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The 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup is now 40 percent complete and, with his 7th-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, Brad Keselowski now has a 14-point lead over the five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. A wide margin of 23 points separate Keselowski and Chase-favorite Denny Hamlin back in 3rd–or, as the announcers like to say, one half of a race.
It’s probably too early to name a champion, as we do have six full races left on the schedule (six-and-a-half for Hamlin), but barring some kind of catastrophic happening, the Penske driver of the Blue Deuce should be holding that elusive trophy in Homestead in late November. And here’s why: the Chase was decided last Sunday at Talladega.
After the wreck-fest that ended the Good Sam 500 last weekend, the only Chaser to make it across the finish line safely–among those with a reasonable shot at the championship (sorry Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, and Greg Biffle)–was Brad Keselowski, who came home in 7th. Flashback to 2011 and you’ll remember that eventual champion Tony Stewart also finished 7th in the Talladega Chase race. Coincidence? Maybe. But then I did some more research.
During his five-year stretch of championships, from 2006 to 2010, Jimmie Johnson finished in the following places at the second Talladega race: 24th, 2nd, 9th, 6th, and 7th. Tony Stewart, who won the 2006 Cup championship, finished 2nd at Talladega during the Chase, and in the inaugural year of NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, Kurt Busch wound up 8th in the Chase race at the track.
That leaves one number: 8.1–the average finish of the eventual championship winner at Talladega Superspeedway’s race in the Chase. This certainly is a good sign for Brad Keselowski, who exploded onto the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series scene in 2011 and has proven this season that he belongs in the “elite” category of drivers. It’s now up to him to finish this season out and bring home that championship at the end of the year.
Four hundred (hopefully) exciting miles are set to be ran on Sunday in this year’s FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks at “The Monster Mile” in Dover, Delaware. This race track is one-mile long, meaning we’ll see at least 400 laps. Unless NASCAR.com’s Live Leaderboard is down once again this weekend, I think average practice speeds are going to be very integral in making our picks. If a driver doesn’t show up on the ten-lap average charts this weekend, I would highly recommend staying away from them. Starting position is pretty important at Dover as well.
During The Last Race At Dover: Kurt Busch out-ran Mr. “Five Time” Jimmie Johnson and grabbed his second–and ultimately last–win of the 2011 NASCAR season. It was Busch’s first career Sprint Cup win at the track. Carl Edwards, who led for over 1/4th of the race, finished 3rd with Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth rounding out the top 5.
Practice Schedule: For those that also play Yahoo! Auto Racing, we’re lucky this week. Both practice sessions of the weekend are on Friday afternoon (starting at 11:45 am and 2:45 pm) and then qualifying is set to start around noon on Saturday. The green flag on the 2012 FedEx 400 should wave around 1:15 pm on Sunday. I wish we could see the cars on track after qualifying, but that’s not happening.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The FedEx 400:
1. Kyle Busch – I’m looking back at Bristol from earlier this year, but that’s pretty much pointless with Kyle Busch because he was caught up in the early wreck and finished 32nd. However, I remember that the #18 was real fast that weekend, and this team has a very large amount of momentum on their side. Over the last month of Sprint Cup Series action, Busch hasn’t finished worse than 4th, and he’s now on a streak of six-straight finishes of 11th or better in the series. At Dover, Rowdy hasn’t been incredible, but he does have two career victories at the track and has notched nine top 10s in fourteen career starts. His average finish of 13.3 is ninth-best in the series, and Busch owns the best average finish (4.3) over the last two years at this track. His average driver rating over that span (112.8) is third-best. Right now I think we’ll see a bow once the checkered flag waves on Sunday.
2. Jimmie Johnson – I’m still baffled as to how Five Time didn’t lead any laps last weekend, as well as how this team made a mistake (just kidding…kind of). I’m expecting a solid top 5 out of Johnson this weekend in Dover, though, and that shouldn’t really be a surprise. Over the last three years here, Johnson has led an incredible 1,349 laps and his least amount led in one single event was 157. Seriously. Over that span, Jimmie has posted three wins and his worst finish has been 16th, and that only happened because he got a speeding penalty on pit road and had to do a pass-through penalty. Barring any mistake by driver or team this weekend, consider the #48 a lock for a top 5 in Dover on Sunday.
