October 30, 2012
And now it’s down to two. The Sprint Cup Series championship will likely be won by either Jimmie Johnson or Brad Keselowski, and there’s three races left on the schedule for those two to duke it out. On Sunday, the drivers will log 500 long miles at Texas Motor Speedway, which is a 1.5-mile tri-oval race track. Speeds will be high and cautions will be few, and it’s always possible that the race will come down to fuel mileage.
During The Last Race At Texas…Jimmie Johnson led nearly half of the race here back in April but it was Greg Biffle who crossed the finish line ahead of “Five Time”. Mark Martin ended up 3rd that day with Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth rounding out the top 5. Pole sitter Martin Truex, Jr., who led 69 laps that day, wound up 6th.
Practice Schedule…Just like last weekend at Martinsville, the Sprint Cup Series will practice on Friday afternoon (12:30 pm) and then have qualifying later that day (4:30 pm). Then, on Saturday, there will be two additional practice sessions, the first starting at 3:00 pm and Happy Hour set to kick off at 5:30 pm. The AAA Texas 500 should start sometime around 3:00 pm on Sunday afternoon. All times are in EST.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The AAA Texas 500:
*Chase participants marked in red*
1. Jimmie Johnson - Five Time’s record here isn’t as great as it is at other tracks, but it’s still good nonetheless. In eighteen career starts here, Johnson has only one win but averages a finish of 9.7 and has finished inside the top 5 nearly half of the time. This team will be on the A game from here on out so get used to seeing Jimmie’s name near the top of every power rankings chart. On similar tracks this season, nobody has been as strong consistently as the #48 team and here at Texas back in April Johnson led a race-high 156 laps. He has five top 5s in the last seven Sprint Cup races and should easily make it six of eight on Sunday evening.
2. Matt Kenseth - Statistically this has been Matt Kenseth’s best track on the circuit and he also has the best average finish here at Texas (8.6) among active drivers. The #17 won a couple weeks ago in Kansas–another tri-oval intermediate track–and wound up 5th here back in April. That makes it six top 5s in the last seven Texas races for Kenseth and twelve in the last fourteen. The #17 is up front here every single race and that won’t change this weekend, as Kenseth should be challenging for his third win in the last five Sprint Cup races–and his third career at this track.
3. Clint Bowyer – Right now it’s just difficult to overlook how strong this #15 team has been for the last month or so. I didn’t really take Clint seriously when he said they were going to go out and try to win every week for the rest of the season but this team has been living up to that statement. At Texas specifically, Bowyer’s record isn’t super strong, but it’s still pretty good. Three of the last four races at this track have ended with Clint solidly inside the top 10 and only five drivers have a better average driver rating in the five races here since the beginning of the 2010 season. Clint won at Charlotte a few weeks ago and ended up 6th back at Kansas, both of which are tri-oval intermediate tracks. He has eleven top 10s in the last thirteen Sprint Cup races and should make it twelve for fourteen when the checkered flag waves on Sunday.
4. Kasey Kahne – When you look at Kasey Kahne’s record on the tri-oval intermediate tracks this season, it might surprise you a little bit considering this team got off to quite a rocky start early on. In the nine races on these types of tracks thus far, Kahne has recorded seven top 10 finishes and one win, which came at Charlotte in May. Most recently, he finished 4th at Kansas after starting on the pole. Here at Texas Motor Speedway, Kasey has recorded one victory (back in 2006) and has finished 3rd and 7th in his last two attempts. Kahne’s average finish of 18.8 here might worry you a little bit but keep in mind that this team has been firing on all cylinders since the Chase started and hasn’t finished worse than 15th.
5. Kyle Busch - Speaking of being really strong in this year’s Chase, the #18 team has been right up there with the best of them when there hasn’t been any mechanical issues, something you can’t predict. In the last eight races on tri-oval intermediate tracks, Rowdy has finished 11th or better in all but one of them, and that was at Kansas a couple weeks ago. We all know what happened there. At Texas, Kyle has been somewhat hit-or-miss–similar to his record last week at Martinsville–but when he has a good car, he can be counted on for a top 5 for the most part. Busch finished 11th here back in April but should be much stronger than that this weekend, and he’s a lot better here than his 15.8 average finishes makes him out to be.
