Hamlin, Busch the headline acts at Richmond

By Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM

April 25, 2012 1:19 PM, EDT

The Kansas preview began with this statement: “If you fared well in last week’s Samsung Mobile 500, it’s time to double down.”

Did you listen?

Last week, eight of the top-10 finishers came
from the ranks of those who finished in the top 10 at Texas. The two who
did not come from those ranks finished 11th and 12th at Texas. Among
those drivers, five finished within one position of their Texas result: Jimmie Johnson was second at Texas and third at Kansas; Matt Kenseth was fifth and fourth; Kasey Kahne was seventh and eighth; Carl Edwards was eighth and ninth; Kyle Busch was 11th and 10th. That close pattern repeated itself through the field with Jamie McMurray (14th) and Paul Menard (18th) finishing identically in both events, which meant it was not a statistical anomaly.

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This week, fantasy owners will have a little
more variety. Strong teams are strong everywhere, but the short, flat
tracks of Richmond, Martinsville, Phoenix and New Hampshire are drivers’
tracks that reward skill behind the wheel in addition to flat out
horsepower. Traditionally, these tracks have been prone to streaks, but
recently the status quo has been shaken up and no one enters the week
with three consecutive top-10s on tracks 1 mile or less in length with
banking of 14 degrees or less.

Still, last week provided a bridge of sorts. Before Brad Keselowski
helped track officials tear up the asphalt so it can be repaved and
reconfigured, Kansas was banked at only 15 degrees in the corner, which
made it one of the flattest similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks on the
circuit. Denny Hamlin‘s victory could be a portent of things to come.

A perfect little track

There are some configurations and track sizes
that seem to be perfectly suited to racing. Richmond is one of these.
Its minimal banking is offset by a wide, sweeping frontstretch that
allows cars to maintain momentum. This three-quarters-mile track managed
to develop multiple-groove racing without the addition of progressive
banking and it has long been one of the fan favorites.

Fantasy owners should feel kindly disposed to
it, as well. While the action is great, drivers also can find a safe
place to run in the middle stages of a Richmond race and only put
themselves in harm’s way when the money and points are on the line.
Avoiding trouble allows drivers to string together long top-10 streaks.
And while this has been difficult lately on the short, flat tracks
collectively, three drivers enter the weekend with three consecutive
top-10s at Richmond specifically — and five racers posted back-to-back
single-digit results last year.

Conspicuously absent from that list are the
three drivers who have been dominating the past couple of weeks.
Johnson, Kenseth and Greg Biffle
all struggled in at least one of last year’s Richmond races, which
underscores the likelihood that some fresh faces will grace the front of
the field.

The Favorites

Hamlin would have been the favorite this week
regardless of how he raced at Kansas, but momentum never is a bad thing.
He wasn’t expected to run particularly strong on that cookie-cutter
course because the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks have not been
kind to Joe Gibbs Racing in recent events, but since this was one of the
flatter courses, he couldn’t be ignored. The team certainly took Kansas
seriously and kept the No. 11 in the top 10 all afternoon — making the
right adjustments in the final segment of the race and getting Hamlin
on and off pit road with perfect strategy. The short, flat courses have
long been one of Hamlin’s best track types and he returned to top form
with a victory at Phoenix in Week 2 of this season and finished sixth at
Martinsville at the beginning of April. Momentum and a stellar record
on this track type give Hamlin a perfect opportunity to win back-to-back
races for the first time since June 2010 when he grabbed the checkers
at Pocono and Michigan.

Busch has been waiting for his opportunity to
challenge for a victory and it will come this week. He’s been great on
this track in the past three years, but he’s been practically
unstoppable in the spring. He won this race last year; in fact, he’s won
the spring race in each of the past three years and before that
finished second in back-to-back spring races in 2007 and ’08. While he
has had two slight stumbles in the fall, he never has finished outside
the top five in a spring Richmond race, so fantasy owners can start him
with a high level of confidence.

Short, flat tracks are not overly kind to
Roushketeers, but that did not keep Kenseth from the top five at
Martinsville. It’s not going to keep Edwards from racing with the
leaders this weekend, either. This course configuration is a mixture of
short tracks such as the ones on which nearly all drivers cut their
teeth, and the 2-mile unrestricted, intermediate speedways of Auto Club
and Michigan. Edwards is famously strong on those courses and he’s
converted that into solid runs on this short track, as well, with three
top-fives in the past two years and a perfect sweep of the top 10.
Edwards does not yet have a top-10 in two short, flat track starts this
season, but he ended 2011 with four consecutive such finishes including a
second at Richmond in the fall.

