June 26, 2012
The Sprint Cup Series will be making its second visit to Kentucky Speedway for some good old fashioned Saturday night racing this weekend. Fantasy racers will be a little bit behind the 8-ball because of the limited history we have to go off of at this track, but if you pick the guys that have been good on similar tracks this year you should be fine. Kentucky is a 1.5-mile tri-oval most similar (in my eyes) to Chicagoland, Kansas, and Las Vegas. Seeing as we’ve already had races at two of those three, I’ll be going off of those races a bit in my preview this week. I have also put together these charts for you guys:
During The Last Race At Kentucky…I was at this race and after fighting through the traffic I was able to watch Kyle Busch thoroughly dominate the 2011 Quaker State 400, leading 125 of the 267 laps and taking the checkered flag in the inaugural event. David Reutimann finished 2nd that night followed by Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman. Carl Edwards, who started 7th, rounded out the top 5. There wasn’t much room to pass that race and those who started up front pretty much stayed there all night.
Practice Schedule…As if not having much history to go off of this week wasn’t enough, those who play Yahoo! Auto Racing will also have to set their rosters before ever seeing the cars on track this weekend. Rosters will lock early Friday morning and then the weekend will kick off at 11:30 am later that day with practice. Happy Hour is set to start at 1:30 pm on Friday followed by qualifying at 5:00 pm. All times are in eastern.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Quaker State 400:
1. Jimmie Johnson – It’s becoming increasingly difficult for me not to rank Five Time number one week in and week out with this team rattling off top 5 after top 5 (now five in the last six Sprint Cup races). At this point, I’d almost consider it a lock for the #48 to be inside the top 5 once the checkered flag waves on Saturday night, if not in victory lane. Johnson’s average finish of 4.9 on all of the intermediate tracks this season is simply incredible, and the fact that he finished 3rd in the Kentucky race last year is just icing on the cake. It’d take something major to happen this weekend for Jimmie not to be a force in the Quaker State 400. There’s a reason he’s been #1 on the Total Driver Power Rankings for the last month or so.
2. Greg Biffle – The Biff had a top 10 finish coming for him at Kentucky (Yahoo! chart here) until the last leg of the race when he had some issue and fell back, ultimately finishing 21st. Story of his season last year, right? Well good thing this is 2012. Biffle’s average driver rating on the intermediate tracks is an insane 121.0 (chart here), which is better than even Jimmie Johnson, and the #16 has ended up 6th or better in every single intermediate track in 2012 except for one. I wouldn’t expect that to change on Sunday. He’s also a driver that has had experience at this track in the Nationwide Series with three runner-up finishes to his name. Biffle has also been a qualifying machine on the intermediates this season so he should be on your Yahoo! roster for those potential bonus points, if nothing else.
3. Tony Stewart – This team is streaky so make sure the #14 looks fast in practice on Friday before going all-in with Stewart. Three straight finishes of 3rd or better is hard to ignore right now, and remember that Smoke was the best on the intermediate tracks earlier this season (like Las Vegas). He finished 12th in the Kentucky race last year but I’m expecting something much better out of Stewart on Saturday. His teammate, Ryan Newman, finished 4th in that race if that means anything to you. Stewart has the 7th-best average driver rating on the intermediate tracks this season despite the fact that he really struggled at some of them (chart here). I’m penciling him in for a top 5 right now, but that could easily change after practice and qualifying. Be sure to check out ifantasyrace.com after qualifying on Friday for my final predictions for the Quaker State 400.
4. Matt Kenseth – In case you haven’t heard, this is the last season that Matt Kenseth with race for Roush-Fenway Racing in the #17 Ford. Surprised? Me too. Now the question is this: where the heck is this guy going to end up in 2013? Here’s a poll question asking where you think he should go–please vote. As of this writing, Joe Gibbs Racing was the favorite by a pretty large margin. Anyway, it’s an intermediate track this week so of course Matt Kenseth should be on your radar. He finished 6th in the Kentucky race last season and has recorded an average finish of 9.4 on the intermediates thus far in 2012 (chart here). As I said before, Kentucky is similar to Kansas, and Kenseth finished 4th there earlier this year with a driver rating of 110.2.
5. Kyle Busch – The only real concern I have about Rowdy Busch this week is whether or not his engine will hold up. Momentum is not exactly on his side, to say the least. With his late-race wreck in Sonoma last weekend, Kyle has now finished 17th or worse in every single Sprint Cup race over the last month of action. Not good. What is good, though, is that he pretty much dominated this race last season from the pole and has been solid on the intermediate tracks this year, posting the 6th-best average driver rating (chart here) and an average finish of 12.1 (chart here). I see why most people would stay away from Kyle Busch this weekend, but he’s going to be one of the favorites on Saturday even with the recent bad luck, and the engine failures won’t continue happening. A win this weekend could pretty much guarantee Busch a Chase spot this year, because believe it or not he’s almost on the verge of being out right now (yes, I hate mentioning points this early in a season but I thought it was surprising).
6. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Junior’s performance here at Kentucky was extremely hard to watch last season, and since I don’t have a video of it on hand I’ll just throw these statistics at you really quick: started 29th, finished 30th, driver rating of 64.1, and was really never better than a 20th-place car all race. With that being said, you really can’t go against this team on the intermediate tracks yet considering Earnhardt has finished just one of the seven outside of the top 10 (chart here). His average driver rating of 104.1 on them is also 4th-best in the series (chart here). At the two comparable tracks to Kentucky–Las Vegas and Kansas–the #88 ended up 10th and 7th, respectively. I’m expecting a solid top 10 out of this team on Saturday night.
7. Brad Keselowski – This is exactly where BK finished in the Kentucky race last season, and right now I’m penciling him in for another top 10 finish in the Bluegrass State on Saturday night. He’s been really good here in the Nationwide Series and I guess that experience translated over to Cup as well last year. Although he had some disappointments on the intermediates earlier this year (fuel pump issues at a couple races), Keselowski hasn’t finished outside of the top 15 in the last four and has also been very consistent over the last two months of Sprint Cup action as a whole. Since Kansas on April 22, BK has finished 15th or better in eight of the nine Sprint Cup races and his worst finish has been 18th. I’m not sure many people will take the Blue Deuce on Saturday so this may be your chance to get off-sequence with the rest of the fantasy racers out there. Right now he’s penciled in as one of my A drivers in Yahoo! alongside Tony Stewart.
8. Martin Truex, Jr. – Only four drivers have been better that Truex on the intermediates this season average finish-wise (chart here) and now that his crew chief, Chad Johnston, is back, the #56 team should be on top of their game once again this weekend. I know I’m not scared of picking Truex right now despite his lackluster performance over the last month. In the Kentucky race last season, Martin was nothing special–starting 16th and finishing 18th–but a lot has changed with this team (and organization) strength-wise since then. Truex had the Kansas race won earlier this year but lost his car in the end and finished 2nd.
9. Denny Hamlin – The #11 team has had their ups and downs on the intermediate tracks this season (chart here), so it will be interesting to see how Hamlin looks in practice and where he qualifies. In last year’s inaugural race at Kentucky, Denny started 26th but ended up leading five laps and finishing a respectable 11th. He now has three finishes 18th or worse in the last four Sprint Cup races, though, so he may be a little hard to trust this weekend. What I really like about Hamlin this week, though, is how strong he was at Kansas earlier this year, which was where he grabbed one of his two wins this season after driving past the guy ranked above him.
10. Carl Edwards – Cousin Carl finished 5th here last season but that was 2011 and this is 2012. It’s hard to believe that we are almost halfway through this 2012 season and I’m still waiting for the #99 team to really break out and get back into a form similar to that of 2011. Still, I can almost guarantee you that Edwards will grab a top 10 on Saturday night, but probably not much more. In case you haven’t been keeping track, check out this chart–Carl’s finishes on all of the intermediate tracks thus far in 2012 have yet to be below 11th. That’s impressive, but fantasy owners want top 5s, not top 10s. He’s a safe pick but I think there may be some other picks that will be better than Edwards this weekend. We’ll have to see how this team practices and qualifies, though.
11. Kasey Kahne – The #5 is sort of a wildcard this weekend. He went on that real hot streak a while back–even grabbing a victory at Charlotte–but fast-forward to now and Kahne hasn’t finished better than 14th in the last three Sprint Cup races. He started 4th in the 2011 Kentucky race and finished 13th while leading one lap. That was in Red Bull equipment, though, which isn’t exactly the same caliber as Hendrick. Kasey finished 8th at Kansas earlier this year and is always a threat on these type of tracks no matter his history. If he can keep the car in one piece for the entire 400 miles on Saturday night, Kahne should be top 10 material when it’s all said and done.
12. Clint Bowyer – I never like going against the most recent race winner, you know that. Bowyer was really the only “exciting” thing to happen all race last year, as he blew a tire late and hit the wall. You can tell from his Yahoo! chart (here), though, that Clint was really junk all night. However, I really like what Michael Waltrip Racing has going on now and Clint hasn’t finished worse than 13th in the last three intermediate races. At Kansas earlier this year, Bowyer was having a real good race early (Yahoo! chart here) but ended up finishing 36th after blowing an engine. Barring any mechanical issue, I think the #15 should challenge for a top 10 on Saturday night.
