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Chasing the Cup

Chasing Atlanta

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

With NASCAR’s win-and-in formula, the Chase starts now. Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500, and while he is not technically locked in since he could fall outside of the top 30, for all practical purposes he knows he is going to be part of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, for want of an inch and a little less side-draft from the No. 11, Martin Truex Jr. must wait and see where he lands in the points at the end of the 26-race regular season to know if he will get an invitation. The remainder of the top 16 are in various stages of uncertainty because the Daytona 500 is not predictive of how a driver will run on any of the unrestricted tracks.

Regan Smith, Michael McDowell, and Aric Almirola are longshots to make the Chase, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski are currently on the outside looking in. For a little while, the standings will remain upside down, but with back-to-back races on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks that should not last for long.

Regular Season Races Remaining: 25 (Maximum points per race = 45)
Unique Winners in 2016: 1

Locked In

None

Currently Eligible on Wins

Denny Hamlin (1 win / 45 points)
Power Ranking: first
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 1
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 8.50
Las Vegas: 7.50
Phoenix: 15.40

An inch is as good as a mile in NASCAR. Hamlin was one of the strongest drivers in the field all week at Daytona International Speedway and everyone knew he would not be content to push his teammate Matt Kenseth to Victory Lane. Instead, he pushed him out of the way and raced Truex to the line in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history. Like Logano last year, all of the pressure is off his shoulders for the next 25 races and he can simply go for wins.

Currently Eligible on Points

Joey Logano (0 wins / 35 points)
Power Ranking: second
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings:
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 6.67
Las Vegas: 8.67
Phoenix: 9.33

Logano was the strongest of the wait-and-see drivers last week. His Power Average shows that he was running well despite finishing sixth. A top-10 on the wild card course was good enough to give him momentum heading into three tracks on which he has a better than 10th-place, three-year average. By the end of the Western swing, he should easily have enough breathing room in the standings to be comfortable—if not one or two victories.

Kurt Busch (0 wins / 31 points)
Power Ranking: third
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 10
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 8.50
Las Vegas: 23.00
Phoenix: 15.00

Busch is still waiting for his first Daytona win, but despite that he has been strong on that particular restrictor-plate, superspeedway. He has been a little less consistent on the unrestricted, intermediate speedways, however, and needs some solid top-10s in the coming weeks to avoid questions about his ability to string strong runs together.

Martin Truex Jr. (0 wins / 40 points)
Power Ranking: fourth
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 2
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 10.67
Las Vegas: 8.00
Phoenix: 16.50

Truex was leading the Daytona 500 a few feet from the finish line. He surged back ahead of Hamlin a few feet beyond it, but NASCAR only cares about that checkered real estate in the middle. If for some reason the No. 78 team falls on hard times in the next few weeks and drops out of the top 16, the Daytona 500 is going to haunt them.

Kevin Harvick (0 wins / 37 points)
Power Ranking: fifth
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 4
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 10.00
Las Vegas: 17.00
Phoenix: 3.17

Notably, the three strongest drivers at the beginning of last year got off to strong starts this season as well. Harvick, Logano, and Truex not only scored top-10s in consecutive Daytona 500s, they ran amongst the leaders long enough to record top-five Power Rankings. Harvick was great on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks at the start of last year, so another top-five is expected of him at Atlanta Motor Speedway. 

Kyle Larson (0 wins / 34 points)
Power Ranking: sixth
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 7
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 17.00
Las Vegas: 13.50
Phoenix: 16.00

Larson has never run well at Daytona, which means that he normally starts his year in a hole. Finally he earned a top-10 on those hallowed grounds, which could make the difference this season as he looks to qualify for his first Chase. He has run well on the unrestricted, intermediate speedways, so his future hinges on the Folds of Honor Quicktrip 500 and Kobalt 400. If he can manage to record back-to-back top-10s, he should be safe for a little while.

