Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 fantasy NASCAR preview
by Jeffrey Price
on July 31, 2008 @ 15:31:06
The Sprint Cup Series returns to Pocono Raceway this week, just seven weeks after Gillett Evernham Motorsports' Kasey Kahne won from the pole in early June. Seven weeks represents the shortest turnaround for any of the tracks that host two races during the season. As a result, the second Pocono race often looks like the first Pocono race. Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson won both races in 2004. In 2006, Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin doubled up in 2006, winning both races from the pole. (Penske Racing's Kurt Busch finished second in both races, and Red Bull Racing's Brian Vickers fourth in each race.) Perhaps more than any other races, fantasy gamers can turn to the results of the previous race at Pocono for guidance in making roster decisions.
Pocono Raceway is as big as Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway; however, it is not as fast because of the flat banking and the existence of three, instead of the usual two, sets of turns. Additionally, each turn is very different from another, so teams are forced to compromise on their setup. Like the other flat tracks, downforce is very important. Engine problems are relatively common at Pocono because of the extreme shift in rpm, with cars gearing way down in the sharp corners and then approaching 200 mph in the front stretch. The best way to pass is to beat another driver to the gas coming out of the turns.
Location: Long Pond, Penn.
Table: Do not bench
Leading the pack
Busch is in the midst of a disappointing season in which he likely will not make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He is mired at 18th in the point standings, 281 points out of the last qualifying spot. Busch looked primed to make a run at a Chase spot after wining last month in New Hampshire, but a 28th place run at Chicagoland Speedway followed up by last week's 40th-place debacle at the Brickyard have all but ended Busch's chances of running for a second Cup championship. Pocono Raceway, site of this week's race, is one of Busch's better tracks. He is the defending champion of this race and has two career wins. He earned two second-place finishes in 2006. In June, Busch started 11th and finished eighth.
Newman continues to hover around the fringes of a birth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. After last week's 13th-place run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he is 134 points out of the last qualifying spot. Perhaps more daunting is that Newman is 16th in the points and would need to pass four drivers to qualify. A win this week at Pocono Raceway would go a long way to closing the gap. Pocono is one of Newman's better tracks. In 13 career races, he has six top-10s and five top-fives, including a win from the pole in this race in 2003. Newman posted two of his top-10s last season when he had a 4.5 average finish. In the June race he finished 18th after starting 27th. A finish between sixth and 15th, where Newman has finished half his races this season, is the appropriate expectation for fantasy owners.
Vickers is in the midst of perhaps his best season in the Sprint Cup series. He is 15th in the point standings, 132 points out of 12th, or the last spot to make the Chase. While that is a large gap to make up in the remaining six races before the Chase, Vickers has the luxury of racing on two of his better tracks before the Chase field is set: Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway. In nine career races at Pocono, Vickers has four top-fives and four top-10s. He finished fourth in both races in 2006. Vickers rebounded from an off year in 2007 at Pocono to finish second in the June race after qualifying 15th. Vickers is no longer a sleeper on the fantasy radar, and there are tracks where he is among the handful of contenders to take the checkered flag. Pocono is one of those tracks.
A part-time driver, Martin remains an elite driver for the week's he chooses to race. Martin stands 26th in the driver points, but his average finish projected over the full 20 races would have him at 10th place in the points, just ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing's Tony Stewart. At Pocono Raceway, Martin has one of the more intriguing track records you will see for a driver. In 43 career starts at Long Pond, Martin has never won a race, but he has finished in the top five 19 times and in the top 10 30 times. Last year, he finished seventh and ninth in the two races at Pocono. In June, Martin brought home 10th after starting from the second row. While Martin will always be a consideration for savvy fantasy owners, he has been particularly strong this year on the flatter intermediates such as Pocono. He is a solid bet for another top-10 this week.
Truex has followed up last year's appearance in the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a solid if unspectacular season. He is currently 17th in the point standings but with little hope of making the 2008 Chase. He has two top-fives and six top-10s this season. He finished 24th last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Truex has been decent, if not great, at Pocono Raceway. In five career races, he has finished no worse than 24th and has one top-five and two top-10s. His best finish was a third in the 2007 June race. In this June's Pocono race, Truex finished 17th after starting 25th. Truex continues to be an above average option for fantasy owners. A finish in the bottom half of the top 20 is a reasonable expectation at Pocono.
Drivers to keep an eye on
After being as high as second in the point standings, a midseason hiccup, exemplified by a last place run in the Coca-Cola 400, left Biffle 11th in the points. Runs of fourth and eighth the last two weeks have him back to seventh in the points; he is looking like a solid bet to make the Chase. Biffle finished 15th at Pocono Raceway in June after starting 33rd. Biffle has a 21.6 average finish over the last five races at Pocono with only one top-10. In 11 career races, he has mustered one top-five and two top-10s. Unlike most intermediate tracks, Biffle has not been much of a threat to crack victory lane in Long Pond. Fantasy owners hoping for a run in the top five are likely to be disappointed.
Nemechek has run 17 of the 20 races on the Sprint Cup schedule this season. His best finish was an 18th in the Coca-Cola 400 in early July. The highlight of the season for "Front Row" Joe was likely winning the pole at Talladega in April. Overall, Nemechek is 38th in points with little hope of cracking the top 35, where drivers are not forced to qualify into the racing field any time soon. Nemechek does not excel at Pocono Raceway. He has two top-fives and four top-10s in 24 career starts. He finished 29th after starting fifth in June. Nemechek is a double-dangerous fantasy option. First he is not guaranteed a spot in the race, and he is not a good bet to finish inside the top 30. Fantasy owners are best server to leave him out of their plans, but desperate owners could give him a whirl should he qualify.
McMurray continues to underperform his reputation. He is 20th in the point standings and has only four top-10s and no top-fives in 20 races this season. McMurray is coming off, perhaps, his best run of the season, a sixth-place effort at the Brickyard last week. McMurray's record at Pocono Raceway is spotty. In 11 career races at Pocono, he has a 22.5 average finish with no top-fives and two top-10s. He had a 34.5 average finish last season at Pocono and finished 20th after starting 22nd in June. Fantasy owners expecting a repeat of last week's success will likely be disappointed this week a Pocono.
Smith is 34th in the point standings following a 31st-place run last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He has run 19 of the 20 Cup races this season but posted no top-10 finishes. Smith's average finish over his past five Cup races is 29.8 bested by a 24th-place run in the Coca-Cola 400. Smith faded to 28th after starting the June race from the second row. That was his only race at Pocono. Smith is a consistent also ran in Sprint Cup races, it's hard to imagine him having value in any fantasy format.
Montoya is 22nd in the point standings following a 39th-place effort at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This year was supposed to be a season in which Montoya built on his solid 2007 rookie campaign, but so far it has not been meant to be. Montoya has only one top-five - a second at Talladega in April - and two top-10s. The last several weeks have been particularly frustrating for Montoya. Starting with a 38th-place run at Pocono Raceway, Montoya has finished 32nd or worse in five of the last seven races. He has fallen from 17th in the points to his current position. Montoya had an average finish of 18.0 in his only other two races, last season, at Pocono. At this point, fantasy owners should take an 18th-place finish from Montoya and run.
About Jeffrey Price
Price has been a KFFL contributor since January 2008.
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