13. Joey Logano – Sliced Bread finished 14th in the Kentucky race last year and I remember picking him based solely on his experience with the track in the Nationwide series. I think we’ll see a finish similar to that out of Logano this year, maybe a little better. Joey hasn’t been great at all on the intermediate tracks in 2012 (chart here) but he did finish 16th and 15th at Las Vegas and Kansas, respectively. Also, with his 10th-place finish at Sonoma last week, Logano has four top 10s in the last six Sprint Cup races. With the news of Matt Kenseth leaving Roush breaking today, I think Logano will have even more to drive for here soon to hopefully keep his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing.
14. Kevin Harvick – Happy has been flying under my radar for the last month or two, and I think it has something to do with him disappointing me so much in Martinsville earlier this year. I will be keeping my eye on him this weekend in Kentucky, though. Believe it or not, the #29 has been pretty good on the intermediate tracks this season, posting the 6th-best average finish (9.1) with just one result worse than 11th. Harvick also has the 9th-best average driver rating on them this season thus far (chart here). At Kentucky last year, Harvick really was nothing great, starting 19th and finishing the night in 16th. I think the difficulty of passing really hurt him last year because this team never seemed to qualify up front. Harvick qualified 3rd and 2nd at Las Vegas and Kansas this year, and if that happens this weekend in Kentucky, expect him to jump up a lot in my final predictions on Saturday.
15. Marcos Ambrose – Here’s my sleeper of the week. With two poles in a row, it’s hard to not take a long look at Marcos Ambrose this week. When you throw in the fact that he has just one finish worse than 14th in the last seven Sprint Cup races, and it’s nearly impossible. That one finish worse than 14th was in the Coca-Cola 600, and when you look at the #9′s Yahoo! chart from that race, you can tell that Marcos was running really good up until the mid-point of the race (it’s slipping my mind as to what happened). Marcos finished 13th at Las Vegas earlier this year and 16th at Kansas. He started 11th and finished 20th in the 2011 race at Kentucky. I wouldn’t overlook Ambrose if I were you.
June 19, 2012
Well, we’re finally done with the re-pavements, but if you’re not a fan of fuel mileage races, don’t get too excited. As soon as the Toyota/Save Mart 350 starts on Sunday, teams will be working backwards with with mileage and getting off sequence to have just enough fuel in the end. The races at these road courses are interesting, but your fantasy team can go from very good to very bad quite quickly. Unless there is a big wreck, the caution flag won’t fly very often on Sunday, and if a driver ends up off-track, they will be last before they know it with no yellow to catch up.
I’m going to be doing things a little different this week when it comes to this article. Along with restrictor plate tracks, the road course races are sort of a “special” race in my mind where there are many unexpected drivers that can have a good run. When it comes to the road course “ringers,” though, I wouldn’t put much faith into them. Years ago, they were great picks in fantasy (especially in salary cap games) because they could run up front and get you a bunch points. However, the Cup “regulars” have really closed the gap and know how to get around all the turns almost as good as the “ringers”. Also, the latter tend to have sub-par equipment that can’t run as hard, and often end up breaking something on the car.
During The Last Race At Sonoma: Kurt Busch in his Double Deuce pretty much dominated, leading 76 of the 110 laps and grabbing his first win on either of the road courses. Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards followed Busch to the line with Clint Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose rounding out the top 5. Joey Logano won the pole for last year’s race and led five laps en route to a 6th-place finish.
Practice Schedule: For those that play Yahoo! Auto Racing, we don’t get to see the cars on track at all before locking down this week. First practice and qualifying are both on Friday starting at 3:00 pm and 6:40 pm, respectively (ET). On Saturday, the drivers will get two more practice sessions, with the first one starting at 12:30 pm and then Happy Hour beginning at 1:45 pm. This year’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 is set to start around 3:45 pm on Sunday.
Ranking The Favorites For The Toyota / Save Mart 350:
1. Marcos Ambrose - I said before the season that Ambrose would be in the 2012 Chase and for that to happen he’s going to need to win this race. He finally broke through and got the win at Watkins Glen last year and it’s only a matter of time before he visits victory lane in wine country. Taking out his first start here (transmission problem), Marcos has never had a driver rating under 110.2 in his other three starts at Sonoma and has finished 6th or better in each. This team has just one finish worse than 14th in the last six Sprint Cup races this season, including the pole run and top 10 finish at Michigan last weekend. I think that momentum will carry over into us seeing the #9 in victory lane on Sunday.
