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Chasing the Cup

Chasing 2015 spring Phoenix

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

NASCAR has reached a part of its schedule when unrestricted, intermediate speedways and short, flat tracks alternate for the next several weeks. This balance of speed and handling could provide new first time winners for the season and make the Chase picture increasingly clear, but there is an equally strong possibility that one of the first three winners this season could repeat before the series returns to the East coast.

Kevin Harvick dominated Phoenix International Raceway last year unlike anything fantasy owners have seen in recent years. Joey Logano was one of the top performers on unrestricted, intermediate speedways during the 2014 season, and Jimmie Johnson is good everywhere when the team is not experimenting with risky setups.

For the three drivers locked into the Chase, the CampingWorld.com 500 could become a 312-mile test session since this course also hosts one of the Chase races. One might assume that what they learn in the spring would be of limited use in the fall since these races are so far apart on the schedule, but this track is prone to streaks and contributes to drivers who are capable of sweeping the top 10 or 15 during a season. Finishing well this week does not guarantee a strong run in the fall, but it will certainly point an owner—both fantasy and real—in the right direction.

Phoenix is one of the short, flat tracks along with New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, and Richmond International Raceway. To go fast on these courses, drivers have to slow before they enter the corners and hit very precise marks. That discipline will serve them well in the coming weeks with two more minimally-banked courses on the horizon. As much as half the Chase field could be identified in the next five weeks.

Kevin Harvick (1 win / 134 points)
Chase Ranking: first
Last week: third
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 3.40
Auto Club: 17.67
Martinsville: 18.33

Nearly everyone expects Harvick will pad his lead this week at Phoenix and they are right to do so. With victories in four of the last six races there and either second- or first-place results in the most recent six races of this and last year, he has the perfect combination of momentum and track record.

Joey Logano (1 win / 123 points)
Chase Ranking: second
Last week: first
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 14.40
Auto Club: 22.00
Martinsville: 14.17

It is always entertaining when a rivalry develops between two drivers who genuinely seem to dislike the other. Fate has put Logano and Harvick at the top of the standings where they will be forced to bump into one another quite often this year—both figuratively and literally. Both drivers ran well in both Phoenix races last year, but Logano’s top-10 sweep is no match for Harvick’s back-to-back wins.

Jimmie Johnson (1 win / 91 points)
Chase Ranking: third
Last week: second
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 16.40
Auto Club: 15.33
Martinsville: 8.83

Is Chad Knaus experimenting with risky setups? The official answer to this question last year—after Johnson locked into the Chase—was no, but fantasy owners cannot expect teams to tell them everything. It is certainly suspicious that the tire failures that plagued him last year resurfaced so quickly after the Atlanta win and that should make players very nervous.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (0 wins / 125 points)
Chase Ranking: fourth
Last week: fourth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 8.00
Auto Club: 5.67
Martinsville: 10.00

Earnhardt has equaled Harvick in top-five finishes this year, and under the old format he would have a one-point advantage in the standings. Without a victory yet, the No. 88 is relegated to fourth. The season is still young and everyone expects Earnhardt to win soon. He got off to such a great start last year and finished second to Harvick at Phoenix, so that victory could come this week.

Martin Truex Jr. (0 wins / 118 points)
Chase Ranking: fifth
Last week: fifth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 24.20
Auto Club: 16.33
Martinsville: 23.83

Fantasy owners are waiting for Truex to drop down the standings and in all fairness that will probably happen. If he can capitalize on this early-season momentum, he could get a victory on one of the short, flat tracks in the next couple of weeks. Truex has a three-race, top-10 streak going. The last time he scored four consecutive top-10s was in summer 2012.

AJ Allmendinger (0 wins / 100 points)
Chase Ranking: sixth
Last week: ninth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 17.67
Auto Club: 13.00
Martinsville: 12.50

The points’ standings are pretty volatile at this stage of the season, but Allmendinger’s rapid rise during the past two weeks still deserves mention. He was 17th after the race at Daytona International Speedway, but back-to-back top-10s have propelled him to sixth. He made the Chase last year courtesy of a victory at Watkins Glen International and this year he would like to back that up with another win—as well as a position among the top 16 in points.

Kasey Kahne (0 wins / 92 points)
Chase Ranking: seventh
Last week: seventh
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 11.40
Auto Club: 21.33
Martinsville: 22.33

Kahne seems like such a laid-backed driver when he is outside of the car, but he demonstrated a trait last week that is essential for a racer. After getting pinched into the wall by Carl Edwards, his aggression level immediately spiked and he retaliated. A driver has to own his position on the track or the others will simply take it from him.

