Number Crunching Fantasy Forecast: The Auto Club 400 and Stewart-Haas

We were on track to have a pretty good team last week but Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s bad luck spelled doom for us. We are going to have bad weeks from time to time, so this week, it’s time to dust ourselves off and get back to work.   The drivers didn’t run too many laps in the first practice but from the data I’m seeing, it looks like one Stewart-Haas Racing duo is starting to shine.

2014 Daytona II CUP Kurt Busch vertical CIA

Can Kurt Busch drive your team toward fantasy success in Fontana? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

So far this year, the Penske cars have been the only competition for Kevin Harvick in Fantasy points accrued. Harvick, however, is still head and shoulders above everyone else and remains a “must have.” The question that arises this week is: do we buy Kurt Busch with a plan on holding him for the long term? Busch is currently quite a value at $22.50, and he is already backing up his performance from last week by earning the pole this week. Having a premium driver at a discounted price could really open up your options in the weeks going forward.

The cars are at Auto Club Speedway this week. Since it’s a 200-lap race, that means there are only 200 laps led/fastest lap points up for grabs.  Even with the smaller amount of laps led/fastest lap points available, we need to focus on the cars with speed. There’s not too much chaos at California, so picking drivers starting at the front isn’t as much of a danger as other superspeedways.

 

Let’s get to the picks.  As always, I am listing the price you would have if you have been using my picks.

No. 4 Kevin Harvick $28.00
Harvick is pretty much a given at this point in time. His cars have been hands down the class of the field this year, picking up right where his 2014 championship season left off. Harvick has scored nearly 1,000 Fantasy Live points more than Joey Logano who has the second most at 2,769. Going for his third straight victory, he qualified second and I would expect him to finish within a couple spots of that starting position. He is a real threat to dominate each week and this week is no exception.

No. 88 Dale Earnhardt, Jr. $27.75
Picking Earnhardt burned me last week when he burned the bead on his tire. This week is a new one, though and gives us a fresh start. I like the way Junior runs here and fully expect him to move up from his 17th starting position, earning us extra points. I’m making this pick with my fingers crossed while I knock on wood and throw salt over my left shoulder.   The Hendrick Motorsports group has had fast cars this year and I expect that to show again this week.

No. 41 Kurt Busch $22.50
Busch pretty much has to be on your team this week for multiple reasons. The first is simple: he is fast and put it on the pole. The second reason is Busch costs $22.50; that allows us to get a little more creative with some other drivers on our team. The third reason is that, in all likelihood, Busch will increase in value relatively quickly if he runs anything like his teammate in the No. 4 car or backs up his top-5 run from Phoenix last week. I believe Busch has the ability to run with Harvick, especially with the cars prepped in the same Stewart-Haas Racing group. If Busch puts it together in the next few races, led by old school crew chief Tony Gibson he’s the one you buy and hold starting right now.

No. 13 Casey Mears $12.50
Mears is a perfect example of a driver we can squeeze onto the team when we have Busch for $22.50. Mears will start 37th and has pretty much nothing but upside. He should move up through the field and score some nice place differential points. I wouldn’t expect a top 20 out of him but anything in the 20s is a gold mine for use this week.

No. 18 David Ragan $9.00
The last two races won here at Fontana were won by the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing car. Will that carry over? In all honesty, we bought Ragan as a value driver in top-rate equipment and he continues to qualify a bit further up on the grid than would be expected. I contemplated dropping him this week after he qualified fourth but will wait it out, at least through practices. He has shown flashes of brilliance but seems to fade as the race progresses; maybe Ragan will buck that trend this week.

Race Winner: Kurt Busch
I think Busch is out to prove a point the past couple of weeks. After a top-5 finish at Phoenix, the first race since his return and the speed he has shown so far this week, Busch looks like the current favorite.

Manufacturer: Chevrolet
Those Stewart-Haas Racing cars are just on a roll.