6. Brad Keselowski - Well, in the two Chase races that Brad Keselowski was worried the most about, he finished 8th and 6th. He still lost the points lead to Jimmie Johnson but I think it should be a good battle from here on out between the #48 and the #2. Keselowski’s record here at Texas is nothing special whatsoever–five starts, ZERO top 10s, and an average finish of 25.3–but this is one of those weeks where you simply need to disregard those statistics. On similar tri-oval intermediate tracks this season, Bad Brad has been one of the best and has finished 11th or better in each of the last seven. I boldly predict (just kidding, this isn’t bold at all) that Keselowski will post a career-best finish at Texas this weekend. His current best is 14th, which came back in 2010.
7. Greg Biffle - Despite having a career average finish of 16.2 at Texas, this is actually one of the best tracks on the circuit to use Greg Biffle in fantasy racing. He’s always strong here but sometimes he simply doesn’t get the finish he deserves. However, as I stated earlier, The Biff is the most recent race winner at this track and is currently on an eight-race streak of top 10s here and has led an incredibly impressive 452 laps over that span. There’s no doubt in my mind that the #16 should be solidly inside the top 10 here on Sunday, but it is worth noting that this team has been disappointing on the tri-oval intermediate tracks as of late, with just one top 10 (at Charlotte) in the last five races. The other four results were: Kentucky (21st), Atlanta (15th), Chicago (13th), and Kansas (27th).
8. Denny Hamlin - Hamlin won both races here during the 2010 season but hasn’t done much since. In the three events at Texas since those two victories, Denny has finished 15th, 20th, and 12th and has led a grand total of zero laps. That being said, he’s been really strong on the tri-oval intermediate tracks as of late, posting a 3rd-place finish or better in five of the last seven. With two “stumble” weeks in a row, however, you have to wonder how that is affecting Denny Hamlin mentally, and whether or not that will show on the racetrack this weekend. In a perfect world, Hamlin would be a serious threat for a top 5 finish on Sunday (and maybe even a win), but this world is nowhere near perfect. In fourteen career starts at Texas Motor Speedway, Denny has an average finish of 10.3, which is good enough for third-best among active drivers.
9. Jeff Gordon - This ranking will most likely be too low when it’s all said and done on Sunday, but there are just other drivers that I like more than Jeff Gordon this weekend. As I stated earlier, he finished 4th here back in April and that was a follow-up to his 6th-place effort in this event last season. When you look at the recent tri-oval intermediate track races, however, the #24 hasn’t been as strong as expected (35th at Chicago–not his fault–18th at Charlotte, and 10th at Kansas). In twenty-three career starts at this track, Jeff Gordon has a career average finish of 16.2 but should improve upon that in the AAA Texas 500 on Sunday. I’m not expecting another top 5 out of him, though. He has one career victory at this track, which came back in 2009.
10. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - Yeah, he disappointed fantasy owners last week in Martinsville (myself included) but the #88 Chevrolet was still strong, in my opinion. This week we’re at Texas Motor Speedway and this venue is actually one of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s best tracks on the circuit. In twenty career starts here, he has collected eleven top 10 finishes and he won here back in 2000. Currently, Junior is on a three-race streak of top 10 finishes here and should make it four-straight on Sunday. When you look at the tri-oval intermediate track races this season, it may or may not surprise you that Earnhardt hasn’t finished outside of the top 10 in any of them.
11. Mark Martin - The one reason that I have Mark Martin outside of the top 10 this week is because the engine woes returned for him at Kansas a couple weeks ago. That may very well have been a fluke problem but the race this Sunday is a 500-mile event and that adds a little bit more worry into my mind. That being said, Mark was a solid top 5 car here last time around and his average finish of 13.3 here is sixth-best among active drivers. Also, in five of his last seven Texas starts, Martin has finished 6th or better, which shows you how much he likes this track. If the #55 doesn’t have another engine problem, Martin should be a very good pick on Sunday–I’m back to thinking that that’s a pretty big “if,” though.
12. Martin Truex, Jr. - Believe it or not, Truex has just one finish this season outside of the top 12 on the tri-oval intermediate tracks this season, and that was his 17th-place run at Las Vegas back in March. I know that the #56 Toyota has been strong this season but even that surprises me. Truex ended up 2nd in Kansas a couple weeks ago, and although I don’t think he’ll be that strong this weekend in Texas, a top 10 is nowhere out of the question for this team. As I mentioned before, he was 6th here last time around and that followed up his 8th-place finish in this event one year ago. Before his breakout season this year, Texas had actually been a pretty good track for Martin; he has finished inside the top 10 in half of his fourteen starts here and really Truex’s bad runs only happened due to either a wreck or engine problems.
