Brett Poirier · Thursday August 4, 2011
Entering 2011, Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and Paul Menard had combined to score just two top-5 finishes in 244 starts. Twenty races later, they have more wins (three) than they had top-5s before this season in what’s been a watershed year for first-time winners. These three underdog drivers, in particular have shined, sweeping arguably NASCAR’s biggest three races — the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 and Sunday’s Brickyard 400.
Menard’s victory also marked the 14th different winner in 20 races this season, showcasing the parity that continues near the top of NASCAR’s point charts. Last year, by comparison there were only 13 different winners in 36 races so clearly Victory Lane is spreading the love around in 2011. Blame it on aerodynamics, a level playing field or the tires, but track position and race strategy are trumping speed quite often. Just ask Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne. Gordon erased a 12-second lead in the final 12 laps at Indy only to come up second, while Kahne led a race-high 48 laps and wound up 18th.
What does this mean for your fantasy roster? Unpredictable chaos. My lineup of Jimmie Johnson, Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya and Bobby Labonte looked solid three-quarters of the way through last Sunday’s event, but late-race fuel strategy ruined my fantasy day and I know I wasn’t alone.
This week, though we head to a track where speed usually beats strategy. Gordon dominated the spring race at Pocono and was never really threatened for the win … or by fuel mileage either. If the race plays out like that once again, it will give fantasy owners a chance to bounce back after a series of unpredictable finishes; but, as we’ve already witnessed this year, anything can happen so be prepared.
Gordon has been better than anybody on the flat tracks this season, as his two wins have come at Phoenix and the spring race at Pocono. If he had another lap or two, he probably would have won Indy as well. Considering the driver’s recent momentum – five top-11 finishes the last five weeks – he has to be the favorite to repeat his performance in the spring this Sunday. Gordon has five victories at the track, but what might even be more impressive is his consistency. He has eight top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts at the Tricky Triangle.
Kurt Busch, while ultimately coming up short at Pocono ran second to Gordon this spring. Busch has proven to be a contender when he stays out of trouble at this track; he has a pair of wins plus five runner-up finishes, plenty good enough to contend for the win on Sunday.
And then, there’s Juan Pablo Montoya, who led 38 laps in the spring. He may have gained the lead through pit strategy, but the ex-open wheel star has proven he knows how to get around NASCAR’s triangle. Montoya was seventh in the spring and has four top-10s in his last five starts at Pocono. He is a driver in the top-20 in the standings, someone who might gamble for a win if put in the right situation. Just be careful; the wild card continues to be new crew chief Jim Pohlman, entering only his second week on top of the pit box.
Martin Truex, Jr. probably hasn’t lived up to the expectations he put on himself when moving to Michael Waltrip Racing in 2010, but he does have a pair of consecutive top-10 showings at Pocono. Ninth last summer and 10th in the spring, he’s going for three in a row this Sunday. Truex hasn’t shown much fantasy value in 2011, but putting him in the lineup at Pocono should pay off.
The Brickyard 400 slipped through the fingers of Kasey Kahne. He led the most laps and had one of the fastest cars all weekend, but some off-roading plus pit road problems meant he came home with an 18th-finish to show for it. Luckily for Kahne, Indianapolis and Pocono share many similarities; drivers who can usually get around one place well have success later on at the other. Kahne was only 12th in the spring, but look for him to run in the top-10 on Sunday.
Regan Smith continued his surprising season with his second top-5 finish, a third-place showing at Indy. Smith was 15th in the spring at Pocono, a good baseline to draw from heading into the second race. He isn’t going to run in the top-15 every week, but Smith has proven to be dependable overall in 2011. He has completed 95 percent of the laps in races he has entered in his career, which is higher than Kyle Busch at 94.6, and has a 99.8 percent mark at Pocono.
Greg Biffle won at Pocono one year ago, but it was his only top-10 at the track in his last 10 starts. He started 32nd and finished 27th this spring, part of a pattern where in 17 starts, he has just three top-10 finishes. On top of that, Biffle has been struggling this summer. His seventh-place run at Indy was his first top-10 finish in the last seven races.
A.J. Allmendinger is another driver in the top-20 in the standings looking to score a victory to earn a wild card spot in the Chase for the Cup. It probably won’t come at Pocono, though. He was 24th and 25th in his last two starts at the track and has one top-10 in eight career races there. Wait until Watkins Glen to think about inserting Allmendinger in your fantasy lineup.
Until next week, good luck my friends!
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