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Look for Stewart to shine in first Chase race of '11

September 14, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to,

Busch will be a factor at Chicagoland, but Edwards' top-fives make him stronger

The Chase schedule was not designed with any grand scheme in mind. NASCAR simply decided the final 10 races of the season would be their version of the playoffs and the tracks that previously had those dates kept them in 2004. In seven seasons prior to 2011, only two changes were made to the schedule in terms of which tracks hosted a Chase race. Darlington was on the schedule for one year until it gave way to Texas in 2005.

Since that year, there has not been a substantial change in the makeup of the Chase. In 2009, the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway gave way to Auto Club -- a two-mile course that shared a lot of the same characteristics. After two years on the calendar, Auto Club moves aside and Chicagoland takes its place among the final 10 races of the season, which means that the balance of track types has been virtually unaffected.

To win the Chase, drivers have to be strong on similarly-configured 1.5-mile tracks. Chicagoland, Kansas, Charlotte, and Texas require many of the same strengths from teams and they comprise 40 percent of the playoff schedule. If one adds Homestead into the mix -- a true 1.5-mile oval with progressive banking -- this track type makes up half of the Chase schedule.

That is good news for fantasy owners. The media will concentrate on the 12 drivers battling for the Sprint Cup and the winner of the championship will most likely be the driver who develops momentum on the cookie-cutter courses. Gamers can also expect that one or two of the drivers outside that mark will also muster a head of steam and solidify their position just outside the top dozen.

When NASCAR changed the rules regarding Chase eligibility this year to make positions 11 and 12 wild cards that would be determined by a combination of wins and points position, they added an extremely interesting wrinkle that kept everyone guessing until the final lap of Richmond. However, ultimately the top 12 in points made the show and all but two of the Chasers have at least one win to their credit in 2011.

With the wild cards in play, as well as bonus points awarded during the Chase for winning, the emphasis on finishing first created a wild season in which drivers gambled on late-race strategies with uninhibited abandon. When the checkers waved over Richmond last week, the playoff contenders had recorded 21 of 26 race wins. That trend is likely to continue, because in the past four years of the Chase when 12 drivers have been eligible for the championship, only three of 40 races have been won by non-Chase drivers.

For fantasy owners, this is another bit of positive news because the Chase contenders won't be able to gamble as wantonly as they did during the regular season. During the final 10 races of the year since NASCAR went to a 12-man Chase in 2007, 73.5 percent of the top-five spots have gone to Chase contenders on average, which means that fantasy owners know precisely where to look for their favorites.

The Favorites

If the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks are indeed critical to Chase success this season, Kurt Busch is going to be a factor. He remains the only driver in the field with a perfect record of top-10s in the six races run so far at Vegas, Texas, Charlotte, Kansas, Kentucky, and Atlanta. Three of those tracks host their second event during the Chase, and this week's venue of Chicagoland has a lot of similarities to Kansas. Busch seems to thrive on controversy and his escalating feud with Jimmie Johnson will provide the team and driver with added incentive to beat them on the track. The bad blood may boil over later in the Chase if one or the other is mathematically eliminated from contention, but for now owners should look for them to give one another a lot of room on the track.

Busch has more top-10s, but Carl Edwards has been stronger overall on the cookie-cutter courses with five top-fives in six starts this season. One of these was a victory in the Kobalt Tools 400 at Vegas and while he hasn't won again since that early-season race, he finished fifth at Kansas, Kentucky, and Atlanta. NASCAR's new points system featuring one-point differences between each position through the field is liable to reward consistent top-10 results. The teams know this as well and they will be striving for reliability as well as strength. It only takes a little luck to turn consistent top-five finishes into victories and the winner of the Chase will almost certainly win at least one of the races on those 1.5-mile tracks.

Now that the pressure of making the Chase is off his shoulders, Tony Stewart will shine and it's not out of the question that his first victory of the season will come this week in the Geico 400. He was involved in an accident 10 laps from the end of the inaugural race on this track and he has one other poor finish to his credit, but every other result in the 10 races held at Chicagoland has been a top-10. In fact, seven of those eight ended in top-five finishes -- including victories in 2004 and 2007. Last week, Stewart complained incessantly about the lack of originality in the media's questions and the best way to get them talking about something else is to win a race.


