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Fantasy Preview: Michigan prone to streaks, alternate strategies

August 17, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM,

Fantasy owners should dive into statistics at Auto Club to deepen the data pool

NASCAR's storybook season continued last week with its fifth first-time winner and 15th different winner to reach Victory Lane in 2011. Neither are records, but they are both well above the average of recent years. Marcos Ambrose's victory at Watkins Glen was as predictable as any first-time win can be, however, and last week finally went according to plan for most of the favorites. Tony Stewart was the only one who didn't when his accident in the bus stop chicane on the final lap denied the No. 14 team a decent finish. Somewhat surprisingly, they never really contended for the victory, but he clings to the top 10 in points and the guaranteed Chase position that goes along with that.

One predictable weekend does not break the capricious spell cast on the season, but Michigan is another track that is often prone to streaks, which makes handicapping races there a little easier than normal. In addition, fantasy owners can look to Auto Club to deepen the data pool because these two tracks are closer to one another than any others on the schedule. That is great news for two drivers who crashed in last week's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen after going there in need of a strong run. Denny Hamlin has been stellar at Michigan in recent years and Stewart has been solid on both two-mile tracks combined.

As always, fantasy owners can only predict who will run strong and not necessarily who will finish well. Michigan is particularly susceptible to fuel-mileage strategies because this race can settle into long green-flag runs. Wide corners and multiple grooves allow drivers to conserve fuel by rolling through the corners without losing a ton of speed. In fact, the real surprise this week would be if several drivers in the top 10 did not get there by employing some kind of alternate strategy.

This track is also long enough and the field gets spread out enough that drivers employing the reverse strategy opting for speed instead of fuel conservation, can make up significant ground and etch their names in the top 10 as well. This week, fantasy owners should set their rosters by the numbers, hope that a caution doesn't wave on the cusp of a fuel window, and expect the cream to rise to the top.

The Favorites

Carl Edwards is one of NASCAR's 15 winners this season, but his victory came all the way back at the beginning of the year in the third race of the season at Las Vegas. His most recent dozen races have been sporadic. They were strong enough to make him the points' leader for most of that span, but six top-10s have been counterbalanced by another six outside that mark, which hasn't made him a particularly good value in salary cap games. He hasn't earned a top-five since Kentucky five weeks ago and he needs to develop some momentum before the Chase begins. This is the best track on which to achieve that goal, because he has been close to perfect at Michigan. In 14 career starts there, he has finished in the top five nearly two-thirds of the time and he has only one result worse than 12th. That means there is practically no downside to starting him and with a pair of victories in 2007 and 2008, the upside is immense.

Selecting a roster at Michigan was once a no-brainer. Fantasy owners would fill their ranks with Roushketeers and ignore the remainder of the field, but other NASCAR teams have made serious inroads into their dominance. Joe Gibbs Racing tops that list in recent seasons with solid performances by all of their drivers. Hamlin in particular has been unstoppable with two victories, a second-, and a third-place finish in his past five attempts. The only race in which he didn't finish among the top three netted a 10th in the second Michigan race of 2009. Like Edwards, he needs to reverse his recent trend. His situation is a little direr because he currently needs to rely on the wild card to get into the Chase. With so many other drivers rolling the dice and only four races remaining, he could find that one win is not enough to get in.

It's impossible to ignore the Cat in the Hat at Michigan. Jack Roush's drivers have always done well on this course, and while his mystique is fading in comparison to the field, his drivers still have the best records over long periods of time. Matt Kenseth enters the weekend with back-to-back top-fives on this track as well as 15 top-10s and 21 top-15s in 24 starts. He practically never stumbles at Michigan. There is another compelling reason to start him this week, however. His place differential is second-best in the Series with an average start of 20th and an average finish of 9.5. The only driver in the field better is his teammate Edwards, who improves 14.6 positions on average in a Michigan race to finish slightly worse than sixth.