As always, if you have any questions about your lineup feel free to leave a comment in the comments section and I will be checking and responding to any questions. Also, check in after last practice as I may modify the lineup a little. Thanks for reading!

 

Number Crunching Fantasy Forecast: Is Busch Worth Picking Up For Phoenix?

It’s that time of the week again, just after qualifying and my highlighter has come out to look at NASCAR Fantasy Live! picks. I would like to take a minute to tell you a little about how I play and the theory behind my selections before we talk about this week’s interesting news. If you have been following me for a while, you will know that I advise you to be conservatively smart. By conservatively smart, I mean we are trying to hit a double every week. If you attempt to hit a home run with your picks, in the long run you will inevitably strike out, meaning the guys hitting doubles every time will pass you up.   When you use this strategy, you’ll also find you end up hitting home runs more often than you would think. Being conservatively smart, we don’t need to win every week to win the entire season, or the entire game. It’s the long run that counts, not just one big race.

This week’s major news in the fantasy world is pretty much the same as the rest of the NASCAR: Kurt Busch is back in the No. 41 car. What does that mean for us? Well, we basically had a hired assassin in Regan Smith in a great car locked in at either five dollars or seven fifty. The Smith pick was a no brainer week to week and was one less driver for us to worry about. Leaving lots of cash on the table, this phenomenon rocked our fantasy world as the last couple of weeks, we had Smith and Kyle Busch sub David Ragan “locked in.” Now, we are back to the drawing board. Can we keep a “Stars and Scrubs” lineup, which is three drivers about 26 dollars and then two at or below 10 bucks, or can we go “middle of the road,” which is four drivers around 23 dollars and one around 7?

Here at Phoenix, we want to maximize our laps led as well as our fastest lap points. We have a combined total of 312 points up for grabs in those two categories.   That being said, because Kevin Harvick was so fast this week and in the past, we are just going to assume he will score most of those points. That prediction gives us a little more freedom and allows us to be a little more daring this week.

No. 4 Kevin Harvick $28.00

If you are using my picks from last week, you have a quarter in the bank on Happy. He’s got Hendrick Motorsports power under the hood and the right foot knows how to use it. Watching his in car, Harvick just gets through the center of the corner so well and plants the power earlier than everyone else. Betting against him here would be a bad idea; he’s led the most laps here the last three races in a row and totally dominated both races last year.

No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. $27.75

Earnhardt and crew chief Greg Ives are on the same page going after wins. He has fast cars this year and looked good in the first practice at Phoenix, a track where Earnhardt has won multiple times in the past. I liked Ives’ call for two tires last week and agree that if you end up second, third, or fourth it doesn’t matter if you put yourself in a situation with a real shot to win the race. That being said, risk takers can burn us in fantasy NASCAR; those lost positions turn into valuable missed opportunities to score points. However, Earnhardt starts 16th and should move up through the field, which is perfect for us. He is one of the few cars I think might have something for Harvick this week.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Is Jimmie Johnson ready to go on a fantasy tear after tearing up his tires at Las Vegas? (Credit: Getty Images)

No. 48 Jimmie Johnson $27.00

Johnson had some bad luck last week but had a fast car. I like the way the No. 48 bunch looks so far this year and I like the speed of the all the cars coming out of the 48/88 shop. I was scanning the team’s radio last race after the tire failures and there wasn’t that edge of argument that seemed to happen quite often last year. I think, then despite those early ups and downs the Johnson/Chad Knaus combo might be back on track.   Jimmie starts 20th this week and should score some great place differential points for us. Phoenix is by no means Jimmie’s best track but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the lead.

No. 18 David Ragan $9.00

Ragan starts 13th, which is about ten positions on the grid above where I would like to see him. However, Mr. Busch’s sub has a fast car and should be able to finish in the high teens. In his post-qualifying interview, Ragan seemed happy with his car and most of the Joe Gibbs Racing guys ran well. Let’s hope this young man keeps it in one piece and the No. 18 Toyota should be a solid pick for us.

