And then… there were 12. Now that the field for the Chase has been decided, all the questions of who will make it in and who will fall out have been answered. But plenty of questions still remain ahead, especially for fantasy team owners. Normally, there are a few drivers who make the Chase that fall on hard times early, while other drivers left behind realize they have nothing to lose… laying it all on the line. Well, to take your fantasy team to the next level in the next 10 races, you need to be able to separate the contenders from the pretenders… luckily for you, that’s what we’re here for!
So, which drivers will help you gain championship glory and which ones will leave you coasting until the end of the season as you start your own playoff run? Read this week’s Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans to find out.
Cami’s Race Rewind
One week after winning at Richmond to solidify his position in the Chase, Kevin Harvick got a jump on the competition by dominating last year’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway. After winning the pole and leading almost every practice session, Harvick continued his strong performance on Sunday, leading 196 of 300 laps en route to his fourth victory of the season. Tony Stewart, who narrowly missed making the Chase, put in a strong performance, coming from 32nd place to finish as the runner-up. Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers rounded out the top five. While Harvick gained the series point lead for the first time in his career, other Chasers didn’t fare as well. Jimmie Johnson had early engine troubles, then was caught up in a chain-reaction wreck on lap 80. The No. 48 team took the car to the garage and made repairs to get him back out on the track, but the result was a 39th-place finish. His Hendrick teammate Kyle Busch had it just as bad; troubles for him began from the opening lap, when he made contact with Jeff Green. He eventually finished the day 38th. On the non-Chase side of things, Dave Blaney enjoyed his second straight top-10 finish with a ninth-place run.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Loudon is a tough track that is very hard on brakes and engines. It is virtually flat, with 12-degree banking in the turns and 2-degree banking on the straights. Add in the handling difficulties associated with the Car of Tomorrow, and teams are really going to have to worry about cooling the brakes and making the car turn at the end of the straightaways. As more teams improve their setups during the event, you’ll see the racing get more and more intense as the gap between the haves and have nots gets smaller. Expect to see the usual crowd of Hendrick and Gibbs drivers near the front, as it’s a CoT event; but don’t count out the Roush brigade, either. And after Carl Edwards ran so strong at Bristol, and was looking very good before the engine let go last weekend, he very well may make some noise at Loudon.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Matt Kenseth is the Energizer Bunny of Cup racing: he just keeps going, and going, and going. He isn’t the flashiest driver… he isn’t the loudest driver… but if you need a top 10 to save your life, he is hard to pick against. With that in mind, expect Kenseth to start the Chase off right this year at the track where he has a 10.7-average finish; nine of his last 10 races have ended with him finishing in the top 10. Count on Kenseth to score some solid points this weekend with another top five finish.
Gordon has to be feeling a little bit ill right about now. He is walking away with the points coming into Richmond – even with a 100-point penalty this year – and now, he isn’t even leading the points standings heading into the Chase. But the boys on the No. 24 should be ready to lay the smack down this weekend. Gordon has won at NHIS before, and recent history shows him as finishing third and second in the last two races here. No doubt, the four-time champ will be a solid contender all day on Sunday, and should be near the front by the end of the day.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Jamie McMurray continues to struggle along in the middle of the pack, or more like the end of the pack, since his win at Daytona in July. Instead of propelling the team to new heights or a string of good finishes, the win has killed their momentum and dragged them back to where they were used to running. Don’t look for anything more from McMurray this weekend. Its just not his year… again.
Casey Mears has been looking stronger in some races this year, but he still hasn’t risen to the level of the other drivers in the Hendrick stable. Add to that the fact that he has an average finish of 23.2 at Loudon, and you can’t expect much from him this weekend. It is best to sit Mears for the weekend, bringing him back when the series gets back to a mile-and-a-half track where he has been running better.
Roll the Dice:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been running strong for weeks now; he just continues to be bitten by engine woes. Richmond was the latest power plant to expire, resulting in a sixth DNF on the season for the No. 8 team. But Earnhardt Jr. was fourth at Loudon in the spring, and should be primed to bounce back this weekend; he has a slightly better than average finishing average of 17.6 at this track. Now that the team is ready to go for broke, it is going to be even more of a dice roll whether Junior comes home checkers or wreckers. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many other drivers with average finishes above Junior who aren’t in the Chase, so you have to keep going with him.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Last year, Hamlin got off to a strong start in the Chase with a runner-up finish at Loudon, something he could easily duplicate this year. Hamlin is heading into the Chase fresh off his first top 10 in three races, and it doesn’t hurt that Loudon is a track that he has excelled at in the past. In three starts at the New Hampshire short track, Hamlin has three top 10s, including a win earlier this season. The No. 20 team is normally very strong in the CoT races, and adding that to his already impressive record at Loudon should equal big success for Hamlin this weekend.
