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Chasing the Cup

Chasing the 2015 Season

by Dan Beaver
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Fantasy players are now two years into the knockout-style playoffs that will undoubtedly be NASCAR’s plan for the next decade or so. One of the lessons learned is that by-and-large, the drivers who make it all the way to the end among the top 16 are the ones that will dominate most lineups. Most of these racers are included in the most expensive ranks, but there are still hidden gems like Ryan Newman in 2014 or Jamie McMurray during this year’s Challenger round.

The title contenders dominated the top 10 for the first couple of rounds and the top five after that. In the final race of 2015, they finished first, second, and sixth to improve their averages and just like 2014 it took winning the Ford 400 to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

In the end a driver with only 25 starts won the Championship, but he made the most of his limited attendance and finishes the season with four consecutive top-fives.

The Champion

Kyle Busch
Points: 5,043
Wins: 5
Top-fives: 12
Top-10s: 16
Chase Wins: Homestead

When Busch returned to the cockpit of his Toyota in late May after missing 11 races, no one held out much hope that he would be part of the Chase for the Championship. He shattered one leg and one foot in an XFINITY race in February and required a medical waiver to even be considered as a potential Chase contender. Most experts believed he would win a race, but climbing into the top 35 in points seemed unlikely. He proved them wrong on both accounts in short order. Busch won on the road course of Sonoma Raceway and then scored three consecutive wins on unrestricted, intermediate speedways.

The knock on Busch throughout his career was that he fades during the Chase and that might have been true one more year if not for the new knockout-style format. He nearly dug too-deep of a hole to climb from at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with a 37th-place finish, but he persevered until the Eliminator round. He swept the top five in those three races and needed to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway to hold off Kevin Harvick. He managed to do so, and was easily the best fantasy bargain at the end of the 2015 season.

The Championship Four

Kevin Harvick
Points: 5,042
Wins: 3
Top-fives: 23
Top-10s: 28
Chase Wins: Dover

Harvick’s Ford 400 finish was “quintessential” to use a word that came into vogue after Joey Logano spun Matt Kenseth at Kansas Speedway. He had the second-best car among the Chasers most of the afternoon and could not quite catch up to Busch in the closing laps of the race. He was forced to settle for second in the championship and the runner-up position in the race, which was the 13th time in 2015 that he scored that result. With top-fives in 64 percent of his starts, he was easily the best value in any fantasy game.

Jeff Gordon
Points: 5,038
Wins: 1
Top-fives: 5
Top-10s: 21
Chase Wins: Martinsville

One would have thought his Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 win at Martinsville Speedway was his career-first instead of the 93rd time Gordon visited Victory Lane. His elation in that hallowed ground was due to a couple of reasons: it solidified his position among the final four Chase contenders and insured he would not go winless in his final fulltime season. If Busch and Harvick had tangled at the end of the Ford 400, Gordon might even have retired as the champion. While he is no longer in the lineup, fantasy owners can expect his replacement Chase Elliott to provide about half as many top-10s next year as his predecessor.

Martin Truex Jr.
Points: 5,032
Wins: 1
Top-fives: 8
Top-10s: 22
Chase Wins: None

Truex began the 2015 season on fire; 14 of his first 15 races ended in top-10 finishes and he seemed to be just getting started when he won the Axalta 400 at Pocono Raceway in June. Back-to-back accidents at Sonoma and Daytona International Speedway robbed him of his momentum, however, and he could post consecutive top-10s only once more during the season. The good news was these three strong runs came during the Chase and propelled him into the final four.

Chase Contenders

Carl Edwards
Points: 2,368
Wins: 2
Top-fives: 7
Top-10s: 15
Chase Wins: None
Eliminated: Eliminator round

Edwards played the role of tortoise to most of the Chasers’ hare. He scored only two top-10s in the first 17 races of the season. Back-to-back accidents and 40-something finishes at Sonoma and Daytona could easily have ended his aspirations. He swept the top 15 in the next nine attempts and that set the pace for his championship effort as well. Edwards never stopped earning top-15s and top-10s came more frequently as well, which made him one of the best performers on fantasy rosters.

Joey Logano
Points: 2,360
Wins: 6
Top-fives: 22
Top-10s: 28
Chase Wins: Charlotte, Kansas, and Talladega
Eliminated: Eliminator round

From the beginning of the season, it was apparent the 2015 Chase would come down to a battle between Logano and Harvick and if not for back-to-back accidents at Martinsville and Texas Motor Speedway in the Eliminator round, he might very well be the defending champion. Seasons like the one Logano had last year are hard to duplicate and it is unlikely he will win six races again next year. He will start out as one of the most expensive drivers in salary cap games and most fantasy players will want to wait and see how he performs before spending a ton of money on the No. 22.

Brad Keselowski
Points: 2,347
Wins: 1
Top-fives: 9
Top-10s: 25
Chase Wins: None
Eliminated: Eliminator round

Keselowski was much less flashy in 2015 than his teammate Logano, but he ended the year only 13 points behind the No. 22. He earned top-fives in only 25 percent of his starts compared to Logano’s 61 percent, but he had nearly as many top-10s and that made him a great value in games where he was rightly-priced. To start the 2016 season, he will be cheaper and a better value while this team prepares to make another run at the championship.

Kurt Busch
Points: 2,333
Wins: 2
Top-fives: 10
Top-10s: 21
Chase Wins: None
Eliminated: Eliminator round

Busch was forgotten collateral damage in the inciting incident at Martinsville. Had Matt Kenseth not cut across the nose of Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford on a late-race restart to trigger a multi-car accident both Busch and Logano would probably have made the Chase. A wrecked-induced, 34th-place finish in the Goody’s 500 was the only time in the last seven races of the season that the No. 41 failed to score a top-10.

