The Frontstretch: Fantasy Insider: Sunday's Championship Contenders Could Help YOU Win A Title by Brett Poirier -- Thursday November 17, 2011

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It’s often thought of as a bad idea in fantasy NASCAR to pick championship contenders in the last race of the season. It can be a poor choice for two reasons:

1) By the last race, most point leaders are usually coasting to the finish line. They don’t battle other cars for position and run very conservatively. These teams are in the prevent defense, and just like it is not going to win a football game, it isn’t going to win a race either.

2) If the championship battle is tight, the pressure put on the contenders can sometimes be too much to bear. Do you think Denny Hamlin wasn’t feeling the pressure when he was put deep in the back following a pit stop in 2010 at Homestead? Hamlin crashed into Greg Biffle on the straightaway and spun into the backstretch grass, ending his hopes for a solid finish.

So, normally I would side against picking anyone battling for a title. That is… until this year. In 2011, we have seen something very different than what has taken place in the past. There will be no playing it conservative for Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart on Sunday, with only a three-point margin separating them. Each driver will be forced to go for the win, and there has been no evidence up to this point in The Chase that either driver isn’t up to the task. Stewart has led the most laps in three of the last four races and has four victories in the playoffs, while Edwards has finished in the top-10 in 11 of the last 12 weeks, including back-to-back runner-up results heading into this event after Stewart announced to the world that the pressure was on.

Yes, this duo have been 1-2 and 2-3 in the last two races and I won’t be surprised if they end up first and second on Sunday. So, while I would normally suggest shying away from title contenders in the final race of the season, the key to winning your league’s fantasy championship may be having them in the lineup.

Picks

If you didn’t already set Edwards as the top pick in your lineup after that 11 of 12 stat above, I can’t imagine you not doing so after seeing his success at Homestead. Edwards has the best average finish (5.71) of any driver in South Florida and is coming off of victories in two of the last three events. He led 190 of the 267 laps last season, cruising to the checkered by 1.6 seconds and was virtually unchallenged throughout. Since 2005, the Roush Fenway driver hasn’t been worse than eighth, a streak of six straight starts and has captured a top-10 starting spot four times. All of the talk might be about how the pressure is on Edwards this weekend, but based on his past success at Homestead, the pressure is really on Stewart.

The cookie-cutters have not been kind to the No. 29 team… with the exception of Homestead.

The No. 29 team has shown weakness at 1.5-mile facilities over the last few seasons, but for whatever reason that hasn’t been the case at Homestead. In fact, Kevin Harvick has a better average finish (7.9) at this facility than any other track on the schedule. In ten races between the old and new layouts, he has placed in the top 10 eight times. Harvick has been as good as anyone in the new car on the current layout, running third, third and second in his last three starts. Edwards still has to be labeled the favorite, but Harvick is certainly capable of winning.

A.J. Allmendinger has the third-best average finish (8.67) at Homestead of any active driver behind Edwards and Harvick. He’s given us a small sample size (three races), but results of 10th and 11th, respectively, are especially impressive because Allmendinger was driving for two now defunct race teams (the No. 10 for Gillett Evernham and the No. 44 for Richard Petty Motorsports). Last year, in the No. 43, he placed fifth. This team has been building momentum throughout the Chase with five top-11 finishes in the last seven events. Allmendinger should have a solid shot at his first victory on Sunday.

It hasn’t just been Allmendinger that has shined as of late for Richard Petty Motorsports. Marcos Ambrose also has five top 11s in the last seven races. Ambrose has been especially good at the 1.5-mile tracks in 2011, posting five top-10 results this season at intermediate speedways. He was 11th at the most recent 1.5-miler the Sprint Cup Series visited at Texas, but ran in the top 5 for most of the race.

Other than the two guys battling for the championship, no driver has been hotter in the playoffs than Kasey Kahne. The only problem for Kahne is, he wasn’t consistent enough in the first 26 races to qualify for The Chase. In the last seven races, Kahne has been sixth or better six times. At Homestead, Kahne has been sixth or better in three of the last five races. Edwards didn’t score any victories in the first 34 races of 2010 before sweeping the last two. Kahne will have an equally good shot to do the same in 2011.

The bottom-level drivers, as a group, haven’t had much success at Homestead. David Ragan will be the favorite this weekend out of this bracket because of the speed of the Fords and Roush Fenway Racing in general. This will also be Ragan’s last audition for a ride in 2012. Many drivers showcase some of their best work when put in this position. David Reutimann, for example was solid last week at Phoenix in one of his last rides driving the No. 00 Toyota. It will be up to Ragan how he wants to end his Sprint Cup tenure with Roush Fenway.

Bench

Only ten drivers will stand on the stage at Wynn Las Vegas for the Sprint Cup Series Award Ceremony in December. It is almost certain that Kyle Busch will be one of the two Chase drivers that doesn’t, but the other who misses is anyone’s guess. Everyone will be focusing on the championship on Sunday – as they should be – but there is an intriguing battle going on from seventh-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. to 11th-place Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt Jr., Gordon, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Hamlin are all separated by only 10 points.

One of the above-mentioned drivers will be left out of the awards, and nobody wants to be in that position. Based on past statistics, it may be the spot Earnhardt, Jr. is in at the end of Sunday’s race. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has never had success at Homestead, even on the old layout. In 11 starts at the track, he has finished off the lead lap five times and has a best result of 13th. In his three starts in the No. 88, Earnhardt Jr. has been 27th, 28th, and 41st. This team has a lot on the line on Sunday and is going to have to show significant improvement to guarantee being on stage at the end of the year.

Juan Pablo Montoya has gotten in accidents in three of his five starts at Homestead. That usually doesn’t help the averages. Montoya has been 34th or worse in each of those races and was 15th and 17th in his other two races in South Florida. There are far smarter choices at the mid-level fantasy tier than Earnhardt, Jr. or Montoya.

Good luck, my friends in your season finale!

Contact Brett Poirier

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