Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Fantasy Insider: Are You Ready For Real Racing To Begin?

Sure, Daytona is a great way to start the season and there always seems to be some kind of drama going on there. But do not fear, fantasy players who may have failed in week one. There are 35 other points races on the schedule and while winning at Daytona is obviously the best way to start a season, it’s not necessarily an indicator of how a driver or team will do the rest of the way. Case in point: the last Daytona 500 winner to win the Sprint Cup title was Jimmie Johnson in 2006, looking to repeat the feat after winning this year.

And while the mainstream media will likely tone down its NASCAR coverage after Daytona, we who follow the sport know that the other races can’t be ignored, so it’s off to Phoenix we go. There was actually snow in the Phoenix area last week, so be careful with those predictions, such as, “it will have to snow in Phoenix before (insert your least favorite driver’s name) wins.”

Just who should we like in the desert? Here’s a look at some favorite aces, middle of the roaders and dark horses.

*Looking For Some Aces*

If you are in a league with driver race limits, when you pick a top wheelman, you really want a win, or at least a top-5 finish. The new Gen-6 car is still an unknown on downforce tracks, so just how different teams and drivers will adjust remains to be seen. The best thing we have to go on here is past history, so here’s a look at some of this week’s favorites.

Nice heavy lifting; but can they do that with a cactus? Jimmie Johnson’s record at Phoenix makes him a safe bet for this weekend – unless you fear a Daytona 500 hangover.

You might not want to use him this early, but in 19 races at Phoenix, *Jimmie Johnson* has four wins and an average finish of 6.68, tops among active drivers. Johnson made a statement about his title hopes by winning Daytona, but if the team wants to prove it’s on a real mission to win title No. 6 for J.J., a win at Phoenix would be a much bigger statement. History tells us it’s entirely possible and Johnson is my pick to win this week.

Some other top drivers with good averages at Phoenix include *Denny Hamlin* at 10.27 with one win in 15 races, Jeff Gordon at 11.46 with two wins in 26 and *Tony Stewart* at 12.14 with one win in 22 races. And also don’t forget *Kevin Harvick*, who has an average finish of 12.85 in 20 races with three victories. Who knows, maybe he’ll win the race then have to wait outside his RV afterward if baby Keelan is taking a nap — just like what happened after winning one the Duel qualifying races at Daytona. Also, we should note that Harvick won the November race here and will be on a mission after a 42nd-place finish put him in a deep hole after race one.

*Middle of The Road*

Just who falls into this category and who doesn’t depends on your league’s setup. *Kyle Busch* is one of those borderline guys who could be in the top group or fall into this one. Again, he’s probably not the type of driver you want to use too early, but he has a pretty solid resume at Phoenix with one win and an average finish of 13.31 in 16 races there. But you also have to keep in mind that Las Vegas, which is Busch’s hometown, is coming up and drivers tend to rise to the occasion at their home tracks. So don’t burn up your Busch picks too quickly.

One of my favorite mid-road picks for this week is *Mark Martin*. Sure, we know he’s older at 54, but he’s also in great shape, posting a third-place finish to start his part-time season at Daytona. And in 32 career starts at Phoenix, Martin has an average finish of 9.06 with two wins, the second of which came in 2009. He also will be in the No. 55 car again, which was a solid ride last year, no matter who was behind the wheel.

Last week we told you the Fantasy bargain pickup of a lifetime was this guy. He finished third. If you don’t pick him this week, well, that’s on you.

Also, if you think *Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* is really ready to make a run at the title, then Phoenix may be a place that becomes evident. Junior’s average finish isn’t good there, at 18.24, but he has two victories, including eight top-10 finishes. If he’s a lock pick for the four restrictor plate races, Phoenix could be one of the other five tracks where he should be considered.

If *Carl Edwards* is going to break out of his slump (he hasn’t won since 2011 in Las Vegas), then Phoenix could be the place for him. His luck can’t get any worse than it was at Daytona, where the crashes seemed to find him, no matter what the format of the competition. Should he find a car to use (they wrecked five times on-track at Daytona) Edwards has one win and an average finish of 12.47 in 17 races at Phoenix. He’s still too young and with too good of a team to not be a factor.

Another driver looking to make a statement will be *Kasey Kahne*. He doesn’t have a great average finish, either — 19.06 in 17 races — but he does have one win and five other top-10 finishes at Phoenix. Also, he qualifies well out West with an average start of 12.1. So if he can start at or near the front, that could help him avoid some early trouble, at least until it’s time to start lapping cars.

*Dark Horses*

It feels odd to put *Danica Patrick* in this category with all the attention she’s getting after Daytona, but this track is when the real deal begins. Patrick has one race at Phoenix and was running well there last year before getting wrecked. She still finished 17th, despite becoming a roving obstacle at the start/finish line and has some additional experience here from her IndyCar days. If she’s in the lower group in your league, now is probably a good week to take her.

There are also some other options if you don’t want to pick Patrick this week. Her boyfriend and Rookie of the Year competitor *Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.* is also a possibility. Even though he doesn’t have a Sprint Cup start at Phoenix, he was solid at Daytona (12th place) and is in good equipment. Last Fall’s Nationwide Series event at the track, with Sadler wrecking while Stenhouse held steady was the key to winning the latter his second straight Nationwide title.

Also on the entry list this week is *Landon Cassill* in the RCR-affiliated No. 33 owned by Joe Falk. There are just 43 official entries this week, so he’s a virtual lock to make the field on qualifying time. He’s also making his sixth start at Phoenix this weekend, but again, in superior equipment than he has in the past. This brings about a potential for a good finish, and the fact that he’s running a limited Sprint Cup schedule and won’t be available to pick every week makes this race a possible place to use him.

*The Rear-View Mirror*

The top points scorer in the Frontstretch.com fantasy leagues last week was team *EMLTS97* with 288 points. That team had Jeff Gordon as its “A”-list driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Greg Biffle as their “B”-list drivers and Michael Waltrip as its D-list driver. Not spectacular, but solid with second, sixth, 20th and 22nd-place finishers.

Also, it’s not too late to join the frontstretchfantasy2 league. That’s because the Lucky Dog provision will throw out an owner’s worst week. So if you still want to play, or for some reason forgot to fill in your lineup last week, don’t despair. The zeros at Daytona won’t count as long as you don’t miss any other weeks. Just sign into yahoo.com, go to sports, then fantasy, then auto racing. Once you’ve registered look for the private group frontstretchfantasy2. The ID number is 18909 and the password is rickybobby2.

*Connect with Jeff!*

“Contact Jeff Wolfe”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/37938/

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