The Frontstretch: Fantasy Insider: Chasing That Talladega Lineup - How To Use The Title Contenders by Brett Poirier -- Thursday October 20, 2011

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Talladega provides a bigger challenge for fantasy owners than any other race in The Chase for the Sprint Cup for one reason: unpredictability. Some drivers have caught on to the two-car draft faster than others, but that still leaves 25 to 30 possible winners and with 88, 87 and 88 lead changes in the last three races, it is impossible to predict who will cross the line first. Not to mention, that there have been eight different winners in the last eight races at Talladega and last lap passes for the win in eight of the last 12 trips there.

Despite all of these staggering numbers, there is still some strategy that can be used in setting your lineup for Talladega. I suggested at the start of the 10-race playoff to map out your Chase. With five of the 10 races down, it is time to re-evaluate how many picks you have left with each driver and where you are going to use those selections. If you have been leaning on hot fantasy drivers such as Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Regan Smith, it might be best to keep them out of the lineup this weekend. Use your top drivers where you know for sure they will be good.

It doesn’t make sense to waste a selection on a driver you will need in the final four races on the crapshoot that is Talladega. There is no possible way to play it safe this weekend, and if you do have a bad week, it will only be worse if you lose valuable selections with top drivers you will need later on.

Picks

Only one driver has top-five finishes in each of the last three races at Talladega and it’s Kevin Harvick. The Richard Childress Racing driver has knack for finding his way to the front in restrictor-plate races. Subtract out an engine failure in the 2011 Daytona 500, and Harvick hasn’t placed worse than seventh in a plate race since the start of 2010. He narrowly missed pushing teammate Clint Bowyer to victory in the spring race (Jimmie Johnson beat Bowyer by .002 seconds).

Of all of the Chase contenders, Kevin Harvick’s superspeedway track record makes him the safest fantasy play.

No other top-level driver matches the consistency of Harvick, but a strong second choice is Edwards. The series’ points leader has the best average finish (13.45) of anyone at plate tracks since the start of 2009. He also has been one of the most reliable drivers as of late. Edwards has reeled off eight consecutive top-10 results, proving he knows how to position himself for the end in any Chase race.

Bowyer was agonizing close to recording his second straight victory at Talladega this spring. Either way, he is seventh, first and second in his last three starts in Alabama. If the No. 29 and 33 get together on Sunday, it could mean trouble for the rest of the field.

While Harvick and Bowyer have been impressive, only one driver has top-10s in four of the last five races at Talladega. This mid-level pick has proven to be underrated at this form of racing. Joey Logano was 10th in the spring and fifth last fall. He was also third in the series’ last restrictor-plate event, Daytona in July. Logano has figured out how to get to the front at the right time in plate races.

Jamie McMurray is typically thought of as the plate-racing ace from Chip Ganassi Racing, but his teammate has been more reliable. Juan Pablo Montoya doesn’t have the wins McMurray has racked up, but he has top-five finishes in two of the last three races at the superspeedway. He also has the second best average finish (13.64) at the track since the start of the 2009 season. That number trails only Edwards and is right in front of Harvick.

It has been good picking for bottom-level drivers at plate events this season. Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 and David Ragan took the Coke Zero 400. There have also been strong performances by David Gilliland and Regan Smith. The best bet this weekend has to be Ragan. It has already been confirmed that No. 6 car will pair with No. 17 once again. They were the winning combination in July. There will be a lot of pressure on Ragan to deliver a solid finish to keep Matt Kenseth in thick of the championship battle.

Bench

Tony Stewart has run at the front late in restrictor-plate races in 2010 and 2011, but he hasn’t closed the deal with solid results. This may come as a surprise, but Stewart hasn’t recorded a top-10 finish in a plate race since he won the Coke Zero 400 in 2009 (the race he spun Kyle Busch into the outside wall coming to the line). His best finish at Talladega since joining Stewart-Haas Racing is 16th in April of 2010.

I mentioned in the introduction to this column that some drivers have figured out two-car drafting better than others. Marcos Ambrose is a driver who still hasn’t gotten a hold of it. He is 32nd, 34th, 37th and 34th in his last four starts at Talladega. He hasn’t been much better at Daytona, where he was 17th and 37th this season. Ambrose is in the midst of the longest top-10 streak of his career (three), but it most likely ends on Sunday.

Until next week, good luck my friends!

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