Matt Kenseth (0 wins / 28 points)
Power Ranking: eighth
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 14
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 6.33
Las Vegas: 6.67
Phoenix: 12.20

One expects to get pushed around on restrictor-plate, superspeedways, but Kenseth probably did not expect to be nearly wrecked by a teammate. Kenseth tried to block the momentum of Hamlin and got clipped by the No. 11. The fact that he fell to only 14th instead of triggering a "Big One" crash is amazing and Kenseth now heads to a track type that has been very kind to him in the past. He will move up in the standings.

Jimmie Johnson (0 wins / 26 points)
Power Ranking: 10th
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 16
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 11.00
Las Vegas: 17.67
Phoenix: 11.00

Johnson has been known as the king of the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks in the past and he staked his claim again at the beginning of 2015. A victory at Atlanta virtually locked him into the Chase and two more wins at Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway removed all doubt. He is 16th in the points’ standings at the moment, but don’t expect that to last long.

Kasey Kahne (0 wins / 28 points)
Power Ranking: 12th
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 13
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 17.00
Las Vegas: 9.00
Phoenix: 13.83

Kahne was the only Hendrick Motorsports driver last year to miss the Chase and he is determined that will not happen this season. He would probably like a little more breathing room than 13th in the points’ standings gives him, but if he cannot perform on the upcoming unrestricted, intermediate speedways, it will not matter how he ran at Daytona.

Austin Dillon (0 wins / 33 points)
Power Ranking: 14th
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 9
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 27.33
Las Vegas: 19.00
Phoenix: 24.25

It is fitting that third-year drivers Dillon and Larson are both inside the top 16 after the first race of 2016. Fantasy owners can expect both of them to maintain their positions for a while since they have been in the shadow of one another since racing for Rookie of the Year honros. Both run well on unrestricted, intermediate speedways and they are in comparable equipment; luck is going to dictate the rest.

Aric Almirola (0 wins / 29 points)
Power Ranking: 15
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 12
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 13.33
Las Vegas: 22.33
Phoenix: 16.00

Almirola got off to a strong start last year, but he faded during the summer and fall. On the heels of making the Chase in 2014, that was quite a disappointment but there is some reason to be hopeful for the Richard Petty Motorsports organization. The addition of rookie Brian Scott is going to add something to the team and Almirola could thrive in the role of mentor.

Carl Edwards (0 wins / 36 points)
Power Ranking: 18
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 5
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 11.67
Las Vegas: 17.33
Phoenix: 11.67

The Power Ranking’s formula is usually a great metric of a driver’s strength, but there are exceptions. Edwards sustained crash damage in the Daytona 500—which is not uncommon for that driver—and he ran off the lead lap for quite some time. That affected his average running position and laps inside the top 10, but he was back up front when it counted most and earned fantasy points’ that go along with a fifth-place finish.

Regan Smith (0 wins / 33 points)
Power Ranking: 20
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 8
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: NA
Las Vegas: NA
Phoenix: NA

Smith is a blank slate during the first part of the 2016 season. He has run in relief roles only at the Cup level recently and he is not exactly in the strongest equipment this year. The draft is a great equalizer and he earned enough points at Daytona to stay inside the top 16 for a little while. That is going to give Tommy Baldwin Racing some extra press and could put a few coins in their pockets.

Ryan Newman (0 wins / 31 points)
Power Ranking: 22
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 11
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 7.30
Las Vegas: 16.00
Phoenix: 13.70

Newman has made the Chase in the past two years based on consistency. His winless streak at the Cup level is closing in on the 90-race mark and there is no reason to believe it is going to end anytime soon. Then again, he rarely costs fantasy owners many points.

Michael McDowell (0 wins / 26 points)
Power Ranking: 24
Last week: NA
Points’ Standings: 15
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Atlanta: 37.67
Las Vegas: 38.67
Phoenix: 32.00

It’s great to be able to write about McDowell in positive terms. Last week, he gave up his primary ride to Michael Waltrip and had to race his way into the Daytona 500 by finishing best among the Open Drivers in his Duel. He maintained that head of steam and scored a solid top-15 finish. Unfortunately, he will almost certainly drop out of the top 16 quickly because his three-year averages on the next three tracks are all worse than 30th. 

