Week three of the Chase finds the traveling road show in the Heartland of America at Kansas Speedway, the newest of the “cookie-cutter” tracks that have come to dominate the schedule in recent years. The first of five intermediate events on the rest of this year’s schedule, the race should give fantasy team owners a very good look into what drivers will excel down the stretch. With your own season in hyperdrive, it’s important to watch qualifying carefully, making sure to spend this weekend loading up on drivers that have already been successful on 1.5-milers earlier in the season.
This race is also the first of a final five-race stretch for the “old” NASCAR stock car, which will become obsolete after Homestead in favor of the Car of Tomorrow. As a result, teams will be bringing the best horses out of their arsenal – for whatever’s left in the stable, the future is now.
When it comes to intermediates, there’s one other thing to be aware of; they’re usually the type of racetrack where history repeats itself. Because of that, we’ve gone back through the history books, ready to drop some knowledge from the past to help your future for this week’s edition of Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans:
Cami’s Race Rewind
With an empty gas tank, Tony Stewart coasted to victory in last year’s Banquet 400 to score his third win of the season. Stewart’s Home Depot Chevy wasn’t the best car that day… but the call from pit road was. Since the No. 20 team was out of the Chase, they chose to take a risk and try and stretch their fuel, a move that paid off when all other leaders had to duck down pit road for a splash of gas with a handful of laps left. Stewart officially inherited the top spot with four laps to go when Jimmie Johnson, who dominated the late stages of the race after an earlier pit-road speeding penalty, had no choice but to come in for his final stop of the day.
Meanwhile, Casey Mears scored his best finish since the Daytona 500 by taking the same fuel-mileage risk as Stewart. Even though his tank went dry in turn 4, he was still able to coast to the line to finish second ahead of Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton. Johnson finished 14th, dropping him to eighth in the standings and seemingly ending his bid for the title at the time.
On the other hand, Martin’s solid day moved him up to third on a day when other Chasers just didn’t fare so well. Jeff Gordon suffered a 39th-place finish when his engine expired on lap 238, and Matt Kenseth battled an ill-handling car all race before finishing a disappointing 23rd.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Kansas is a fast, 1.5-mile intermediate track, an oval where downforce is king and finding the perfect handling package makes all the difference. Making the car stick to the track through the corners is the most important piece of the puzzle that the teams are going to be working on this weekend; track position will also be key, as teams that start up front won’t have to deal with the difficulties of passing on a one-groove “cookie-cutter” facility.
As we mentioned earlier, teams that historically run well at these types of tracks are more than likely capable of getting up front here once again. Expect to see Hendrick and Roush Fenway cars fighting for the lead all day long; the two have combined to win three of the six total races held at this facility since it opened in 2001.
Gordon has won twice at Kansas and has a solid all-around history here, even with last season’s surprise engine failure. Drivers from other teams to keep an eye on are Stewart, the defending champion of the race, and Ryan Newman, who had two seconds and a win in his first three starts at this track.
Crank ‘Em Up
As I mentioned in my Keys up above, Gordon won the first two races at Kansas – he always has a good handle on this racetrack. Even after a difficult run last week, the Rainbow Warrior remains atop the points standings, keeping his confidence high throughout a victory drought that’s reached 14 races. Hendrick has been very strong on intermediate tracks this year, and although most of the victories have been with Johnson’s team, I expect Gordon to come out with both barrels blazing as he attempts to extend his points lead out in the Midwest.
Martin Truex Jr. was the strongest driver on the circuit during the Chase last year. But now that he is in the playoffs, the pressure is a little more intense – and Truex hasn’t had the luck on his side needed to make a statement. Well, look for that to change at Kansas. The driver of the Bass Pro Shops Chevy finished 11th here last year in the only race he has ever run at the track, and he stands a good chance of improving this Sunday. DEI has done better on intermediate tracks over the course of the season, and Truex should be primed to take advantage of those improvements to run well.
Sit ‘Em Down
Jamie McMurray has continued to display his average talent throughout his sophomore season at Roush Fenway racing. Aside from his stirring victory at Daytona, McMurray only has two other top fives and seven other top-10 finishes in 28 races this season. Since his victory in early July, two top-15 finishes have been the only highlight of a summer gone sour, and both of those runs came on tracks smaller than a mile and a half. Expect to see more of the same this weekend from McMurray, who will probably end up somewhere between 15th and 30th when the day is all said and done.
Kurt Busch has had two top-10 finishes at Kansas, but both of them came when he was driving for Roush Fenway Racing. His effort with Penske was not nearly as impressive, coming home a disappointing 26th here last season. Busch has been struggling at intermediate tracks all year long, and although he did win at Michigan and have a top 10 at California, the pressure of the Chase seems to be getting to him.
After two bad outings, he will probably be pushing a little too hard this weekend and be more apt to make a mistake than he normally does. It is probably best to keep Kurt on the sidelines until he proves he’s got all his ducks in a row with the Miller Lite team once again.
