NASCAR Fantasy: Off-weekend wrap-up

March 26, 2013, Dan Beaver,

With a rare idle Sprint Cup weekend, time to assess early fantasy performance

Not too late: Play Fantasy Live!

After five weeks of action, NASCAR takes its first breather of the season. This week will allow teams to assess their performance and make any necessary adjustments. Fantasy players should also take the time to do some homework, study the teams that have gotten off to strong starts, and predict whether they will continue.

Fantasy power average

Rk Driver Avg.
1 Jimmie Johnson 6.64
2 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 8.00
3 Matt Kenseth 8.28
4 Brad Keselowski 8.59
5 Kasey Kahne 10.29
6 Greg Biffle 10.41
7 Denny Hamlin 10.50
8 Kevin Harvick 10.85
9 Regan Smith 11.50
10 Clint Bowyer 11.89
11 Kyle Busch 12.96
12 Jeff Gordon 13.06
13 Brian Vickers 13.30
14 Joey Logano 13.56
15 Paul Menard 13.98
16 Mark Martin 14.36
17 Martin Truex Jr. 14.58
18 Carl Edwards 16.53
19 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 16.64
20 Michael Waltrip 16.73
21 Kurt Busch 17.02
22 Aric Almirola 19.50
23 AJ Allmendinger 21.00
24 Jamie McMurray 21.07
25 Tony Stewart 21.70
26 Ryan Newman 23.60
27 Juan Pablo Montoya 24.07
28 Jeff Burton 24.25
29 Marcos Ambrose 25.36
30 David Ragan 28.14
31 Casey Mears 28.23
32 Dave Blaney 28.30
33 Danica Patrick 28.74
34 Trevor Bayne 29.10
35 David Gilliland 30.12
36 JJ Yeley 30.17
37 Bobby Labonte 30.42
38 David Reutimann 30.60
39 Travis Kvapil 31.00
40 Terry Labonte 31.05
41 David Stremme 31.66
42 Scott Speed 33.64
43 Josh Wise 34.05
44 Michael McDowell 34.47
45 Landon Cassill 35.20
46 Ken Schrader 35.45
47 Scott Riggs 36.76
48 Joe Nemechek 38.91
49 Mike Bliss 41.12
50 Timmy Hill 41.25

The Power Average is the average finish, plus the number of laps spent in the lead, in the top five, and in the top 10 expressed as if they were finishing results.

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.

Slow Starts

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.