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Fantasy Preview: Kentucky pits experience against young guns

July 06, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM,

Keselowski, Ragan are worth a look, but don't count out Hendrick stable

Kentucky Speedway may be a new venue on NASCAR's senior circuit, but that does not mean fantasy players have to go into the weekend unprepared. Every track on the schedule is unique. Drivers approach each of them differently and even courses such as Michigan International Speedway and Auto Club Speedway that appear to be completely similar on paper, have endured different weather conditions during the years and have enough variance in the banking to make them distinctive.

Without any previous Cup races at Kentucky, fantasy owners will need to find a suitable comparative. Luckily, this week there are two courses that will help set their roster and both of them have already hosted races in the 2011 season. Given its shape and size, Kentucky can be lumped into the same category as the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks -- or the cookie-cutter courses. With 14 degrees of banking, it is now the flattest of these tracks, but that is only 1 degree less steep than Kansas Speedway -- where NASCAR visited just five weeks ago. Auto Club is slightly longer than Kentucky, but it is banked at 14 degrees -- the same as Kentucky -- which makes it a good comparative this week as well.

Similarities between Kentucky and other cookie-cutter courses deepens the data pool, but fantasy owners will also find that the playing field has been leveled between long-established teams and young guns with less experience. Brad Keselowski won the STP 400 at Kansas on fuel mileage, but he could easily repeat this week on raw strength. David Ragan's victory last week could also be a great omen in light of his 13th at Kansas and his three consecutive top-15s on this type of track.

The drivers most likely to win are those with the most experienced teams, but this will also be a good opportunity to take a risk on some dark horses. In the inaugural race at Chicagoland Speedway in 2001, Robert Pressley finished second in a Doug Bawel owned car and neither driver nor team were exactly household names. A rookie, Kevin Harvick, won the event. In the first race at Kansas Speedway that same year, a rookie named Ryan Newman finished second to Jeff Gordon. And Pressley earned another top-10 in his lightly-funded Ford.

The Favorites

Since Kansas is the best comparative this week, the favorite for the Quaker State 400 is the only driver with a perfect record of top-fives there during his past five attempts. Jeff Gordon -- along with Kurt Busch -- was the class of the field in the STP 400, and that came as a bit of a surprise in light of Gordon's previous four starts. The No. 24 team was struggling when they rolled into Kansas without a top-10 in more than a month, but their season may well have turned around that afternoon. Gordon might have won if Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Denny Hamlin had not been stretching their fuel mileage -- in fact, he nearly caught and passed Hamlin after making one extra stop. He did win the following week at Pocono Raceway, finished second at Infineon Raceway two weeks ago and was sixth in the Coke Zero 400, which gives him four top-10s in his past five attempts.

This could be a great weekend for Hendrick Motorsports since there are ample reasons to start both Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Like the No. 24 team, the 48 earned five consecutive top-10s at Kansas. Two of Johnson's runs there have been outside the top five with a ninth in 2009 and a seventh this year, but he also has a victory in 2008 and a second in 2010 to offset those slightly more modest results. This season, he has not been quite as strong as in the past on the cookie-cutter courses, but with the Chase looming, it is time for the team to step up their effort.

Earnhardt could provide Hendrick with a sweep of the top spots this week, because he is one of two drivers who have been perfect on the cookie-cutter tracks in regard to top-10s. He finished eighth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, ninth at Texas, seventh at Charlotte -- where he ran out of gas just shy of the checkered flag while leading -- and successfully stretched his mileage at Kansas for a second-place finish. He was disappointed with his result at Daytona, but that will be forgotten as soon as the series rolls into the garage at Kentucky.

Kurt Busch is too strong this week to get relegated to dark horse status just because three drivers have already been profiled. Along with Earnhardt, he is the only other driver to sweep the top 10 on cookie-cutter courses in 2011. He also has more momentum than anyone else in the field with seven consecutive top-15s including last week's 14th-place finish that he earned despite crash damage late in the Coke Zero 400. Somehow, he is still not getting the respect he deserves from fantasy owners, however, and that gives you an opportunity to make up some ground on the competition.


