Whether you participate in a Chase fantasy NASCAR league or not, you have reached the home stretch of the season. The last ten races often make or break the fantasy season. Here is the primary reason why. Fantasy owners who have relied on the same top drivers all year long to accumulate points are starting to run out of picks with those drivers. Don’t be surprised when someone from the top of your league’s standings starts sinking in this final stretch of the season.
Hopefully, it is not you.
While many of the top-tier Sprint Cup organizations have been storing away some of their best chassis’ for the Chase, fantasy owners should have stored away some of their top drivers. With only ten races left in the season, it is time to map out your path to the championship. Start planning now which drivers you are going to start in which Chase races. Chances are there is going to be a conflict somewhere. For example, if you have one selection left with *Kasey Kahne* – a driver who has had a rollercoaster of a year – determine now where you might use that pick. While it is important to save picks for top drivers such as *Jimmie Johnson*, it is even more important to make the right picks with drivers such as *David Ragan*. On a bad day, Johnson is usually eighth compared to first, while Ragan can run 37th or fourth like he did last week. Start planning your Chase now, and focus especially on where you are going to use these mid and bottom-tier fantasy drivers.
No driver enters the Chase for the Sprint Cup with more momentum than *Jeff Gordon*. Gordon has finished third, first and third in his last three races. The addition of Chicago to the Chase schedule only comes as a benefit to the No. 24 team. Gordon leads all active drivers with an average finish of 8.6 there. He has finished in the top-five in six of his ten starts in Illinois and has been the most consistent as of late as well with a third-place finish in 2010 and a runner-up finish in 2009. I expect Gordon’s string of top-five finishes to continue at Chicago.
While the addition of Chicago is a benefit to Gordon, it certainly isn’t hurting Johnson’s chances at earning a sixth consecutive title, eitger. Johnson is coming off of a 31st-place finish at Richmond and was 25th last year at Chicago. Those aren’t exactly sparkling numbers, but they are deceiving. Johnson had one of the fastest cars at Richmond before getting spun by *Kurt Busch*. And at Chicago last year, Johnson led 92 laps before encountering problems.
The No. 48 team doesn’t have much momentum heading into the Chase, but this team has stumbled heading into the final 10 races before. It doesn’t matter. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus can flip a switch like no other duo in the garage. Hopefully, you’ve been saving picks for Johnson.
*Clint Bowyer* hasn’t performed well recently. There are rumors that he might be heading elsewhere in 2012, and those rumors can weigh heavily on any team at this time of the season. The fact remains that this is a good driver in good equipment. Bowyer is going to place well at multiple races in the Chase, and this weekend should be one of them. Bowyer has four top-10s in five starts at Chicago, including a fourth-place finish last summer. Chicago will be a good test to see how this No. 33 team can perform in the final 10 races. If he runs poorly at one of his best race tracks, it might be best to stay away from him for the rest of the Chase.
*Brad Keselowski* brought home a 12th-place finish at Richmond, which is respectable for a mid-tier driver. The good news is that was his worst finish since July 17. Even on bad days, Keselowski is scoring high on the fantasy board. If you have been picking him quite a bit as of late like I have, you probably want to be careful where you use the Penske Racing driver. If you want to save him for another week, then you might want to consider this next driver…
Here is the surprising statistic of the day. Who has the second best average finish at Chicago since the track was added to the schedule in 2001? Johnson? Tony Stewart? Kyle Busch? All wrong, it’s *Brian Vickers*. In five starts the Red Bull Racing drivers hasn’t finished worse than 14th. In his past two races, he has been seventh and sixth, respectively. Vickers is Chicago’s fantasy sleeper, but as he has been all year, he is a high-risk high-reward pick because he has been so inconsistent. If he continues his trend at Chicago though, you will look like a genius earning top points with Vickers, while saving more valuable mid-tier drivers.
Ragan should be the favorite out of the bottom-tier drivers this weekend. He was 12th at Chicago in 2010 and has been better across the board in 2011. For those of you limited on Ragan picks, take a look at *Regan Smith*. Smith probably won’t perform as well as Ragan, but he should compete for a top-20, and as I’ve said before, he is a very dependable bottom-tier pick because he keeps the car on the track and usually keeps himself on the lead lap and in contention.
Out of all of the Chase contenders, *Kurt Busch* has the most going against him this weekend. He just hasn’t performed well at Chicago. This team is going to have to figure something out and fast. He was 26th last season, and before that was 17th and 28th. He does have five top-10s at the track, but is yet to record a top-five. With drivers like Gordon and Johnson available, it doesn’t make much sense to pick Kurt Busch.
The story at the finish of Saturday’s race at Richmond was how *Dale Earnhardt Jr.* hung on to make the Chase. The media has led us to believe he is back in contention to win the championship. I’m not sure what they’ve been watching, but I will tell you about what I’ve been seeing out of this team. Earnhardt Jr. has one top-10 finish in the last 12 races and hasn’t recorded consecutive top-10s since early June. It was an accomplishment to make the Chase, but this team is nowhere near ready to win a championship. As it has shown over the last three months, it has been hard enough just to get near the top-10.
Until next week, good luck my friends!
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