13. Kevin Harvick – This team had an engine failure in Martinsville last weekend but I wouldn’t expect that to happen again, so you can probably count on Harvick for another finish between 11th and 16th. He finished 9th here back in April but that’s when this team was running a little better than they are now. I’m not sure what’s going on there but right now it looks like the #29 Chevrolet is the second-strongest car out of the RCR fleet every week. Happy has a career average finish of 12.7 here at Texas Motor Speedway and that is good enough for fourth-best among active drivers.
14. Tony Stewart - Smoke won this event last season but keep in mind that that was during his incredible run to win the championship. When you take that out of the equation, that is Tony’s only top 10 finish at this track since the start of the 2010 season. Still, with an average finish of 13.1, Smoke still has the fifth-best average finish here among active drivers and he finishes inside the top 10 more often than not. He’s a two-time winner at Texas and even though I don’t think the #14 has a shot on Sunday, it’s certainly possible (remember how strong this team was on the intermediates to start the season?). In recent tri-oval intermediate track races, Stewart has finished 5th (Kansas) and 6th (Chicago) among four races outside of the top 20 (both Charlotte races, Atlanta, and Kentucky).
15. Paul Menard - Paul has finished 15th or better in three of the last four Texas races and he should make it four in the last five on Sunday evening. This team has picked up right where they left off once Slugger Labbe came back and that includes their surprising 3rd-place run in Kansas a couple weeks ago. I’m not predicting a finish similar to that at all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the #27 Chevrolet flirted with the top 10 in the AAA Texas 500. Menard’s best run here came in 2011 when he finished 5th. Since the Charlotte race in May this team has been a top 15 machine on the tri-oval intermediate race tracks.
October 16, 2012
This week we’re at Kansas Speedway for the second time this season, but fantasy racers have an unknown variable to work with. The track was recently re-paved and progressive banking was added. Will there be much of a difference from the old Kansas to the new? Right now I don’t think anyone’s sure. There are testing sessions planned for Wednesday and Thursday so that will give us a little more of an idea. For the rankings below, however, I will be using past Kansas data along with some recent performances on intermediate tracks.
During The Last Race At Kansas…It was Martin Truex, Jr. who had the dominating car all afternoon (leading 173 of the 267 laps) but Denny Hamlin was the one who ended up in victory lane. Truex finished 2nd with Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, and Greg Biffle rounding out the top 5. Pole-sitter A.J. Allmendinger led the first 44 laps of the STP 400 but ended up 32nd when it was all said and done due to engine issues throughout the race.
Practice Schedule…After the testing sessions on Wednesday and Thursday, an official practice session will be held on Friday afternoon. It starts at 12:30 pm and will be followed by qualifying at 5:00. On Saturday, there are two more practices scheduled, the first beginning at 11:00 am and Happy Hour set to start at 1:30 pm. The Hollywood Casino 400 green flag should wave around 1:45 pm on Sunday. All times are in EST.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Hollywood Casino 400:
*Chase participants marked in red*
1. Jimmie Johnson – This isn’t “Jimmie’s House,” but it certainly is close. Five Time is a two-time winner at Kansas Speedway (the most recent victory coming in this race one year ago) and has an incredible average finish of 7.9 at the track, which is good enough for best in the series. Johnson has led 503 laps in his career at this venue and has had a driver rating of at least 99.5 in every single race here since NASCAR started keeping track of that in 2005. He almost always finishes up front at Kansas and has been the best on the intermediate tracks all season long. There’s absolutely no reason to go against the #48 this weekend, plain and simple. I’d actually consider Johnson almost a lock for a top 5 on Sunday.
2. Brad Keselowski – As I stated earlier, the Penske #22 car was really good here last time around, and Keselowski wasn’t too shabby either in the Blue Deuce (he finished 11th that day after leading two laps). Ever since Bad Brad jumped into Sprint Cup action, he’s been good at Kansas Speedway, actually. In his first start at this track (with Hendrick in 2009), he wound up 13th. He grabbed a win in the spring race here a year ago and followed that up with a solid 3rd-place effort in this event in the fall. There’s no reason to think that Keselowski will have a bad race this weekend. He’s had just one in the last fifteen Sprint Cup events, and that was the fluke race in Bristol in August. It also doesn’t hurt that the Blue Deuce gets the best fuel mileage in the garage, and with the way this Chase is going, the Hollywood Casino 400 could very well come down to that factor.
