Fantasy NASCAR Preview: Charlotte – Coca-Cola 600
If you have found the intermediate track races to be boring in 2012, I hope you’re prepared for this week’s event, as it may be the most difficult one to get through. Oh, and Danica is racing again, so be prepared to see a whole bunch of Go Daddy green on Saturday night. At 600 miles, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is the longest race of the NASCAR season. This track is a 1.5-mile “cookie cutter” and no one is really dominant here on a consistent basis (as in an average finish in the single digits). I’m expecting big nights out of both Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing on Sunday night.
Fact of the Track: Qualifying well here can be very beneficial. Over the last three years (six points-paying races), 45% of the drivers that started in the top 10 also finished there. In that same time span, the pole winner has an average finish of 10.3.
During The Last Race At Charlotte: Matt Kenseth started on the outside pole here last fall and didn’t really look back from there. The #17 Ford lead for 46 of the 334 laps and had an average running position of 3rd en route to Kenseth’s second career points-paying victory at this track. Kyle Busch, who led a race-high 111 laps, finished 2nd, followed by Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, and Marcos Ambrose, who rounded out the top 5. Pole sitter Tony Stewart led 94 laps but ended up finishing 8th.
Practice Schedule: With this week’s racing being on Sunday night, the practice schedule is a bit different than normal. What’s good is that we get to see the cars on the track after qualifying, although it will be a lot earlier than the scheduled race time, and thus have different track conditions. On Thursday, there is one practice session (at 3:30 pm) before qualifying at 7:00 pm. The cars won’t see the track on Friday, but will have two sessions on Saturday–the first beginning at 10:00 am and Happy Hour starting at 1:00 pm. After that, this year’s Coca-Cola 600 should start around 6:30 pm on Sunday evening. For those that play Yahoo! Auto Racing: rosters are due at 5:00 am on Thursday morning.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Coca-Cola 600:
1. Jimmie Johnson – I’m going to take a wild guess here and say that Five Time will be on everyone’s radars this weekend, and for good reason. Keep this team on your roster until further notice; it’s crazy how red-hot Johnson and company are right now. Furthermore, the #48 team’s record on the intermediate tracks this season is by far the best. Johnson has finished in the top 3 in four of those five races and has an average driver rating of 124.4 (chart here). As you probably know, Jimmie won the All-Star race last Saturday, and he has six career points-paying victories here. Back when this track was named Lowe’s Motor Speedway, the #48 was dominant to say the least. Another interesting tidbit? The winner of the All Star race in the last two even years (2010 and 2008) has also gone on to win the Coca-Cola 600. I’m already considering him a lock for a top 5.
2. Kasey Kahne – I seriously think Johnson’s hot streak is overshadowing Kasey Kahne’s awesome run over the last two months: since Texas in April, the #5 Chevrolet hasn’t finished worse than 9th. Surprised? Now that Five Time has a victory under his belt, I think he can go on a streak of race wins, but the newest member of Hendrick Motorsports can do the same. Charlotte is Kasey’s best track on the circuit (statistically) and he has posted three victories in sixteen career starts at this track. As I said before, Kahne finished 4th here last fall while driving for Red Bull, and he led 28 laps in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 despite finishing 22nd. What’s most impressive to me is that Kahne has led 711 total laps here in his sixteen career starts. That’s more than Tony Stewart (695) and Jeff Gordon (672), who have twenty-six and thirty-eight career starts here, respectively. This team is firing on all cylinders and is on the verge of grabbing their first win. Will it be on Sunday night?
3. Matt Kenseth – What’s not to like about Kenseth this weekend? In the last two races at 1.5-mile racetracks, the #17 has ended up in 5th and 4th, and he almost won the joke format of the All-Star race last Saturday. Oh yeah, Matt is the most recent winner at this race track (points-paying events considered) and has been the fifth-best on the intermediate tracks this season in terms of average driver rating (click here for that chart). Kenseth finished 14th in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600, but led 103 laps that night and was a top 10 car for most of the race (Yahoo! chart here). Also, in the last six points-paying races at Charlotte, Matt has recorded five top 10s and his worst finish was that aforementioned 14th. Kenseth should be in contention to win his third career race at this track on Sunday night.
