Fantasy owners have trouble figuring out this ‘Lady’

By Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM
May 09, 2012 11:05 AM, EDT

Last week was tough on nerves, tough on
equipment, and tough on points for several drivers who did not need any
more obstructions to their Chase hopes. Physically, Talladega is one of
the easiest tracks on drivers. Other than muscle strain from tensing up
for 500 miles while waiting for someone in front of them to make a
mistake that triggers the Big One, there is little movement inside the
cockpit, but that all changes this week as the series visits the Track
Too Tough to Tame.

Darlington is just plain tough. It requires the
same precision as Talladega, only instead of banging into another car,
drivers run the risk of scrapping the wall. Other cars have some
flexibility built into the sheet metal; the Darlington wall is
unyielding. Today’s stock car is extremely durable, but even they can
take only so much damage. One problem is that the natural groove on this
1.366-mile track is located about three feet outside the retaining wall
— and that was before the instillation of SAFER barriers that took
even more race track away from the drivers.

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Another problem is the surface is abrasive and
the tight radius of the corners put a heavy load on tires. Even after a
recent repaving in 2007, tires wear out quickly and conventional wisdom
says that it’s time to come for a fresh set of rubber every time the
yellow flag waves. That conventional wisdom was wrong last year; Regan Smith stayed on track with old tires to hold off a determined charge of Carl Edwards and that will only add to the headache this week as crew chiefs wrack their brains for the correct strategy.

No Comparison

Crew chiefs will have a unique set of problems
this weekend, but so do fantasy owners. Prior to 2004, players had as
much data on this track as they did on restrictor-plate superspeedways
because the senior series ran four races on rough-surfaced tracks at
Rockingham and Darlington. North Carolina Speedway was down to one date
in 2004 and off the schedule completely in 2005, while Darlington’s
schedule was trimmed to one race that year. Suddenly, the data pool all
but evaporated.

Players may find a little inspiration in Dover with its concrete corners. Drivers like Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman
have similar records on those tracks, but this track is unparalleled in
toughness. Because it is easy to make mistakes at Darlington, streaks
can be hard to sustain. Last year, only three of the top-10 finishers
also finished that well in the 2010 event. That was marked by a long
green flag segment near the end of the race that allowed Edwards to lap
all but 18 drivers. When caution waved to determine if Jeff Burton
had dropped fluid on the track with a strained engine, the gloves came
off and a shoving match on the penultimate restart jumbled the lineup.
Perennial favorites like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson lost ground in the pits and on track, while aggressive drivers like Brad Keselowski and Truex surged forward.

By the numbers, this should be a relatively easy
race to handicap. Concentrate on veterans with a history of success,
leave the young guns in the garage, don’t roll the dice on dark horses,
and then all should be well. But there is still that little voice in the
back of one’s head that whispers: “What about Smith? What about
Keselowski? Who will be this week’s surprise?” Of course, listening to
little voices in one’s head often signals madness.

The Favorites

Jeff Gordon finished 12th in last year’s edition
of this race. Some excuse could be made for how the ending evolved
because he has struggled on restarts in recent seasons and there were
two quick yellows at the end of the race. Before the final cycle of
green flag stops, Gordon was running comfortably in fourth and that has
significance. If the race had continued without a caution, he would
probably have scored his eighth consecutive top-five, which is
remarkable on a track where streaks are hard to sustain. Gordon won the
2007 race on the newly repaved circuit and that was his seventh victory
on this track. Following his accident in Talladega, he absolutely needs
to reverse the No. 24 team’s fortune or his Chase is going to be
determined by his ability to win multiple races in the race to the Chase
for the Championship — the final 10 regular season events. NASCAR
awards the most markers to the winner, and Gordon needs every point he
can get.

Ryan Newman is at his best on rough-surfaced
tracks. His career-best average finish of 11.5 in 20 races came on the
concrete canyons of Dover, but he is almost as good at Darlington with
an 11.6 in 13 starts. North Carolina Speedway was his fifth strongest
track and those numbers all contribute to his being one of this week’s
favorites. Newman lacks the long streak that Gordon had, but not by
much. His last nine attempts at Darlington have resulted in seven
top-10s, which were interrupted by a blown engine in 2004 and some
trouble on the track in 2008. Since winning at Martinsville five weeks
ago, he has slipped off your competition’s radar screen with four
consecutive results of 15th or worse, but that only makes him a better
value since he will be underutilized.

Denny Hamlin
is best known as a flat track master and in games where he can only be
started a limited number of times, he should be saved for tracks like
Martinsville, Phoenix, New Hampshire, Pocono and other minimally-banked
courses. In the NASCAR Live game, however, he’s going to be one of this
week’s best values. In six previous starts on this track, he has never
stumbled. Even a 13th-place finish in 2009 showed an improvement of 10
positions from his qualification of 23rd. Hamlin has finished on the
lead lap in every one of his Darlington starts, which helps put him in a
position to win — and that is precisely what he did in the 2010 event.