3. Greg Biffle – It’s hard to rank a driver that hasn’t been too great on the short tracks in 2012 this high, but then again it’s real hard to go against a guy that has just one finish worse than 13th this entire season. It also doesn’t hurt that Biffle has had a car capable of winning in each of the last two Sprint Cup races, and he did grab the pole at Bristol earlier this year. Statistically, Dover is actually the third-best track on the circuit for The Biff. From 2006 to 2009–a total of eight events–he never finished worse than 8th, and Greg won the fall event here in 2008. As far as Yahoo! goes, if you have five or less starts with Biffle, I probably wouldn’t start him this weekend, simply because he’s a more solid choice on the intermediates. He does finish inside the top 10 more often than not at The Monster Mile.
4. Matt Kenseth – Yep, all of the Roush-Fenway Fords should be pretty good this weekend. Kenseth has the fourth-best average driver rating over the last two years at Dover and won this event last season after starting 24th. What’s even more impressive is the fact that Matt has recorded seven top 5s in the last eight races at The Monster Mile. His career average finish of 12.2 here is fourth-best in the series and that makes this track Kenseth’s fifth-best on the circuit. Remember, the #17 put up a solid fight to Brad Keselowski in Bristol earlier this year and ended up finishing 2nd. He also finished 4th at Martinsville, the other short track.
5. Kasey Kahne – I’d like to say this this win is going to spark the #5 team and they will go on a run, but let’s be honest: this team has been HOT! Over the last six Sprint Cup series races, Kahne hasn’t finished worse than 8th. Somehow I haven’t heard much about this in the media, as I’m sure there aren’t many other teams that have been that consistent and good over the last month and a half. At Dover specifically, Kahne has been somewhat terrible to say the least. His average finish over sixteen starts here has been 22.6, and Kasey has just one top 5 finish. In six of the last nine races here, Kahne has finished 20th or worse. So how can I rank him 5th? One, the aforementioned momentum, as well as the fact that Kahne finished 4th here last fall after starting 9th. He was also running solidly in the top 10 in this event last season before experiencing engine problems (Yahoo! chart here). Kasey should have no worries about engine problems this weekend.
6. Martin Truex, Jr. – Truex’s sole Sprint Cup win came at this track in a dominating effort in 2007, but surprisingly that has been his only top 5 here in twelve career starts. There are many things that I like this weekend, though, that make me think Martin can notch a second top 5 this weekend, or at least something close. First, he finished 3rd at Bristol earlier this year, and also ended up 5th in that crazy finish at Martinsville. Over the last two years (four races), Truex has led at least one lap in every single race and has won two poles. He also has posted two finishes solidly inside the top 12 over that span and has the ninth-best average driver rating of anyone in the series. We’re now one-third into the 2012 NASCAR season and it’s looking more and more like Truex and the #56 team are the real deal. Can he finally snap the winless streak? Guess we’ll find out soon enough…
7. Carl Edwards – If the #99 looks real good in practice on Friday, expect Concrete Carl to jump up my in my final rankings. He’s been great here over the last two years to say the least. In those four races, Edwards owns an average finish of 5.8 and has the second-best average driver rating in the series (113.8). He’s also one of only two drivers to post top 10 finishes in all of those events. What’s even more impressive is that Carl hasn’t ended up worse than 18th in fifteen career starts here and has recorded single-digit efforts in ten of the last eleven races here. The only one that ruins that streak is his 11th-place effort in 2009, which obviously isn’t terrible. Edwards led 117 and 116 in the two Dover races in the 2011 season. Hopefully this team breaks out soon because I’m sitting on all nine starts with Edwards in Yahoo!
8. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – I don’t know about you, but Junior’s 2012 campaign has been incredible in my mind. This team has been so consistent it almost makes me feel bad about bad-talking NASCAR’s favorite driver over the last few years. He still needs to win a race, though. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening this weekend. In twenty-four career starts at The Monster Mile, Earnhardt has grabbed one victory, but he also has an average finish of just 18.1 and usually only gets a top 10 in one out of four races here. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports, Junior hasn’t been able to finish better than 12th at Dover, but I’m expecting that to change this Sunday. It’s just too hard to go against this team, who has seven top 10s in the last eight Sprint Cup Series races. The #88 ended up in 15th at Bristol earlier this season.
9. A.J. Allmendinger – I’m predicting that this guy will be a hot topic in the fantasy community this week and weekend. Allmendinger has been real good here at Dover over the last two-and-a-half years, but his engine failure in this race last season kind of puts a black eye on his record. However, before that happened, A.J. look well on his way to a top 5 finish and possibly even a win. What I like even more about the Double Deuce this weekend is Dover is that Kurt Busch won in this car last season in the fall event. When you take away his engine failure last year, Allmendinger hasn’t finished worse than 14th at Dover since early 2009 and owns three top 10s over that span of time.
10. Clint Bowyer – With his 13th-place finish in Charlotte last weekend, Bowyer now hasn’t finished worse than there in the last four Sprint Cup Series races, and I don’t expect that to change this weekend. Dover is Clint’s 8th-best track on the circuit, and he ran top 10 in both races here last season while driving for Richard Childress Racing. When you look at Bristol back in March, Bowyer finished 4th in what turned out to be an awesome day for Michael Waltrip Racing. His average finish here of 14.3 is tenth-best in the series and Clint has just two finishes outside of the top 20 in twelve career starts. He’s never posted a top 5 at The Monster Mile, though, and I really don’t see that happening as of now.
11. Brad Keselowski – Remember last weekend in Charlotte when I said to expect a career-best finish out of Keselowski and he followed through with a top 5 finish? That good of a result might not happen again in Dover on Sunday, but I’m expecting another career-best out of BK. In four career starts here, Brad has averaged a finish of 18.3 with a best of 13th, which came in this event last season after he started 9th. What I really like about the Blue Deuce this weekend, though, is that Penske won here last season with Kurt Busch as well as the fact that Keselowski pretty much dominated and won in Bristol earlier this season. He’s slowing become a threat on a week-to-week basis right now. Watch Brad Keselowski in practice on Friday.
12. Denny Hamlin – Denny has had a couple of good runs here at Dover, but there are a lot better picks than him so there’s really no need take him this weekend. He also finished two laps down at Bristol earlier this year so there’s another thing going against the #11 team this week. In twelve career starts here at The Monster Mile, Hamlin owns an average finish of 20.7 (surprised?). He has just four top 10 finishes and has never ended up better than 4th. In the last nine Dover events, Denny has managed two top 10s but in the other seven races he was outside of the top 15 at the checkered flag–including four-straight finishes of 36th or worse from 2007 to 2009. He now has two 2nd-place finishes in a row, though, and four top 5s in the last five Sprint Cup races. If the #11 looks solid in practice, you may want to pick Hamlin based on momentum and weekend speed alone.
13. Ryan Newman - The Rocketman finished 12th at Bristol earlier this year and I think we can expect a similar finish out of the #39 team this weekend in Dover. When it comes to average finish, Newman owns the third-best record at this track (11.5) and he has visited victory lane three different times here. Also, in twenty career starts, Ryan has posted eleven top 10s at The Monster Mile. He finished in the 20s in both events last season, but before that, Newman had a streak of six-straight finishes of 14th or better at Dover. This is actually his best track on the circuit, statistically. However, Newman has no momentum whatsoever: over the last month-and-a-half of Sprint Cup Series action, he hasn’t cracked the top 10 once and his best finish was last week in Charlotte, where Newman came home 14th. He’s going to have to look real good in practice on Friday for The Rocketman to make my fantasy team this weekend.