2. Jimmie Johnson - Two weeks in a row starting in the back of the field and finishing top 5–seriously? Although it’s hard to say this because of who it is, the #48 team is RED HOT with four top 5s in the last five Sprint Cup races (including two wins). Not only that, but Johnson is a previous winner at Sonoma (2010) and is on a streak of three-straight finishes of 7th or better at this track. Five Time is one of those drivers that I mentioned earlier in this article who have really caught up with the road course ringers, and barring a mechanical issue or something he should be a threat in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
3. Tony Stewart - Brian Vickers probably won’t get into it with Smoke again at Sonoma (video from last year here), so it’s safe to say that the #14 should be a top 5 car at least this weekend. I’ve been saying for two weeks now that you have to take Stewart when he’s hot, and with two straight top 5s we are in prime position to pick him this weekend. The two-time Cup champion is also a two-time winner at Sonoma and has led at least one lap in six of the last seven events here. His career average finish of 11.5 at Sonoma is fourth-best in the series. Hopefully the suspected wrath of Junior Nation from his comments doesn’t affect Stewart too much this weekend (I don’t think it will).
4. Jeff Gordon - I honestly think that this could be viewed as a must-win race for Jeff Gordon and the #24 team this weekend. He’s going to need (I think, anyway) at least two wins to make the Chase this year and Sonoma is his best chance to get one of them. Gordon is a five-time winner at this race track and owns the best average finish in the series here with 8.7. He has led an impressive total of 437 laps in nineteen career starts hasn’t finished worse than 9th at this track since 2005. He’s hasn’t been trustworthy at all this season, but like Martinsville it’s hard to go against Jeff Gordon at Sonoma. Momentum-wise this team did get a solid 6th-place finish in Michigan last weekend…
5. Juan Montoya - JPM won in his first career start here but hasn’t finished inside the top 5 at all since (four races). Before his 22nd-place finish here last season, Montoya never finished outside of the top 10 at this track in four years. If I remember correctly, the #42 was a top 10 car in 2011 at Sonoma but may have gotten some payback late in the race and finished 22nd. I do remember that Juan was very aggressive throughout the entire 2011 Toyota/Save Mart 350. Anyway, he’ll be a favorite pick among many fantasy racers this weekend–and for good reason–but I’d keep your options open. This season hasn’t gone very well for the #42 team and if Montoya gets a little attitude on the track again, I’m sure there are many drivers that wouldn’t mind putting him in a gravel pit.
Those That Could Surprise And Get Their First Sonoma Victory?
Clint Bowyer - Question of the week: who has an average finish at Sonoma better than Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose, and Jimmie Johnson. If you guessed Clint Bowyer, you’re right, believe it or not. In six career starts at this track, Bowyer has posted three 4th-place finishes and owns an average finish of 11.2. He ended up 31st here in 2010 but other than that Clint’s worst finish has been 16th (in his first start). Michael Waltrip Racing is stronger than ever and Bowyer hasn’t finished worse than 13th in the last two months of Sprint Cup action. I really think he has the best shot of “non-winners” to end up in victory lane on Sunday.
A.J. Allmendinger - I had to rub my eyes last week when I saw Allmendinger’s name on the scroll inside the top 10. Of course, he finished 19th so I guess it wasn’t that surprising of a race out of The Dinger. This team has only one top 10 all season, and while I could see A.J. succeeding here at Sonoma, it’s hard to look past this team’s luck/errors/whatever else this season. In the last two Sonoma races, Allmendinger has finished 13th in each and those came after a solid 7th-place finish back in 2009. I think he’ll finish top 20 on Sunday but right now I’m not getting too excited with the Double Deuce. It could all change after practice, I suppose.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - No. Sorry, Junior Nation. As I said before, the “normal” drivers are really getting the hang of these tracks, and with the way Earnhardt’s season is going, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see him get his first career top 10 at Sonoma on Sunday. Although his average finish of 22.2 at this track is a bit scary, the fact that Junior has finished between 11th and 13th in three of last five races here is a little re-assuring for his fans. I wouldn’t use him in allocation games, but Earnhardt could be a good pick this weekend because most people are going to avoid him (as surprising as that is to say).
Ranking The “Not Ordinary” For The Toyota/Save Mart 350:
1. Brian Vickers - He’ll be back in the #55 Toyota this weekend and should have a bunch of speed again. Although most people only remember last year’s mess with Tony Stewart, I really think we could get a top 15 out of “The Sheriff” on Sunday, considering he finished 14th, 14th, and 16th in the three events he raced here before 2011. One of those races were with Hendrick Motorsports but the other two were with Red Bull, which is kind of surprising (to me, anyway). Vickers also just ran the 24 hours of Le Mans so he has a little recent experience turning left and right.