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Dark Horses

Based on his record on short, flat tracks in
2010 and ’11, Keselowski has to be considered a dark horse this week. In
16 races on this track type, he earned only two top-10s and had an
average finish of 19.2. Mediocre runs outside the top 15 at Martinsville
and Phoenix hurt him in the Chase and this was one program that had to
be improved for Penske Racing. Keselowski did just that in 2012. He
finished fifth at Phoenix and was ninth at Martinsville, which means
that he already has replicated all the success he experienced two
seasons prior. Keselowski also has a victory at Bristol, and while these
two short tracks are dissimilar in terms of banking and even length,
drivers have to be able to negotiate heavy traffic in order to be
successful on them.

Joey Logano‘s
season is beginning to look like a bell curve. He started out strong
with a pair of top-10s in the first two weeks, slipped to 16th in
consecutive events in Weeks 3 and 4, and then slid into the 20s at Auto
Club and Martinsville. In the past two weeks, he has made the most of
bad situations and climbed back into the top 20 with a 19th at Texas and
a 15th at Kansas. His effort last week is notable because he was forced
to come from the back of the pack after blowing an engine in practice.
He is not quite as strong as either JGR teammate at Richmond and a
top-10 may be just out of his reach, but fantasy owners can reasonably
expect him to finish in the low teens and depending on where he
qualifies, that could make him a good value in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game.

Underdogs

Jeff Burton
officially has lost the momentum that carried him through the end of
2011 and into this season. From the time he nearly won at Talladega this
past fall through his sixth-place finish at Bristol this spring, Burton
was one of the best values in the game. But many fantasy owners were
waiting for the other shoe to drop. The driver of the No. 31 overcame
intermittent bad runs at Texas this past fall and Phoenix this spring,
so his 22nd at Auto Club on a rain-soaked track might have been just a
glitch. It wasn’t, and now Burton has four consecutive 20-something
results. Worse still, he hasn’t finished on the same lap as the leaders
in more than a month and that can be a momentum killer.

Kahne may have turned a corner with back-to-back top-10s
on the two similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks of Texas and Kansas,
but he still is carrying around enough baggage to make him a risky
proposition. Specifically, where this year’s short, flat tracks are
concerned, he suffered crash damage at Phoenix and blew an engine at
Martinsville. Last week’s mechanical failure on the part of the No. 24
car suggests that fate is fickle because Jeff Gordon
was just starting to turn his season around when it occurred. Kahne has
a solid record on this track and could beat this prediction by a wide
margin, but cautious fantasy owners can afford to be patient and wait
one more week before starting him.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Short, flat tracks (past three years)
Pos. Driver PA*   Pos. Driver PA*   Pos. Driver PA*
1. Jeff Gordon 7.28   16. AJ Allmendinger 17.94   31. Reed Sorenson 31.09

2. Jimmie Johnson 7.67   17. Matt Kenseth 18.25   32. David Stremme 32.93

3. Denny Hamlin 8.32   18. Greg Biffle 18.88   33. David Gilliland 34.34

4. Kyle Busch 9.12   19. Brad Keselowski 19.14   34. Mike Bliss 34.98

5. Ryan Newman 10.92   20. Kasey Kahne 19.47   35. Travis Kvapil 36.28

6. Tony Stewart 11.26   21. David Reutimann 19.61   36. Scott Speed 36.32

7. Clint Bowyer 12.95   22. Jamie McMurray 20.45   37. Dave Blaney 36.84

8. Jeff Burton 13.00   23. Joey Logano 20.55   38. J.J. Yeley 37.01

9. Mark Martin 13.02   24. Marcos Ambrose 22.79   39. Landon Cassill 37.02

10. Juan Pablo Montoya 13.18   25. Aric Almirola 24.87   40. Josh Wise 37.55

11. Kurt Busch 13.36   26. David Ragan 26.69   41. Scott Riggs 37.71

12. Kevin Harvick 13.45   27. Paul Menard 28.45   42. Michael McDowell 38.56

13. Carl Edwards 13.85   28. Regan Smith 28.60   43. Joe Nemechek 39.19

14. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 17.09   29. Casey Mears 28.8   44. Tony Raines 39.82

15. Martin Truex Jr. 17.10   30. Bobby Labonte 29.70

* The Power Average is the average finish during the past three
years, plus the number of laps spent in the lead, in the top five and in
the top 10 expressed as if they were finishing results. For example a
driver who has led the most laps receives a hypothetical first-place
finish, the driver who leads the second most laps receives a
hypothetical second-place finish, and so on. This rewards drivers who
competed at the front of the pack for the majority of the race, even if
an unfortunate event takes them out of contention at the very end of the
race. A driver’s recent record in the support series also is factored
in, as is his average running position as provided by NASCAR Statistical
Services. Failures to qualify are credited to the driver as if they
were a finishing position (i.e. the first non-qualifier is assigned a
44th-place finish). The short, flat tracks are Richmond, Martinsville,
Phoenix and New Hampshire.

The End

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