No. 34 Brett Moffitt $7.00

Moffitt starts 38th, driving the Front Row Motorsports Ford for Ragan that puts him squarely on our team this week. Moffitt ran well a couple of weeks ago in Michael Waltrip Racing equipment, scoring a top-10 finish at Atlanta and he’s now secured this midpack ride to drive for Bob Jenkins. Starting that far back, we just hope he stays out of trouble, avoids some wrecks and moves up into the low 30s or high 20s. That’s quality points at a track where the underdogs typically struggle to get up front.

Race Winner: Kevin Harvick

As we discussed earlier, betting against Harvick here would be a bad move. His track record speaks for itself.

Manufacturer: Chevrolet

Did I mention Harvick once or twice so far?

Of course, I’m not the only expert; everyone has different prices on their drivers and different ideas on how to structure a team. So if you have any questions about your lineup, feel free to leave a comment in the comments section and I will be checking and responding to everyone. Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

2014 NASCAR Fantasy Review: Booms, Busts and Future Hopes

The just-completed NASCAR season had its usual twists and turns along with some punches thrown as well, and while those events sometimes had a significant effect on the outcome of a real race, they also likely had an effect on the outcome of how your fantasy team fared.

The following is a brief overview of the fantasy booms, busts and those with hopeful futures if you are wondering about next year.

HERE COME THE BOOMS

Two teammates who were a bit of question mark coming into the season were Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Logano had always been a driver with promise, often dominating in the Nationwide Series races, but had never seen that come to fruition in the Sprint Cup Series. That all changed this year as he had five wins and 22 top 10 finishesl. And Logano just wasn’t hanging around lucking into those types of finishes. He led 1,004 laps this year and was one final four drivers standing in the Chase for the Championship at Homestead.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano proved a potent combination this season, both for your fantasy roster and in real life, earning 11 Sprint Cup Series victories. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Yes, it’s true the Keselowski was the 2012 champion, but when Penske switched to Ford in 2013, it was less than an ideal season for the team. Keselowski was not one of the 12 to make the Chase last year and with the struggles that Roush Fenway Racing, which also races Fords, had, there were questions on if the Penske guys could reach that championship level again. But Keselowski responded by winning six races and leading 1,582 laps, second most behind 2014 champion Kevin Harvick.

And speaking of question marks, Harvick moving over from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas also put into question on whether he could contend for a title or not, especially in his first year. All Harvick did though was win five races, including the last two to capture his first crown. He also ended up leading a series high 2,148 laps, almost 600 more than Keselowski. Harvick’s cars were fast from the beginning, it was just a matter of him being able to finish races. He and crew chief Rodney Childers figured that out eventually and they were on their way. So really, even though this title chase came down to the final few laps of the final race, the most dominant car throughout the season ended up winning the title.

Another driver whose performance might have been considered a bit of surprise is that of rookie Kyle Larson. Sure, it looked like he was going to win a race in his rookie season, but that never materialized. What did happen was that it became evident that Larson has all the tools to be a star in this sport for years to come. He finished with 17 top 10 finishes, more than second-place Chase finisher Ryan Newman, but missed the Chase because of some poor finishes for a variety of reasons, completing 10,242 laps, more than 400 less than Newman who led the series in that category.

WHAT’S THE MATTER HERE?

A driver who had big expectations for himself coming into the season was Tony Stewart, but it all went wrong at a dirt track on a Saturday night in August for the second year in a row. This time he didn’t injure himself physically, but was involved in an accident that led to the death of sprint car driver Kevin Ward. The immediate on-track result was that Stewart missed three races, partly out of respect for the Ward family, but also to deal with his own grief. Eventually, Stewart did return to the track, but it was clear, whether simply because of the missed time on the track, the emotional toll of being involved in the Ward incident, or maybe a combination of both, that the No. 14 team and Stewart just wasn’t ready to compete for victories right away. The result is that Stewart did not win a race for the first time in his Sprint Cup career. Pretty much everyone had to think with just one win needed to make the Chase under this new format, that Stewart was a lock to return to the Chase. But in the end, partly due to the missed races, he finished 25th in points and had seven top 10 finishes. It will be good for NASCAR if Stewart can return to prominence as a legitimate championship contending driver next year.

