Fantasy NASCAR Preview: Indianapolis – Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard
Well, I hope everyone enjoyed the off-weekend because we’ll have a race every week for the next four months up until the end of the 2012 NASCAR season. We’re at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, and this can be a tricky place to pick at for some because the series only visits the track once per season. Indy is a 2.5-mile flat track and it can be very difficult to pass here. My rankings after qualifying will be a lot more accurate, so I urge you to check for them over at www.ifantasyrace.com on Saturday afternoon.
During The Last Race At Indianapolis…It turned into a fuel mileage race in the end and it was Paul Menard who kissed the bricks and grabbed his first career Sprint Cup Series win. Jeff Gordon, who had the best driver rating in the race (136.0), followed Menard to the line with Regan Smith, Jamie McMurray, and Matt Kenseth rounding out the top 5. Kasey Kahne started on the outside pole that day and led a race-high 48 laps but ended up finishing 18th after spinning earlier.
Practice Schedule…Everything is happening in two days this weekend, which is a first (I believe) in a while. On Saturday, the drivers will hit the track bright and early (8:30 am) for practice, followed by Happy Hour at 10:30 am. The starting lineup will then be set in the afternoon and be televised at 2:00 pm on ESPN. This week’s race will start around 1:15 pm on Sunday afternoon, and this is the point in the season where ESPN officially takes over so you may want to get the radio ready.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard:
1. Kasey Kahne – If I could see one team going on a run right now and peaking too soon, it would be the #5 team and Kasey Kahne. I’m going out on a limb here putting him at #1, but every single week this car is super fast and capable of winning. And it did, as you probably remember, in Loudon two weeks ago. Kahne’s statistics here at Indianapolis aren’t great (15.9 average finish) but he qualifies well here (7.9 average start) and might have the most momentum of anyone in the garage right now. He had one of the best cars here last season while running for Red Bull but spun late and took himself out of contention (finishing 18th). Kahne finished 4th and 2nd in his first two career starts at this track and it would honestly surprise me if he wasn’t inside the top 5 at the checkered flag on Sunday. Right now, though, I’m saying that Kasey Kahne will kiss the bricks for the first time in his career.
2. Tony Stewart – Steve Addington was able to do decent with Kurt Busch at Indianapolis, so I don’t think that should affect Smoke too much this weekend. This is Stewart’s home track and he has won twice here, most recently in 2007. He has a slight slip-up in 2008 (finishing 23rd) but even with that, Stewart has finished 8th or better in seven of the last eight Brickyard 400s. Statistically, this is his second-best track on the circuit, right behind Watkins Glen. Tony Stewart should be a favorite pick this weekend among many people, and for good reason. That #14 Chevrolet should challenge on Sunday.
3. Jimmie Johnson – Do I really have to go into much detail here? Jimmie Johnson has won three of the last six Brickyard 400s and has started inside the top 3 in three of the last four. This team is solid week in and week out and has just one finish worse than 7th in Sprint Cup action since May (seriously). If you look at Pocono earlier this year, which some people are now comparing to IMS with the re-pave, the #48 finished 4th. You can’t go wrong with picking Johnson this week, but then again when can you? The driver (and team) are just that good.
4. Greg Biffle – I really like that The Biff was able to grab a top 10 at Loudon a couple weeks ago, because I felt like this team was starting to slow down a bit. Indianapolis has been a kind track to Biffle, though–especially recently–and the #16 should be a top 5 car heading into the practices on Saturday morning. In the last four events at this track, Biffle has finished 8th, 4th, 3rd, and 7th and has had an average driver rating of 104.5. He also led 38 laps in the 2010 event. This team has really brought it during qualifying all season and that should pay dividends this weekend.
5. Jeff Gordon – The #24 is strong week in and week out now and Gordon hasn’t finished worse than 6th in the last four “normal” Sprint Cup races (I don’t count Daytona). His stats at his home track are ridiculous, too, so right now I’m considering Gordon a lock for a top 5. Not only has he won on four separate occasions at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but Jeff has finished inside the top 10 in 77.8% of his starts here and inside the top 5 in 55.6% of them. His 476 laps led are by far the most in the series and Gordon has just two finishes worse than 9th over the last eleven years at this track. As I said before, he finished 2nd in this race last year, and it wasn’t because of fuel mileage.