4. Kyle Busch – If I were to tell you that the driver that has led a combined 592 laps in five of the last six events at this track has never won here, would you believe me? Well, you’re looking at him. Kyle Busch has single-digit finishes down the board at Charlotte (see here) but hasn’t been able to close the deal in sixteen career starts at this track. It’s only a matter of time before that happens, and Sunday may be the night, as I also expect the #18 Toyota to be in contention at the end. Kyle has been less-than-stellar on the 1.5-mile racetracks this season (chart here), but I’m not too worried about it. He finished 4th in last weekend’s All-Star race after the team tweaked on the car to make it right. I expect this team to turn around their performance on the 1.5-mile racetracks this weekend, but if this Toyota looks a little off during practice, you may want to keep him on the bench in favor of Johnson or Kenseth. It’s hard to not like Busch’s average running position of 8.8 in the last four races at Charlotte, though.
5. Martin Truex, Jr. – His success during the 2012 season doesn’t warrant Truex, Jr. to be named a dark horse this week, but his record at Charlotte Motor Speedway does: in thirteen career starts here, Martin has finished inside the top 10 just twice and owns a 19.9 average finish. Ouch. I’m not too worried about that, though, and the #56 Toyota is my sleeper of the week. His average finish here is worrisome, no doubt, but let’s look into Truex’s history here a little further. He’s been good on the shorter races (Showdown/All-Star events) but then disappoints in the longer ones. Martin won the Showdown race in 2010 then went on to finish 2nd in the All-Star race later that night. In 2007, he also won the Showdown, and ended up 10th in the All-Star. I think part of the reason for Truex’s lack of success in the larger races–particularly the Coke 600–may be due to Michael Waltrip Racing‘s lack of solid equipment. In 2012, though, MWR has taken a huge step forward, and that can be seen on their intermediate track success. Specifically, Truex has the 4th-best average finish (7.6) on them this year with the 3rd-best average driver rating (111.9). I hope Chad Johnston can start making some better calls on the pit box soon, though. Truex should have visited victory lane already in 2012.
6. Greg Biffle – Try to put The Biff’s somewhat-lackluster performance in Darlington out of your mind, because the #16 team should be on top of their game again this weekend. Roush-Fenway Racing was testing engines during the All-Star Race and the one under Biffle’s hood blew after a little over 2/3rds of the race was complete. Not to worry, though, because they won’t be doing that this weekend. On the intermediate tracks this season, Greg has an average finish of 5.4 (chart here) and has yet to have a race with a driver rating under 100 (chart here). At Charlotte, Biffle hasn’t been great, but he’s led laps, which I like. He finished 13th and 15th here last season, leading 50 and 68 laps in those races, respectively. The Biff has just six top 10s in eighteen career starts at this track, but this team has been fast all year and that shouldn’t change this weekend. Statistically, this is his sixth-worst track on the circuit, but I’m looking past that for now. If this team looks a litle off in practice, though, Biffle will probably tumble in my final rankings, so be sure to check after Happy Hour over on ifantasyrace.com.
7. Denny Hamlin – Denny may finish outside the top 10 more often than he finishes inside it at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but I wouldn’t let that keep you from picking him this weekend. This team now has four top 6 finishes in the last six Sprint Cup series races and this is a track that Hamlin runs well at and, unless he has trouble, comes away with solid points for fantasy owners. He finished 10th in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 and followed that up with a solid 9th-place effort in the fall race. That makes three straight top 10s for him at Charlotte. I never found out what happened in the All-Star race to give Denny his 20th-place finish, but he did lead 16 laps that night, so that’s promising. This team also hasn’t finished worse than 12th in the last four intermediate track races (chart here). Hamlin has been in the top 15 for 77.1% of the last four points-paying events at this track, which is third-best in the series. Make sure the #11 looks great in practice before taking Denny over the other “big dogs” this weekend.