2. David Gilliland - I like this guy on the big restrictor plate tracks as a sleeper, and he’s also looking like a solid “out of the box” choice on the road courses as well. Gilliland finished 12th in this race last season and actually finished runner-up in the 2008 event at Sonoma (although that was while driving for Yates Racing). Believe it or not, Gilliland has a better average finish than Juan Montoya at this track over the past two years. Just sayin’…
3. Boris Said - He’s a road course ringer and has some awesome hair, but Boris Said is rarely a good fantasy pick when he races. He’s generally in sub-par equipment and racing with a sub-par pit crew, and will look real good in practice but rarely puts a full race together. Said has made twelve career starts at Sonoma in the Sprint Cup series and has recorded six finishes of 11th or better, the most recent coming in 2010 (an 8th-place effort). Now for the bad: Said has finished 24th or worse in three of his last four starts here. He’s capable of a good finish but it’s risky.
4. The Rest - This year’s roster of road course ringers is really week, to be honest with you. Robby Gordon? He’ll be lucky to finish the race. Tomy Drissi? Never heard of you. Brian Simo? He finished 10th here in 2005, but he was driving in a Richard Childress car and hasn’t finished better than 33rd in his four other starts here. And David Mayhew? Probably a start-and-park waiting to happen.
Those To Avoid For The Toyota/Save Mart 350:
Carl Edwards - Yes, Cousin Carl finished 3rd here last season, but that was 2011 Carl and this is 2012 Carl. Completely different. This team still isn’t on top of their game on the tracks that they’re supposed to really excel out, so why should we expect them to be good at the tracks where Roush really isn’t very good as a whole? Edwards has made seven career starts at this track and owns an average finish of 16.6 with three top 10s. The #99 team really needs a win or something to boost their spirits but it’s not happening this weekend.
Kyle Busch - Three blown engines in a row? That doesn’t even happen to the underfunded teams. That’s only part of the reason that I won’t be picking Rowdy this weekend, though. He actually does have a victory at Sonoma (in 2008) but other than that, Busch’s results here are really not that great. When you take out the win, Kyle’s average finish at this track plummets to 21.8. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the #18 challenge for a win on Sunday (when can you rule out Kyle Busch?) but I don’t see a reason to pick him this weekend.
Kasey Kahne - All of the sudden the #5 is looking like beginning of 2012 #5. Kahne does have a victory here at Sonoma (back in 2009) and he followed that up with a 4th-place outing in 2010, but Kasey’s other six starts have all ended with him in 20th place or worse. There are way too many other picks than Kahne this weekend, especially in allocation leagues. I won’t be picking him unless he wins the pole and looks unstoppable in practice, which I’ll put in the category of “unlikely to happen”.
June 12, 2012
This week we’re heading to Michigan International Speedway for the Quicken Loans 400, meaning we will get to see the cars go around this D-shaped oval 200 times to determine the winner. For the second week in a row, though, the track has been re-paved from the last time that the series was here. Let’s just hope there isn’t as much drama as we saw in Pocono. MIS is one of just two 2-mile race tracks on the circuit for the Sprint Cup Series, with the other being Auto Club Speedway. In case you forgot, Tony Stewart won the rain-shortened race there earlier this season. Full results of the Auto Club 400 in March can be found by clicking here.
During the Last Race at Michigan: Kyle Busch grabbed his first victory at the track despite the fact that pole-sitter Greg Biffle was out front the most that day (he ended up finishing 20th–the story of his season). Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Mark Martin, and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5 that day. Jeff Gordon, who led 50 laps that day, finished 6th.
Practice Schedule: We’re looking at pretty much the same schedule for three weeks in a row, which is good for Yahoo! Auto Racing players because you get to see the cars on the track before locking in your rosters. On Friday there will be two practice sessions: the first one starting at 12:30 pm and then “Happy Hour” beginning at 3:30 pm. Qualifying will then be held on Saturday afternoon (1 pm start) with the 2012 Quicken Loans 400 scheduled to begin around 1:15 pm on Sunday.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Quicken Loans 400:
1. Jimmie Johnson – No surprise here. It’s crazy how bad fast this #48 Chevrolet has been over the last month of Sprint Cup Series action, and it’s even crazier that this team overcame starting 24th and two pit road speeding penalties in Pocono to finish 4th. There’s no doubt in my mind that Chad Knaus will have this car hooked up once again this weekend in Michigan and Johnson should have a chance at grabbing his first career victory at this track (crazy to think he hasn’t won here, isn’t it?). As I said before, Five Time finished runner-up here last fall, and this #48 was a top 5 car all race back in March in Fontana but had engine problems (I think that’s what it was) and was saved by the rain and salvaged a 10th-place finish (here’s the Yahoo! chart). Johnson’s history at this track leaves much to be desired–15.2 average finish over twenty career starts–but can you really go against a team this hot right now? I did last week and that didn’t turn out so well. Johnson has been the man on the intermediate tracks this season and that shouldn’t change on Sunday. Sorry to sound like a broken record over the last month and a half or so, but Jimmie Johnson is my early pick to win at Michigan on Sunday. He leads all active drivers (those with 20 starts or less here) in laps led at this track.