3. Denny Hamlin - Wouldn’t it be something if these three guys pulled off a “Tony Stewart vs. Carl Edwards, 2011″ type of run in these last five Chase races? It wouldn’t surprise me one bit, I’ll tell you that. As I said before, Hamlin won the race here last time around and should be challenging for a top 5 once again in the Hollywood Casino 400. He also ended up 3rd here last June and was 5th in the 2009 race at this track. All in all, Hamlin has just one finish worse than 12th in the last six Kansas races, and that was a 16th-place effort in this race one year ago. This race could be a deal-breaker for the #11 team, though. If Denny struggles on Sunday (Darian Grubb doesn’t have the best record here exactly), he could find himself out of the championship hunt–in my opinion, anyway. I don’t see that happening, though. This #11 Toyota has arguably been the strongest car in the Sprint Cup series over the last two months.
4. Greg Biffle – This will be the week that really shows whether or not Greg Biffle is back to mid-season form or not. Statistically, Kansas Speedway is the best track on the circuit for The Biff. He’s collected two victories here over his twelve career starts and has an incredible average finish of 8.0 at this track. When you take away his first attempt here, which was with Andy Petree Racing and where Biffle finished 36th, his average finish jumps up to a staggering 5.5. There’s no doubt that the #16 is right there alongside the #48 this season for the strongest on the intermediate tracks, and both should at least be challenging for top 5 finishes on Sunday.
5. Kasey Kahne – This team has regressed a bit over the last few weeks, but I’m not too worried. Kahne was the runner-up driver in this event last season (in the Red Bull car) and he followed that up with a solid 8th-place effort here back in April. What worries me a little bit, however, is the new track surface. Kahne tends to run the high line on the intermediate tracks, and usually when a track is re-surfaced, the low line is the place to be on race day. That being said, KK still ended up 3rd at Michigan in August, which also got a new surface before that race. This team is having a decently strong Chase and finished 3rd at Chicagoland a month ago. Keep an eye on the #5 in practice on Saturday.
6. Clint Bowyer – I’m sure you’ve heard it a few times already, but this team’s goal for the rest of the season is simple: keep on winning and the points standings will fall as they may. Sorry to say, but this team probably won’t win the championship even if they win every race from here on out (which they won’t, by the way). But still, Bowyer will probably be a popular pick this weekend in Kansas. This is his home track and he generally runs very well at it, although the stat sheet says different. Bowyer ended up 36th here back in April but that was due to an engine problem. He was 7th in this race one year ago, however, and is the most recent winner in the Sprint Cup series. On top of that, Clint has nine finishes inside the top 10 over the last eleven races, believe it or not. He should make it ten out of twelve on Sunday.
7. Jeff Gordon – At 11.1, Jeff Gordon has the fifth-best average finish at Kansas Speedway among active drivers. He’s collected two victories here in his thirteen starts (the most recent coming in 2002) and has finished 5th or better in five of the last seven events at this track. The bad news? The most recent two races were the ones where he broke that streak. Gordon wound up 34th here in this race one year ago (due to an engine problem) and never really got going here in April, where he qualified 20th and finished 21st. However, you have to consider how much stronger and consistent this team is now compared to six months ago. Gordon had a hiccup in Charlotte last weekend but should be able to get back on track here at Kansas on Sunday.
8. Matt Kenseth – I still don’t think he’s bounced back as much as his teammate, Greg Biffle, but Matt Kenseth and the #17 team is getting there. Kansas Speedway has been a really nice track for the ’03 champ, especially as of late. In the last six events at the track, Kenseth has ended up 7th or better in all but one of them, and the lone exception was due to an engine failure in the 2009 race. He’s never won here, but Matt has compiled four top 5 finishes alongside seven top 10s in thirteen career starts at this 1.5-mile venue. He’s not a lock for a top 10 on Sunday, so make sure the #17 Ford looks good in practice on Saturday.
9. Mark Martin – The race here at Kansas back in April was when I originally stopped trusting Mark Martin and the #55 Toyota’s engines. Boy have things changed. Martin no longer logs lap after lap after lap in practice and the cars have been super fast in the race for the last month (I’m not sure if those two things are related, but I’m going with it). Furthermore, Mark is finishing races. He ended up 6th at Charlotte last weekend and that makes it three finishes of 6th or better in his last four Sprint Cup starts. That also makes it four top 10s in his last five attempts. Back in April, Martin was running solidly inside the top 10 all day, but as I eluded to earlier, his engine let go and he finished 33rd. Unless that happens again on Sunday, expect a good run out of the #55 team.
