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Getting to Victory Lane
1. Carl Edwards qualified on the pole and credited the No. 1 pit stop selection that comes along with it as a big part of the No. 99 teamís victory at Phoenix International Raceway. Edwards held a race-high Average Running Position of second and led 93 of 312 laps. He was the only driver to spend every lap running inside the Top 15, never lower than ninth. At Homestead-Miami Speedway, the site of the season finale, Edwards owns five straight Top 10s, including a win from 2008. Those looking for a value play among the top-tier drivers should have Edwards under their wing.
2. Ryan Newman was among the most consistent drivers to end the regular season and early into the Chase. Disaster struck over the next four starts, until a return to the desert proved to be Newmanís personal oasis. He held an ARP of seventh, better than his victory at the site back in April. Newman has little success at Homestead, but has made improvements on intermediate tracks this season. Perhaps too risky to start for the final race of the season, but Newman has now regained the momentum to surprise.
3. Joey Logano is ready for blast off. Over the last five races, the young driver has improved his last five finishes sequentially: seventh at Charlotte, sixth at Martinsville, fifth at Talladega, fourth at Texas and now third at Phoenix. A year ago, Logano finished 24th in his first Cup start at Homestead, but was fifth in the Nationwide race. He seems to get better with every start and thereís no reason to bet against another step forward. Sliced Bread is on a major roll and is one to watch for in early races next season.
4. Greg Biffle recorded consecutive Top Fives for just the second time this season. In addition to winning at Kansas, he owns three other Top Fives in nine Chase starts, but five other results of 17th or worse. The good news for value-minded owners is that all of those strong postseason finishes came on intermediate tracks. Homestead is such a track and a site The Biff won three straight from 2004 to 2006.
5. Jimmie Johnson is only 15 points behind aHamHaleader Denny Hamlin while inching closer to a fifth-consecutive championship. It wonít be an easy task. Hamlin is the defending winner at Homestead while Johnson has never had so much pressure on him this late in the season. That hasnít stopped him from winning two of the last three poles and leading at least one lap in four consecutive starts at the site. Johnson has three Top 10s in that time, including a fifth-place finish last year. Owners with a single Johnson bullet left to fire shouldnít hesitate to use it.
6. Kevin Harvick is stuck playing the oh-so-close role that Mark Martin has seen happen to him time and time again. Currently sitting 46 points out, the seasonís most consistent driver would need all of his lucky stars to align perfectly in order to pull out a championship. Harvick should have plenty of stars in alignment for Homestead. He owns back-to-back Top Fives and three such finishes in the last four starts there. For those in draft leagues, note that Harvick owns an Average Finish of 8.8 while no other driver is better than 12th and he would be up 295 points under the old points system. Who would you take No. 1?
From the spotter's tower
Teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch held ARPs of third and fifth, but the long green flag run at the end required them to refuel. The pair finished 12th and 13th, leaving Hamlin in a sour mood afterwards. He held an ARP of third, led a race-high 190 laps and had to give up the lead in order to make it on fuel. Hamlin ended last year by winning at Homestead and will need that result or finish as the runner-up by leading the most laps to guarantee his first championship. He owns an ARP of ninth in three straight at the site and will need something similar to avoid letting a title slip away.
Martin Truex Jr. was running 10th at the midway point of the race and held an ARP of 10th, but finished 15th after cutting a down a tire late on pit road. Strong runs that fail to last seemed to be a weekly occurrence for this team. Over the last five races, Truex has held an ARP of 12th or better, but has just one finish better than 15th to show for it. Homestead could allow the freshmen team to end on a strong note. Truexís four straight Top 10s at the site is the second-best active streak. If they can manage to find consistency, ďNAPA Know HowĒ could become a popular answer in 2011.
Matt Kenseth finished the season with the best Average Finish (8.5) on cookie-cutter tracks. He could put that skill to use at Homestead, a 1.5-mile track with progressive banking, where he owns one win (2007) and an ARP of seventh or better in three of the last four starts. After leading one lap in only six of the first 28 races, Kenseth has done so six times over the last seven. The value isnít there in most formats, but Kenseth is a maximum safety pick for those sitting on a lead.
The starting grid
Are owners in the Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Auto Racing game really that short on Hamlin (20.14 percent ownership) starts? Despite owning the points lead, the driver of the No. 11 is only fifth in ownership among A-List Drivers. Jeff Gordon (33.11) struggled with Johnsonís crew servicing his car, but managed to finish 11th with an ARP of 16th. Still, itís impossible to justify his second-place position in ownership. The same can be said for Tony Stewart (24.45). Both drivers are struggling to finish consistently during the postseason and offer zero upside in the finale.
Among drivers on the B-List, Clint Bowyer (46.72) was the third-most trusted driver in the entire game. Early contact on Lap nine and needing to pit for fuel late left him to finish in 21st. At Homestead, Bowyer has finished 11th or better in three of four career starts, but presents no value for those attempting to come from behind.
The C-List has been a struggle all season, but those with an A.J. Allmendinger (36.82) start remaining have an excellent chance to make up ground or secure their league championship. Allmendinger has finished 11th or better in his two career starts at Homestead. Meanwhile, Sam Hornish Jr. (42.86) and Paul Menard (41.11) have zero Top 20s between them in the last three starts at the site.
Martin finished eighth with an ARP of 16th and spent 63.1 percent of laps in Top 15. Heíll look to end the season with a ninth straight Top 15. Homestead isnít among Martinís best tracks, but he comes at a great value and is running as well as anyone right now.
Jamie McMurray finished 10th with an ARP of 19th and spent 28.8 percent of laps in Top 15, worst among the Top 10 on both counts. On Lap 80, hard contact with the wall knocked the spoiler on the back of the car loose and killed the aerodynamics. McMurray would get back on the lead lap shortly after it appeared he caused a debris caution by throwing his water bottle out of the window. Itís not the first time the desperate maneuver has been done and NASCAR officials never issued a penalty for it. Heís been inconsistent at Homestead, but we know by now Jamie Mac is always capable of a surprise performance and could be worth the gamble.
Juan Pablo Montoya finished 16th with an ARP of 14th and spent 74.4 percent of laps in the Top 15. After weeks of great qualifying efforts, Montoya started 35th but managed to work all the way up to the runner-up spot by Lap 297. Unfortunately, JPM ran out of fuel on the white flag lap and added another disappointing finish to a season loaded with them. Heís looking for his first Top 10 at Homestead and is too risky to consider starting.
Around the corner
Homestead is a 1.5-mile track with a twist; progressive banking that ranges from 18 to 20 degrees in the corners, but is relatively flat in the straightaways.
*All stats up-to-date as of 11/15.
Contact Eric at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ericmcclung.
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