2. Greg Biffle – With his lost cylinder in Pocono, that makes four disappointing finishes out of the Biff over the last six Sprint Cup races. Will that continue this weekend in Michigan? I wouldn’t count on it. This if Biffle’s fourth-best track on the circuit and he has recorded ten top 10s in eighteen career starts, seven of which were top 5s, and two of them being victories (in 2004 and 2005). He really had awesome cars in both races here last season, but if you remember anything about The Biff’s 2011 campaign, you know why his finishes were 15th and 20th. He led 68 and 86 laps in those two races, though, and had driver ratings of 121.5 and 112.5. As you can probably imagine, Biffle has had the best driver rating over the last two years at Michigan (114.2) and his 6th-place finish in the rain-shortened race at Fontana back in March was no fluke (Yahoo! chart here). Will we see a second win by the #16 crew on Sunday? I wouldn’t rule it out, as I think Biffle will be in the top 5 all day. If the car looks off to me on Friday, though, I may stay away from Biffle due to his less-than-stellar finishes here as of late (although it would be a really difficult thing for me to do here at Michigan).
3. Denny Hamlin – Even though he disappointed in Dover, Denny Hamlin does have five top 5 finishes in the last seven Sprint Cup races, and he’s coming into a track that he has won at twice (most recently in this race last season). In fact, over the last two years here (four total races), nobody has notched more top 5s here at Michigan than Hamlin, and that is due to his string of 1st-2nd-1st finishes in 2010 and the summer race of 2011. He finished 35th here last fall, but if you check out the Yahoo! chart you’ll see that the #11 was pretty much a solid top 10 car before Hamlin put it into the wall. Another thing I like about Denny this weekend is how his car was back at Auto Club Speedway in March: Hamlin won the pole and was in the position to win when the rain came, but Darian Grubb made an idiotic move and brought the #11 down pit road thinking that the precipitation would clear out (here’s a picture of what the radar looked like that day–basically, there was no chance in hell they were restarting that race). For that reason, and that reason alone, Hamlin was bumped down to 3rd in my pre-weekend rankings this weekend. In other words, he’ll be a good pick.
4. Matt Kenseth – Kenseth really struggled at Auto Club Speedway earlier this season and I truly don’t know (or remember, I guess) why. When you look at his Yahoo! chart from that race, he really never moved too far above or below his 15th-place starting spot, and ended up finishing 16th once the rain ended the race. I’m expecting a good showing out of the #17 team this weekend, though, and that should be expected at Michigan–Kenseth’s second-best on the circuit. He has visited victory lane twice here in his twenty-five career starts and has just ONE finish outside of the top 20. Talk about consistency. Getting to the stats that matter, Kenseth has recorded sixteen top 10s in those twenty-five starts, eleven of them being top 5s. Only teammate Greg Biffle has recorded a better average driver rating than Kenseth over the last two years at Michigan, and despite the fact that he finished 10th here last fall, the #17 was awesome in both 2011 events at this track. In June, Kenseth started 3rd and led 17 laps en-route to a 2nd–place finish with a driver rating of 130.1; in August, the #17 started on the outside pole, and like I said before, finished 10th after leading 15 laps and having a driver rating of 120.5. Over the last nine races here, Kenseth owns six top 10 finishes, and five of those were also top 5s. I didn’t notice this until now, but Matt hasn’t finished worse than 11th in the last nine Sprint Cup series races. I don’t expect that to change on Sunday.
5. Tony Stewart – This team really tends to go in spurts, so the time to pick Smoke is when he’s coming off a good finish. Nobody in the series has been better than Tony over the last two years at Michigan, and the fact that he has finished between 5th and 9th in all four races is the reason for that. As I said earlier in this article, Stewart won at Auto Club Speedway back in March, and although he got some help from the rain, he did lead almost one-third of that race so it’s not like he had a bad car. Despite only having one victory here at MIS, Stewart has been quite consistent on this 2-mile race track and has recorded eighteen top 10 finishes over his span of twenty-six starts. In the last fifteen, in fact, Smoke has just three finishes outside of the top 10, and one of those was a 12th-place effort back in 2008. The #14 was the best on intermediate tracks earlier on in the season and this is the time of year that Stewart generally goes on a run of good finishes…not that I had to remind you that. However, with this team’s recent struggles, if the #14 looks a little off in practice on Friday, expect Tony to tumble in my final rankings that go out after qualifying on ifantasyrace.com.
6. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – One thing that I can absolutely guarantee you is that the most-heard statistic this weekend is going to be that Junior’s last victory came here at Michigan back in 2008. Now that he looked like he had a real good chance to win in Pocono, announcers everywhere will use that to drool over NASCAR’s favorite driver even more and contemplate the chances of him winning the Quicken Loans 400. I don’t see that happening, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the #88 will churn out another top 10 finish on Sunday–exactly what Earnhardt has been doing nearly every race this season (yes, I respect that, in case you were wondering). Since jumping into the #88 back in 2008, Junior has had his share of ups and downs (somewhat) at this track, but he’s been consistent. His worst finish over those eight races has been 23rd, and he has recorded three top 10s, including that win I talked about earlier. Looking back at Fontana in March, the #88 grabbed a 3rd-place finish in the rain-shortened event, but when you look at their Yahoo! chart that race, they really weren’t there until the rain was almost there. I’m not trying to persuade you against Junior this week (obviously, I have him ranked 6th), I’m just not buying into the hype yet. He should at least be top 10 material on Sunday with a good shot at a top 5.
7. Carl Edwards – If Cousin Carl looks good in practice on Friday, he’s going to be a lock for my roster this weekend. This is his second-best track on the circuit and one of his two top 5s this season came back at Fontana. I still think this team just needs a top 5 to really break out, but the question is when that is going to happen. The #99 had engine problems in the series’ last visit to this track, but before that Edwards rattled off eight finishes of 7th or better over a nine-race span. His average finish of 8.2 here is no joke, and it’s not surprise that it’s the best in the series. Just don’t be surprised if Carl qualifies bad on Saturday: in fifteen career starts here at Michigan, he averages a starting position right around 20th and has qualified in the top 10 just once (a 4th-place effort back in 2008).
8. Kyle Busch – That’s two weeks in a row that the #18 team has had engine woes, which is a little worrisome. However, the rest of the cars in the Gibbs stable have been strong and reliable, so hopefully Rowdy will get the finish he deserves in Michigan this weekend. Kyle started on the outside pole back in March at Fontana and also finished 2nd in that rain-shortened event. He led the most laps that day, by the way. At Michigan specifically, Busch hasn’t been great (15.5) but he was great here last season: over the two races he led a combined 81 laps and had driver ratings of 124.3 and 126.0. He finished 3rd and then, as I said before, won the second event. In terms of intermediate track finishes overall this season, when you take out Las Vegas, Kyle Busch hasn’t finished worse than 11th on them (chart here) and he has the fourth-best average driver rating over all of the six races (chart here). Barring an engine problem again, I expect Busch to challenge for a top 10 and possibly a top 5, but are you willing to take the risk? I think there are too many other options this week to do so.
9. Kasey Kahne – And the good run comes to an end. What’s good is that the #5 Chevy was a top 10 car before the incident at Pocono, and I’m expecting the car to be fast once again in Michigan this weekend. Kahne has been great at the last three intermediate track races (chart here) and it’s no secret that these tracks are the ones he truly excels at. In sixteen career starts at Michigan, Kasey has posted seven top 10 finishes (six of them being top 5s) and he won from the pole here back in 2006. At Fontana, Kahne finished 14th after starting 5th. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him start up there on Sunday as well, but I’m expecting a better finish. Kahne started 14th in the August race at this track last season and ended up finishing 14th after leading three laps. His average driver rating of 105.1 over the past two years at this track is fourth-best in the series.
10. Mark Martin – It would only be fitting that the weekend that I completely write off Mark Martin because of his disappointing race-day runs is the one that he almost goes out and wins the race. You got me good, Mark! Although I was a little glad to see Joey bump you out of the way . Anyway, the #55 lined up 3rd to start the race back at Fontana earlier this year and ended up finishing 12th. I think we’ll see something similar out of Mark Martin this weekend in Michigan. As I said before, he grabbed a top 5 finish here last August while driving for Hendrick Motorsports, and he also finished 9th in the summer event earlier in the year. However, that was with Hendrick equipment, and I’m still not sold on these Michael Waltrip Racing Toyotas being uber-strong on these big intermediate tracks yet. Still, Martin should be a threat for the pole on Saturday (his qualifying this season has been ridiculous) and will probably fade by the end of the race on Sunday. A finish between 10th and 12th is to be expected, but that’s not too bad now, is it?