14. Marcos Ambrose – Sleeper alert! Barring another mechanical failure, I think we’re looking at solid run at Dover out of Marcos Ambrose this weekend. In the two races at The Monster Mile in 2011, Marcos finished 3rd and 9th despite coming into the season with a best finish of 14th at this track. Four of his seven starts at this track have ended with Ambrose in 20th or worse, so make sure you know the risk if you pick him this weekend. Remember, as I said before, Allmendinger was really good here in Petty equipment. I just hope they overcome these mechanical issues soon.
15. Jeff Gordon – Well, how about that–a top 10 from Jeff Gordon. And that was after he looked terrible in practice! I think there’s two routes this team can take this weekend: slip once again or continue the momentum and go on a run. The latter is going to happen sooner or later and fantasy racers always have to be open to sometimes taking a risk and hoping that it is the “sooner”. Over the last two years, Gordon has finished 11th or 12th in three of the four Dover races, and he also has four career victories to his name at The Monster Mile. What I don’t like it that Jeff hasn’t posted a top 5 here since early 2008. My gut is saying stay away from Gordon this week, but then again I know he’s going to have a real good run sometime. If he looks great in practice, I’d take a shot (finally) with the #24 on Sunday.
Those To Avoid Entering The FedEx 400:
Tony Stewart - You should avoid this team simply on the basis of them being so hit or miss this season. It’s crazy to think that Smoke has two victories in the 2012 season but only five top 10s in the twelve races. When you look at his recent finishes at Dover, it gets even more depressing. Stewart’s average driver rating over the last four races here is an abysmal 68.3 and he has an average finish of 21st over that span. He has just four top 10s in the last fourteen races at The Monster Mile. Smoke finished 14th earlier this year in Bristol.
Juan Montoya – On a side-note quick, do you know what’s really impressive? The fact that the Earnhardt-Ganassi Chevrolets can qualify so terribly week-in and week-out yet both of them drive up through the field and get a somewhat respectable finish. I don’t how this keeps happening, but I can remember at least three occurrences, and I’m almost sure there has been more. With that being said, I’d still stay away from Montoya in Dover this weekend. In ten starts here, he has recorded an average finish of 22.9 and has only finished on the lead lap in two of the events. JPM has finished 22nd or worse in three of the last four races here, but I’m expecting a better effort than that on Sunday. However, there are just too many other good picks this weekend. Montoya did finish in the top 10 at Bristol earlier this year, though.
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.
This week the Auto Club 400 will be held at Auto Club Speedway in California, which will be the only event at the track, a tradition started last season after seven straight years of holding two events annually. Auto Club Speedway opened in 1997 and is a D-shaped two-mile oval, most similar to Michigan in my opinion. Expect the same familiar faces up front on Sunday, with maybe one or two surprises in the mix at one point or another. Some may think qualifying is important this week, but I don’t see it that way at all. Over the last two races in Fontana, only 25% of the top 10 starters ended the race here. On top of that, 30% of the top 10 finishers in those two races started outside of the top 20.
During The Last Race At Fontana…Kyle Busch led over 75% of the 200 laps ran in last year’s Auto Club 400, but it was “The Closer” Kevin Harvick who passed Jimmie Johnson on the last lap–in the last turn–to take the victory. Rowdy finished a distant 3rd that day, followed by Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman to round out the top 5. The victory was Harvick’s first at this track in his eighteenth start here.
Practice Schedule…Same schedule as the past two weekends but different times. First practice on Friday at 3:00 pm followed by qualifying Friday evening at 7:00 pm. On Saturday, the second session will start at 12:30 pm and Happy Hour will kick off around 3:30 pm later that day. All times are EST. For those that play Yahoo! Auto Racing, that means rosters will lock before seeing any of the cars on the track.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Auto Club 400:
1. Matt Kenseth – Matty Ice (do people call Kenseth that?) is always a threat on the cookie cutter tracks and he has three victories at Auto Club Speedway–the most recent coming in 2009–to prove that this track isn’t an exception. Kenseth finished 4th in this race last season and has a career average finish of 10th here. What’s even more impressive is that in nineteen career starts at this track, Matt has completed all but two laps out of 4,655. He has just three finishes outside of the top 20, but in two of them he led at least 29 laps, so it’s not like he had a terrible car for the race. At Michigan, Kenseth has three straight top 10s and finished 2nd in the June race last season. Will we see victory number two of 2012 out of the #17 camp this Sunday? Going into the weekend, he’s my pick.