Roll the Dice
Newman was the man at Kansas for the first three years of its existence, with two second-place finishes and one victory. Since then, though, he has not fared nearly as well, racking up a best finish of just 23rd in the last three years. Putting him in as a Roll the Dice pick is just that; Newman has looked better the last few races, but hasn’t set the world on fire. With the scales set at 50/50, this is purely a gut call that he’s going to run well this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up
Stewart is one of only two drivers to start the Chase with back-to-back top-10 finishes, a trend that is likely to continue on Sunday. Stewart, now just two points behind Gordon in the standings, has the best average finish at Kansas (6.5) of any driver in the Chase. While it’s unlikely he’ll be brave enough to risk cutting it so close on fuel mileage again this year, with five top 10s in six career starts, he’ll be a contender.
Coming into this weekend’s race, Carl Edwards has some extra ground to make up following his penalty at Dover. Now 25 points lighter, Edwards drops to sixth in the Chase, but he heads into Kansas with both the momentum of his win and a string of recent solid finishes. Racing near his childhood home seems to agree with Cousin Carl, who has scored finishes of third and sixth in his last two Kansas starts.
Sit ‘Em Down
Other than a fourth-place finish in 2004, Kansas Speedway hasn’t been very kind to Elliott Sadler, which fits the theme his season has taken on. Unable to find much success anywhere this year, he is now 27 races removed from his last top 10 – a sixth in February’s Daytona 500. With an average finish of 29.6 in the last six races and no finish better than 17th in that span, Sadler isn’t showing the glimmer of a turnaround that his teammate Kasey Kahne has shown. Bottom line, it’s best to stay away from using the No. 19 driver this week.
After a three-race stint with no finish lower than 11th, things have turned back south for Bobby Labonte. The No. 43 team has finished 16th or worse in the last three races, and things don’t look to be better this weekend. At Kansas, Labonte has no finish higher than 16th and an average of 23.3. Let the Cheerios/Betty Crocker Dodge sit on the shelf this week, and see if he starts to rise again later before the year is out.
Roll the Dice
This whole part-time deal seems to be working out well for Martin this year. Coming off a fourth-place finish at Dover, he remains in the car for Kansas, a track where he has had a fair share of success in the past. The 2005 winner of the Banquet 400, Martin backed up that solid performance with a third-place finish last year. So far this season, the speedways have been good to Martin, and that makes him a solid non-Chase selection for this week.
Mike: OK, can I start by saying congratulations on picking the winner last week and just leave it at that? It was not a very pretty week for us, at least not for our Crank ‘Em up drivers.
Cami: That’s totally fine with me. Thank you very much, by the way. We did a pretty good job on our Roll the Dice picks too… top fives for both of us.
Mike: Yeah, that was a pretty good week in that regard; too bad our Crank ‘Em drivers didn’t get it done. I’ll be curious to see how Edwards does for you this week. He obviously won’t win – since he can only win on concrete now – but Roush Fenway does seem to do pretty well on intermediate tracks, so he’ll have a shot at a good finish.
Cami: He’s been strong at Kansas and he ran well at Chicago, so I like my chances. Meanwhile, I know you were torn between Johnson and Gordon – why did you keep Jeff on your team?
Mike: Gordon’s leading the points; it’s as simple as that. His team has been doing well with cars that weren’t great, and I just have a feeling that he’s going to put it back together this weekend. He’s always run strong at Kansas, and was in contention last year before his engine bought the farm. I hope it doesn’t come down to a fuel-mileage deal this year for you, though, because Tony won’t make that gamble again.
Cami: No doubt, he’d be stupid to press the issue like that. But that’s where my Roll the Dice, part-time Martin pick comes in. He can afford to take those chances, as he’s not running for points. By the way, I noticed you sat the No. 2 and rolled it with the No. 12 – you’re not worried the Penske duo will take each other out again this week?
Mike: No, I don’t think they will pull off that feat again. I will admit I’m not that confident about Newman. He hasn’t been that impressive this year, but they have been looking stronger later in the season. He’d got a decent record at Kansas, so I decided to take a gamble. But sitting Kurt wasn’t that big of a decision. I think he’s pushing too hard and too desperate now that he’s so far behind, not to mention he hasn’t had it all year on the intermediate tracks. Plus, I had to pick someone, since you took my favorite sitting dog Sadler this week.
Cami: And you rebounded with the typical Jamie Mac pick. I did leave you Kahne, you know. But as far as your analogy on Busch… I just don’t know if I see Kurt striking out in the first three races of the Chase. He was good before he had that tire go down last week.
Mike: To finish first, you must first finish. Busch seems to be bitten by the bad luck bug right now; until he gets an innoculation, I think he’s going to continue to struggle. And Kahne has actually had some momentum of late; I just feel like he might actually have a top 15 for a change. Finally… I hope you’re wrong about your Labonte pick. He has been doing a heck of a job in subpar equipment this year, so I’d like to see him have a good run for a change.
Cami: Yeah, I would too. But personal opinions shouldn’t play a role in your fantasy picks! I guess we’ll just have to see how it pans out this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up – 14.1
Sit ‘Em Down – 22.5
Roll the Dice – 18.8
Crank ‘Em Up – 12.4
Sit ‘Em Down – 22.1
Roll the Dice – 16.0
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