Horse race between Roush, Hendrick in Kansas
Seven drivers who finished among the top 10 at Texas will be a factor again
By Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM
April 18, 2012 2:15 PM, EDT
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With banking of 15 degrees in the corner, Kansas is one of the flatter cookie-cutter tracks, which puts it in a league with Kentucky Speedway and the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway. Texas is much steeper in the corners at 24 degrees, but the two tracks share some commonality in engine demands. Both have enough racing space in the corners to allow for some long green flag runs -- enough so that the top-three finishers in this race last year were able to gamble on fuel through a final segment while other leading contenders were forced to pit.
Brad Keselowski capitalized on the momentum a win in the spring race gave him and finished third in the fall race, but second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. and third-place Denny Hamlin struggled to finish on either side of 15th in that race, with Junior crossing the line 14th and Hamlin 16th in Kansas' 2011 finale.
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The primary focus at Texas was on drivers who performed well on there in the past, but the same cannot be said of Kansas. In part because of the fuel-mileage gambit by the top contenders in the spring, the fall race featured a different cast of characters among most Sprint Cup owners. The exception to that rule was Roush-Fenway Racing. Its drivers swept the top 10 in Kansas as they did at Texas. The only drivers other than the three Roushketeers to sweep the top 10 on this track last year were Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, so fantasy owners need to deepen their data pool to identify a second tier of favorites.
Last year's inaugural race at Kentucky is a good place to start. A total of 12 drivers swept the top 15 in those two races, and six of them finished in the top 10 in both events. With one race in the books in the Bluegrass state, it is too soon to tell if the trend will continue, but there is little to lose -- especially if fantasy owners compare those records to drivers' overall strength on the similarly configured 1.5-mile tracks of Kansas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Texas, Las Vegas, Chicagoland and Kentucky.
One plus one equals seven
Another reason last week will be predictive for this weekend is because the two owners who dominated at Texas are equally strong in Kansas. Between them, Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick placed all seven of their drivers in the top 10. With the exception of Mark Martin in third, they also swept the top five, which didn't leave much room at the top for anyone else.
Roush and Hendrick also dominated Kansas last year to a large degree. The three current Roushketeers swept the top 10 as well as Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson. Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also earned top 10s and consistently ran strong, so standing pat is not a bad idea if they were on last week's roster.
Since there was a scarcity of Texas top-10 slots available to anyone other than Roush and Hendrick, the few remaining drivers who ran strong help define this week's sleepers. Two of the three remaining top-10 positions were grabbed by Michael Waltrip Racing drivers, and Kevin Harvick's ninth-place finish should put him on fantasy owners' radar.
This is a great time to ride Greg Biffle's momentum. He put a complete race together at Texas. He was one of the pre-race favorites, qualified on the inside of the second row and posted the best average running position of the race. He was never outside the top 10, never out of contention for the victory and drove a smart and fast race. When Jimmie Johnson pushed his Chevrolet harder than Biffle wanted to drive, he backed the No. 16 down a few tenths of a second and bided his time until the closing laps. Kansas is ideally placed for the Biff because it always has been kind to him. He scored the victory in 2007 amidst a little controversy since it appeared he ran out of gas and drove into the grass while under caution, which allowed Clint Bowyer to creep past. But he proved his strength in the next three races by finishing third twice and winning once again in 2010. Last year, his best result was eighth, but he's never had this much momentum on his side.
Teammate Carl Edwards is also one of this week's favorites. He swept the top five at Kansas last year; except for the fuel-mileage race at Charlotte in May, he swept the top five on every similarly configured, 1.5-mile track, which he backed up with another fifth-place finish in Vegas this spring. He failed to dominate the at Texas last week, but when it mattered most, the team made the right adjustments and propelled the No. 99 into the top 10. Ultimately, that is what matters to fantasy players since the majority of points are awarded at the end of a race.
Hendrick Motorsports continues to look for their 200th Cup victory, and there is fierce competition among the active drivers to bring the trophy home. Johnson has the best opportunity this week if he can keep from being frustrated at the end of the race. In two events on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks this season, he's had cars capable of finding Victory Lane, but he was overwhelmed by Tony Stewart at Vegas and Biffle at Texas. He'll put that aside as soon as he climbs into the No. 48, however, and concentrate on last fall, when he beat the field to the green at Kansas.
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Last week, teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne momentarily overcame their dismal starts to the 2012 season. Gordon started 34th and surged through the field to climb into the top five with very little help from caution flags. Kahne's race was less dramatic since he qualified at the head of the field, but this was the first time all year that he stayed out of trouble from flag to flag. While Gordon should be watched closely this week, Kahne makes the better dark horse because his salary cap is more manageable. He has run strong, qualifying in the top 10 in every race since week two at Phoenix, and now that he has broken into single digits at the checkers, it is a fair bet he can do so again.
It's easy to overlook Kevin Harvick each week. On a given Sunday, he spends much of the day in the middle of the pack, so he fails to accumulate the average running position or driver rating that will place him near the top of stats-based rankings. The finish is what counts, however, and he is capable of surging in the closing laps. In his past 15 races on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks, Harvick has earned been 17th or better 14 times. Nine of those are top 10s. Spending too much time in the middle of the pack has hurt him, because he has only three top fives on this track type in that same span, but if he fits the final salary cap slot, he is a safe bet for fantasy owners looking for a single digit result from a mid-cap driver.
Jeff Burton started the season with great hope. He survived the Daytona 500 to finish fifth, carrying momentum from the last four races of 2011. He sidestepped one poor showing at Phoenix in week two, then posted back-to-back top 15s at Vegas and Bristol. That put him back on fantasy owners' radar screens, but his team has failed to reward courageous players in the past three weeks. He hasn't been terrible, but Burton enters the weekend with three consecutive 20-something results, and Kansas has not been overly kind to him in the past. In 12 starts there, he has two top 10s and five top 15s. None of those have come in the past three years.
Brad Keselowski is going to get a lot of attention because of his victory in this race last year as well as his third-place finish in the fall. He was equally unstoppable in the cookie-cutter races run between those two and in the middle section of last year, when he posted five consecutive top 10s on this track type. Unfortunately, those are his only top 10s in 28 starts on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks, and both attempts this year ended in 30-something results. Notably, both of his poor showings at Vegas and Texas could be attributed to fuel pickup problems, but one has to ask themselves if that has been fixed.
Fantasy Power Rankings
Cookie-cutter tracks (past three seasons)
*The Power Average is the average finish during the past three years, plus the number of laps spent in the lead, in the top five and in the top 10 expressed as if they were finishing results. For example a driver who has led the most laps receives a hypothetical first-place finish, the driver who leads the second most laps receives a hypothetical second-place finish, and so on. This rewards drivers who competed at the front of the pack for the majority of the race, even if an unfortunate event takes them out of contention at the very end of the race. A driver's recent record in the support series also is factored in, as is his average running position as provided by NASCAR Statistical Services. Failures to qualify are credited to the driver as if they were a finishing position (i.e. the first non-qualifier is assigned a 44th-place finish). The cookie-cutter tracks are: Atlanta, Charlotte, Texas, Las Vegas, Kansas, Chicago and Kentucky.