At Richmond last week, everyone was waiting to see Harvick fall apart and slide right out of the Chase. In fact, just the opposite happened. Harvick scored a seventh-place finish, his first top 10 since finishing seventh at the Brickyard, and heads into the Chase with a bit more confidence. And – if he remembers his dominating performance here last year – he should gain even more good feelings as he goes for his first Cup championship. Racing the CoT at NHIS back in July, Harvick posted a solid eighth-place finish; look for him to put in a similar performance on Sunday.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Normally, there are one or two drivers who slip up early in the Chase. Looking at his record at New Hampshire, Clint Bowyer might be the Chase’s first victim. In three starts, Bowyer hasn’t finished worse than 24th at Loudon and was 37th here in July. Granted, the team was running near the top 15 during the race before an accident on pit road ruined any chance at a good finish. He may turn in a better finish this time around, but making his first Chase start at a track he hasn’t run well at in the past could be a recipe for a poor finish this weekend.
Not that his other finishes have been much to write home about this year, but CoT races haven’t treated Reed Sorenson very well this season. In 11 CoT starts, his average finish is 27.7 with a high of 15th in two events. Obviously, this team has fallen off since they got off to a promising start to the season, and things don’t seem to be turning around. Since finishing fifth at Indy six races ago, he has five finishes of 21st or worse, including a 32nd-place run last weekend at Richmond. Picking Sorenson shouldn’t put your fantasy on target for a good week.
Roll the Dice:
Every once in a while, I really like to go out on a limb with my Roll the Dice picks, and this might qualify for one of those weeks. But I would look for another good performance from Johnny Sauter this weekend. The Haas CNC teams have run their best at CoT races, and Sauter proved that last weekend with a fifth-place finish last weekend at Richmond. The No. 70 was a solid 14th in the July race at NHIS, so if you’re looking for a good sleeper pick, take a second look in Sauter’s direction.
Cami: Welcome back again. Geez, why don’t I ever get vacation around here? I missed you making your standard Dale Jr. roll the dice picks last week. That would have sucked for you, but been awesome for me.
Mike: No kidding… I am glad to be back. Thanks so much to Tony for standing in for me last week. Other than his Harvick sit pick, I can’t complain about the results, and I don’t blame him for making that call. I know I roll Junior a lot, but just like this week, it is really hard to find someone else outside of the top 12 that is worth a shot.
Cami: Tony did do a pretty good job, that stupid “young gun!” I just wish I could have caught a break with my Roll the Dice pick last week. But I do have to admit, I got a good chuckle when my two sit ’em picks were involved in the same wreck.
Mike: That certainly makes life easier when you sit two guys and they take each other out. It would be even more fun to see Hamlin take Harvick out for you this weekend, though. I am still not sold that Harvick has the act back together enough, although seventh last week was impressive.
Cami: But he was really good here last year and that solid finish when it really counted at Richmond could be the spark they needed. And I know you said you couldn’t find a decent roll the dice pick… but do you think Jr.’s motor can last this weekend? Especially after all the talk about Step Mommy Dearest sabotaging him?
Mike: I think it will… although New Hampshire can be a little hard on motors with the quick RPM changes. I am sure the engine shop boys got an earful this week. He can’t be much more of a stretch than your boy Sauter, though. Don’t get me wrong – I like him, and thought he got a raw deal at RCR – but I think last week was a fluke.
Cami: Maybe a top five was a fluke, but they’ve run really well at the CoT races. Didn’t you use Green once for that very same reason? Or have I been sitting too close to the printer sniffing toner again?
Mike: Oh yeah, I rode Green early this season because they had the CoT figured out before anyone else did. But that only lasted so long. I suppose he could have another strong run. I have no doubt that Kenseth will be awesome as always at New Hampshire.
Cami: He needs to get awesome in a hurry if he wants to win the championship; he has only two top 10s in the last six races. Just being consistent isn’t going to get him Cup number two, like it got him Cup number 1. And I hope for your sake, Gordon is out of “test” mode now.
Mike: Oh, I am sure Gordon is a little riled up now that he’s led all year and is now out of the points lead. I am sure that whole team is out to prove something. It will be an interesting 10 weeks… we’ll just have to see how it pans out.
Crank ‘Em Up – 13.8
Sit ‘Em Down – 23.2
Roll The Dice – 19.0
Crank ‘Em Up – 12.4
Sit ‘Em Down – 22.5
Roll The Dice – 16.5