2. Jimmie Johnson – Well, Chad Knaus will be on the pit box this weekend because the suspension was overturned, so expect Johnson’s good run to continue. Furthermore, this is Jimmie’s home track, and his best venue on the schedule, statistically. His record here is ridiculously impressive: seventeen starts, twelve top 5s–five of those being wins–and a worst finish of 16th. Jimmie has led 849 laps at Fontana, which is by far the most of anyone in the series. His run in this race last season was actually kind of an off-day for The Champ: he only led three laps. In the eight races at Auto Club Speedway from 2007 to 2010, Johnson led an average of just under 93 laps per race. Still, he has just one finish outside of the top 3 in the last nine events here, and that was a 9th-place in 2009.
3. Tony Stewart – Smoke is the hottest driver on intermediate tracks and I have no doubt in my mind that h is #14 Chevy will be a force to be reckoned with at Auto Club Speedway this weekend. He won here in 2010 and he had the second-best driver rating in this race last season despite finishing 13th. He had a terrible restart and if there wasn’t that late-race caution, I think Stewart would have finished top 5. In case you have short term memory loss, Tony dominated the race in Las Vegas a couple weeks ago, and he’s been the best driver at Michigan (average finish-wise) in the last two years. Smoke hasn’t finished worse than 13th at Fontana since 2008. That will not change on Sunday.
4. Greg Biffle – First the bad: Biffle hasn’t finished better than 10th at Fontana in the last four events and has led a grand total of zero laps here during that span. Now the good: he’s been great at Michigan (similar track) over that time and has some of the most momentum of anyone in the garage right now, not to mention you can never overlook him (or Roush) when it comes to the cookie cutters. Even though his recent record isn’t great by any means at Auto Club Speedway, Greg did capture a victory here in 2005 and has three other top 5 efforts on top of that in his seventeen career starts. Stick with The Biff!
5. Clint Bowyer – Reach alert! After the race this weekend, I may look back at this ranking of Bowyer and wonder why I put him there, but can we all agree that Michael Waltrip Racing is starting to look more and more like a great race organization? I shrugged Clint’s move there in the off-season off and considered it a downgrade, but I’m starting to re-think that. However, that being said, this is the week that Bowyer will prove to me that it wasn’t. He has made eleven starts at Fontana and has recorded the fourth-best average finish of anyone in the series at this track with 10.6. Clint has never won at Auto Club Speedway, but does own a couple top 5s and has five top 10s in the last six Fontana events. He also hasn’t had a driver rating under 109 in the last three races here.
6. Carl Edwards – I’d like to rank Cousin Carl in the top 5 this week, but I still think this team is off. I know that the #99 got caught up in the early wreck last week in Bristol, but it wasn’t super fast by any means. Edwards grabbed a top 5 at Las Vegas a couple weeks ago, but he didn’t have a top 5 car (his driver rating showed that). I’m really waiting for this team to have a “breakout performance,” if you will, and get over this supposed hangover from losing the championship last season. At Fontana, Carl has a career average finish of 9.0 in fourteen starts and won the race here in 2008. In the last six events, though, he hasn’t finished better than 6th (ironic huh?), but he’s done it three times. What’s even more concerning is Edwards has led just one lap at this track since 2008.
7. Kevin Harvick – I didn’t think it was possible to beat Jimmie Johnson at his best track, but Kevin Harvick proved me wrong last season. He had the sixth-best driver rating at Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago, and I’m expecting “Happy” Harvick to have another top 10 run here in Fontana on Sunday. His win here last season was the first in eighteen career starts at Auto Club Speedway, but that race made it four straight top 10s for Harvick at this track, and six in the last seven races. He hasn’t finished worse than 11th this season thus far and I wouldn’t expect that to change this Sunday.