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

If one completely buys the premise that Kansas is the best comparative for Kentucky, Greg Biffle might actually be a favorite this week instead of a dark horse. He is so good on that track that he entered the STP 400 five weeks ago with six top-three finishes in his previous seven attempts, but he failed to dominate as projected. His finish of 10th was respectable especially if one discounts the three fuel mileage gamblers, but it was not what was expected of him. On the other hand, he ended the 2010 season with three consecutive top-fives on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks and has three top-15s in his past three attempts on that track type this year, so he is an acceptable risk.

Last week, Joey Logano had an opportunity to put the No. 20 team in Chase contention. With a slightly stronger push from Kasey Kahne or a little less damage to his Toyota, he might have earned the Coke Zero 400 victory instead of Ragan, which along with getting elevated into the top 20 in points, would mean he has the current claim to the final wild card berth. Now that two drivers between 11th and 20th have victories, the competition is rising. Fantasy owners can expect more victories from this group of teams, but now they also need to position themselves as high in the points as possible. Joe Gibbs Racing will concentrate an extra effort on Logano's car and that could mean the difference this week. Of course the fact that he has won the past three Kentucky Nationwide series races from the pole doesn't hurt matters either because it gives him more confidence on this track than anyone else in the field.


Tony Stewart has thrust himself into the limelight in an unfavorable way after delivering an ultimatum to the entire field that he will punish drivers for blocking. Whether he is one of the reader's favorite drivers or if fantasy owners agree that someone should police this type of on track activity is entirely meaningless -- this has taken the team's focus off the matter at hand, which is finishing in the top 10. Stewart has said that he does not care if his attitude costs him a position in the Chase or robs him of victories, which makes him a risky proposition for the next several weeks. Other drivers may choose to test his resolve and put him in a precarious position or he may alternately get in a situation where retaliation denies him a strong finish -- like at Infineon two weeks ago -- but fantasy owners should allow this to play itself out before committing to the No. 14.

Fantasy Power Rankings

Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)
2.Jeff Gordon8.8718.Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.3234.Robby Gordon33.21
3.Greg Biffle10.2419.Jamie McMurray18.0335.Scott Riggs34.50
4.Carl Edwards10.7520.Brian Vickers18.5236.Andy Lally35.36
5.Tony Stewart10.8321.Ryan Newman20.8437.Travis Kvapil36.31
6.Kyle Busch11.0822.David Ragan21.0838.Dave Blaney36.65
7.Matt Kenseth11.1723.Joey Logano21.5839.David Starr37.04
8.Denny Hamlin12.3424.Paul Menard22.4140.Landon Cassill37.70
9.Kurt Busch13.1425.A.J. Allmendinger22.7741.Tony Raines37.87
10.Kasey Kahne14.7526.Brad Keselowski23.4142.Mike Skinner38.00
11.Kevin Harvick14.9127.Marcos Ambrose24.5943.Mike Bliss38.01
12.David Reutimann15.9828.Casey Mears28.4844.J.J. Yeley38.60
13.Mark Martin16.0229.David Stremme29.9245.Michael McDowell39.03
14.Juan Montoya16.1930.Michael Waltrip30.8746.Joe Nemechek39.41
15.Clint Bowyer16.5331.Regan Smith31.5547.Scott Wimmer39.50
16.Jeff Burton16.8532.David Gilliland32.2548.T.J. Bell41.33

Uncertainty is the enemy of fantasy owners. At Kansas, Ambrose was a great dark horse pick on the heels of his three consecutive results of sixth or better in the first three cookie-cutter races this season. His native skills as a road-course racer should also have given him a leg up on the competition since that was one of the flattest tracks on the schedule. Yet, he never found any real speed during the weekend after qualifying deep in the field in 35th, losing a lap during the race and finishing 26th in the STP 400. The same rationale that made him attractive then is still true, so if you are willing to gamble, he could be your ace in the hole, but it is impossible to recommend him before the weekend's activities begin.