10. Carl Edwards – When Cousin Carl makes it through a Kansas race without getting caught up in someone else’s wreck (video here), he’s pretty good. Even though he has slumped this season, Edwards still managed a 9th-place finish here back in April after qualifying 21st. That makes it eight finishes of 10th or better in the last nine Kansas races for Carl. He’s coming off a 7th-place effort at Charlotte last weekend and grabbed just his third top 5 of the season in Dover a few weeks ago. Could this team be turning things around for a late season surge, similar to Denny Hamlin last season? Only time will tell, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.
11. Martin Truex, Jr. – There are a whole lot of things to like about Martin Truex, Jr. and the #56 team this weekend. As I stated before, they had the absolute best car here last time around, and Truex has been one of the best in the series this year on the 1.5-mile race tracks. His 10th-place finish at Charlotte last weekend backs that up to a degree. However, there is one thing I don’t like about this team this weekend, and that is something entirely out of their control: the track. Truex really excels when he can work the high line in, and with the repavement, the fastest way around the track is probably going to be hugging the bottom. We’ll have to see what the cars look like in practice but I think this is something that goes against the #56 team this weekend. You can’t argue with the fact that Truex has been one of the best/safest picks on these cookie cutter tracks in 2012, though.
12. Kyle Busch – The #18 Toyota has been super fast week in and week out since the Chase started, and this driver will probably jump up in my final predictions on Saturday (you can find those at www.ifantasyrace.com). The fact of the matter is that Kyle Busch’s record at Kansas Speedway leaves a lot to be desired. Through ten career starts here, Rowdy has an average finish of 20th and has recorded just two top 10s. He has led 84 laps here in his career though, which is good enough for 11th-best among active drivers. Busch’s best effort at Kansas (7th) came during the 2006 season.
13. Joey Logano – This #20 team seems to have hit on something as of late, and like Mark Martin, you need to roll with them while they’re hot. With his 9th-place effort at Charlotte last weekend, Logano now has four top 10 finishes in the five Chase races ran thus far with the lone exception being his 32nd at Talladega. Qualifying has been a strong suit for Joey here at Kansas Speedway over the last two years (three top 5 qualifying efforts in four races) but he hasn’t been able to breakthrough with a great finish yet. His best effort at this track came in the spring when Sliced Bread started 3rd and finished 15th. His stats aren’t great at this track but that’s why Joey Logano is considered a darkhorse driver this weekend.
14. Kevin Harvick – Make that five straight weeks without a top 10 finish for this #29 team. They’re not running terrible by any means, but in most leagues you don’t want a teens finish out of a driver like Kevin Harvick. He may be able to turn things around in Kansas this weekend, though. Over the last seven races at this track, “Happy” has wound up 6th or better in five of them and he has just one finish outside of the top 11 over that span. His career average finish here is 13th. Right now I don’t think this team will turn things around this weekend in Kansas, but be sure to check out my predictions after Happy Hour on Saturday to get my final word. Those can be found at www.ifantasyrace.com.
15. Regan Smith – Okay, I’ll bite. I was a bit rough on this guy last weekend at Charlotte but he actually looked pretty good–although I hope you listened to me and didn’t pick him. We know he’s going to have some power under the hood this weekend and with the two testing sessions along with the practices this weekend, that should give Steve Letarte and the boys enough time to make Regan comfortable in the #88 car. Unless you hear that they plan on testing for the other Hendrick teams, feel free to take a shot with Smith this weekend. He’s finished 24th in the last three Kansas races but should be better than that in the Hollywood Casino 400.
Honorable Mention: Sam Hornish, Jr. The Double Deuce Penske car was really strong here last time around and Sammy got some of his mojo back in Charlotte last weekend with a solid 15th-place finish. He also finished 19th here back in April after starting 10th and leading seven laps. He was in the #12 Penske Dodge that weekend.
Those To Avoid Entering The Hollywood Casino 400:
Tony Stewart - This team is an enigma right now–heck, this whole organization, really–and has been really for the whole season except for the early months when the #14 Chevrolet was dominant at all the intermediates. And one thing I really don’t like on my fantasy team, especially in the final races, is a question mark. Smoke’s 13th-place effort at Charlotte last weekend makes it three straight Sprint Cup races without the #14 inside the top 10. He’s generally pretty good at Kansas Speedway (eight top 10s in thirteen starts, including two wins) but has finished 15th and 13th in his last two efforts. I prefer safer options at this time of the year in fantasy racing.