 

Power
Ranking

Top 16

Driver

Wins

Avg.
Finish

Atlanta

Las Vegas

Phoenix

Eligible on Wins

7.

1

Denny Hamlin

1

9.00

26.33

10.67

14.33

Drivers Eligible on Points

1.

3

Kyle Busch

 

7.67

8.50

7.50

15.40

2.

6

Joey Logano

 

7.83

6.67

8.67

9.33

3.

10

Kurt Busch

 

8.00

8.50

23.00

15.00

4.

2

Martin Truex Jr.

 

8.00

10.67

8.00

16.50

5.

4

Kevin Harvick

 

8.33

10.00

17.00

3.17

6.

7

Kyle Larson

 

8.83

17.00

13.50

16.00

8.

14

Matt Kenseth

 

9.50

6.33

6.67

12.20

10.

16

Jimmie Johnson

 

11.33

11.00

17.67

11.00

12.

13

Kasey Kahne

 

12.33

17.00

9.00

13.83

14.

9

Austin Dillon

 

13.67

27.33

19.00

24.25

15.

12

Aric Almirola

 

14.50

13.33

22.33

16.00

18.

5

Carl Edwards

 

18.83

11.67

17.33

11.67

20.

8

Regan Smith

 

20.17

NA

NA

NA

22.

11

Ryan Newman

 

22.60

7.30

16.0

13.70

24.

15

Michael McDowell

 

22.83

37.67

38.67

32.00

Drivers Outside the top 16 in points

9.

 

Jamie McMurray

 

11.00

21.00

13.00

13.50

11.

 

Ryan Blaney

 

11.50

NA

19.00

NA

13.

 

Brad Keselowski

 

13.67

27.67

3.67

6.17

16.

 

Brian Vickers

 

17.00

12.50

14.00

28.33

17.

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

 

17.83

7.33

4.33

10.50

19.

 

Paul Menard

 

20.00

18.33

8.33

18.17

21.

 

Ty Dillon

 

21.00

25.00

NA

27.00

23.

 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

 

22.83

24.00

24.67

19.33

25.

 

Landon Cassill

 

26.00

37.00

40.67

34.17

26.

 

Michael Annett

 

28.17

31.33

34.00

33.50

27.

 

Greg Biffle

 

28.33

16.67

17.67

18.00

28.

 

AJ Allmendinger

 

28.50

20.33

12.00

18.80

29.

 

David Ragan

 

28.67

22.67

28.33

27.50

30.

 

Brian Scott

 

28.67

NA

13.00

32.00

31.

 

Trevor Bayne

 

29.17

17.50

23.67

31.00

32.

 

Michael Waltrip

 

29.17

NA

NA

NA

33.

 

Danica Patrick

 

29.17

14.33

27.00

28.67

34.

 

Clint Bowyer

 

30.67

33.67

23.67

21.00

35.

 

Chase Elliott

 

31.00

NA

NA

NA

36.

 

Casey Mears

 

31.83

19.67

27.33

22.00

37.

 

Bobby Labonte

 

32.83

NA

NA

NA

38.

 

Chris Buescher

 

37.33

NA

NA

NA

39.

 

Robert Richardson Jr./p>

 

38.17

NA

NA

NA

40.

 

Matt DiBenedetto

 

39.00

44.00

44.00

31.50

 

A note about the three-year stats: The three-year average finish is a script that looks at the last 1,116 days—to provide for minor changes in the schedule. Since some races shift dates more than a week or two, the past three-years sometimes occasionally contain five races instead of six. It is a consistent snapshot, however.

A note about the Power Average: The Fantasy Power Rankings formula includes finishing results this season as well as various “strength-based” intangibles such as Laps in the top five, 10, and 15, average running position, speed in traffic, and quality passes (passing a car while in the top 15) expressed as if they were finishing results. The lower the number, the stronger the driver.

 

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.