The Frontstretch: Fantasy Insider: Despite Poor Finish, Keep Rolling With Hamlin by Brett Poirier -- Thursday April 7, 2011

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Much like Jimmie Johnson at Auto Club Speedway, Kevin Harvick came out of nowhere on Sunday at Martinsville to contend for the win. NASCAR’s new “closer,” as he is being dubbed, ran outside the top 15 for a good portion of Sunday’s race while the usual short-track aces (Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch) took turns out front.

These late-race charges by top-tier drivers serve as a reminder selecting drivers has gotten even tougher for fantasy owners in recent weeks. Two of the names that led laps, Johnson and Hamlin, finished 11th and 12th respectively and the driver who led the most laps (302 combined) in both races, Kyle Busch, didn’t win either. Harvick led only seven combined laps in the two victories.

Harvick hasn’t practiced well, qualified well or run all that well in the last two races, but he has been the best finisher, and results are all that matter for fantasy owners. So remember, don’t be fooled by qualifying strength… drivers can work their way up through the field by the checkered flag.

Picks

Last Sunday’s race at Martinsville certainly didn’t go the way many fantasy owners thought it would for Hamlin, but it wasn’t because he didn’t have a good car. A lot of experts tabbed the Joe Gibbs Racing driver as the guy that could knock off Johnson this season, but he is currently mired back in 19th in the standings. The good news is the upcoming schedule couldn’t look much better for the No. 11 team. The series heads to Texas, Talladega, Richmond and Darlington in the next four races. Hamlin has won at three of the four above mentioned tracks in the last year, including an unprecedented (for him) two-date sweep last season in Texas.

It hasn’t been the season he was expecting, but Denny Hamlin should again be considered a favorite this weekend in Texas.

Looking for a repeat, Hamlin has to be the favorite again this weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver might be known for his short track prowess, but over the past two years he has drastically improved his intermediate track performances on the way to transforming himself into a championship contender. Hamlin has an average finish of fourth in the last four races at the 1.5-mile track and his overall average of 8.82 tops all active drivers.

Fantasy owners should consider a Roush Fenway wheelmen as a second option for a top-tier contender. However, Carl Edwards may not be the best choice, as his teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle have had far more success in Fort Worth. Kenseth has the second highest average finish of all active drivers (9.47) and has eight top-5s in 17 starts, including a runner-up finish to Hamlin last fall.

Greg Biffle is one of only two drivers to score top-10 finishes in each of the last four races at Texas and he has led more laps (330) than any other driver. That’s impressive, especially when compared to just 45 laps led by Hamlin in the last two seasons. The difficult decision is determining which of them is more likely to be out front at the end.

The only other driver to have top-10 finishes in four consecutive starts at Texas is Mark Martin, third and sixth in the two races last year. He is quietly putting together a solid start to the season, snagging his second top-10 of 2011 last weekend at Martinsville while sneaking back inside the top 10 in points. Martin should be a solid mid-tier pick this weekend.

A driver can’t be anymore unlucky than Kasey Kahne was last Sunday. The Red Bull No. 4 became a pillow for Martin Truex, Jr. when his throttle stuck, ending in a messy red-flag situation. The good news for Red Bull Racing was Kahne was solid before the incident and he should be good again this weekend. Kahne has the sixth best average finish (13.7) at intermediate tracks among active drivers and before last Sunday had three top-10s in the first five races.

Hopefully, fantasy owners didn’t start Paul Menard last weekend. The Richard Childress Racing driver had his worst race of the season, by far, at a track he hasn’t had much success at in his short career. With Menard being such a solid value in fantasy this year almost every week, it can be difficult to know which weeks to start him and which to sit him. This would be a week to start him. I would consider the intermediate tracks of Texas and Atlanta to be two of Menard’s strongest. Driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, Menard was 10th last fall in Fort Worth. There is no reason to think that in better equipment that result couldn’t be improved this Sunday.

Bench

I put Kurt Busch on the Fantasy Insider bench one week ago and it proved to be a pretty good choice. Busch pulled out a 16th-place finish, but ran much worse than that for most of the day. Despite an impressive opening four races, the No. 22 team and Penske Racing in general have struggled the last two weeks and I expect the struggles will continue for at least one more race. Busch finished one lap down in 24th last November at Texas, struggling for most of the day. Sunday may be more of the same.

Jeff Burton’s struggles continued in his home state of Virginia of Sunday. After finishing outside the top 20 at one of Burton’s favorite tracks, this team has to be down heading to Texas. Burton finds himself 28th in the standings and until his luck turns around and the No. 31 team’s performance improves, keep Burton out of the starting lineup.

Until next week, good luck my friends!

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