8. Carl Edwards – The #99 was also one of the Roush-Fenway Fords testing engines so don’t be alarmed about Edwards blowing up during the All-Star race. Statistically, Carl is the third-best driver in the series at this track, with an average finish of 12.6 and eight top 10 finishes in fourteen career starts. What’s even better about Edwards is that he has just two finishes outside of the top 20 in his career here. On the intermediate tracks in 2012, Carl Edwards hasn’t finished outside of the top 10 (chart here) despite having just the 11th-best average driver rating on them (chart here). As I’ve said for a few weeks now, I’m waiting for this team to really break out, but I don’t see this weekend being the time for them to do so. With his seventh top 10 of the season in Darlington, though, I have to ask the question: is Carl Edwards over his “hangover” from the 2011 season? Click here to vote.
9. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Junior was incredible during the All-Star weekend, and that is the main reason why he’s getting ranked in the 9th spot going into the Coca-Cola 600. He led every lap in the Showdown race and then came up through the field in the All-Star race, won a segment, and finished 5th. He said they learned a lot and I believe him. In this event last season, Junior and his crew were up and down all night (chart here) and gambled on fuel at the end but came up just a little short, finishing 7th. Before that, Earnhardt had an average finish of 33rd in the five points-paying events at Charlotte from 2008 through 2010. He got back to his abysmal ways in the 2011 fall race here, finishing 19th after starting 15th. This team has posted top 10 finishes in all of the 1.5-mile races this season, though, and I’m expecting another one on Sunday night.
10. Kevin Harvick – Over the last two seasons (four points-paying races), nobody in the series has an average finish better than Kevin Harvick. He also spend the second-most time in the top 15 over those four events. Happy won the 2011 Coke 600 after Dale Junior ran out of fuel and backed that up with a solid 6th-place finish in the fall. This team has also been solid on the intermediate tracks in 2012, posting the seventh-best average finish (chart here) and the eight-best average driver rating (chart here). Harvick was pretty solid in the All-Star race and finished 6th behind the #88. I’m expecting a top 10 finish at the least out of Harvick and the #29 crew on Sunday evening. Let’s just hope he doesn’t ram into his teammate again.
11. Tony Stewart – This team has been so hit or miss this season that it’s hard for me to rank Smoke very high going into the weekend, especially at a track that is his fourth-worst on the circuit (statistically). In twenty-six career starts here, Stewart has notched twelve top 10s and one victory (in 2003). His average finish here is 13.6 and in the All-Star Race, Tony hit the wall early and never really recovered, ending up 17th out of the twenty-three cars. In the last two events at 1.5-mile racetracks (Texas and Kansas), the #14 ended up 24th and 13th, and in the last four Coca-Cola 600s, Stewart hasn’t finished better than 15th. He surprised a bunch of people in Darlington a couple weeks ago, though, so I wouldn’t put it past this team to put up an unsuspecting good run in Charlotte this weekend.
12. Brad Keselowski – I think Brad Keselowski is poised to have a career night at Charlotte on Sunday. His best finish thus far in five career starts has been 12th, and that came while driving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2009. The Blue Deuce has been either real good or real bad on the intermediate tracks in 2012, but the real bad finishes have came from faulty equipment. I personally think that Penske has that problem figured out, though, and I’m not worried about it. BK drove up from near the rear of the field in the All-Star race to win a segment and wound up finishing 2nd. Unlike the other Penske Dodge, Keselowski and crew generally make the right calls and can put the Blue Deuce in contention at the end. Brad sat on the pole for the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 and was a top 10 car all night before finishing a disappointing 19th. He has just one finish outside of the top 20 here in his career.
13. Joey Logano – As I said before, I’m expecting a big night out of Joe Gibbs Racing, and Logano is no exception. His record here at Charlotte is very good: in six career starts, Joey has never ended up worse than 13th and owns an average finish of 8.2. This team hasn’t ran particularly well on the intermediate tracks this season, but they’ve gotten into position to get the finishes. At Las Vegas and Kansas (both 1.5-mile tracks), the #20 finished 16th and 15th, respectively, and Sliced Bread got his third top 10 of the season in Darlington a couple of weeks ago. He has disappointed all season, but if there’s any track that I would trust Logano at, it’d be Charlotte. It’s by far his best track on the circuit.