While this was Austin Dillon’s rookie year, he did come in with some high expectations, especially since it was the return of the famed and revered No. 3 to the track. But despite beginning the season on the pole at Daytona, Dillon’s season was mostly unremarkable. He managed just four top 10 finishes this season. And as the year went on, it was apparent that Larson and his team had a leg up on Dillon and his team.

A driver who was a rookie last year and that many thought would make nice jump and at least contend on occasion this year was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. But it was more a surprise than a regularity to see Stenhouse running the top 10 at any race. He finished 27th in points and had just five top 10 finishes. But maybe the most telling statistic of Stenhouse’s season came in the laps led category. He was the only driver in the top 34 in points to not lead a single lap this season.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

One of the bigger questions now is just who will be that breakout driver next year.

Of course, there is Larson, who since he didn’t win yet and did not make the Chase, still has some things to prove when it comes to the final results. However, if you picked Larson late this year, or got him cheap in a budget league, that likely won’t happen again in 2015. Larson would be my No. 1 breakthrough candidate for 2015 when it comes to winning races.

While Carl Edwards did win two races this year, it will be interesting to see if the jump to a new team showing immediate results trend will continue has Edwards will go from Roush to Gibbs. When ex-teammate and now new teammate Matt Kenseth made the same switch two seasons ago, it led to Kenseth winning seven races and finishing second to Jimmie Johnson in the title hunt.
Another big question for 2015 will be if Stewart can return to his form. He hasn’t won since the 2013 spring race at Dover and at age 43, he’s not young by NASCAR (or any sport’s) standards any longer. My guess it that Stewart’s days of being a dominating car on the track are finished, but that he will return to victory lane and be in the Chase next season.

REAR-VIEW MIRROR

While the finish for the real-life title was exciting, that turned out to be the same way in the race to win the Frontstretch Fantasy league title, too. In the end, LeftTurnOnly came from behind and defeated NoBarNASCAR 9,574 to 9,572. LeftTurnOnly seemed to be in good shape, only to have one its picks, Jeff Gordon come in for a late pit stop. But Gordon rallied to finish 10th. LeftTurnOnly’s other picks for the final race were Jamie McMurray in fifth, Justin Allgaier in 15th and Brian Vickers in 23rd. If NoBarNASCAR is, or was, a Roush-Fenway Racing fan, that might have changed after Sunday. That’s because it had picked Carl Edwards, who finished 34th and Greg Biffle, who was 41st. The sixth-place finish of Matt Kenseth and also picking Allgaier wasn’t enough to overcome the Roush’s poor showing.

The top score of the final week went to Bundy’s Bombers with 346 points from the team of race winner Kevin Harvick, second-place Ryan Newman, then McMurray in fifth and Kyle Larson in 13th.

Frontstretch thanks all of those who competed this year and we hope to make the league bigger and better next year.

Fantasy Insider: Prepping For Your Own NASCAR Title Bout

We are down to the final event of the season and sure everybody is talking the so-called Championship Four in Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano.

However, unless you have one of those guys on your fantasy team this week, or have had them for the entire season, the fact that everything is riding on this race for them may not mean much to you at all. However, if you are in the thick of trying to win a fantasy championship, or maybe in a league where you get a reward for picking the race winner each week, the fact that it’s the Chase doesn’t really matter to you. It’s really a matter of trying to figure which drivers will finish the best, whether they are in the Chase or not.