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

If fantasy owners weren't impressed with Brad Keselowski before his testing crash at Road Atlanta two weeks ago, they cannot fail to be overwhelmed now. He's been driving with the proverbial one hand tied behind his back, only in this case it was one foot. His victory at Pocono was simply amazing because of the amount of pressure his broken left ankle had to take on an oval that required shifting. Fantasy owners expected reality to settle in at Watkins Glen, but he came within two laps of winning that race as well -- and probably would have done so if any driver other than Ambrose was on his bumper on the penultimate trip around the track. By comparison, Michigan is going to be a cakewalk. His record there is not great with a previous-best finish of 24th, but a victory on the similarly flat Kansas Speedway this summer is enough of a reason to ignore his two-mile achievements.

Sitting 28th in the standings and more than 100 points out of 20th, Brian Vickers has virtually no chance of making the Chase, but both he and the Red Bull team needs a strong finish this week. They are facing an uncertain future with funding drying up at the end of the season. A sponsor hunt could only be aided by running strong. Two-mile tracks have been incredibly kind to Toyota in the past. In fact, Vickers won at Michigan in 2009, which capped off a 12-race streak of top-12 finishes. At the end of that season, he stumbled once at Auto Club, but roared back with another 12th-place finish if their first race of 2010. He missed the next three races on this track type, but has swept the top 10 in two attempts at Auto Club and Michigan this season. Victory could continue to elude him, but a top-10 is certainly in the cards.

This week, honorable mentions have to be doled out to Ryan Newman (with a fifth at Auto Club and sixth at Michigan), Clint Bowyer (seventh and eighth respectively), Kyle Busch (third on both tracks), Kevin Harvick (first and 14th), Paul Menard (16th and fourth), Tony Stewart (13th and seventh), Greg Biffle (11th and 15th) and A.J. Allmendinger (14th and 13th). If any of these drivers shine in practice, they deserve a spot on the roster.


Jeff Gordon is on a roll and he certainly knows how to race on a two-miler -- in 2009, he finished second in all four races on this track type -- but he disappointed fantasy owners earlier this year in both the Auto Club 400 and Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 with two finishes outside the top 15. Last year, two of his four attempts on this track type ended in 20-something results, which far outweighed his pair of top-10s. This is a big hurdle for the No. 24 team. If they can run strong this weekend, it could make them front-runners to win the championship on the back of consistent top-15 finishes. While fantasy owners want to watch their effort closely, the safer course of action is to leave them in the garage until Bristol.

Fantasy Power Ranking

2-mile tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Carl Edwards9.84 17.Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.15 32.Travis Kvapil32.21
3.Matt Kenseth10.00 18.David Ragan19.87 33.Scott Speed32.42
4.Tony Stewart10.03 19.Jeff Burton20.04 34.Landon Cassill32.74
5.Greg Biffle10.07 20.Ryan Newman20.96 35.Bobby Labonte33.92
6.Jeff Gordon10.10 21.Joey Logano21.33 36.Mike Bliss34.24
7.Brian Vickers10.18 22.Martin Truex Jr.21.79 37.David Gilliland34.45
8.Denny Hamlin10.83 23.A.J. Allmendinger24.23 38.Andy Lally35.46
9.Kyle Busch11.05 24.Jamie McMurray24.32 39.Michael McDowell36.30
10.Mark Martin11.28 25.Paul Menard27.12 40.Dave Blaney36.75
11.Kevin Harvick12.69 26.Regan Smith27.95 41.Robby Gordon36.93
12.Clint Bowyer14.56 27.Brad Keselowski28.93 42.J.J. Yeley37.74
13.Kurt Busch15.07 28.Trevor Bayne29.40 43.Joe Nemechek38.10
14.Kasey Kahne15.47 29.Casey Mears30.26 44.Mike Skinner39.22
15.Juan Montoya15.62 30.David Stremme30.33 

Gordon's teammate Jimmie Johnson is another driver fantasy owners want to avoid this week. As strong as he is nearly everywhere else, this is one of only a handful of tracks where he has yet to win. In fact, with only two top-fives and seven top-10s in 19 starts, he hasn't even come close. Moreover, his pass differential is one of the worst in the field. He typically qualifies strong with an average start of 8.5, but during the course of the race he drops more than seven positions. In his career, he has improved during the race only two times. Considering his salary cap, it is nearly impossible that he will be a good value this week even if he manages to eke out a top-10.