Danica Patrick - Yes, NASCAR’s favorite female is entered in the race this weekend, but unless you are in a league where you need to reach middle-of-the-Earth deep, there’s no reason to take the #10. What I will say about Danica, however, is that she is improving, and doing a whole lot better that I thought she would. In the last two intermediate races she’s been in (Charlotte and Atlanta), Patrick has ended up 25th and 29th. If for some reason this race in Kansas turns into a wreckfest, Danica might be able to gather her first top 20 finish in NASCAR’s top series. I wouldn’t count on that, though.
October 9, 2012
We can all take a big sigh of relief because there’s no more restrictor plate races on the schedule this year. If you had a great fantasy week in Talladega, congratulations, and you should probably go buy some lottery tickets. We have six weeks to go in the 2012 NASCAR season and the second race of the year at Charlotte Motor Speedway is this Saturday. Expect the points leaders to be up front from here on out because it’s crunch time and they are all elite teams.
During The Last Race At Charlotte…The Coca-Cola 600 was ran here back in May and it was Kasey Kahne who got the win for Hendrick Motorsports. He led 96 of the 400 laps that night. The Gibbs teammates of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch finished 2nd and 3rd (respectively) with Greg Biffle following them to the line and Brad Keselowski rounding out the top 5. The Biff led a race-high 204 laps that night.
Practice Schedule…We have what I like to call a “normal schedule” this weekend. It does, however, bring a disadvantage to fantasy racers in Yahoo!, as roster lockdowns are due before we see the cars on the track. The first practice session of the weekend will be on Thursday and starts at 3:30 pm. Qualifying is later that night with a start time of 7:00. On Saturday, the drivers will get even more track time with an additional practice session at 3:00 pm and Happy Hour starting at 5:30 pm. The Bank of America should start around 7:45 pm on Saturday. All times are in EST.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Bank of America 500:
*Chase drivers are marked in red*
1. Kyle Busch – Somehow Kyle Busch has never won at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but that will change sometime soon. Rowdy is consistently up front at this track and will be once again on Saturday night. In the last ten points-paying races at this track, Busch has recorded nine top 10 finishes, seven of which have also been top 5s. He’s also led a total of 726 laps in those ten races. Like I said, he’s good here, and it’s really surprising that he’s never won. Don’t be concerned if the #18 will start far back on Saturday; Busch was 3rd here last time around despite starting 17th, and he qualified in 25th for this race last season and wound up 2nd. This team has been super strong as of late and as long as they can finish the race on Saturday, Kyle should at least get a top 5 finish.
2. Denny Hamlin – Joe Gibbs Racing is strong here overall, and now that it is crunch time in the Chase, Denny Hamlin and the #11 team should step it up another notch performance-wise, which could be some bad news for the rest of the field. As I said earlier, Hamlin ended up 2nd here last time around and that made it four straight top 10s at this track for him. Denny should easily make that five straight on Saturday night. Like teammate Kyle Busch, Hamlin has never won at Charlotte, but that could change soon. This is the same team that has won three of the last seven Sprint Cup races and has been rolling out rocketships week in and week out. Barring a major meltdown by the #11, #48, or #2 team(s), those drivers should be contenders for a top 5 every week from here on out.
3. Kasey Kahne – Kahne’s struggles and successes tend to come in streaks at Charlotte Motor Speedway, so pick him while he’s hot. This team was in victory lane here back in May, and in this event last season Kasey ended up 4th while still with Red Bull Racing. This #5 team has struggled finishing races here as of late, but when they do it has always been a top 5, so it’s not like the cars have been slow. Most recently, KK ended up 3rd at Chicago, which is also a 1.5-mile race track. Kahne’s average finish at Charlotte in seventeen career starts has been 12.7, which is fifth-best in the series among active drivers. Statistically, this is his second-best track on the circuit. As long as he looks good in practice, you should be able to count on Kahne for a solid top 5 finish on Saturday night.
