Auto Club Speedway
Location: Fontana, Calif.
Of the two tracks on the schedule with a 2.0-mile layout, Auto Club Speedway has the unwelcomed reputation of being boring. Clean air plays such a major role that passing in general is difficult and passes for the lead are a rarity. Races often come down to pit strategy, with two tires and track position often trumping pure speed.
Fuel mileage is another factor that often comes into play. The lack of passing tends to create long green flag runs, which provides some teams with opportunity to gamble on fuel. There is no way to predict if a race will come down to fuel mileage, and there is no way to predict which drivers will be able to make it without stopping or which will run dry. When fuel mileage comes into play, fantasy owners are at the mercy of Lady Luck.
Last year's race produced one of the more memorable finishes of the 2011 season. Kyle Busch dominated the event, leading a race-high 151 laps, and he appeared to be on his way to a win. California native Jimmie Johnson had other ideas, running down and passing Busch in the final laps, only to have Kevin Harvick pass him coming to the checkered flag. Harvick led just one lap all afternoon, but it was the lap that counted the most.
Although he came up short last year, Johnson still owns a series-best five wins at ACS. He leads all drivers with a 5.1 average finish, 12 top-five finishes and 13 top-10s in 17 starts. Johnson may be the clear-cut fantasy favorite, but Roush Fenway teammates Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth aren't bad, either. Both drivers average a top-10 finish and have combined for four victories. Clint Bowyer is among the up and comers to watch. He has a 10.6 average finish in 11 starts.
Daytona International Speedway
Location: Daytona Beach, Fla.
Daytona is one track that needs no introduction. Heck, even people that don't watch NASCAR have heard of the Daytona 500. The "Great American Race" is the one race that every driver wants to win before their career ends, and it is the one race that can cement a driver's legacy in the sport. From working the draft to dodging the "Big One," winning any race at Daytona takes a little luck and a lot of skill, but NASCAR immortality awaits those that can pull it off when the season starts in February.
Unfortunately for fantasy owners, a trip to Daytona is more about survival than scoring an unforgettable win. Restrictor-plate racing brings non-stop, three-wide racing, but it also brings the potential for a devastating multi-car wreck. Almost every position on the track is up for grabs on every lap, and although it makes for exciting television, it causes headaches for fantasy owners. Until every driver in your fantasy roster crosses the finish line, don't assume anything.
In last year's season opener, rookie Trevor Bayne pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NASCAR history, winning his first Cup Series race and becoming the youngest winner of the Daytona 500. A wild finish left David Gilliland and Bobby Labonte in the top five, while the dominant cars of Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman were nowhere to be found in the closing laps.
The July event produced another first-time winner, as David Ragan used a push from his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth to pick up the victory. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Joey Logano and Kyle Busch were Ragan's biggest competition, but the JGR duo couldn't find way to the front down the stretch. Newman again led the most laps, only to fade in the final laps.
Fantasy owners aren't going to find any driver immune to Daytona's wrath, but Kurt Busch has been pretty darn good, compiling a series-best 14.4 average finish since the start of the 2002 season. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart have all finished in the top 10 in at least half their starts during that stretch; Kevin Harvick has finished seventh or better in three of his last four starts at the track.
There are plenty of guys that have struggled at the track, but Joey Logano has been one of the worst offenders. Even with a top-five run last July, He has a 22.8 average finish in six starts, including a pair of DNFs. His teammate Denny Hamlin has just one top-10 in 12 starts at the track, while Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya all have average finishes outside the top 20.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Location: Speedway, Ind.
Next to the Daytona 500, a victory at Indianapolis is as big as it gets for a Sprint Cup driver. Kissing the bricks has become one of the most celebrated traditions in auto racing, and winning at The Brickyard has gone hand in hand with winning a title on several occasions. In many ways, the track has become the proving ground of champions, and the race has become one of the crown jewels of NASCAR.
Passing has become extremely difficult at the track since the inception of Car of Tomorrow. The track's long straightaways and tight, sweeping corners leave drivers few quality opportunities to complete passes. To make matters worse, drivers run into a wall of air when closing on another car. Drivers seem almost frozen three car lengths behind another driver. Clean air can often be the deciding factor at Indy these days.
Clean air didn't determine the winner in 2011, but fuel mileage did. Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne had the two fastest cars all afternoon, but Paul Menard had the best strategy. He was able to stretch his fuel during the final run, picking up the first Cup win of his career on one of the sport's biggest stages. Despite being forced to make an extra stop, Gordon still managed to power his way back to second. Had the race lasted just one more lap, the outcome might have been different.
Gordon and Tony Stewart have been the two most consistent drivers at Indy since the start of the 2001 season, notching two wins and a series-leading five top-five finishes each. Jimmie Johnson leads all drivers with three wins during the same stretch. Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth are the only other drivers averaging a top-10 finish during the stretch.
Several drivers have struggled at the track, including Ryan Newman. In 11 starts at the track, he has compiled a 20.2 average finish and recorded just one top-10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has two top-10s, but he also has three DNFs and a 21.7 average finish. David Reutimann has been even worse, compiling a 28.0 average finish.
Michigan International Speedway
Location: Brooklyn, Mich.