11. Martin Truex, Jr. – Well, we had our week of from using Martin Truex, Jr. last weekend in Pocono, but don’t let their struggles–if you can call it that, they finished 15th, which is a lot better than I expected–make you turn your back on them this weekend. Crew chief Chad Johnston should be back for this week’s race and should have the #56 Toyota in position to get another top 10 finish. When you look at this chart, you will see that Truex has the fifth-best average finish on the intermediate tracks this season, and is ranked 3rd over those races in terms of average driver rating (chart here). At Michigan specifically, Martin’s 17.5 average finish is nothing to get excited about, but he does tend to qualify well here (has started 13th or better in the last five events) and the story of this season has been if he qualifies good, he’ll run good. Truex actually finished 2nd here in both races during the 2007 while running for Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
12. Clint Bowyer – Statistically, this is Clint Bowyer’s third-worst track on the circuit, but you wouldn’t think that by looking at his finishes here last season. In both races, Bowyer finished 8th, and what’s even more impressive is that he started 27th and 35th. Even better is that over the last three years here at Michigan (six races), Clint has finished 13th or better five times, and four of them were top 10s as well. When the #15 team doesn’t run into some sort of problem, they tend to be good for a teens finish (chart here) and that’s what I’m expecting out of Bowyer this weekend as well. At Fontana back in March, Clint posted the 11th-fastest lap in qualifying and ended up 13th once the rain came. I’m expecting a day similar to that out of Bowyer on Sunday, although hopefully we don’t get any rain. In case you didn’t know, the #15 hasn’t finished worse than 13th in the last six Sprint Cup Series races.
13. Joey Logano – You know I don’t like going against the most-recent winner. With that win, though, it got me thinking: now that all three of the drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing have won this season, is JGR the top organization? I put a poll together on that, and you can vote by clicking here. Back in March at Fontana, Logano started 8th and looked to be a decent pick but really disappointed fantasy owners with his 24th-place finish. Hopefully that doesn’t happen this weekend, but you never know with this team, as they’re really hit or miss. At Michigan, Joey has made six career starts and has finished inside the top 10 in half of them. He finished 18th and 21st in the two events here during the 2011 season, but all three of his top 10s came in his three previous starts. I’m hoping that this team can use the momentum from their win to get a solid finish at MIS on Sunday, but their performance on the intermediate tracks thus far in 2012 really isn’t that great (chart here). I’ll be watching the #20 Toyota closely in practice.
14. Kevin Harvick – Happy Harvick hasn’t finished worse than 16th on the intermediate tracks this season (chart here) and I wouldn’t expect that to change this weekend in Michigan. His record here isn’t great, but it’s not terrible, either: in twenty-two career starts here, Harvick has ended up with seven top 10s and averaged a finish of 15.0. He has just five finishes outside of the top 20 so it’s not like he’s inconsistent. The thing is that Kevin tends to run a little better in the August race here at Michigan compared to the June race. As far as Yahoo! goes, I don’t see any reason to take the #29 this weekend unless he looks really fast in practice, which is possible I guess. I just don’t see it happening. Harvick did finish 4th in Fontana earlier this year…
15. Ryan Newman – This ranking is sort of just putting some hope into Newman because of his performance here last season, because his results at Michigan over his entire career really aren’t that great: 18.2 average finish with just six top 10s in twenty-one career attempts. As I said before, though, Michigan was kind to The Rocketman in 2011: he finished 6th and 5th in the two events and had a driver rating of at least 100 in each of them. On the intermediate tracks this season, Newman was good earlier on in the season, just like Tony Stewart (chart here). I do think that Stewart-Haas is getting thing turned around, though, so the #39 could be a nice pick this weekend. We’ll have to see how Newman looks during practice on Friday.
Those To Avoid Entering The Quicken Loans 400:
A.J. Allmendinger – His recent finishes at Michigan would probably qualify him as a sleeper in my books (11th, 13th, 17th, and 11th) but can you say bad luck? This team is more unlucky right now than even Jeff Gordon, it’s crazy. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll turn it around soon but there’s really no reason to take a chance with A.J. this weekend. His last two years at Michigan may look inciting but let’s not forget that in nine career starts here, Allmendinger has yet to crack the top 10 once and owns an average finish of 21.2.
Paul Menard – I’m glad Menard got me a top 10 finish in Pocono last weekend, but that won’t make me pick him again this weekend in Michigan. It will be interesting to see how the #27 team looks on Friday because they haven’t been great here at all. Menard finished 4th here in this event last season but that is his only finish better than 24th in the last seven races here. He got back to his “normal” self in the fall race, finishing 26th despite starting the race in 11th. Paul has been decent on the intermediates thus far (chart here) in 2012, though, so he may get off of my Avoid list once I update my rankings on Saturday.