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.
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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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.
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)
* 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.