6. Matt Kenseth – The #17 still hasn’t finished worse than 13th since back at Fontana back in March (seriously), and that shouldn’t change this weekend. Even at his bad tracks Kenseth is running well this year, and that’s a good thing because he actually runs pretty decent here at Indianapolis. In twelve career starts here, Matt has an average finish of 14.3 and has racked up five top 5s–the most recent coming last year, when Kenseth finished 5th. That makes it six finishes of 12th or better in the last seven Indianapolis races for the 2003 champ. If you believe what some people say and think Pocono compares to Indianapolis with the repave, remember that the #17 finished 7th earlier this year at The Tricky Triangle. There’s no doubt in my mind that Kenseth with be fast again on Sunday. That statement is almost becoming too repetitive this season.
7. Denny Hamlin – I think this driver and team will be coming out of the gates hot from last week and will be looking for vengeance. Hamlin has been hit-or-miss over the past two months, though, so make sure the #11 is fast in practice. When I say hit-or-miss, I’m talking about the five top 5 finishes compared to the four finishes of 18th or worse. One thing I like about Hamlin this week is his success at Pocono, which some people are now comparing to Indianapolis. Another thing I like is that he should fly under the radar this weekend: in six starts here at the Brickyard, Denny has an average finish of 18.5, which will scare people away. Don’t forget, though, that Hamlin finished 3rd here in 2008 and grabbed a top 10 in his first start back in 2006. Oh, and don’t forget that he now has Darian Grubb on the pit box, who never finished worse than 6th with Tony Stewart at this track. I’m warning you now: don’t brush off the #11 right off the bat this week.
8. Kevin Harvick – Indianapolis has been a very good track for Kevin Harvick, and it is actually his second-best on the circuit (statistics-wise), but this team just seems to be off a little bit every week to me. There’s no doubt in my mind that the #29 will be in the running for a solid top 10 on Sunday, but I don’t see them getting much more than that. In eleven career starts here, Harvick owns an average finish of 10.0 and even won the race from the pole here back in 2003. What I really like is that in nine of his eleven starts here, “Happy” has ended up 11th or better. When you take out his 37th-place finish here back in 2008, Kevin’s average finish jumps to 7.3. Statistically, no one has been better on the flat tracks since the beginning of the 2010 season than Kevin Harvick.
9. Mark Martin – As I’m typing this, the weather forecast for Sunday is calling for a high of around 90 degrees, and that means one thing: more pressure on those engines. This race is 500 miles long and Mark Martin has a tendency to over-do it in practice. I don’t think that it is any coincidence that Martin has had three engine failures in his last seven races. That’s just something to think about. Anyway, barring any mechanical failures, the #55 will no doubt be a good pick this weekend. Although he has never won here at the Brickyard, Martin owns an average finish of 12.9 and has scored top 10 finishes in eleven of his eighteen starts. What’s even better is that he hasn’t finished worse than 11th at this track since 2004. Qualifying will be very important this weekend and Martin has been a qualifying machine all year. He finished 2nd at Pocono earlier this year, a track some compare to Indianapolis.
10. Brad Keselowski – Typically I’m reminding people not to look too much into BK’s past at a certain track, but he hasn’t fared too bad at Indianapolis. In two starts here, Keselowski has finished 19th and 9th, and he even led eleven laps in last year’s event. This team is proving many people–myself included–that their Chase birth last year was no fluke, and you have to consider the Blue Deuce a threat pretty much every week. Over the last eight Sprint Cup races, Keselowski has just one finish worse than 13th, and he’s on a three-race streak of top 10s with that 5th-place finish in Loudon a couple weeks ago. He’s definitely someone to keep an eye on this weekend.
11. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – His record here is pretty tough to look at, but this is the new and improved Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and like Brad Keselowski it’d hard to look at his past and go completely off of it. Junior has made twelve career starts at this historic race track and has come away with only two top 10s and an average finish of 21.7. What’s even more scary is that he has completed only 91.8% of the laps ran. Still, how can you go against this team? You really can’t. Earnhardt finished 4th last week at Loudon–his fifth finish of 6th or better in the last eight races–and ended up 8th at Pocono earlier this year, which some people compare to Indy. It’s hard to recommend a guy at one of his worst tracks on the circuit but Earnhardt is an exception to that rule right now.