So that is something to definitely keep in mind for the 36th and last race of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

LOOKING FOR SOME ACES

2014 Phoenix II CUP Kevin Harvick confetti vertical CIA

Heading into Homestead, Kevin Harvick enjoys the label of title favorite — which means he should be a favorite pick to sneak onto your fantasy roster. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

I find it a bit ironic, that of those final four drivers, only Harvick was on the Yahoo A list to begin the season. Harvick has done his share to stay there for next year, too, with four wins. But none of the victories in his career have come at Homestead, even though he has been close a couple of times. His best career finish at Homestead is second and he has been eighth and 10th in the last two races there. Harvick has led just eight laps in those two races, so he’s not been dominant there either. For his career, Harvick does have 11 top 10 finishes in 13 career races there, so he’s been very solid at Homestead. He’s also led 136 laps in those races, so he does know what it feels like to have a really good car there. He may get to find out what it feels like to be a champion Sunday night.

One driver who is not in the Chase, but who has won one of the last two races at Homestead is Jeff Gordon. He finished 11th in the other race there. It would be quite interesting to hear the backlash from the Gordon Nation if Gordon, who missed reaching the Championship Four by one spot, did win at Homestead after finishing second last week at Phoenix. For his career, Gordon has 11 top 10 finishes in 15 races at Homestead. He’s led just 83 laps there, including 14 in the last two races, so he’s been far from dominant.

One driver I wouldn’t count out here is Jimmie Johnson. His career numbers at Homestead are solid, but not flashy good. He has eight top 10 finishes in 13 races, but has not won at Homestead. The situation Johnson, a six-time champion, has been in often at Homestead is him coming in with a lead and being protective of it. So it will be interesting to see what Johnson has Sunday when the only thing that will matter to him is winning.

A driver who has been very good at Homestead has been Clint Bowyer. He has finished second and fifth in the last two races there and has five top 10 finishes in eight races there, with a high finish of second. What’s a bit unusual about Bowyer here is that he has led just one lap in his career at Homestead. That makes him another solid performer who hasn’t done anything overwhelming.

MIDDLE OF THE ROADSTERS

One driver who has to be considered at Homestead, Chase or not, is Hamlin. He won this race last year and led 72 laps, so he’s proven he can control in this race. For his career at Homestead, Hamlin has two wins among his five top 10 finishes in nine career races there. A win here would make Hamlin not just a winner, but a champion.

A driver who has raced like a champion at Homestead, but does not have a win to show for it yet is Kyle Busch. He has led 191 laps in the last two races, but did not win either of them. Busch finished fourth and seventh in those two races and much like Johnson, he’ll only be thinking about winning this Sunday.

As for the other Chase drivers here, Newman has four top 10 finishes in 12 races with a best finish of third. He also has led 143 laps in those races, so he knows what it’s like to run up front there.

As for Logano, he has one top 10 finish, an eighth, in five career races at Homestead. But remember for Logano it’s a breakout year for him, so I wouldn’t get wrapped up too much in his past numbers. He’s proven at other tracks that what he did in the past would have little bearing on how he races this year.

One driver who has won every year he’s been on the Sprint Cup circuit is Tony Stewart, but he has not done that this year. So, there would be nothing sweeter for Stewart than to cap off this season with a win. And that is quite possible here. Stewart has three career wins at Homestead and has led the second most laps among active drivers at Homestead with 450.

DARK HORSES

A driver who showed his maturity after the Phoenix race was rookie Kyle Larson. He was the victim of an aggressive and desperate, and successful, move by Newman on the final lap when the two hit sides, sending Larson into the wall. But Larson understood what was at stake there and didn’t really blame Newman at all for doing what he needed to make the Championship Four. Now, Newman will just have to remember that, say in the next year or two, when Larson may well be running for a championship late in the season and also won’t be afraid to make a desperate move. For the record, Larson did run this race last year at Homestead and finished 15th, so not a bad day for him.

The other obvious pick here, among the C list drivers on Yahoo!, is Austin Dillon. This will be his first Sprint Cup race at Homestead, but he has shown some improvement late in the seasons, so a top 20 is quite possible for him.

A driver who did finish 20th last year at Homestead in the final race of her rookie year was Danica Patrick. So, if you think she can do even a couple of places better, she might be worth a pick this week.

