News & Media

Fantasy Preview: Small group of drivers dominant at Phoenix

February 29, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM,

The most amazing part of the incidents in the Daytona 500 was the general lack of surprise by all concerned. Certainly no one foresaw a fiery crash with a jet dryer or an unlikely quartet of drivers leading the race when that happened, but faithful fans of this sport have learned to expect the unexpected at Daytona. Fantasy players who watched the real time updates on the NASCAR.COM Fantasy Live game saw their team surge and wane just like the drivers in the field and they knew the race eventually would reach the checkered flag and a winner would be crowned.

In a race that often is defined by dark horses, the top 10 finishers were all big-name drivers -- at least where plate tracks are concerned. Paradoxically, this race ended up being unpredictable because predictable drivers finished well.

Now the series rolls into Arizona and Phoenix International Raceway and fantasy owners should get a little respite. The short, flat courses are often the easiest to handicap because a small group of drivers dominate that track type. Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing place their drivers at the top of the finishing order on minimally banked tracks measuring 1 mile or less in length more often than any other organization and they will provide a deep pool from which to select.

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The Favorites

Since winning the 2006 Daytona 500, Jimmie Johnson has fallen into a deep morass at the beginning of each season. In five previous starts, he failed to crack the top 25 and hoped this year would be different. It wasn't. Just past the flag stand at the completion of Lap 1, he got bumped out of the groove and into the frontstretch wall. His car was collected by several cars and the damage was too severe to try and get him back into the race. Johnson has experience overcoming this kind of hardship, however, and he will rebound immediately at Phoenix. To say this is one of his best tracks is an understatement. With a career average finish of 5.4 in 17 starts, he is only better at Fontana. His consistency on this track is legendary with a perfect record of top-15 finishes. Until last year, he had finished on the lead lap in every Cup race on Phoenix's 1-mile oval and there is no reason he should not be on every player's roster.

Ryan Newman's streak at Phoenix is not as long as Johnson's, but it is equally impressive. When Jeff Gordon hesitated on a late-race restart in spring 2010, he pounced and led the field back to the checkers for the first win of his career on this track. He finished in the runner-up position later that fall and swept the top five last year. One of the closest comparatives to Phoenix is the 1-mile flat track of New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Newman scored a victory there last year. Dollar for dollar, he is one of the best values this week.

Newman's teammate, Tony Stewart, also graces the top of the list this week. While his current Phoenix top-10 streak is made up of only two races with a seventh last spring and a third in the fall, he makes up for that with a nearly perfect record of top-10s on short, flat tracks. In eight races at Martinsville, Richmond, New Hampshire and Phoenix in 2011 Stewart won twice, finished second or third on two occasions and failed to crack the top 10 only once. If one discounts his single bad race at Martinsville in the spring, he had an average finish of 4.3 on this track type. The only niggling concern is his record on these tracks in 2010, when he posted only one top-10 and had an average finish of 19.4.

Dark Horses

Given his troubles during most of the 2010 and '11 seasons, it is difficult to make Jeff Burton a favorite just yet, but signs are beginning to be promising. He ended last year with as much momentum as anyone except Stewart and Carl Edwards. In the final five races of the season, he scored his first top-10 on an oval in more than a year, at Talladega, and immediately backed it up with three more strong runs. Daytona can be a momentum killer, but Burton stayed out of trouble and finished fifth with an undamaged car. The short, flat tracks have been kind to him in the past; in fact, he's won at Martinsville, Richmond and New Hampshire as well as in back-to-back races at Phoenix in 2000 and '01. If he fits your roster, he is worth his salary cap.

Denny Hamlin should be one of the favorites, but his 2011 season on short, flat tracks measuring a mile or less in length left something to be desired. Based on past success, he should have swept the top 10, but he managed only four such finishes. Three of the remaining races ended in results of 11th or 12th, which left him with only one truly bad result, but so much more has come to be expected of the No. 11 team. With momentum on his side following his fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500, he could crack the top 10 this week, and if he does so it will be his first in Phoenix since fall 2009.


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Roush-Fenway Racing is not typically strong on short, flat tracks, so Matt Kenseth needs to relish his victory from last week. He is too good a driver to keep out of the top 10 entirely, but that has become the recent exception to the rule at Phoenix. His past four seasons at that track have been largely forgettable with a sixth and seventh in 2010 compared to no other top-10s since 2007. During the past four seasons, he has an average finish of slightly better than 20th. Fantasy owners can expect more than that out of him this week, but there are better places to spend their money.

Kenseth and Greg Biffle worked so well together in last week's Daytona 500 that many thought they would separate from the field and settle the contest among them. A 1-2 finish seemed imminent until Dale Earnhardt Jr. swept around the No. 16 and grabbed second at the line. Both drivers are likely to run near one another again this week, but they will contend for a mid-pack finish. In his past four seasons, Biffle hasn't been terrible at Phoenix, but he also hasn't turned a lot of heads. His average finish of 12.3 might be acceptable if he was a bargain in salary-cap games, but fantasy owners don't want to rearrange their roster to accommodate this Roushketeer.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Short, flat tracks (past three years):

1. Jeff Gordon 7.27 (Power Average); 2. Jimmie Johnson 7.86; 3. Denny Hamlin 8.54; 4. Kyle Busch 8.89; 5. Ryan Newman 10.42; 6. Tony Stewart 11.00; 7. Clint Bowyer 12.22; 8. Kurt Busch 12.37; 9. Jeff Burton 12.90; 10. Juan Montoya 12.92.

11. Carl Edwards 13.11; 12. Mark Martin 13.16; 13. Kevin Harvick 13.66; 14. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 17.31; 15. A.J. Allmendinger 17.87; 16. David Reutimann 18.04; 17. Martin Truex Jr. 18.09; 18. Matt Kenseth 19.27; 19. Kasey Kahne 19.30; 20. Greg Biffle 19.59.

21. Jamie McMurray 19.65; 22. Brad Keselowski 20.77; 23. Joey Logano 21.02; 24. Marcos Ambrose 22.94; 25. David Ragan 26.40; 26. Casey Mears 28.06; 27. Paul Menard 28.76; 28. Regan Smith 29.48; 29. Aric Almirola 30.39; 30. Bobby Labonte 30.53.

31. Brendan Gaughan 31.31; 32. David Stremme 31.76; 33. Robby Gordon 33.28; 34. David Gilliland 34.27; 35. Josh Wise 35.13; 36. J.J. Yeley 36.69; 37. Travis Kvapil 36.82; 38. Scott Riggs 36.91; 39. Landon Cassill 37.01; 40. Dave Blaney 37.05.

41. Michael McDowell 38.38; 42. Joe Nemechek 38.85; 43. Terry Labonte 41.53

The Power Average is the average finish during the past three years, 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. For example a driver who has led the most laps receives a hypothetical first-place finish, the driver who leads the second most laps receives a hypothetical second-place finish, and so on. This rewards drivers who competed at the front of the pack for the majority of the race, even if an unfortunate event takes them out of contention at the very end of the race. A driver's recent record in the support series also is factored in, as is his average running position as provided by NASCAR Statistical Services. Failures to qualify are credited to the driver as if they were a finishing position (i.e. the first non-qualifier is assigned a 44th-place finish).

* Power Rankings: Phoenix