The Chase is off and running with this weekend’s race at Loudon, and the time for gamers to weigh their options for the run to the finish is now. There are 12 extraordinary teams who made this year’s playoff field – but there’s also plenty of quality drivers who didn’t make it. The job for fantasy players is to balance their roster between those who are not in the Chase, have nothing to lose, and will go for the win versus drivers in the Chase who cannot risk a mistake and will, in fact, take a more conservative approach.
Adding to that dilemma is the fact that New Hampshire is a flat short track where drivers can get caught up in someone else’s mess through no effort of their own. History can certainly foreshadow future greatness, but momentum can also be a deciding factor when it comes down to driver cuts.
With his team next year looking fairly settled, can Tony Stewart finally be the first one to take the checkered flag this season? Will Jimmie Johnson continue his run and win three races in a row? Or, can Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch get back up to the front before Johnson runs away with the championship? Finally, have Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s experimental setups broken his momentum too badly to let him make a run at the title?
Read on for the answers to these questions, and more, as this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans focuses on which drivers should be active in your lineup and which ones should be having lobster and chowder.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
As the 2007 Chase kicked off, only one of the top-12 drivers, Clint Bowyer, didn’t have a win. That changed after Loudon, a race in which Bowyer destroyed the Cup field. He led 221 of 300 laps to score a convincing win from the pole, the first of his career, serving notice his bid as Chase Cinderella had officially gotten underway. Though he may have taken home the trophy, the winning team was undoubtedly Hendrick Motorsports, as all four of its cars finished in the top 10.
In all, seven of the top 12 drivers scored top-10 finishes; Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch were the ones who failed, with a late-race engine problem relegating Busch to a 25th-place finish. Chevrolets scored eight of the top-10 finishing positions, with the top-finishing non-Chaser Casey Mears in eighth.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
As always, rolling through the center of the turn is critical this weekend – and it is especially important at Loudon. The 12-degree banking in the corners is virtually flat when you’re dealing with 3,400-pound stock cars, and being able to get through the center of it smoothly allows the driver to get back to the gas as quickly as possible. The spring race was shortened by weather, so the results from that race are somewhat unreliable.
A better gauge is looking at results from one mile or less tracks this year – and that reveals three teams that have had the best success. Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports have been the strongest three organizations by far on those style tracks this year. Childress’s top-three drivers have scored 14 top-10 finishes on those tracks in 2008, while Gibbs’s and Hendrick’s top-three wheelmen have scored 13 top-10 finishes in those same seven races. One other note that will be of absolutely no help this weekend – Mark Martin has three top-10 finishes in four short-track races to date.
Crank ‘Em Up
Stewart was about as pissed as he could get when someone in the media asked him a stupid question after last week’s race. But I took that as proof he wants to win as bad as ever, and he would love to win a championship as a lame-duck driver for Gibbs to prove he can do it. He’s also still pissed off about leading the most laps in the spring race at Loudon only to lose out on pit strategy due to rain. Stewart is tied for third most wins in Chase races since its inception with three, and has finished second, second and third in the last three fall races at Loudon. The first win of the year is coming for Smoke and it could very easily come this weekend.
Harvick has been as hot as a firecracker the last two months. He’s finished in the top 10 in the last six races, with three of those finishes coming in the top four. On top of his strong momentum, Harvick also led the second most laps after Stewart in the spring at this place before fading to 14th place by the checkered. Harvick’s average finish at Loudon is 12.7 and he has finished in the top 10 at the track in more than half of the races that he’s run there. Harvick is looking very much like a title contender of late and a win at the beginning of the Chase could put him in a great position to make a run.
Sit ‘Em Down
David Reutimann had the race of his Cup career last week at Richmond. He led 104 laps, and looked like he very well could have won the race if he hadn’t lost some time on pit road. Unfortunately for Reutimann, this weekend’s race is at Loudon, where he has not been very strong in the past. His best finish is 19th at this racetrack, and his average finish is just 27.7. Reutimann’s having a decent year and his last two weeks have been strong, but his history at New Hampshire is more compelling than his momentum – so it’s best to sit him down this weekend.
Juan Pablo Montoya has had a history at Loudon that rivals Reutimann’s. He’s run three races at New Hampshire and his best finish is 19th – but his finishes have progressively gotten worse over his career, and his average finish is 24.7. Montoya has shown moments of brilliance on short tracks, but Loudon has not been the location of any of them. Expect to see his bad runs continue this weekend.
Roll the Dice
Mears is a lame-duck driver at Hendrick, similar to Kyle Busch last year. But the team appears to be turning up the wick as of late; Mears had a strong run at Richmond last week, bringing the No. 5 home in 11th place. Mears also finished seventh in the spring race at Loudon after running eighth there last fall. While there aren’t a lot of places that Mears looks like a strong bet, he’s worth a gamble this weekend in the Northeast.
Crank ‘Em Up
Denny Hamlin has won on numerous tracks, but it was his win at Loudon in 2007 that led MRN commentators to remark that the man would be contending for Cup titles for a long time to come. In that race, Hamlin held off a charging Jeff Gordon at the peak of his game to score the victory, a performance that definitely isn’t the extent of his Loudon success.
Since joining the Cup Series, Hamlin has made five starts at the racetrack, never finishing outside the top 15 in any of them. Ever. Hamlin boasts a stellar average finish of 6.8 on the Magic Mile, and just as he backed up his past history at Richmond with a solid run, there’s no reason to think that the No. 11 won’t be at the front at NHMS all weekend.