And a the last option here could be Trevor Bayne, who will be in the No. 21 this week, his final race before moving over to the No. 6 car in Sprint Cup full-time next year. Bayne’s two races at Homestead have resulted in 23rd and 40th place finishes, so pick at your own risk there.

REAR-VIEW MIRROR

The overall leader in the Frontstretch League on Yahoo! is NoBarNASCAR with a comfortable 102-point advantage over LeftTurnOnly with a 9,384 to 9,282 margin. Next are L&M at 9,175, Mojothemonkey at 9,149 and Djarum Racing at 9,137. The biggest mover last week was Savage Bros Racing move up five spots.

The top score of the week was C Elliott 2014 Champ!!!! with 369 points from the combination of race winner Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski in fourth, Joey Logano in sixth and Kyle Larson in 13th.

Fantasy Insider: Dare To Take Risks Out In The Desert

If you picked Jeff Gordon last week at Texas, with just a few laps to go you thought you had it made. He had a comfortable lead and it all looked good for him advancing into NASCAR’s version of the Final Four and for your fantasy team that day. Then, after his old buddy Clint Bowyer spun to bring out the yellow, it all went bad. I’m not insinuating the Bowyer spun on purpose to bring out a yellow this time, but it sure seemed a bit ironic at the very least.

It’s just an example of how quickly things can go from good to bad, or bad to good on the track and for your fantasy team. On the other end of the spectrum, Carl Edwards had toiled back in the mid-20s for much of the day, but all of the late yellows allowed him to get back on the lead lap and then salvage a very respectable ninth-place finish. So that was a bit of good news for some fantasy owners, too.

This is a classic case of how the new Chase format can affect your fantasy team. And just like the real-lifers in NASCAR, all this comes at the most important time of the season for your fantasy team. Drivers you have been relying on all season, could become victims, and possibly innocent victims, of more Chase shenanigans.

So, yes, many things can happen here, either good or bad, that will be out of the control of one or more of the drivers you have picked.

But if you’ve had a successful season and are trying to wrap up a title, the only choice you have is to keep going with the drivers, or the same strategy, that has put you into position to win with two races left.

LOOKING FOR SOME ACES

It looked like for much of Sunday’s race that Kevin Harvick would be in a win or get booted from the Chase position for Phoenix, even though he was contending for the win. But the late-race shuffle leaves him only six points out of the fourth and final Chase spot and now he has reason to feel good about his team’s chances to make it through to Homestead.

That’s because in the last five races at Phoenix, Harvick has won three of them and that includes the first Phoenix race in 2014, which took place way back on March 2. There’s been a lot of water go under the NASCAR bridge since then, and a lot of other stuff too. Harvick’s wins at Phoenix have not been flukes either as he has led a series high 397 laps in those races. He also has four top fives in those races and his worst finish has been 13th.

Phoenix is also not a bad place for Gordon, who has a one-point cushion while sitting in fourth in the Chase standings. Gordon finished fifth in the March race at Phoenix, but the bad news for Gordon fans is that was his only top 10 finish in the last five races there. The good news for the Gordon Nation is that in his 31 career races there, he has 21 top 10 finishes including two wins. And given the fact that he can see a fifth title now, Gordon will be more intense than ever behind the wheel this week.

2014 Texas II CUP Jimmie Johnson victory selfie CIA

Can Jimmie Johnson keep his Texas mojo going at Phoenix this weekend? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

A driver who will be intent on winning even though he is not in the Chase is Jimmie Johnson. And he does have this thing about winning two races in a row as it happened once earlier this season. Johnson has four career wins at Phoenix and has led an active-driver high of 931 laps in 22 career races there. He also has 18 top 10 finishes in 22 races, including a sixth place finish in March.
Another non-Chaser, who also happens to be another Hendrick driver, who has to be considered a threat this week is Dale Earnhardt Jr. He finished second in the March race and also has three top five finishes in the last five races at Phoenix. Junior also has two wins in 24 career races at Phoenix and it will be no surprise is he is contending again.