Drivers certainly can't complain about not having enough room to race at Michigan. Four-wide racing is a regular sight at the 2.0-mile, D-shaped oval with drivers running around the bottom, up by the wall and anywhere in between that a car will fit. The ample room to race allows drivers to search for their preferred line during different portions of each fuel run, and as a result, it is common to see drivers slide back early and charge back to the front as pit stops approach or vice versa.
As with its sister track in Fontana, the layout of MIS tends to lead to long green flag runs. Long green flag runs mean the potential for fuel mileage finishes exist. Saving a few extra laps of fuel is no easy task at a 2.0-mile track, but a few ounces of fuel can be the difference between going to Victory Lane and finishing outside the top 25. If it looks like a race is going to be decided by fuel mileage, all fantasy owners can do is cross their fingers and hope their drivers can go the distance.
Fuel mileage didn't decide the winner of the June event last season, but pit strategy did. Denny Hamlin took opted for track position late in the race and was able to hold off a furious charge from Matt Kenseth and the rest of the drivers on fresher tires. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle dominated most of the afternoon, but in the end, strategy outlasted speed.
In the August event, Busch exacted a bit of revenge. He grabbed the lead late in the race and then held off Jimmie Johnson in the final laps. Biffle wasn't as lucky. He led a race-high 86 laps, and while he was untouchable early in the event, he inexplicably faded in the second half of the race.
Teammates Edwards and Kenseth have been the most consistent drivers at the track. Edwards leads the way with a series-best 8.2 average finish and 12 top-10s in 15 starts at MIS. Kenseth has a 9.0 average finish and 14 top-10s in his last 20 starts at the track. Both drivers have two wins. Fellow "Roushcateer" Greg Biffle also has two wins, and Tony Stewart leads all drivers with 15 top-10s since the start of the 2002 season. Joey Logano has made an immediate impact at the track, notching top-10 finishes in three of his six starts.
Despite being a two-time winner at the track, Kurt Busch is among the drivers fantasy owners should think twice about. He has been inconsistent at the track throughout his career, compiling an 18.4 average finish since 2002, even with the victories. Jeff Burton had just two top-10s in his last 20 starts at the track, and Jamie McMurray has a mediocre 19.5 average finish in his career.
Location: Long Pond, Pa.
After years of grumbling from the drivers, fans and the media Pocono Raceway officials have elected to reduce both of their races by 100 miles, shaving 40 laps off the scheduled distance. Such a change will obviously alter race strategies and when it comes to calculating fuel mileage.
Back in October, work began on the first repave project at Pocono since 1995. The track configuration will remain the same but the typical lack of grip can be expected until the surface begins to wear. After the last repave speeds went up and passing improved, two things everyone involved certainly hopes to see happen again.
Even though Denny Hamlin finished 15th or worse in both Pocono races last year he actually ran very well. His average running position was sixth and fifth, respectively, while averaging 70.5 laps led per race. Since first competing at Pocono in 2006, winning both races that year, Hamlin proved to be an instant master of the Tricky Triangle. His average running position has been sixth or better in five straight starts and ninth or better in 10 of his dozen career starts.
Kyle Busch, after years of struggling mightily at Pocono, learned some pointers from his aforementioned teammate and has finished as the runner-up twice with a third-place result in three of the last four trips to Long Pond.
Jeff Gordon has collected a pair of wins, seven finishes of sixth or better and a total of nine top-10s in the last 11 starts at Pocono. In that time his average running position has been 11th or better on nine occasions and was third in two of the last three.
Starting in 2009, Juan Pablo Montoya began to flex some muscle at Pocono. He has finished eighth or better in four of the last six with an average running position that improved race by race from the summer of 2009 race (12th) through the spring of 2011 (fourth).
Not qualifying well hasn't stopped Kevin Harvick from competing at Pocono. He has earned a top-five result in three of the last four.
Location: Talladega, Ala.
NASCAR's biggest track is also one of the sport's most treacherous. Restrictor plates keep the cars bunched together in a big pack, and the track's massive surface allows drivers to go three- and four-wide on a regular basis. Although exciting racing and tight finishes are a few of the by-products, so are multi-car wrecks. Talladega is one the biggest hurdles facing fantasy owners each and every year.
April's event last season produced a thrilling three-wide finish. Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer to the line by inches, completing a brilliant afternoon for Hendrick Motorsports. The organization placed three drivers in the top four and four drivers in the top eight spots. Bowyer was the hard luck loser, having led a race-high 38 laps.
In the October event, Bowyer again found himself running second on the final. However, he was able to turn the tables this time around, passing his Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton coming to the finish line to pick up the win. It was Bowyer's second win at Talladega in his last three starts.
Fantasy owners aren't going to find a safe pick at Talladega, but Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer delivered more often than not. Harvick's 14.5 average finish since the start of the 2002 season is tops in the series, and Junior is far behind with a 14.8 average finish during the stretch. Bowyer is the rising star. He has four straight top-10s at Talladega, including three straight finishes of second or better.
While the list of drivers that have struggled is long, Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle are two of the biggest offenders. Newman has seven DNFs in 20 starts, and Biffle has five DNFs in 18 starts. Mark Martin and Carl Edwards have combined for just three top-five finishes in 33 total starts, and both have compiled an average finish of 20.3 or worse since the start of the 2002 season. Martin Truex Jr. has been absolutely unpickable, piling up eight DNFs in 14 starts.
About Brian Polking
Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.Follow @BPolking
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