Casey Mears (0 wins / 87 points)
Chase Ranking: eighth
Last week: sixth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 22.40
Auto Club: 17.67
Martinsville: 24.67

When a driver gets off to as strong a start as Truex and Mears, it is best to put their old records aside and concentrate on current momentum. In the case of Mears, however, an early-season bump provided by back-to-back top-15s might have evaporated with last week’s 25th in the Kobalt 400. The short, flat tracks are driver’s courses and could keep him in the top 16 for the next three weeks.

Denny Hamlin (0 wins / 87 points)
Chase Ranking: ninth
Last week: Outside of Chase contention
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 11.40
Auto Club: 18.00
Martinsville: 14.60

If not for crash damage at Atlanta, Hamlin might be at the very top of the rankings with Harvick and Earnhardt. His fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500 and another top-five at Vegas combined with six top-10s in the final seven races of last year to make him one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. Momentum is fickle so fantasy owners should capitalize while it lasts.

Matt Kenseth (0 wins / 85 points)
Chase Outlook: 10th
Last week: Outside of Chase contention
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 11.80
Auto Club: 9.00
Martinsville: 7.67

Kenseth is one of three drivers listed last week as notable outside the top 16 who advanced into Chase consideration. Like Hamlin he had one bad race at the start of the season, but his came in the Daytona 500. Since then he scored consecutive top-10s and is getting ready to challenge for a victory on one of the upcoming unrestricted, intermediate speedways.

Greg Biffle (0 wins / 84 points)
Chase Ranking: 11th
Last week: 13th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 12.60
Auto Club: 17.33
Martinsville: 12.00

Biffle is walking a delicate balance between consistency and strength. In his first three races of the season, he finished 10th on the restrictor-plate, superspeedway of Daytona, scored another top-15 last week at Vegas, and had a 25th at Atlanta. For the moment it appears he is going to run just well enough to stay in Chase consideration until some dark horses outside the top 16 start winning races.

Ryan Newman (0 wins / 82 points)
Chase Ranking: 12th
Last week: Outside of Chase contention
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 14.60
Auto Club: 12.33
Martinsville: 17.33

Newman came within one race of winning the 2015 championship without taking a single trophy home from Victory Lane—and the question of whether NASCAR would have a winless champ went unanswered until Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is notable that he would have had to pass the hottest driver on the circuit there to win the Chase and also that he scored his best result of the season in the finale. Before he becomes a permanent fixture on fantasy rosters, he will have to at least challenge for wins.

Paul Menard (0 wins / 82 points)
Chase Ranking: 13th
Last week: Outside of Chase contention
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 18.20
Auto Club: 12.00
Martinsville: 17.17

Menard’s back-to-back top-15s on the two most recent similarly-configured, 1.5-mile track races could provide a unique opportunity for fantasy players. They are probably not quite enough to get him on the tip of the televised media’s tongues, but his position in the standings is proof enough of how important consistency can be when it applies to earned points.

Clint Bowyer (0 wins / 81 points)
Chase Ranking: 14th
Last week: 10th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 21.40
Auto Club: 21.33
Martinsville: 6.00

Bowyer’s top-10 in the Daytona 500 still provides enough of a cushion to keep him in the top 16, but back-to-back, 20-something results are starting to cause him to slip down the standings. Phoenix might not provide much hope to fans who want him to be in this list next week. The reason is because well more than half his starts on this track since 2008 have ended in results of 20th or worse.

Aric Almirola (0 wins / 80 points)
Chase Ranking: 15th
Last week: eighth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 16.60
Auto Club: 27.33
Martinsville: 13.50

Almirola has bounced between the 15th and eighth position in the standings during the past three weeks and fantasy owners wonder just how strong he will be in the immediate future. His odds of staying in the top 16 are actually quite good since he has finished in the top 20 in two-thirds of his recent attempts on the next three tracks. Players looking for a solid dark horse could do much worse than settling for Almirola.

Brad Keselowski (0 wins / 77 points)
Chase Outlook: 16th
Last week: Outside of Chase contention
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 5.60
Auto Club: 22.33
Martinsville: 15.67

Keselowski often walks on the razor’s edge. Last year, a 36th at Kansas Speedway nearly dropped him out if Chase contention and a 31st at Martinsville finally got him. This year, a blown engine and 41st at Daytona put him in a deep hole that he is only now climbing from. Five of his last six races in the Cup series have ended in top-10 finishes, however, so he is a great value when he avoids trouble.