And just in case you are wondering, Brad Keselowski does not have a win at Phoenix, but he does have three top fives and another top 10 finish in the last five races there, including a third in the March race. So you know, it’s not inconceivable that he, Gordon and Harvick could be running close to each other at some point in this race, which could well lead to a lot more shenanigans this week, too.

MIDDLE OF THE ROADSTERS

Let’s start with Edwards in this group as like Harvick, he too went from a must-win situation to now being just one point behind Gordon for the coveted final spot. And like Harvick, he too is quite comfortable coming to Phoenix. Edwards has two wins in his 20 career races at the desert track, including one in the last five races. In those five races, Edwards has led 159 laps, third most behind Harvick and Kyle Busch. And Edwards was eighth in the March race, so he has reason to be optimistic heading into this week.
And what about that Kyle Busch at Phoenix? He doesn’t have a win in the last five races, but he has led 289 laps, so victory is certainly a possibility for him there. He finished fourth in the March race, but did not lead a lap in that one. For his career, Busch has two wins at Phoenix and 12 top 10 finishes in 19 races, so he certainly can be a threat as well.

A driver who certainly has not been dominant in the Chase, but finds himself sitting tied with Joey Logano atop the standings is Denny Hamlin. He also has one win in his last five trips to Phoenix and three top-five finishes in those races while leading 125 laps. Hamlin had a 13-point cushion over fifth-place, so if he can finish 10th, like he did in the March race, or better, he will be in good shape to make the Final Four at Homestead.

Logano has the same amount of breathing room and the question will be whether or not he needs it? Logano has three top five finishes in the last five trips to Phoenix, including a fourth place in the March race. He has led 104 laps in those five races, so especially with the way he has run in what has been a breakout year for him, it would be no surprise to see him up front for most of the day as well.

DARK HORSES

Even though I used all of my picks on Kyle Larson, I was a bit surprised he didn’t contend for the win at Texas. So, now, he has just two races left to get a win in his rookie season, something that I thought would have happened by now but hasn’t.
So can it happen at Phoenix? The only thing to go on is that Larson finished 20th in the March race at Phoenix. Now, for the most part, he has been much better his second-time around at tracks, so he could very well contend this week. Larson did qualify eighth in the spring race, so he does know how to be competitively fast at the track.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Austin DIllon hopes to finish up his rookie season strong. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

The other usual suspect here is Austin Dillon. While Larson has pretty much wrapped up the rookie of the year honors, Dillon has shown some improvement as of late. He was contending for a top 10 spot last week before the late race incidents left him at the end of the lead lap with a 21st place finish. Dillon finished 24th in the March race at Phoenix, so it will be interesting to see if he and the No. 3 team will improve on the second time around at Phoenix as well.

The one interesting name on the entry list for this category this week is the Austin’s younger brother, Ty, who will be in the No. 33 car. If you think he can pull out a top 20 finish, then maybe he is worth taking a look at. But he is more than likely looking to get some experience and laps in his second Sprint Cup start and try not to do anything to hurt any of the Chase drivers.

And lastly, just in case you can’t use either of the Dillons or Larson, Danica Patrick does have one top 20 finish in four career races at Phoenix, a 17th. She was 36th in the spring race and since she will be in her second race with a new crew chief, it’s not realistic to expect major improvement this time around.

REAR-VIEW MIRROR

The overall leader in the Frontstretch League on Yahoo! remained NoBarNASCAR with 9,117 points followed by LeftTurnOnly at 9,033, L&M at 8,887, Mojothemonkey at 8,886, Djarum Racing at 8,831 and ShadowsPT at 8,827. The biggest movers in the standings this week were DKcrasher and Bomb Squad each improving eight spots.

The top point scorer was DKcrasher with 359 points from second-place Kevin Harvick, third-place Brad Kesewloski, seventh-place Kyle Larsen and 10th-place Denny Hamlin.