terms of average finishes, it is unlikely he will break that personal record, but he is still a driver to watch closely. The last time he earned three consecutive top-10s, they came as part of a streak of 10 lead-lap finishes and nearly all of those efforts were top-15s.
Kurt Busch ended the 2012 season on a high note with Furniture Row Racing. He scored three top-10s and proved to the racing community that he could still find the front of the pack. The 2013 season got off to a disappointing start with three 20-something results, but he has rebounded unequivocally in the past two weeks. A fourth at Bristol might have been attributed to that being a drivers’ track where his previous success gave him an advantage, but last week’s fifth at Auto Club showed a potent combination of horsepower, handling, and heart.
Jeff Gordon got off to an equally bad start last year and was almost unable to recover in time to make the Chase. This year, he has run strong on occasion and run afoul of some bad luck, but his results have been uniformly disappointing. There have been two races, however, that have to make fantasy owners particularly cautious. The No. 24 team was lost at Vegas and could not find a setup that would even come close to keeping them on the lead lap. Last week’s finish of 11th at Auto Club was not bad, but Gordon’s average running position of 18th was mid-pack and unimpressive. Unrestricted, intermediate speedways dominate the calendar and if Gordon cannot figure out how to pick up the pace there, he is going to be a poor fantasy value all season.
Embattled is the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of Denny Hamlin. He has experienced anxiety every week this season. He watched both teammates blow engines at Daytona and wondered if he would be next, he was penalized by NASCAR for criticizing the Gen-6 car and that controversy carried over to Vegas, and the last two weeks have been underscored by a feud with former teammate Joey Logano. Last week, he went from battling for the win to the hospital in the blink of an eye as the mutual hostility between the No. 11 and 22 pilots boiled over on the final lap. Hamlin was left with a back injury immediately before the series rolls into his favorite track. He won at Phoenix International Raceway in the past with an injury, but a lengthy recovery period will sideline him from fantasy lineups for at least six weeks.