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'Cookie-cutter' consistency works for Kentucky

June 28, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to,

Johnson, Junior should be strong choices on the 1.5-mile set up

NASCAR gets back to its origins this week, but the roots are twisted. Drivers leave the serpentine road course of Sonoma and head back into the Deep South to race on one of the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks that dominate the schedule. In total, 10 races are run on seven tracks that look remarkably similar from the air, so teams focus the bulk of their effort on Atlanta, Charlotte, Texas, Las Vegas, Kansas, Chicagoland, and Kentucky. The twist is that none of these so-called "cookie-cutter" tracks are exactly the same and this is only the second time in NASCAR's history that the senior series will visit Kentucky Speedway.

With 14 degrees of banking, Kentucky is one the flattest of the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks. For that reason, the closest comparative courses would be Chicagoland and Kansas, but even more steeply banked "cookie-cutters" will provide information useful to setting this week's roster. Auto Club Speedway is also banked at 14 degrees, so drivers who ran well there in February and continued to run strong on unrestricted, intermediate speedways since should be highly regarded.

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Shifting sands

Success in NASCAR is built on shifting sands, however. Momentum is tricky and no one knows precisely how it is gained or lost. This year, it has been elusive for all but a handful of drivers. Disregarding Sonoma for the moment, only two drivers enter the weekend with four-race top-10 streaks. That number is important because it includes the last "cookie-cutter" race at Charlotte. That streak is largely responsible for Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s position among the top three in points. Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer finished just outside of the top 10 at Charlotte and have been perfect in regard to top-10s since. Both of them kept their momentum alive with another strong run on the road course last week. Kenseth and Earnhardt finished deeper in the pack, but that won't slow them any this week.

It has been a little easier to develop and maintain momentum on the "cookie-cutter" courses. Five drivers enter the weekend with perfect or near perfect streaks of top-10s this year. Greg Biffle has swept the top five at Vegas, Texas, Kansas, and Charlotte, while Carl Edwards and Earnhardt swept the top 10. Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick both have three top-10s and one 11th-place finish -- fantasy players should concentrate the bulk of their salary cap on this elite group.

There will be some interesting dark horses, however. Last year, Kyle Busch dominated and won this race despite having a generally anemic season-to-date on this track type. Since teams expend so much of their effort on the similarly-configured, 1.5- and two-mile tracks, mid-cap teams are capable of running in the top 20 and with a little luck in the closing laps, they can often advance into the top 10. For example, Martin Truex Jr. finished 17th or better in his four "cookie-cutter" races this season with top-10s at Texas and Kansas.

Finally, there is the nature of this track. Since Kentucky is a new venue, the teams do not have thick notebooks compiled yet; they are still learning its nuances. That is a benefit to younger drivers who are flexible. Busch's victory in last year's edition of the Quaker State 400 is one example, but he was joined in the top 10 by Brad Keselowski, David Reutimann and David Ragan.

This week's strategy could go two ways. Players can set their roster from the top by choosing two marquee drivers who are liable to earn maximum points and then allocate the remainder to low-cap drivers, or they can spread the wealth among mid-cap teams and hope that the aggregate is better than the pieces. In the final tally, both strategies are likely to earn about the same number of points, but spreading the wealth might be slightly less risky. Cup races are unpredictable after all, and one crash or blown engine can make for a very disappointing day.

The Favorites

Currently there are five drivers that cost between $27 and $28 in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game?Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, and Greg Biffle?and as expected, they are the favorites nearly every week. Because the similarly-configured, 1.5- and two-mile tracks make up a third of the schedule, drivers get to the top of the points' standings by mastering this track type. For that reason, it will come as no surprise that these drivers have long streaks of solid runs on the "cookie-cutter" tracks. Even if players decide to employ a strategy of spreading the wealth among mid-cap teams, at least one of these five drivers should be on every roster. For the sake of brevity, this preview will highlight three racers.

Johnson is currently the most expensive driver in the game, but he is well worth the $28 price tag on "cookie-cutter" tracks. His history on that track type is legendary and at one point in his career, he posted 29 top-10s in 34 starts. From the 2003 Samsung/Radio Shack 500 at Texas through the 2007 Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta, he amassed 10 victories on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks and earned another 11 second- or third-place finishes. His circumstances are virtually unchanged since that impressive run. He still has Chad Knaus on the pit box and Hendrick Motorsports is still making just as much horsepower. Last year, he stumbled slightly and his victory at Kansas, a second-place finish at Atlanta, and a third at Kentucky were the only real highlights. This season, he started off the year with second- or third-place results at Vegas, Texas and Kansas. He might have made that a perfect sweep at Charlotte if not for a pit-road penalty, so he has to be the top-ranked driver this week.

On lap 80 of the Coke 600, Kenseth thought he had a flat tire and nursed his car around the track for a while until he could pit with the leaders during a green flag segment. On about lap 225?also during a green flag cycle of stops?he was forced to pit twice for a loose wheel. In light of those setbacks, his 10th-place finish was remarkable. Equally impressive were the five top-fives he earned in the most recent six races on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile courses. The only time he failed to finish with the leaders on this track type in recent races was at Vegas in the Kobalt Tools 400. He was in the middle of a three-wide battle for third with teammates Edwards and Biffle when he crashed with only a handful of laps remaining in that event. No caution waved and he was scored the last car on the lead lap in 22nd. A top-five is well within reach this week.

