NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fantasy Insider: The Second Race Starts NASCAR’s “Real” Seaso

Most motorsports fans enjoy watching the Daytona 500, and maybe or maybe not you considered it a bonus when the rain moved it to a primetime event last Sunday. But whether the race runs day or night, one thing did not change when it comes to pulling for your fantasy picks at a restrictor plate track: you just never know what’s going to happen. For some of you, that was good news, and others (that’s me raising a hand here) it’s bad news.

So onward the Sprint Cup Series goes to Phoenix, for those of us who are hoping for better days. Phoenix is a one-mile oval and this race will be 312 laps, or 500k as the race title says with a 3:00 PM ET start time on FOX. It will be a completely different type of racing than Daytona, so you can’t really look at last week’s results as a gauge for making picks out West.

So, with that in mind, here’s a look at this week’s selections as NASCAR’s “regular season” truly begins.

LOOKING FOR SOME ACES

Of the top drivers on the Yahoo! A-list it’s impossible to ignore Kevin Harvick. He has won two of the last four races at Phoenix and led 173 laps in those events. Harvick also has an active driver-leading average finish of 4.25 in those races, and you know he wants to make an early statement that his move from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing was the right one.

Kevin Harvick's record at Phoenix makes him the odds-on favorite this weekend, having won here just three races ago.
Kevin Harvick’s record at Phoenix makes him the odds-on favorite this weekend, having won here just three races ago.

A driver who has not won at Phoenix recently, but has been dominant at times during those last four trips to the desert is Kyle Busch. He has led 289 laps there and earned an average finish of 9.75, fourth-best among active drivers in those races.

But when it comes to career numbers at Phoenix, it’s impossible to ignore (big surprise here) Jimmie Johnson. He has four victories and an average finish of 6.29 in 21 races in the desert; naturally, given his off-road truck background. What may be more incredible, though is that Johnson has finished in the top 10 in 17 of those races. And while J.J. hasn’t won in the last four trips there, he’s not exactly been bad. He has three top-5 finishes in those events, making him a legitimate threat.

Finally, let’s not forget about Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. here either. He has finished in the top 5 in two of the last four races at Phoenix. Also, for his career, Earnhardt has two wins at Phoenix and has led 509 career laps, tied with Busch for fifth-most among active drivers. Junior, too may want to prove that he’s more than just a restrictor plate racer and Twitter phenom.

MIDDLE OF THE ROADSTERS

There are plenty to choose from here.

Let’s start with defending race champion Carl Edwards, who has one win in the last four races at Phoenix, leading 158 laps in those events. If Edwards wants to consider himself a serious title contender this year, Phoenix is a place where he is capable of getting one of those coveted wins that will likely be needed to qualify for the Chase for the Championship.

Had it not been for his health and resulting on-track struggles last year, I would hesitate to call Denny Hamlin an underdog. Hamlin has one win in the last four trips to Phoenix to go along with two other top-5 finishes. Hamlin has also led 125 laps in those four races. Having won at Homestead to finish the 2013 season, the Sprint Unlimited, one of the Budweiser Duels at Daytona, and taking second at the 500 without hearing his spotter, Hamlin looks fully recovered from last year’s health issues and is one of the favorites this weekend.

Another driver who is looks ready to win and also has come close in the last four races at Phoenix is Brad Keselowski. He has two top-5 finishes and a top 10 in the last four races at Phoenix for an average finish of 6.50 in those events, second-best behind Busch. And since Keselowski has yet to win there, you can take that a couple of ways. Is he simply not good enough at the track to win, or is he due to get a victory?

You decide.

In the “don’t forget about him” driver in this category is Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. He didn’t have a top-10 finish in either of the races at Phoenix last year, but he did run 12th and 16th, pretty consistent for a rookie. Stenhouse ran strong at Daytona last week, and while these tracks are totally different, he may have the kind of confidence that can lead to success anywhere.

DARK HORSES

The top two choices here, as they will likely be for almost every week, are rookies Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson. Dillon impressed by winning the pole at the Daytona 500, but maybe didn’t impress by accidentally bumping teammates during the race itself.

Nonetheless, the decision here is whether to use these guys early on or not. If you are in a league with pick limits, these two drivers are going to be available the entire season. So, you might want to save them for later, or if you had a really bad first week, you can use one of them this week.

Another intriguing choice here is Brian Scott. While not planning to run enough races to compete for Rookie of the Year, Scott seems to have shown enough ability to know he belongs on the Sprint Cup circuit.

And lastly, there is Danica Patrick. If you think she really has improved on the non-restrictor plate tracks, then maybe give her a look for your last roster spot. And while I would like to see her prove Richard Petty wrong and win a race, the fact of the matter is I’m in the see-it-to-believe-it-category on that one.

NEFF: Tony Gibson Talks Danica Wreck, Phoenix

TOP GUNS

So far there are 63 entries in the Frontstretch Fantasy league on Yahoo! Just a quick reminder that it’s not too late to enter even if you missed last week. That’s because the Lucky Dog feature was included, meaning you can throw out your worst scoring race. So if you enter and take a zero at Daytona, you won’t actually have to have that score counted against you in the standings. “The league ID number is 10532 and the password is stenica.”:http://racing.fantasysports.yahoo.com/

As for the top scorers this week, Migrainehead’s Chargers, LeftTurnOnly and ShadowsPT each tied for the best score at 388. They each had race winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr., second place Denny Hamlin, third place Brad Keselowski and ninth place Austin Dillon. And, just in case you’re interested, 26 of the 63 entries we have so far picked Junior to win at Daytona. Sometimes, the majority is correct.

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