Strong practice sessions and weak qualifying make Johnson, Kenseth smart picks
Dover International Speedway is a rhythm track, and the only way to achieve perfection is to log laps. Knowing that this track would go through transitions, much of the field waited until the weekend's final practice session to make long runs. Only 12 drivers ran at least 10 consecutive laps in the morning -- and, even among those drivers, most waited until the end of that session to make their extended runs.
In final practice, more than half the field posted 10 or more consecutive laps, but as different as these two sessions were in terms of activity, they had one thing in common: The makeup of the top of the chart.
$25 or greater
Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth entered the weekend as favorites, and they confirmed that opinion on the track this weekend. Both drivers posted consistently fast laps in Saturday's practice, with Johnson running the second-best 10 consecutive laps in the morning and topping the chart in final practice. Kenseth had the third-quickest time among drivers who ran 10 consecutive laps in the morning and was second-best in final practice, but if a player can afford only one of these two, the No. 20 should get the nod. Kenseth qualified on the outside to the front row and will lead laps early in the AAA 400 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET on ESPN).
Dale Earnhardt Jr. surprised the field with a record-setting pole run on Friday, but that is precisely what makes him a poor value this week. In 12 Dover races since joining Hendrick Motorsports, he has earned only two top-10s and has an average finish of 18.6. He is almost guaranteed to drop backward through the pack -- the only question is how far. He posted the 10th-quickest time among drivers completing 10 consecutive laps in final practice (among 23 teams), and that suggests he could very well end up in the middle to high teens.
$20 to $24.99
Kurt Busch's Achilles' heel in recent weeks has been pit stops. Sometimes he makes the mistake of speeding on pit road, but all too often, his team is just a little slower than the competition. On Sunday, he will have four new members on his over-the-wall crew, and that could make a huge difference. In 2010, Johnson was unhappy with the performance of his pit crew and swapped teams with Jeff Gordon. Johnson went on to finish in the top five in his last two races that year and won the championship. Busch should also be fast on the track since he had the third-quickest time in final practice.
Brad Keselowski was solidly inside the top five in final practice. In fact, he posted the fastest single lap and had the fourth-quickest 10-lap average, which suggests he is going to be equally fast in short or long runs. He won last year's edition of this race on fuel mileage, which means he could be a triple threat this time around.
Less than $20
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been coming on strong in recent weeks, and Dover could be a continuation of his upsurge. He posted the fifth-best 10-lap average in final practice and qualified in the front half of the field in 15th. His salary cap is slowly creeping up, but remains well below $20. The No. 17 team scored the eighth-most points at Richmond and 12th-most at Chicagoland. This week should find him in that same range.
Aric Almirola is slightly more expensive, but he will finish in the same ballpark as Stenhouse. Almirola posted the eighth-quickest speed in final practice and has been consistent at Dover in the past with a sixth-place finish in the spring of 2012 and a sweep of the top 20 in three races. He will not anchor a team, but if he fits the final salary slot, he will be extremely valuable.