Fantasy NASCAR preview: Kobalt Tools 500

by Eric McClung on November 10, 2010 @ 18:00:00 PDT


Surrounded by a desert landscape, Phoenix International Raceway - a unique, mile-long race track - will play host to the season's final flat track race. The dogleg between Turns 2 and 3 is a distinctive obstacle, in addition to the different sets of banking on each half of the track. While PIR is very different when compared to the other flat tracks (Martinsville Speedway, Richmond International Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway), outbraking the opposition is the key to making passes at all of them.

Location: Avondale, Ariz.
Shape: Tri-oval
Length: 1.0 miles
Laps: 312
Turns 1 & 2: 11 degrees
Turns 3 & 4: 9 degrees
Front stretch: 3 degrees
Back stretch: 9 degrees

Drivers to keep an eye on

Clint Bowyer | No. 33Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing

Prior to wrecking at Martinsville, Bowyer had six finishes of 12th or better in the previous flat track races. Even with that incident, he owns the eighth best average finish at shallow-banked venues this season. That impressive run includes five top-10s and a win in the Chase opener at Loudon. Despite losing points and key members of his team after that race due to a rules infraction, Bowyer has continued to barrel through the postseason adding another checkered flag and a runner-up performance. Back in April, Bowyer held an average running position of seventh with more than 92 percent of laps in the top 15 for the second consecutive start at PIR. Among middle-tier drivers, Bowyer has the history and momentum to bring a lot of heat to the dogleg in the desert.

Mark Martin | No. 5 Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

Juan Pablo Montoya, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
As usual, JP boom or bust

Since 2005, Martin has four top-five finishes in five starts at PIR, including a dominating win from the pole in April of last year. On three occasions, he held an average running position of at least fifth with more than 99.0 percent of laps spent in the top 15. Over the last seven Chase races, all top-15 finishes, Martin has looked like the driver that won five races last year after struggling for much of this season. In late October, he finished as the runner-up at Martinsville, the most recent flat track race, and is coming off a third-place result at Texas Motor Speedway. After missing the postseason, Martin is peaking just when fantasy owners are looking to capitalize on a major value.

Joey Logano | No. 20 Home Depot Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing

Five top-10s in the seven flat track races held this season make Logano a great selection this week. His fourth-place finish at Fort Worth extended his career-best top-10 streak to four races. In fact, Logano has seven finishes of 11th or better in the last nine starts. During the April event at PIR, Logano finished 10th with an average running position of sixth and spent 99.7 percent of his laps running in the top 15. The 20-year-old phenom is in the middle of a serious growth spurt, showing consistency like never before. Roll with Sliced Bread this weekend.

Juan Pablo Montoya | No. 42 Target Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

In any format that gives bonus points based on strong qualifying efforts, Montoya could at least be on the provisional roster. Since winning the pole at Loudon, he owns a sizzling average starting position of 7.4 with two more poles and has started in the first three rows a dozen times. The brash Columbian isn't a bad sleeper pick for race itself, either. In April, Montoya finished a career-best fifth with an average running position of fifth and spent the entire race running inside the top-15. A year ago, he finished eighth with an average running position of 10th and 95.2 percent of laps in the top 15. There is always risk involved with starting JPM, but he's the ideal boom-or-bust option for those already playing from behind.

Martin Truex Jr. | No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing

If not for a number of bad breaks this season, Truex would be having an otherwise respectable freshman campaign with his new team. Phoenix offers an oasis of redemption in the desert for this parched crew. In nine career starts at the site, Truex has held an average running position of ninth or better on five occasions. In last year's Chase event, he qualified on the pole and finished fifth while recording 99.7 percent of laps in the top 15. It's hard to predict which Truex will show up at the track on any given week; check the practice speed charts closely before giving this very legitimate dark horse your full commitment.

Temper your expectations

Jeff Burton | No. 31 Cat Financial Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing

A 25th-place finish in the April start at Phoenix ended a streak of 18 consecutive top-15 finishes in the desert for Burton. He was having a decent run until being penalized for pitting outside of his box near the midway point of the race. Similar issues and other late-race misfortunes have plagued Burton all season. Last week at Texas, it appeared watching all those strong finishes and near wins vanish finally got the best of Burton when he wrecked Jeff Gordon in addition to himself, apparently for no good reason. The runner-up of last year's postseason event at PIR was out of character, out of line and could see a measure of payback with only two races to go. Burton may not be worth starting in either event.

Jamie McMurray | No. 1 McDonald's Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

Jeff Burton, Richard Childress Racing
Burton blowup costly

In the first five flat track races this season, McMurray did not finish in the top 15. He has been better lately, finishing third in the Chase opener at Loudon and 11th at Martinsville. Despite those improvements and the ability to pull a dominating performance out of nowhere, Jamie Mac is a risky pick at Phoenix, where his average running position has been 22nd or worse in the last two starts. On the season, nine of McMurray's 11 top-10s are also top-five finishes. That type of all-or-nothing risk doesn't play well this week given his lack of recent overall success at PIR and the other flat tracks in general.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew "Paint the 88"/National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

On his way to a second straight disappointing season in NASCAR's best equipment, Earnhardt has been somewhat successful on flat tracks. In those seven combined races, he has finished in the top 15 on four occasions and had solid finishes in both starts that have come during the Chase. Earnhardt finished fourth in the opener at Loudon and lead a season-high 90 laps at Martinsville before finishing seventh. After very strong runs at PIR in 2008, Earnhardt has failed to record an average running position better than 18th in the last three starts at the site. Sporting the Diet Dew paint scheme is fitting; Earnhardt has indeed fallen on lean times.

Marcos Ambrose | No. 47 Little Debbie/Safeway Toyota | JTG Daugherty Racing

With a strong background in road racing, outbraking opponents is something Ambrose does very well. He has certainly done a good job of applying that discipline when it comes to running on flat tracks. In fact, in the first five starts on such sites this season, the Australian averaged a 10th-place finish. It's the last two starts that leave cause for concern. Ambrose finished 30th or worse at Loudon and Martinsville, after spinning out in both Chase starts at those sites. In terms of average finish, PIR is Ambrose's second best non-road course track. However, his postseason no-shows leave much to be desired.

Sam Hornish Jr. | No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge | Penske Championship Racing

As an IndyCar driver, Hornish recorded two wins at PIR. In his limited Cup success, his best finishes have also come on flat tracks. However, Hornish offers very little value as the most-rostered, bottom-tier driver as many owners are running low on A.J. Allmendinger and Paul Menard starts. If at all possible, start one of Richard Petty Motorsports teammates over the always risky "Sideways" Sam, although his average running position of 10th in the April start at Phoenix offers some optimism for those that don't have a better alternative.

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About Eric McClung

Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a three-time award finalist. Over the years, he's made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts. He's also captured the fantasy football championship in the KFFL staff league twice.

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