Fantasy NASCAR Preview: Chicago – Geico 400
by Jordan McAbee, Special To NASCAR news, fantasy racing advice and statistics On Pit Row
I am a fantasy NASCAR junkie. In addition to my preview articles on OnPitRow, I also post weekly practice breakdown and race prediction articles at www.ifantasyrace.com . Follow me on Twitter: @FanNASCARPredicSeptember 14, 2011 8:00 am UTC No Comments
With NASCAR’s regular season coming to an end last Saturday night, it’s finally time for the top 12 drivers to buckle down and decide who will be the 2011 champion. This year’s Chase kicks off (for the first time) at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday afternoon, and it may be an interesting race because the Sprint Cup Series has never ran at this track this late into the year. Since 2001, which was when the series first ran here, the Sprint Cup teams have made one visit per season to Chicago and it has always been in July. Will we see some familiar faces up front on Sunday afternoon? I guess we’ll find out…
During The Last Race At Chicago…Of the 267 laps ran here last July, four drivers accounted for leading all but 4 of them: Jimmie Johnson (92), pole-sitter Jamie McMurray (72), Jeff Gordon (47), and race winner David Reutimann (52). Following Reutty to the line that day was Carl Edwards, Gordon, Clint Bowyer, and Jamie Mac rounded out the top five. “Five Time” was running up front all day before spinning out and ended up finishing in 25th, one lap down.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Geico 400:
*Chase participants are marked in red*
1. Jeff Gordon – The team with the most momentum (yes, even more than Brad Keselowski) heading into the Chase is this team and Jeff Gordon. I thought that they really struggled on the intermediate tracks earlier in the year, but this team has really turned things around on the “cookie cutters” as of late, with a win at Atlanta, a 6th-place effort at Michigan, and a 10th-place finish at Kentucky in July. Statistically, Chicagoland is Gordon’s third-best track on the circuit with an average finish of 8.6 in ten career races here. He visited victory lane here in 2006 and in his last two starts here, Jeff has a 2nd and a 3rd-place finish to his name.
2. Jimmie Johnson – Chicago has been a great track for old “Five Time” and now with the race here being one of the ten Chase spots, expect to see the #48 Chevrolet near the front once it’s all said and done on Sunday. Johnson has the second-most laps led here (with 326) and has seven top 10s in nine career starts at this track. Jimmie has two finishes outside of the top 20 at Chicagoland but has led at least 82 laps in both of those races, so it’s not like he had a bad car for them. When you take those two efforts away, Johnson has an average finish of 4th. Despite having never visited victory lane at this race track, expect “The Champ” to be contending for the win on Sunday.
3. Kyle Busch – “Rowdy” Busch isn’t great at Chicago, but it is nowhere near his worst track (it’s actually 8th out of the 23 the series visits in terms of average finish). He won here from the pole back in 2008 and Kyle also has a 3rd-place effort to his credit, which came back in 2006. The #18 Toyota has been a top 5 car on most of the intermediate tracks this season and I don’t expect that to change on Sunday. However, Busch isn’t running as strong as normal lately, and his average finish at this track (13.5) doesn’t make him an absolute lock this weekend. Keep an eye on Kyle Busch in practice and be sure to check back in at www.ifantasyrace.com this weekend after qualifying to see where “Rowdy” ends up on my final predictions. Going into the race, though, I see Busch as a top 5 threat.
4. Carl Edwards – Cousin Carl finally says this team is back to where they need to be, and I don’t disagree with him. After their little stumble in mid-August, this #99 team finally looks championship-caliber again with two-straight top 5s, and just in time with the Chase starting. At Chicagoland, Edwards has been decent in six career starts, with two top 5s but also two finishes outside of the top 30. He has only led 17 laps in his career here, but I fully expect Carl Edwards to be a force this weekend.
5. Tony Stewart - Two drivers in the Sprint Cup Series have multiple wins at Chicagoland Speedway: “Smoke” and Kevin Harvick. Stewart has ran in all ten races held here and owns eight top 10s and an average finish of 9.5. Of those eight top 10s, seven have been top 5s, and Tony has led the most laps of anyone at this race track. With top 10s at Atlanta and Richmond, Stewart locked himself into the Chase, and I fully expect this team to continue this little streak that they are on and be a contender on Sunday. At the intermediate tracks this year, Stewart has been as good as anyone, with top 10s at Las Vegas, Kansas, Michigan (twice), and Atlanta. When you look at all of the other “cookie cutters,” “Smoke” hasn’t finished lower than 13th at any of them except for Charlotte.
6. Kurt Busch – The elder Busch brother has had his share of struggles at Chicagoland Speedway, but he has also found success. In ten career starts, Busch has five top 10s but also four finishes outside of the top 20, which explains his average finish of 18.1. He hasn’t had a top 10 at Chicago since 2007, but with the way this team is running lately (two straight top 5s) and how the Double Deuce has been on the intermediate tracks (4th at Atlanta, 9th at Kentucky, 9th at Kansas, 10th at Texas, and 9th at Las Vegas) this season I fully expect another strong showing out of Kurt Busch this weekend. Don’t expect a good qualifying effort out of him, though, as Busch’s average start here is 22.1 over his ten starts.
7. Kevin Harvick – The last two visits to Chicagoland haven’t kept Harvick too happy, but from 2006 to 2008 he recorded three straight top 5s and won each of his first two starts at this track, leading a combined 142 laps. I never like going against the most recent winner, and with Harvick dominating in Richmond like he did last weekend, there is even less of a chance of me not picking him on Sunday. He hasn’t been great at the intermediates this season, but Harvick did finish 7th at Atlanta earlier this month and won at at California in March. Unless he looks slow in practice and doesn’t have a very good qualifying effort, Kevin Harvick should be a good pick at Chicago this year.