Notables Outside the Top 16

David Ragan (0 wins / 75 points)
Chase Outlook: Outside of Chase contention
Last week: 15th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 31.80
Auto Club: 27.33
Martinsville: 26.83

Ragan has not been able to get the same results out of the No. 18 as Busch. The likeliest reasons are that the setups required by the former driver are not to Ragan’s liking and the team has not yet adjusted… Or, Ragan does not quite rise to the caliber of Busch in race conditions. Either way, he has not been the fantasy value expected in recent weeks and owners are nervous.

Carl Edwards (0 wins / 57 points)
Chase Outlook: Outside of Chase contention
Last week: 14th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 11.20
Auto Club: 6.33
Martinsville: 14.83

If not for a retaliatory bump by Kahne last week at Vegas, Edwards would still be in the top 16 in points instead of 23rd. Even with his standing, Edwards has proven to be a better value than most expected with a newly-formed team and he should rebound in the rankings quickly.

Jeff Gordon (0 wins / 42 points)
Chase Outlook: Outside of Chase contention
Last week: Outside of Chase contention
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 12.00
Auto Club: 16.67
Martinsville: 6.50

Three weeks, three accidents; bad luck can be hard to shake. Once Gordon puts this behind him, however, he has shown the strength to be one of the top fantasy values. Fantasy owners should not lose faith in him.

Tony Stewart (0 wins / 27 points)
Chase Outlook: Outside of Chase contention
Last week: Outside of Chase contention
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Phoenix: 15.75
Auto Club: 9.33
Martinsville: 14.40

Stewart has simply failed to perform very well during the first three weeks and fantasy owners are scratching their collective heads. It is expected that he will heat up during the summer, but unless he gets a win this year, he is probably not going to get high enough in the points to take make the Chase.
 

Next Three Weeks

Driver

2015 Power Avg.

Phoenix 3-yr Avg.

Auto Club 3-yr Avg.

Martinsville 3-yr Avg.

Kevin Harvick

2.94

3.40

17.67

18.33

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

3.23

8.00

5.67

10.00

Joey Logano

5.52

14.40

22.00

14.17

Martin Truex Jr.

5.68

24.20

16.33

23.83

Kasey Kahne

9.64

11.40

21.33

22.33

Denny Hamlin

9.97

11.40

18.00

14.60

Jimmie Johnson

10.94

16.40

15.33

8.83

Brad Keselowski

13.77

5.60

22.33

15.67

Paul Menard

15.42

18.20

12.00

17.17

Matt Kenseth

15.56

11.80

9.00

7.67

Ryan Newman

18.94

14.60

12.33

17.33

Casey Mears

19.16

22.40

17.67

24.67

AJ Allmendinger

19.35

17.67

13.00

12.50

Clint Bowyer

19.53

21.40

21.33

6.00

Greg Biffle

20.06

12.60

17.33

12.00

Aric Almirola

21.52

16.60

27.33

13.50

 

Carl Edwards

12.64

11.20

6.33

14.83

Jeff Gordon

12.91

12.00

16.67

6.50

Kyle Larson

19.53

16.50

2.00

33.00

Jamie McMurray

19.82

17.40

19.00

18.67

Brian Vickers

20.40

22.00

7.00

16.00

Danica Patrick

22.45

29.40

20.00

23.75

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

23.03

15.75

27.00

27.75

David Ragan

23.44

31.80

27.33

26.83

Austin Dillon

24.03

31.00

11.00

13.50

Justin Allgaier

24.28

32.67

28.00

20.00

Trevor Bayne

27.84

40.00

30.00

35.00

Tony Stewart

28.15

15.75

9.33

14.40

David Gilliland

28.28

30.00

32.33

26.17

Sam Hornish Jr

28.34

31.00

17.00

13.00

Michael Annett

29.64

30.00

19.00

27.50

Michael McDowell

30.56

33.50

40.00

37.00

Reed Sorenson

32.67

32.00

31.50

39.00

Cole Whitt

33.91

36.33

18.00

27.33

Alex Bowman

34.08

36.50

22.00

32.50

Mike Bliss

34.92

42.00

41.50

44.33

JJ Yeley

35.38

32.75

31.00

35.40

Josh Wise

36.20

38.60

38.00

34.67

Landon Cassill

38.97

34.60

30.33

25.67

 

  

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.