8. Kyle Busch – If you take Rowdy this week, I’d exercise some caution in doing so. Seriously, who would have expected that happening last weekend in Bristol? Kyle is pretty good at the 2-mile racetracks, as you can tell by his domination in this race last season. He won at Fontana in 2005 and Busch has nine top 10 finishes in fourteen career starts here. At Michigan last year, he finished 3rd and 1st. Not too bad. Kyle struggled at his home track a couple of weeks ago, finishing 23rd, but he did start 2nd in that race. He spun out late in that race but didn’t really have that great of a car in race trim compared to how fast he was in qualifying. Like I said, it will be risky, but Rowdy’s record is pretty good at these type of race tracks recently.
9. Ryan Newman – No Neck Newman has two straight 5th-place finishes at Fontana and has recently been a pretty good pick on these 2-mile ovals (he finished 6th and 5th in the two Michigan races last season). Add in this team’s 4th-place run in Vegas a couple weeks ago and I think Newman has a shot at another top 10 in California this weekend. His history is shaky here (just six top 10s in seventeen career starts) but Stewart-Haas Racing has been incredible at these cookie cutter tracks over the last half year.
10. Mark Martin - Like I’ve said many times, you just can’t go against a hot team early in the year, and this crew and Rodney Childers seem to have the most momentum and confidence right now that it doesn’t even matter who’s driving the race car. Mark has made twenty career starts at Fontana and half of them he brought the car home inside the top 10, including one win back in 1998. What’s even more impressive is the fact that Martin has just three finishes outside of the top 20 here. He struggled last season as the lame-duck with Hendrick, but in the three races prior to that, Martin recorded top 10s and led at least five laps in each. He had a top 12 car at Las Vegas a couple weeks ago before the next guy on this list put him in the fence…
11. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Junior had a pretty strong Chevy a couple of weeks ago at Las Vegas and I expect him and Steve Letarte to bring another hot rod to Fontana this weekend. His record isn’t stellar here, but Earnhardt does have three top 5s to his name at this 2-mile race track, and has finished 16th and 12th in the last two events here. It is somewhat of a risky pick, but I like the way this team is running to start off the year. If he looks good in practice, I’d have no problem with Earnhardt, Jr. on my roster this weekend.
12. Joey Logano – Before last year absymal 25th-place finish at Fontana, Sliced Bread had a string of three-straight top 15 finishes here, including a 5th-place effort in the first 2010 event here. Last season at this track, Joey posted a solid 3rd-place qualifying effort but engine woes struck this team again and he had to start the event from the rear of the field. Logano never really recovered and finished 25th. However, as strong as the Gibbs stable was here last season, and with their engine difficulties pretty much gone, I expect to see the #20 somewhere in the top 15 at the end of 400 miles on Sunday.
13. Paul Menard – The beginning of the season is the point where it’s a good idea to pick Paul Menard, as you can tell from his three top 10s in the first four races in 2012. He has had a fair amount of struggles at Auto Club Speedway–as in not having one lead lap finish in his first six starts–but the last three races here have all ended with Menard on the lead lap and he has a couple of teens finishes (16th last season and 18th in 2010). He also ran a nice race at Michigan last June, where he started 9th and finished 4th after leading two laps.
14. Martin Truex, Jr. – I really have no statistics for you of any success that Truex has found at Auto Club Speedway, but sometimes you have to overlook history at a track when a driver has this much momentum (as in the second-best average finish over the last five Sprint Cup races). Martin hasn’t finished better than 18th at Fontana in his last six attempts here, but he did finish 6th here in 2007 and 2008 while driving for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. He had the 9th-best driver rating in Las Vegas a couple weeks ago despite finishing 17th, and his new teammate (Clint Bowyer) may be able to help him a bit this week in California.