14. Mark Martin – After this team’s let down in Darlington, many fantasy racers are probably going to be a little cautious with Martin and the #55 team this weekend (myself included). He’s led over 1,000 laps here at Charlotte Motor Speedway but hasn’t led more than nine in a single event here since 2006. Mark started 13th in both races here last season and finished 34th and 37th. I wasn’t too impressed with him in the All-Star race, either. This ranking is banking on this team getting back to their “normal 2012″ form this weekend. However, if he looks bad in practice once again, expect Martin to make his way onto my “Avoid” list.
15. Marcos Ambrose – There are a few things I like about Marcos Ambrose this weekend, and I consider him my number two sleeper right now. First, he’s been pretty consistent on the intermediate tracks this year–just check out this chart. Second, Richard Petty Motorsports has been good at Charlotte recently, including Marcos’ 6th and 5th-place finishes here in 2011. Finally, Ambrose looked pretty solid in the All-Star Race on Saturday night, ending up in 7th after starting 18th. With an average finish of 18.5, this is (statistically) Marcos’ eight-best track on the circuit. I’m expecting at least a teens finish out of the #9 team this Sunday.
Just Missed The Top Fifteen:
Aric Almirola - The Petty Fords were pretty good here last year (as in both Marcos Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger posted top 10s in each event) and I think we may see a decent run out of the #43 team this weekend (as long as Kurt Busch doesn’t get some kind of pay-back for Darlington). Aric’s best intermediate finish came two weeks ago in Darlington (19th) and he finished 7th in the Showdown race last Saturday. In Yahoo!, Almirola will probably be my backup if I don’t want to start Trevor Bayne.
Trevor Bayne - He’s going to be the most popular pick in the Yahoo! C Group this week with so many people saving starts on drivers that race every weekend. Trevor started 10th and finished 31st in his only Sprint Cup start at Charlotte last season and finished 15th in The Showdown last Saturday (I think I remember him hitting the wall). What’s somewhat re-assuring for those who pick Bayne this weekend is that Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. finished 11th in this car in the 2011 Coke 600.
A.J. Allmendinger - If you’re looking for a long-shot dark horse pick with potential for qualifying bonus points, look no further than the Double Deuce. A.J. has been great at qualifying over the last month and has started in the top 4 in each of the last three points-paying races here at Charlotte. He also won the pole for the Showdown last weekend and finished 2nd after an early pit stop. It would take a lot for me to start Allmendinger this weekend, though (click here to see his average finish on the intermediate tracks in 2012).
Those To Avoid Entering The Coca-Cola 600:
Ryan Newman - There’s still a little animosity with me towards Newman from Darlington, but that’s only a fraction of the reason that I won’t be picking him this weekend. He may make my roster, but that’s only for the possibility of qualifying bonus points. Newman now has three straight finishes of 20th or worse on the intermediate tracks, and his driver ratings on them this season haven’t been too impressive, either (check out this chart here). At Charlotte, The Rocketman owns an average career finish of 20.4 and has recorded only eight top 10s in twenty-two career starts here. Ryan also hasn’t had a triple-digit driver rating in a points-paying race at this track since 2005.
Kurt Busch - We all knew it was only a matter of time before Kurt Busch went off. Yes, he’s had some good runs over the last few weeks, but I ask one simple question: why take the risk in picking him? Also, 600 miles means that there’s more opportunities for equipment to fail, the #51 crew to make a mistake, or even Kurt to go crazy. Landon Cassill finished 28th with this car in the 2011 Coke 600. I’d be surprised if Busch finished on the lead lap on Sunday night.
Jeff Gordon - Well, what’s going to happen to the #24 this weekend? As Gordon said a couple of weeks ago, it’s comical how much bad luck this team has encountered this season. Again, as with Kurt Busch, why take the risk? Gordon is going to turn his season around soon enough, but until then you won’t see him on my rosters. In the last three points-paying races at Charlotte, Jeff hasn’t finished better than 20th, despite starting 1st and 11th in two of them. Gordon finished 13th in the All-Star race last weekend.