4. Jimmie Johnson – Five Time finished outside the top 10 here back in May (11th), but it’s Chase time now and this team has finished 6th or better in three of the last four fall races at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In case you forgot, Johnson won the All-Star Race earlier this season and used to absolutely dominate this track up until it was repaved before the 2007 season, and by dominant I’m talking eight finishes of 3rd or better in a row, five of which were wins. Yeah, it was almost unbelievable at the time. Jimmie and crew chief Chad Knaus know that they have to make up some points on Brad Keselowski this weekend, so I expect them to be aggressive yet conservative at the same time on Saturday. Either way, I expect Johnson to challenge for a top 5, although I don’t see him winning right now. A couple solid practice sessions on Friday could easily change my mind, though.
5. Brad Keselowski – Bad Brad survived the race at Talladega and now has a 14 point lead with six races remaining. In my opinion, the Sprint Cup championship is his to lose now (click here to read my article on that). He’ll need a good run here at Charlotte on Saturday night, but that shouldn’t be too hard. Keselowski ran 5th here back in May and finished 2nd in the All-Star Race to Jimmie Johnson. This team has also been on an absolute tear lately with only one finish outside of the top 10 in the last fourteen races. I don’t think the media has given this enough attention so I’m going to continue to mention it. That’s not easy to do and it shows exactly how strong this Penske team is. In my opinion, BK has put himself into the “elite” drivers category, and elite drivers perform when they need to. The Blue Deuce should at least be in the top 10 on Saturday night, but I’m betting a top 5 is more likely for this team.
6. Matt Kenseth – I’m being a little optimistic with Kenseth this weekend, hoping that the win at Talladega jumpstarts this team. To say that they struggled in August and September would be a major understatement. Still, Charlotte has been a very good track for Kenseth, especially as of late. He won this race in 2011 and his 10th-place finish here back in May made it six finishes of 10th or better in the last seven points-paying races at this track. The lone exception? A 14th-place effort in the 2011 Coca Cola 600, and Matt led over 100 laps that day. Kenseth is a two-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and although I don’t see him adding a third on Saturday night, a fifteenth top 10 at this track isn’t out of the question. If the #17 looks off during practice on Friday, however, expect Matt to fall in my final rankings this weekend.
7. Jeff Gordon – With his 2nd-place finish at Talladega last weekend, that now makes it six finishes or 3rd or better in the last seven Sprint Cup Series events for Jeff Gordon. Not too bad. Although I don’t see him making that seven of the last eight here at Charlotte on Saturday, a top 5 isn’t out of the question for this team. The #24 has had top 5 power week in and week out for the last two months it seems, and it doesn’t hurt that Gordon’s teammate, Kasey Kahne, won here back in May. Jeff ended up 7th in that event, and that broke a three-race streak of finishes 20th or worse for him at this track. Gordon is a five-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway and has finished inside the top 10 in 53.8% of his starts here. He should have no trouble improving upon that percentage this weekend.
8. Kevin Harvick – Believe it or not, nobody in the series has a better average finish at Charlotte over the last five points-paying races than Kevin Harvick. In those events, “Happy” has finished 11th or better in all of them, and that includes his win in the 2011 Coca Cola 600. He ended up 8th here back in May, and Harvick hasn’t finished worse than 13th in Sprint Cup action since August. I’m slowly gaining faith in this #29 team again. Kevin’s career average finish here over twenty-three career starts has been 18.1, but that has been skewed a bit in my opinion. Since the repavement before the 2007 season, Harvick has really turned things around at Charlotte. I’m penciling him in for a top 10 finish on Saturday night right now.
9. Greg Biffle – The Biff’s success this weekend, like his teammate, Matt Kenseth’s, will depend on whether or not the Roush-Fenway Fords have gotten back on track. This organization has struggled as a whole here lately, and you have to keep that in mind before picking any of them this weekend. Strictly looking at recent races here at Charlotte, though, Biffle should be a pretty good pick on Saturday. As I stated earlier, the #16 was out front for a race-high 204 laps here back in May, and that makes it three straight races at this track that Biffle has led 50 or more laps. As you probably remember, 2011 was a season of not finishing for this #16 team, and he ended up outside the top 10 in both of those races despite having a much better car than that. I have faith that the Roush organization will bounce back this weekend, but make sure they look good in practice before picking any of the Roushkateers.