15. Brad Keselowski - You didn’t think the most recent winner was going to miss my Preview rankings this week, did you? You know I hate going against them. Look for Bad Brad to get a career-best finish at Fontana this weekend, which won’t be that hard to do considering he hasn’t finished better than 21st in three career starts here. While that isn’t great, BK also hasn’t finished worse than 26th, so at least he’s been consistent. Keselowski has a knack for getting to the front (he’s led at least one lap in the last three races) and that could pay dividends on Sunday.
Those To Avoid Entering The Auto Club 400:
Kasey Kahne – Casey Mears has more Sprint Cup points that Kahne right now, that’s all I need to say. I want to see him go a full race without hitting something before going anywhere near KK in fantasy.
Marcos Ambrose – I like to give this guy a free pass when it comes to history on the big oval tracks, but I just can’t overlook the fact that Ambrose is awful at both Fontana and Michigan. His average finish at those tracks is 28.8 and 27.0, respectively. Marcos has never finished on the lead lap in a race at Auto Club Speedway.
Kurt Busch – He might look like a good pick by simply looking at this average finish of 12.9 at this track, but I’m still waiting for this Phoenix Racing team to put together a whole race this season. I’d be surprised if Kurt brought his Chevy home in the top 20 on Sunday to be honest with you. The last two events at Auto Club Speedway have ended with Busch in 21st and 17th.
|1||Jamie McMurray||No. 1206||Brand new|
|2||Brad Keselowski||PRS-810||Brand new|
|9||Marcos Ambrose||No. 805||Brand new|
|14||Tony Stewart||No. 14-637||Phoenix last November (3rd), Loudon last September (win), Loudon last July (2nd), and Martinsville last April (34th)|
|15||Clint Bowyer||No. 712||Brand new|
|16||Greg Biffle||RK-778||Loudon last September (3rd)|
|18||Kyle Busch||No. 326||Phoenix last November (38th), Kansas last October (11th), and Chicago last September (22nd)|
|20||Joey Logano||No. 336||Phoenix last November (11th)|
|27||Paul Menard||No. 328||Phoenix last November (9th), Darlington in May (22nd), and Las Vegas in March (12th)|
|29||Kevin Harvick||No. 365||*ran by Clint Bowyer* Phoenix last November (10th), Richmond in September (22nd), and Loudon last July (17th)|
|33||Brendan Gaughan||No. 351||*drove by Kevin Harvick* Phoenix last November (19th), Dover last October (10th), and Atlanta last September (7th)|
|39||Ryan Newman||No. 39-691||Phoenix last November (5th), Richmond last September (8th)|
|42||Juan Montoya||No. 1203||Brand new|
|48||Jimmie Johnson||No. 689||Phoenix last November (14th) and Loudon last September (18th)|
|51||Kurt Busch||No. 662||*ran by Landon Cassill* Phoenix last November (29th), Loudon last September (30th), and Loudon last July (26th)|
|55||Mark Martin||No. 714||Brand new|
|88||Dale Earnhardt, Jr.||No. 88-709||Brand new|
|99||Carl Edwards||RK-807||Brand new|
NASCAR has issued penalties, suspensions and fines to the No. 48 team in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, as a result of rules infractions found on Feb. 17 during opening day inspection for the Daytona 500.
The No. 48 car was found to be in violation of Sections 12-1 (actions detrimental to stock car racing); 12-4J (any determination by NASCAR officials that race equipment used in the event does not conform to NASCAR rules detailed in Section 20 of the rule book or has not been approved by NASCAR prior to the event); and 20-2.1E (if in the judgment of NASCAR officials, any part or component of the car not previously approved by NASCAR that has been installed or modified to enhance aerodynamic performance will not be permitted – unapproved car body modifications).
As a result, crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec have been suspended from the next six (6) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship events, suspended from NASCAR until April 18 and placed on NASCAR probation until May 9. Additionally, Knaus has been fined $100,000.
Driver Jimmie Johnson and car owner Jeff Gordon have been penalized with the loss of 25 driver and 25 owner points, respectively.
Story Source: NASCARMedia.