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Fantasy Preview: Past should predict the future at the Glen

August 11, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM,

Six drivers enter weekend with at least three consecutive top-10s at road course

The summer series between the two road-course races is often a great time to develop momentum. The variety of tracks has changed through the years, but there has always been a predominance of flat tracks, which combines with the hot conditions of late June, July and early August and creates opportunities for drivers that like slick conditions. This year has been different. With a large number of teams willing to roll the dice on risky pit strategy and some old school stories such as the one fantasy owners witnessed last week at Pocono, no one has been able to post consecutive top-10s in five races since the series left Infineon.

Two drivers came close. Jeff Gordon has a worst finish of 11th and four top-10s in his past five races. Tony Stewart has a worst finish of 12th, but he only recorded two top-10s in his most recent five attempts, so momentum has come at a premium.

It has also been incredibly difficult to post back-to-back top-10s in that span of races. Prior to the Good Sam RV Insurance 500 at Pocono, only eight drivers were able to earn a top-10 on the heels of another since entering Daytona. No one was able to do that twice and no one posted three consecutive top-10s, so the ability to place-and-hold a driver has been lost. That finally seemed to change last week. Five of the top-10 finishers also finished that well in the Brickyard 400. Unfortunately, none of that will matter this week as the Series rolls into Watkins Glen for the second and final road race of the year.

A tale of two courses

For most of the drivers in the field, the two road courses evoke similar responses. They enjoy the break from ovals, but most of them had little experience on this type of track before getting forced to compete on them in NASCAR's top divisions. It is a classic fish-out-of-water tale that often ends badly. When drivers stay out of trouble -- and that means staying on the pavement all day -- a top-15 is well within reach.

While most drivers cannot tell the difference between the two courses, Watkins Glen is a much less technical track than Infineon. The high-speed portions are longer, the corners are a little more forgiving, and that allows them to hang the rear of the car out and fly around the track. That suits some drivers. For example, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been much better at the Glen than at Infineon, and there are some road-course ringers such as Ron Fellows that prefer this track to the one in California. On the other hand, Boris Said is often better at Infineon.

Still, the two tracks are similar enough for the largely uninitiated Cup regulars that fantasy owners can assume success at Infineon six races ago will also translate into similar success at Watkins Glen.

The Favorites

Fantasy owners should spend a lot of time thinking about momentum. When a driver strings strong runs together, like Gordon has done in his past nine races, it is time to perk up and take notice. That impetus is strongest on the road courses that require drivers to hit precise marks lap after lap. This week, six drivers enter the weekend with at least three consecutive top-10s at Watkins Glen and they will comprise the three favorites and three dark horses. Notably, the driver with the most road-racing victories in NASCAR's history, Gordon has only one top-10 on this track in the past three years and he hasn't earned a top-five since he won the 2001 edition of this race.

By his measure, the summer months have been disappointing for Stewart. This is the time of year when he normally contends for victory in every race. And while he is one of only two drivers with five consecutive top-15s, most of those have been modest showings outside to the top 10. Stewart needs a win. He and Earnhardt are the only two drivers in the top 11 in the points' standings without a victory and if he loses 24 of those points during the next five weeks to the 11th-place driver, he will immediately fall out of Chase contention. From 2004 through 2009, no one was better at the Glen than Stewart. He won four races and finished second in the other two events. Last year was not quite as strong with a seventh-place finish, but he has not had this much incentive to win in a long time.

Marcos Ambrose did not live up to the hype at Infineon and never challenged for the win. But that could work in your favor this week if he slipped beneath your competitions' radar. He has been as close to perfect at the Glen as a driver can be without winning. In his inaugural attempt on this track in 2008, he was forced to charge from the back after qualification was rained out and yet he finished third. Ambrose followed that up with a second in 2009 and a third last year, which makes him the only driver in the field with three consecutive top-fives. Combining Infineon, his worst finish in the past six road course races has been a sixth. That makes him a good value regardless of where he starts.