10. Martin Truex, Jr. – The #56 Toyota has been one of the best on the 1.5-mile race tracks this season, but the exception was here at Charlotte back in May. They weren’t terrible, but they still weren’t as fast as they were in the other races. Still, Truex finished 12th in this year’s Coca Cola 600 and should challenge for a top 10 on Saturday night, something he hasn’t achieved at this track since 2009. In fourteen career starts here, Martin owns an average finish of 19.4, but he does know how to get around here, as Truex has won the Sprint Showdown twice in his career. He’s really a driver that could go either way on Saturday, but right now I think that the #56 Toyota will be in the mix for a top 10 this weekend. Then again, Truex does have four finishes outside of the top 20 in the last seven points-paying Charlotte races.
11. Joey Logano – Up until this year’s Coca Cola 600, Joey Logano had an incredible record here at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It’s still pretty impressive–Logano’s 10.3 average finish is the best in the series–but it’s a little concerning that the #20 was good enough for just a 23rd-place finish in May. Up until this season, Sliced Bread finished 13th or better in all six of his starts at this race track, four of which were top 10s (including two top 5s). This team has turned things around as of late, and if the #20 Toyota is fast off the truck, make sure you keep Logano in your mind on Saturday when you make your picks. As I said before, the Gibbs organization has been very strong here over the years, and actually has the best average finish of all Cup organizations at Charlotte since 2010.
12. Carl Edwards – As I said before, I’m expecting the Roush Fords to complete their turnaround this weekend. Cousin Carl finished 9th here last time around, which is actually pretty good for this team considering how their season has gone this year. Over the last five points-paying races at Charlotte, Carl has the seventh-best average driver rating (94.8) among active drivers and the fifth-best average finish (11.2). Statistically, this is Edwards’ eighth-best track on the circuit, and he has posted nine top 10s in fifteen career starts here. Obviously it’s hard to trust the #99 this season, but this team did have that top 5 run back in Dover a couple weeks ago (if that eases your mind about picking Carl).
13. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – NASCAR’s favorite driver finished 6th here back in May, but that was then and this is now. It’s no secret that the #88 is in a slump, and it doesn’t look like their coming out of it anytime soon. I could be wrong, but I don’t see Junior ending up better than the mid-teens on Saturday night. In twenty-six career starts here at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Earnhardt has a career average finish of 18.9 and just eleven top 10s. In the last five fall events here, he hasn’t been able to finish better than 19th. That should change this weekend, but I don’t think it will be excessively better. The #88 did run 8th back at Chicago recently, though, so pay attention to the #88 in practice on Friday.
14. Clint Bowyer – Bowyer just isn’t great at Charlotte, but it’s not like he’s terrible, either. The #15 team walked away with a 13th-place finish here back in May after qualifying 5th, and that made it four straight points-paying races that Bowyer failed to crack the top 10 at this track. In thirteen career starts here, he has an average finish of 17.5 and has been able to muster just three top 10s. Chances are, if you play Yahoo!, you’re running low on Bowyer starts, and this is not the track that you want to use him at, especially with your last start. He finished 10th at Chicago a few weeks ago.
15. Mark Martin – Martin finished 34th here back in May, but don’t read too much into that; he was solidly inside the top 15 all night until his engine gave out with about 60 laps to go (big surprise, huh?). Lately, however, this team seems to have figured out their engine woes, which I personally believe is due to the fact that Mark doesn’t log lap after lap in practice like he did earlier this season. In the eight points-paying races at Charlotte from 2007 to 2010, Martin never finished worse than 17th, and I’m expecting a solid top 15 out of him on Saturday night. If he looks really fast in practice, I might bump up my prediction a little bit, but I like him a lot more on the shorter tracks. For whatever reason, he tends to disappoint when the track gets above 1 mile in length.
***NOTE***: Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. are both scheduled to attempt the race at Charlotte this weekend.
Those To Avoid Entering The Bank of America 500:
Jeff Burton - Yeah, he had a top 10 last week, but really the only time you should pick Jeff Burton is when a plate race rolls around. The #31 will be good for a top 20 finish on Saturday night, but that’s not what you want in these final six races. Jeff was good–and by good I’m talking a win in 2008 five finishes of 6th or better in six races–at Charlotte up until 2009. In the six races since he’s only been able to muster one top 15 finishes.
Tony Stewart - For whatever reason, Smoke just isn’t very good at Charlotte. He finished 8th in this race last season but that was in the midst of his incredible run during the Chase, so you have to put an asterisk by that. That is Stewart’s only top 10 at this track in the last nine points-paying races here, and I don’t expect him to compete come Saturday night. This team struggled mightily in the Coca Cola 600, finished 25th after qualifying 21st. The time to pick Smoke at Charlotte was before the repave.