12. Clint Bowyer – This is actually Clint Bowyer’s fifth-best track on the circuit, and he also owns the fifth-best average finish of everyone in the series at Indianapolis. In six career starts here, Bowyer has gathered two 4th-place finishes and has yet to finish outside of the top 20. When you look at the last two flat track races–New Hampshire and Pocono–the #15 ended up 3rd and 6th. Not too bad. It also doesn’t hurt that Bowyer has five single-digit finishes in the last seven Sprint Cup races. This team has been putting up solid qualifying efforts lately (that’s important here) and having Mark Martin as a teammate to learn from can only help Bowyer. Believe it or not, Clint is one of only seven drivers this year with at least ten top 10s. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him get number eleven here on Sunday.
13. Joey Logano – Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a really unique track, and not very similar to any of the others that the Sprint Cup Series visits. However, it is a flat track, and when you look at the other flat track–according to driveraverages.com–races this season (Phoenix, Pocono, New Hampshire), Joey has finished 10th, 1st, and 14th. At Indianapolis specifically, he has an average finish of 15.3 in three career starts and his best finish has been 9th (2010). What I really like is how this team has been running over the past month and a half: Logano has finished 14th or better in five of the last seven Sprint Cup Series races.
14. Carl Edwards – Well in case you haven’t been around for the last week, Cousin Carl has a new crew chief because Bob Osbourne stepped down. Click here to read who the new guy is. Even with the change, though, I’m not expecting much out of the #99 this weekend. This just isn’t their year, and there’s no reason to think it’s going to turn around at a track like Indianapolis. Edwards actually has the fourth-best average finish in the series here (11.0) and has grabbed a top 10 in each of the “even” years that he’s raced here in the Cup series–2006, 2008, and 2010. Will that continue on Sunday? I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s possible I guess. Carl’s average starting position at Indy over seven races has been 24.9.
15. Jamie McMurray – No one has been better (average finish-wise) over the past two season at Indy than Jamie Mac. He won the race in 2010 and finished 4th last season. McMurray stumbled a bit here in 2009, finishing 21st, but in 2008 he ended up 6th with a driver rating of 102.1. He’s going to be a sleeper pick for many people on Sunday, and for good reason. But one thing that discourages me from picking the #1 this week is how terrible they have been at qualifying this season. McMurray’s average starting position in 2012 thus far is 21.7, and as you know qualifying will be very important this weekend. If Jamie starts in the top 10 on Sunday, I’d give him the green light; in his three starts inside the top 10 at this track, McMurray has finished 7th, 6th, and 1st.
Note: If Juan Montoya can put a whole race together, he could challenge for the win this weekend. He’s generally real fast here but something happens in the end (surprising, right?). Also, Trevor Bayne is scheduled to race this weekend in the #21 Wood Brothers’ Ford.
Those To Avoid Entering The Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard:
Marcos Ambrose – This one is pretty easy. In four career starts here, the Tasmanian’s best finish has been 21st and he hasn’t had a driver rating over 67.7. Don’t expect Ambrose to learn how to run this place overnight. The #9 team may be running pretty well here as of late but that doesn’t even make me want to consider Marcos a sleeper this week. I’ll be surprised if he is in the top 10 at all during the race on Sunday.
Ryan Newman - I’m still surprised that not many people are mentioning just how mediocre this team has been all season long. Newman will finish in the teens on Sunday but that’s not what I want out of my fantasy racers. He sports an impressive 7.6 average start at Indianapolis but when you compare that to Ryan’s 20.2 average finish, it definitely makes you think again. He hasn’t had a top 10 at this track since 2002, although Newman has finished between 12th and 17th in each of the last four races here. I’d expect something similar out of the #39 on Sunday.
Martin Truex, Jr. - Okay, Martin, time to prove the racing world wrong. This team has impressed all season, and if Truex can have a good run here at Indianapolis on Sunday, he may finally show me that he is a legitimate Sprint Cup Series driver. In seven career starts at this track, Martin has an average finish of 23.4 and has zero top 10s. Another thing that I don’t like is that his best driver rating during a race here has been just 83.2. I’d be surprised if the #56 team finished in the top 10 on Sunday, but then again they have been surprising me week in and week out all year.