Juan Montoya's weakness is often his strength on road courses. He enters the weekend as the defending winner of last year's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen, and his worst finish in the past three years is only sixth. His aggressive nature gets him into a lot of trouble on ovals where it is impossible to run and hide, but that is not the case on the twisty tracks where a well-timed bump not only completes the pass, but also creates separation. Of course, that did not work out so well at Infineon in June. He roughed up a couple of drivers who were more than willing to retaliate, but fantasy owners can expect he filed that information away in his brain and won't get into the same situations this week.

Watkins Glen

Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Kurt Busch is not the first driver who comes to mind on the road courses, but that has changed in recent years. In his first seven attempts at the Glen, he posted only one top-10 and netted an average finish of 23rd. In 2008, he finished 10th for a second time, but that was not enough to place him on many fantasy rosters the next year. Hindsight revealed he should have been there with a decent finish of seventh in 2009. Last year, he was Montoya's closest competition for the win and finished in the runner-up position. On the heels of that strong finish, he won the Toyota/Save Mart 350k at Infineon this June and could sweep the road course season.

Despite entering the weekend with five consecutive top-10s at Watkins Glen, Carl Edwards is another driver that is largely overlooked on the twisty tracks. He also has the added benefit of entering the week with the points lead and four consecutive top-15s. The final reason to start him this week is his strong run at Infineon in June, where he earned a third-place finish, which gives him three top-fives in his past four road-course races.

Kyle Busch may be known as Rowdy, but he knows when to calm down as well. Road courses require finesse and in 2008, he swept the two races on this track type for the only time since Stewart won back-to-back in 2005. That victory in 2008 is smack-dab in the middle of five consecutive top-10s at the Glen, but the reason he is relegated to dark horse status is because only two of those results were in the top five. Given his solid performance on the triangular Pocono Raceway last week with a lot of similarities to road courses, no one will be surprised if he contends for the victory, but the best prediction this week is that he will finish in the high single digits.

Road Ringers

Road ringers have not performed very well during the past couple of years, but they have to be considered. On occasion, they can stretch your salary cap budget in positive ways and provide a lot of bang for the buck. There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Ron Fellows can drive. He has five NASCAR victories at the Glen in Truck and Nationwide competition, plus another win at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. The real question is whether his Tommy Baldwin-prepared entry can implement the right strategy to give the team track position late in the race. Dave Blaney has consistently finished in the low 30s or high 20s for most of the past 18 races, but this a great opportunity to get a top-15.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Road Courses (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Juan Montoya6.23 17.Brad Keselowski19.31 31.Ron Fellows29.94
3.Jimmie Johnson7.51 18.Jamie McMurray20.13 32.David Ragan30.12
4.Tony Stewart7.57 19.Boris Said20.37 33.Regan Smith31.42
5.Kurt Busch8.15 20.Brian Vickers21.91 34.Andy Lally31.73
6.Carl Edwards12.51 21.Jeff Burton24.04 35.David Reutimann32.52
7.Kyle Busch12.92 22.Joey Logano24.33 36.Michael McDowell32.62
8.Kasey Kahne14.61 23.Matt Kenseth25.19 37.Bobby Labonte33.40
9.Denny Hamlin15.45 24.Robby Gordon26.32 38.Dave Blaney36.48
10.Martin Truex Jr.15.84 25.David Gilliland26.41 39.Travis Kvapil37.24
11.A.J. Allmendinger16.14 26.Dale Earnhardt Jr.26.46 40.J.J. Yeley39.22
12.Kevin Harvick16.49 27.Paul Menard26.63 41.P.J. Jones39.71
13.Jeff Gordon16.50 28.Casey Mears28.06 42.Joe Nemechek40.06
14.Ryan Newman17.04 29.Mark Martin28.59 43.Mike Skinner42.78
15.Greg Biffle18.64 

Boris Said can also be hit or miss in Cup competition. He will make his second appearance of the season in James Finch's No. 51 and while his Toyota/Save Mart 350k showed glimpses of promise, he ultimately got into a shoving match he lost and finished 28th. On the other hand, the last time he was in a stock car, he won the 2010 Circuit Gilles Villeneuve race for Robby Benton and he has at least a 50-50 chance of finishing inside the top 15 alongside Fellows.