8. Matt Kenseth – Kenseth’s record isn’t stellar at Chicago, but in ten career starts, Matt has a worst finish of 23rd and just two finishes outside of the top 15. This team has been on top of their game at many of the “cookie cutter” races this season, but lately they haven’t been as strong as many would expect (Michigan and Atlanta come to mind). Kenseth still posted top 10s in both of those races, but top 5s were expected for each by many experts. I’m being conservative in ranking the #17 Ford in 8th going into this weekend’s race, although Kenseth does have a good chance at a solid top 5 or maybe even his first victory at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday.
9. Denny Hamlin – After the race at Richmond was all said and done, and Hamlin driving his ass off to stay in the title hunt, I’m not 100% sure what to expect out of the #11 Toyota this weekend. I think Hamlin will either be a good pick for another solid top 10, or this team will completely fall apart and disappoint fantasy owners. The former is more likely in my mind, though, so I’m ranking Denny 9th going into the weekend. Hamlin has made five career starts at Chicagoland and has an average finish of 16.8, although the last two races here have ended with him in 5th and 8th.
10. Brad Keselowski – Last week in Richmond proved one thing to me: this Blue Deuce team is capable of keeping up with the tracking and adjusting the car better than many people–myself included–thought they could. I think his hot streak is going to end eventually (sooner rather than later) but until that happens, Keselowski still has to be considered one of the better picks, especially if you’re playing in the Yahoo! fantasy racing. BK has made two starts at Chicagoland Speedway and has finished 32nd and 18th, but you should know by now not to go off of his history during this hot streak he’s on.
11. A.J. Allmendinger – The Dinger has momentum on his side (five straight top 12 finishes) coming into this weekend’s race, and the series is stopping at a track where he has had some good runs, too. Statistically this is Allmendinger’s third-best track on the circuit, and even though in three career starts his best finish is just 13th, A.J. has never finished worse than 14th here. Recently, Allmendinger finished 10th at Atlanta and 11th at Michigan. Unless the #43 Ford looks way off in practice, expect The Dinger to hang around the top 10 for most of the day on Sunday.
12. Ryan Newman – “The Rocketman” has quietly been a very consistent driver over the last two and a half months, and while I don’t think he has a chance to win the championship this season, Newman has the potential to make some noise in this year’s Chase. At the intermediate tracks this season, the #39 team has been pretty good, with top 10s at Michigan (twice), Kentucky, California, and Las Vegas. Even when Newman hasn’t ran great at this type of track this season, he still manages a solid finish (14th at Texas, 15th at Kansas, and 20th at Atlanta). Newman has five top 10s in nine career starts at Chicagoland and won here in 2003.
13. Clint Bowyer – If Bowyer messed up your fantasy roster in Richmond, make sure you forget about it this week. He was driving like an idiot for most of the race and would have had a shot at the win if he didn’t try so hard so early. That’s a good thing to see, though, because even though Bowyer didn’t get the finish, he did have a good car, and should have a decent Chevrolet in Chicago this weekend. At this track, Clint has four top 10s in five career starts and an average finish of 10.8. This team is still in a major slump, though–with just one top 10 in the last two and a half months–but the #33 has been a good pick for a teens finish at the “cookie cutter” race tracks this season and I don’t see that changing in Chicago.
14. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – In the last eight Sprint Cup Series races, NASCAR’s golden boy has really established himself as a consistent, yet average driver. Over the span, Junior has six finishes between 14th and 16th, and the other two races (Pocono and Atlanta) ended with Earnhardt in 9th and 19th-place, respectively. Until he gets off this streak of consistent mediocrity, Junior will continue to be ranked as a mid-teens driver in my mind. At Chicagoland, Dale has one win in ten career starts and an average finish of 16th, which is right where he should finish on Sunday as well.
15. Jamie McMurray – Another fairly consistent driver over the past month and a half has been Jamie Mac, who earlier in the year many people–myself included–written off. However, like I said in my Predictions article last week, you have to have a short memory when it comes to fantasy racing. Since McMurray’s 4th-place finish at Indianapolis in July, his worst finish has been 23rd and he has three finishes between 14th and 17th (two coming in the last two race) as well as his 5th-place effort at Bristol. Last July, Jamie started on the pole at Chicagoland and led 72 laps before ultimately finishing 5th. I’m expecting another teens finish out of this #1 team on Sunday.
Note: For those looking for a solid “start saver” pick in Yahoo! this weekend, Trevor Bayne is scheduled to race the #21 Ford on Sunday.
Those To Avoid Entering The Geico 400:
Greg Biffle – The Biff is generally a really good pick when it comes to intermediate tracks, but this year has just been a different story for him. Recent “cookie cutter” races have ended with Biffle in 12th (Atlanta), 20th (Michigan), 21st (Kentucky), and 15th (Michigan). He’ll probably be good for a solid top 20 finish this weekend, but there are much better options. Biffle has one top 10 finish in eight career races at Chicagoland Speedway.
Joey Logano – “Sliced Bread” has just two top 20s in the last month and a half of Sprint Cup racing (seven races) and while I think he has the capability of finishing there on Sunday, you don’t win fantasy championships by picking teens drivers every week. Logano has made two career starts at Chicagoland and has 18th and 19th-place efforts to his name. I wouldn’t expect much better out of this team this weekend.
Marcos Ambrose – Marcos showed some promise at the intermediate tracks earlier in the 2011 season, but lately it has been a different story. Ambrose finished 21st at Atlanta, 27th at Michigan, and 20th at Kentucky. That’s a long ways away from his 4th-place run at Las Vegas in March and his 6th-place finish at Texas in April. In two career starts at Chicago, the Tasmanian has an 11th and a 28th to his credit. Between those two, I think the latter is much more likely to happen on Sunday.