The Frontstretch: Fantasy Insider: Chase Bubble Drivers Willing to Gamble at Michigan by Brett Poirier -- Thursday August 18, 2011

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In NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, there were 13 different winners through a 36-race season in 2010 compared to 14 in 2009. Well, last Sunday Marcos Ambrose helped blow those stats out of the water; he became the 15th different winner through 22 races in 2011 and the fifth first-time visitor to Victory Lane. Those numbers are astounding, easily on pace to set a modern-era record as the list should just keep on growing through early Fall.

Why? Factor in some of the names that have been close, but have yet to earn a first-place finish this season like Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., A.J. Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Juan Pablo Montoya. We easily could have more than 20 different winners by season’s end, beating the record of 19 set way back in 2001.

Wins for some of the drivers mentioned above may come sooner rather than later. Many of those veterans are Chase bubble contenders that need to gamble for a victory in the next four races to have a shot at the playoff, while drivers like Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. could solidify their spots in the postseason with a victory. Already, the $3 million Sprint Summer Showdown has produced winners Paul Menard, Brad Keselowski and Ambrose to date, drivers that had a grand total of two career wins between them heading into late July. Who knows what Michigan will bring? It’s a tricky time for both your roster and the field at large as drivers have extra incentive to go for the glory… or the DNF that could kill your weekend.

Picks

Denny Hamlin captured a key victory at Michigan in June, but he was far from the most dominant car. Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch appeared to be the class of the field until late, while Hamlin beat everyone out of the pits; he used track position to hold off Kenseth for the final eight laps. And while Hamlin’s record at Michigan as of late is impressive, with two wins and a second-place finish in the last three races, I believe Kenseth and Busch are safer picks this weekend.

Denny Hamlin may be going for the season sweep this weekend at Michigan, but don’t be fooled; he didn’t have the best car in June, and the No. 11 Toyota team has been struggling.

Why? Kenseth has been second and fifth in his last two starts in the Irish Hills and has 11 career top-5 finishes at the 2-mile track. He led 17 laps in the spring and was reeling in Hamlin in the final laps with ease, coming up just short of a last-lap pass to take the victory. Expect Kenseth to have one of the strongest cars during the long runs on Sunday.

Busch’s statistics at Michigan have been far from ideal, but this team figured something out in the spring. Maybe it came with a little help from the No. 11 team, as Kyle led a surprising 59 laps and came home third. Unlike Hamlin, who seemed to only get his car working in the final laps, Busch was stout all race and should be consistent again this time around.

Chances are if Brian Vickers has been a starter in your fantasy lineup often this season, you aren’t doing well. Vickers has had a tumultuous season to say the least, currently 28th in the Sprint Cup standings with only five top-10 finishes. One of those top-10s came at Michigan in the spring, however where Vickers has had a wealth of success. Since 2009, Vickers has the third highest average finish (6.67) of all active drivers behind Hamlin (3.4) and Carl Edwards (5.6) at this track, including a win two years ago that catapulted his Red Bull Racing team into the Chase. Insert Vickers back into the lineup this week and hope he can keep that mojo going…

Much like Busch, Ryan Newman’s track record at Michigan is less than stellar, but the No. 39 team has also shown in 2011 that they have turned a corner at 2-mile tracks. Newman recorded a pair of top-5 finishes in his last two trips to Fontana, the sister track of Michigan, then followed those runs up with a sixth-place performance at MIS in June. Don’t expect him to run up front all day, but Newman has had a sneaky way of producing a quality result out of mediocre starts in 2011.

After struggling through the first third of the season, Joey Logano hit his stride around Race 16. In the stretch from Sonoma to Watkins Glen, Logano has had four top-10 finishes in seven races to rise up to 17th in points. Even the rough results showed promise; strong runs at Indianapolis and Pocono faded to 25th and 26th-place endings, respectively due to nothing more than bad racing luck. Logano has top-10s in three of his last four starts at Michigan and should contend with his Gibbs teammates on Sunday; remember, he’s one of those bubble guys that’ll need a win to be Chase-eligible. Don’t be surprised if he gambles to get up front.

Trevor Bayne has struggled mightily since February at Daytona, but Michigan was a rare bright spot for the driver of the No. 21: he ran a solid 16th at the race in June.

Menard used some strategy to grab a late-race lead at Michigan in June. He couldn’t hold off Hamlin, but did come home fourth to start a sizzling summer that’s included a win at Indianapolis. His track record overall isn’t strong at this oval – a gaudy average finish of 23.0 – but with Menard, it isn’t strong at most. In 2011, driving Richard Childress Racing equipment, the Wisconsin-native has proven to be competitive at all different types of tracks so you shouldn’t trust the stats; his momentum heading into Sunday, despite a Watkins Glen wreck is more than enough.

For fantasy owners concerned about saving picks with Menard, consider Trevor Bayne on Sunday. Bayne ran in the top-20 all race at MIS in June and finished 16th, his best Cup performance since winning the Daytona 500 in February. This type of track is where the No. 21 car excels; expect the rookie to be up to the task once again.

Bench

Keep Jeff Gordon far away from your fantasy lineup at Michigan. Crew chief Alan Gustafson and Gordon have made strides in 2011, but they have yet to figure out Michigan and Fontana. Gordon is 27th and 17th in his last two starts at Michigan and was 18th at Fontana in the spring. There are far better choices available at Gordon’s fantasy value.

Momentum is very valuable in fantasy, but know that Ambrose’s momentum will probably be short-lived after scoring his first career victory last weekend. Ambrose was 23rd at Michigan in the spring and has a best finish of 15th in six starts at the track.

Until next week, good luck my friends!

Contact Brett Poirier

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