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Jeff Gordon has been almost as consistently strong at Chicagoland as Stewart and he brings more current momentum to the track. Perhaps he should be one of the favorites, but fantasy owners might worry a little that he peaked too soon at the end of the regular season. If intuition has failed you in 2011 and numbers are more important this week, however, the No. 24 team's record on this track is impressive. Like Stewart, he has only two poor performances on the 1.5-miler. He finished 17th in the inaugural race and was 33rd in 2005. Every other result has been 11th or better and includes six top-five finishes. One of those ended in a 2006 victory. More important, his past two races on this track and his past three races of the 2011 season have ended in top-fives, which gives him the perfect mix of track performance and recent momentum. He is also the winner of the most recent "cookie-cutter" race at Atlanta.

Johnson will put his feud with Busch on the back burner this week. More than anyone else in the field, he knows that success is the best revenge. He also knows best how to win the Chase with five consecutive championships under his belt. Last year, he dug a big hole for the team in week one of the playoffs with a 25th at New Hampshire, but he finished in the top 10 in every other race to record an average finish of 6.2. Throughout his career, Johnson has accumulated an average of slightly worse than eighth during the 10 races of the Chase and no one else has even cracked the 10th-place mark.


Seeded number one in NASCAR's points standings at the start of this week, Kyle Busch's name is being bandied about as a threat to take the Chase from Johnson, but he's going to have to reverse a negative trend on the cookie-cutter courses to do so. In six races on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks, he has only two top-15 finishes and an average of worse than 20th. Of course, one of these two top-10s was a victory in the inaugural race at Kentucky, which suggests he is capable of defying the odds, but the likelihood of him doing that four times in the last 10 races is immense. Busch has one victory at Chicagoland in 2008, but his last two efforts ended in a 33rd and 17th.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Cookie-cutter tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jimmie Johnson8.86 18.Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.69 34.Bobby Labonte32.62
3.Greg Biffle10.57 19.Jamie McMurray18.07 35.Robby Gordon33.53
4.Carl Edwards10.65 20.Brian Vickers19.15 36.David Starr33.73
5.Tony Stewart10.99 21.Ryan Newman21.16 37.Andy Lally34.34
6.Matt Kenseth11.06 22.Trevor Bayne21.17 38.Landon Cassill36.49
7.Denny Hamlin11.49 23.David Ragan21.59 39.Mike Skinner36.80
8.Kyle Busch11.57 24.Joey Logano22.01 40.Travis Kvapil36.93
9.Kurt Busch12.67 25.Paul Menard22.24 41.Dave Blaney37.36
10.Kasey Kahne14.98 26.A.J. Allmendinger22.50 42.J.J. Yeley37.39
11.Kevin Harvick15.00 27.Brad Keselowski22.66 43.Mike Bliss37.79
12.Juan Montoya15.52 28.Marcos Ambrose24.58 44.T.J. Bell39.00
13.Clint Bowyer16.15 29.Casey Mears28.42 45.Josh Wise39.10
14.David Reutimann16.31 30.David Stremme30.09 46.Michael McDowell39.11
15.Mark Martin16.41 31.Scott Speed30.69 47.Joe Nemechek39.59
16.Jeff Burton16.69 32.Regan Smith31.18 

Kevin Harvick's victory last year may have given the team some momentum, and he shares the points lead with Busch, but he is another driver that will struggle if past performance on this track type is a clear indication. He's run a lot stronger on the "cookie-cutter" courses than the No. 18 and has actually finished in the top 20 in each this year. Unfortunately, at his level fantasy owners want to select drivers capable of winning. Harvick does have one win on this track type in 2011, but that came as the result of a fuel mileage gamble at Charlotte in May and his only other top-10 on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks was a seventh at Atlanta. His average finish on "cookie-cutter" tracks is 12th and that is closer to where fantasy owners can expect him to finish this week.