Fantasy Showdown

Darlington

Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

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Dark Horses

It may very well be an indication of insanity,
but players might want to listen to one of those voices in their head.
Keselowski climbed from 12th on Lap 348 to third at the checkers last
year. He did that with a little strategy and a lot of aggressive driving
that kept drivers with fresher tires from simply gobbling him up on
this one-groove track. His confidence level has grown exponentially in
the races since then by making the 2011 Chase and winning last week at
Talladega. The only negative about his potential this week is Darlington
has a way of humbling drivers who are too cocky, but Keselowski has
avoided that fate in three starts and has a perfect sweep of the top 15
to show for his self-assurance.

Jamie McMurray
has been knocking on the door of a top-10 in recent races and he may be
welcomed inside by the Lady in Black this week. He finished 14th in
three consecutive events from Texas through Richmond and then stayed out
of trouble in Talladega to finish 11th. Even with that solid
performance, he is not getting the same amount of media attention as
some other drivers in the field and that could make him a great
differentiator. He is one of only three drivers with back-to-back
top-10s on this track — Hamlin and Newman are favorites in part because
they are the other two — and McMurray came close to adding his name to
the record books as a Darlington winner in 2010 by finishing in the
runner-up position.

Underdogs

Clint Bowyer
survived a late-race incident last week in Talladega to finish in the
top 10. That was expected of him after entering the week with three
consecutive first- or second-place results on that track — and in fact,
a sixth-place finish was probably a little disappointing for the driver
of the No. 15 — that would seem like a gift from the gods compared to
his past three Darlington races. The Lady in Black has been aloof since
2009; his best effort in that span of time came on this track last year
when he crashed out of the race four laps from the scheduled distance to
set up a green-white-checkered finish. He was an innocent bystander in a
dustup between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, but luck is a part of this game.

Kevin Harvick also came out on the short end of the
late-race incident last year when he, Busch, and another driver tried to
go three-wide in a corner that was originally designed for about
three-fourths of one car. It would be easy to write that off as bad
luck, which could make Harvick a dark horse since they were battling for
eighth at the time. But the driver of the No. 29 has rarely been
stellar on this track. He finished second in the 2003 race, but in the
nine races held at Darlington since then, he has failed to score another
top-five, has only two top-10s, and enough misery to give him an
average finish of 20th.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Darlington (past three years)
Pos. Driver PA*

Pos. Driver PA*

Pos. Driver PA*
1. Jeff Gordon 5.90   16. David Reutimann 18.48   30. Casey Mears 31.94
2. Kyle Busch 7.80   17. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 19.48   31. Scott Speed 32.12
3. Kasey Kahne 8.18   18. Matt Kenseth 20.04   32. Travis Kvapil 33.35
4. Ryan Newman 8.21   19. Kurt Busch 20.46   33. David Gilliland 35.68
5. Jamie McMurray 8.44   20. Joey Logano 21.08   34. David Stremme 35.72
6. Tony Stewart 8.93   21. Clint Bowyer 21.48   35. Scott Riggs 35.80
7. Denny Hamlin 8.96   22. Juan Montoya 21.54   36. Reed Sorenson 35.88
8. Martin Truex Jr. 9.00   23. Regan Smith 24.04   37. Dave Blaney 37.88
9. Kevin Harvick 9.79   24. David Ragan 26.20   38. Landon Cassill 37.89
10. Jeff Burton 14.32   25. Bobby Labonte 26.92   39. Mike Bliss 38.00
11. Brad Keselowski 14.65   26. Marcos Ambrose 27.64   40. Joe Nemechek 40.00
12. Greg Biffle 14.75   27. Aric Almirola 28.00   41. Michael McDowell 40.65
13. Mark Martin 15.07   28. Paul Menard 29.88   42. Mike Skinner 40.89
14. Jimmie Johnson 16.35   29. AJ Allmendinger 30.12   43. JJ Yeley 40.94
15. Carl Edwards 17.10  

* The Power Average</em> is the average finish during the
past three years, plus the number of laps spent in the lead, in the top
five, and in the top 10 expressed as if they were finishing results. For
example a driver who has led the most laps receives a hypothetical
first-place finish, the driver who leads the second most laps receives a
hypothetical second-place finish, and so on. This rewards drivers who
competed at the front of the pack for the majority of the race, even if
an unfortunate event takes them out of contention at the very end of the
race. A driver’s recent record in the support series is also factored
in, as is his average running position as provided by NASCAR Statistical
Services. Failures to qualify are credited to the driver as if they
were a finishing position (i.e. the first non-qualifier is assigned a
44th-place finish). Darlington has no current comparative track, so the
Fantasy Power Rankings this week is based on that track alone.

The End

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