Denny Hamlin
Points: 2,327
Wins: 2
Top-fives: 14
Top-10s: 20
Chase Wins: Chicagoland
Eliminated: Contender round

One bad finish was all it took to remove Hamlin from Chase contention. The wild card aspect of the CampingWorld.com 500 at Talladega SuperSpeedway negated back-to-back top-fives. Hamlin was swept into an accident on the plate-track that sent the No. 11 home 37th. If he had made his way into the Eliminator round, it is likely that a fuel pickup problem at Texas would have been the final nail in his coffin, but overall Hamlin was one of the top contenders from Michigan International Speedway until Homestead with 11 top-10s—of which nine were sixth or better—in the final 14 races of 2015.

Jimmie Johnson
Points: 2,315
Wins: 5
Top-fives: 14
Top-10s: 22
Chase Wins: None (Won Texas after elimination)
Eliminated: Challenger round

The majority of Chase brackets were broken early in the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway when a rear seal on the No. 48 broke barely one-fourth of the way through the race. Johnson was forced to go to the garage, lost more than 35 laps effecting repairs and finished only 41st. To compound the disappointment, he was widely favored to win that race in his 500th NASCAR Cup start.

Ryan Newman
Points: 2,314
Wins: 0
Top-fives: 5
Top-10s: 15
Chase Wins: None
Eliminated: Contender round

Newman picked up in 2015 where he left off in 2014. Consistent top-fives and -10s put him within one position of winning the Championship and he finished that well in the first four unrestricted races of this season. He remained steady during the first 26 events and tried to replicate his accomplishment from last year, but instead of improving at every level during the playoffs, he slipped during the Contender round. In the final tally, he scored only one top-10 in the last eight events and a driver simply cannot win a Cup that way.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Points: 2,310
Wins: 3
Top-fives: 16
Top-10s: 22
Chase Wins: None (Won Phoenix after elimination)
Eliminated: Contender round

Last year Earnhardt won at Martinsville after getting eliminated from the Chase. In doing so, he deprived teammate Gordon from advancing to the championship four. This year his victory at Phoenix International Raceway also came after elimination, but it insured that Gordon was the only Chase contender to post a victory in the Eliminator round and deprived drivers like Logano and Keselowski the opportunity to challenge for the Cup.

Jamie McMurray
Points: 2,295
Wins: 0
Top-fives: 4
Top-10s: 10
Chase Wins: None
Eliminated: Challenger round

McMurray missed moving into the Contender round on a tiebreaker with Earnhardt despite earning a fourth-place finish at Dover. He earned enough points to be part of the Chase, but he rarely excited fantasy players with only two top-fives and seven top-10s during the regular season. In games where he was rightly-priced, a second at Martinsville and 10th at Texas during the fall made him worthwhile, however.

Paul Menard
Points: 2,262
Wins: 0
Top-fives: 2
Top-10s: 5
Chase Wins: None
Eliminated: Challenger round

If a fantasy player is wondering how a driver with only five top-10s made his way into the Chase, it is because the remainder of his results was consistent enough to give him the 14th-best average of 17.1. He was also reliable throughout most weekends with an average start of 17.8 that gave him a place-differential of less than one position.

Matt Kenseth
Points: 2,234
Wins: 5
Top-fives: 12
Top-10s: 20
Chase Wins: New Hampshire
Eliminated: Contender round

For interfering with the integrity of the Chase, Kenseth was suspended two races and had to watch from the sidelines. He and most fantasy players expected the No. 20 team to be a part of the final four and the disappointment in both ranks was palpable. Still, Kenseth’s season-long average finish of 14.3 was only 12th-best so finishing 15th in the points’ ranking was not out of range.

Clint Bowyer
Points: 2,175
Wins: 0
Top-fives: 2
Top-10s: 12
Chase Wins: None
Eliminated: Challenger round

Bowyer had an interesting albeit troubling season. Well before the Chase began it was announced that Rob Kaufman would take his money to another team, which effectively put Michael Waltrip Racing out of business. Bowyer had sponsors, but no leads on a competitive team until 2017 when he will replace Tony Stewart in the No. 14. The No. 15 never gave up, but they simply lacked the resources to make it very far into the Chase. 

 

Final 10 Races: Chase Contenders

Driver

Homestead

Phoenix

Texas

Martinsville

Talladega

Kansas

Charlotte

Dover

New Hampshire

Chicagoland

Kyle Busch

1

4

4

5

11

5

20

2

37

9

Kevin Harvick

2

2

3

8

15

16

2

1

21

42

Jeff Gordon

6

6

9

1

3

10

8

12

7

14

Martin Truex Jr.

12

14

8

6

7

15

3

11

8

13

Carl Edwards

11

12

5

14

5

8

6

15

5

2

Joey Logano

4

3

40

37

1

1

1

10

3

6

Brad Keselowski

3

9

2

32

4

9

9

16

12

8

Kurt Busch

8

7

7

34

10

6

5

17

19

3

Denny Hamlin

10

8

38

3

37

2

4

18

2

1

Jimmie Johnson

9

5

1

12

18

3

39

41

6

11

Ryan Newman

16

11

22

7

12

11

15

19

10

4

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

40

1

6

4

2

21

28

3

25

12

Jamie McMurray

13

15

10

2

39

20

12

4

14

16

Paul Menard

21

13

13

15

6

19

36

25

15

17

Matt Kenseth

7

X

X

38

26

14

42

7

1

5

Clint Bowyer

43

23

15

43

8

40

11

14

26

19

 

Dan Beaver

Dan Beaver has been covering fantasy NASCAR for more than 20 years with a little help from his >650,000 record database. He can be found on Twitter @FantasyRace.