Johnson and his No. 48 team have peaked at Chase time. Go figure. The No. 48 has been reminiscent of their old dominant self in recent weeks, having scored two consecutive wins while putting the pressure on Kyle Busch and Edwards. Momentum or not, Johnson has a solid record at Loudon. In addition to two wins at NHMS, Johnson has three consecutive top 10s at the track, and in 13 career starts has finished outside the top 15 there only once. Winning Chase races is what the No. 48 team does best, and the way they’re running they’re going to do it again this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down
Jamie McMurray had momentum two weeks ago, but the last two races have derailed his No. 26 team. They struggled to 24th- and 29th-place runs at Fontana and Richmond, and seem to have stumbled back to their inconsistent ways. Inconsistent is perhaps the best way to describe McMurray’s career at Loudon as well. Though he scored three top 10s at the track while with Chip Ganassi Racing, McMurray’s last top 10 at NHMS came in 2004. His average finish of 22.2 at Loudon is nothing to write home about, and neither will his finish this weekend.
Kasey Kahne’s early runs at NHMS saw a lot of success, with four top 10s in his first five races. The same can’t be said for his more recent outings at the track. Since NASCAR switched over to the CoT, Kahne’s best finish at Loudon has been 20th, while his June run was a less-than-impressive 30th-place finish, two laps down. Kahne and company were flat lost on-track at Richmond this past weekend, and that was with a Chase spot for grabs. NHMS is not a track likely to bring out the best of the No. 9 team.
Roll the Dice
Kurt Busch won the June race at NHMS with the help of a little pit strategy and a lot of rain. Busch’s winning car that weekend though was at best a mid-pack machine, much as the No. 2 car has been all season. The team seems to have hit on something this past weekend though, as the No. 2 scored a top-10 finish without the help of Mother Nature. Kurt Busch is too good a driver to go an entire season without a few good runs, and coming off their solid showing at RIR, this could be the weekend for the other Busch to turn what’s left of his season around.
Mike: The first weekend of the Chase is upon us, Bryan. You are coming in with the momentum having picked third and seventh last week. Things might have been different if Kyle Busch hadn’t had so much damage on his car, but I can’t argue with two top 10 finishers. I think we’d have had four of them were it not for Busch’s misfortune.
Bryan: Can’t argue with you there. For some odd reason Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both just didn’t want a Richmond trophy this year. They definitely both want the Cup though, just like Smoke wants his third. Speaking of which, Stewart had some choice words for his team after finishing second at Richmond. How will the No. 20 guys recover from that this weekend?
Mike: Stewart is as driven as ever and it was quite evident last weekend by his anger after the race. He’s gone off on his team in the past but he always kisses and makes up before the next weekend. They’re willing to take the abuse because they know that they always get 110% from Stewart when he hits the track. Stewart is due for a win and most likely would have won the spring race were it not for the weather. He’s a great bet this weekend. I see you think that Hamlin can continue his strong turnaround since Michigan. What makes you feel like he’s the best pick from the JGR camp?
Bryan: Hamlin’s all but bank at NHMS. He’s never in his entire Cup career finished outside the top 15 at Loudon. And as he showed convincingly in holding off Gordon in 2007, Hamlin knows how to win on this track. The No. 11 team will be out of the spotlight this weekend as the media salivates over the Nos. 18, 48 and 99, and that should suit them just fine to get off to a roaring start in the Chase. You seem to be discounting momentum though, as you’re benching Reutimann. The guy has posted consecutive top 10s and led over 100 laps at Richmond. Why should he ride the pine?
Mike: I know I may be asking for trouble, but Loudon has never been a good track for Reutimann. His consecutive top 10s are two of the three top 10s he’s scored in his career. I know MWR finished second in the spring race with Waltrip, but Reutimann ran 19th. He very well make me look silly and regret doubting the power of Big Brown, but I’m thinking he’s more likely to slip back to his old ways. Kahne has an average finish of 17.2 at Loudon, what makes you think that he’s going to be in the back half this weekend?
Bryan: Kahne has not scored a top 15 at Loudon since 2006, and has never finished better than 20th at Loudon in a CoT. Plus, look at how ugly the No. 9 car’s run at Richmond was this past weekend. Loudon is not Lowe’s, and if Kahne’s team couldn’t put a solid short-track run together last weekend with a Chase berth on the line I doubt that this weekend’s race will bring it out of them. On the other side, Mears and his team had nothing on the line at RIR and had one of their best runs of the season. Think they can run well again this weekend?
Mike: I’m thinking they are set for another good run this weekend. They had a good run last weekend and, in the spring race at Loudon, they led 53 laps. That is all but one of the laps that Mears has led all season. If you’re going to take a chance on Mears this year, it would seem like this is the perfect race to take a shot – just like how you’re thinking that after one of his six top-10 finishes of the year, Kurt Busch can back up his weather-aided win in the spring race.
Bryan: Pretty much everything you said about Mears applies to Kurt Busch here. Their run at Richmond makes me think they’re just as capable of pulling out a passable set-up at Loudon. They’ve got a former winner in Ryan Newman as a teammate and let’s face it, they’re due for some good luck at some point. The No. 2 is a sleeper in every sense this weekend, and I see a good finish coming.
Mike: You may very well be right. I’m surprised neither one of us took a shot with Kyle Busch or Edwards this weekend. Aside from Johnson, they are obviously the dominant drivers this year and could very well be ready to start their push to the title.
Bryan: They could start strong, or they could be be far too obvious a pick. Last year’s Chase saw a sleeper in Bowyer dominate the race, and Busch and Edwards have lost some momentum after Richmond. We’ll have to see how it pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Bryan and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings, and Roll the Dice drivers can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 13.7
Sit – 21.1
Roll – 22.3
Crank – 10.2
Sit – 21.1
Roll – 17.9
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