Biffle seems to have lost a little of his edge in recent weeks, but the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks are a great place for him to sharpen those results. Not only does he have the best record of the three favorites on this track type with a sweep of the top five, but he is also the cheapest of them with a salary cap of $27 and that single dollar bill could make the difference in which mid-cap drivers are activated. Biffle's top-five streak actually extends back to Texas last fall, and it includes a victory in this spring's race in the Lone Star state. His cap value slipped a little in recent weeks due to four finishes outside the top 10 in his latest eight races, but he managed to finish a surprising seventh on the road course last week and enters the Quaker State 400 with back-to-back top-10s for the first time since he last doubled down at Texas and Kansas.


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Carl Edwards gets the distinction of being a dark horse this week largely because of his salary cap. He hasn't been terrible in 2012 with eight top-10s and another three 11th-place results in the first 16 races, but only two of his efforts ended in top-fives. That modest record has contributed to keeping his salary cap under $25, which makes him an affordable marquee driver. Better still, a top-10 is virtually guaranteed this week. From last year's STP 400 at Kansas through this spring's Kobalt Tools 400 at Vegas, he swept the top five in eight starts on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks. His latest three efforts have ended in either eighth- or ninth-place results, which would make him a difficult pick if he was more expensive, but is just about perfect at his level.

It doesn't mean anything yet, but Jeff Gordon earned back-to-back top-10s for the first time this season, with a sixth in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan and another sixth at Sonoma. Neither of these tracks is comparable to what he will face on Saturday night. The nature of road courses and the repaving of Michigan created unique circumstances, but this could be the first glimmer of momentum for the No. 24 all year, and early adapters will want to climb on his bandwagon. Gordon and the team continue to be prone to making mistakes; last week they miscalculated fuel mileage and probably lost a shot at the victory as a result, but he was able to overcome that incident and finish respectably. They have also been hit or miss on the "cookie-cutter" tracks with only one top-five, another top-10, as well as a 12th and 21st. Those modest runs are why he is a dark horse this week, however, and not a favorite.


Before the comments start piling up, remember that this is a fantasy preview and not necessarily a straight-up handicap. Drivers can finish in the top 10 and still be a relatively poor value to game players, and that will be the case with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Quaker State 400. His triumph at Michigan two weeks ago was dramatic and it very well could open a floodgate of victories, but it is more likely that he will continue to be the yeoman driver he has been all year. Earnhardt has swept the top-10 on "cookie-cutter" tracks this season, and has a seventh at Texas last fall to give him five consecutive strong runs on this track type. Unfortunately, none of these have been top-fives and fantasy owners need that to justify his price tag of $27.50 in the NASCAR Live game.

Fantasy Power Ranking

"Cookie-cutter" tracks (past three years)
1.Matt Kenseth8.48 17.Brad Keselowski18.75 33.Landon Cassill33.76
2.Jimmie Johnson8.51 18.Paul Menard18.77 34.Bobby Labonte34.07
3.Greg Biffle9.60 19.Ryan Newman19.30 35.David Gilliland34.31
4.Tony Stewart9.71 20.Marcos Ambrose19.52 36.Travis Kvapil35.85
5.Jeff Gordon11.10 21.Jamie McMurray19.72  37.David Stremme36.04
6.Carl Edwards11.18 22.AJ Allmendinger19.76 38.Mike Bliss36.77
7.Kyle Busch11.76 23.Jeff Burton19.94 39.JJ Yeley36.86
8.Denny Hamlin12.17 24.David Reutimann20.16 40.Ken Schrader37.83
9.Kevin Harvick12.69 25.David Ragan21.48 41.Dave Blaney38.05
10.Kasey Kahne12.80 26.Trevor Bayne22.16 42.Mike Skinner38.20
11.Kurt Busch13.60 27.Joey Logano22.43 43.Michael McDowell38.88
12.Martin Truex Jr.15.78 28.Aric Almirola27.38 44.Josh Wise40.02
13.Clint Bowyer16.17 29.Regan Smith28.09 45.Joe Nemechek40.37
14.Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.34 30.Casey Mears31.80 46.Scott Riggs41.41
15.Mark Martin16.93 31.Michael Waltrip31.82 47.Stephen Leicht42.14
16.Juan Pablo Montoya17.11 32.Scott Speed32.60 

Tony Stewart is not quite as expensive at Earnhardt, but he has also been far less productive. He won the Kobalt Tools 400 when he was still charged by the excitement of winning last year's championship, but his trouble soon began. On the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks, he has finished outside the top 10 in his last three starts -- which is a stark contrast to the way he began the year at Vegas. He also has a little recent momentum on his side after scoring runner-up finishes in back-to-back races at Michigan and Sonoma, as well as a third three weeks ago at Pocono. However, players who like to set their roster by the numbers will also note that he finished in the 20s in three of the four races that immediately preceded that mini-streak and that makes him a risky proposition.