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Chasing the Cup

Chasing Darlington

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

Last week, Kyle Larson became the seventh different winner in the past seven races. Equally important, he was the second unique winner in the past four races and he added to the shifting sands of the Chase.

Larson powered his way to the front and battled two other drivers looking for their first NASCAR Sprint Cup win. Chase Elliott finished second. Ryan Blaney finished fourth, and among these three racers two needed to win in order to qualify for the Chase. Larson got his invitation. Elliott finished strong enough to almost certainly qualify for the playoffs on points, and Blaney is still on the outside looking in.

Four weeks ago the scenario was distinctly different. Chris Buescher threw a Hail Mary pass that connected and still did not immediately elevate him into Chase contention because he was 31st in the points. These two wins continue to serve notice of just how difficult it is to predict winners at NASCAR’s top level. Through 24 races, 13 drivers have won and that equates to a percentage of 54%.

At least one driver will advance to the Chase on points—but no more than three. If NASCAR keeps tweaking the rules in search of parity, they may soon get more than 16 unique winners during an upcoming regular season.

Regular Season Races Remaining: 2 (Maximum points per race = 45, 90 total)
Unique Winners in 2016: 13

Locked In

Kyle Busch (4 wins / 696 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 2
Points’ Standings: 6
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 6.33
Richmond: 8.00
Chicagoland: 6.00

Michigan has not been Busch’s best track, so it comes as little surprise that he struggled there last week. The next three courses on the schedule are near the top of his recent performance list, however, so he should end the regular season strong and carry on with a solid Chase start.

Brad Keselowski (4 wins / 774 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 5
Points’ Standings: 2
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 17.00
Richmond: 9.67
Chicagoland: 5.33

Keselowski has trended upward in recent weeks overall, but he lost some consistency with two results in the mid-teens at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and then had a crash-induced 33rd at Bristol Motor Speedway. His other seven attempts in the past 10 oval track races ended in top-fives with the majority as top-threes and that makes him one of this week’s best values.   

Kevin Harvick (2 wins / 799 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 1
Points’ Standings: 1
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 3.67
Richmond: 8.00
Chicagoland: 16.67

No matter which game one is playing, Harvick has been a top points’ earner. His raw finishes are consistently among the top-five and -10, which means that even with a steep salary cap he is going to earn enough to make him worthwhile. He has been so strong, however, that his net effect is zero because he is on most rosters and neither hurts nor helps the bottom line.

Carl Edwards (2 wins / 724 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 6
Points’ Standings: 3
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 7.00
Richmond: 10.50
Chicagoland: 11.00

Edwards has been a good but not great value. He is scoring top-10s with regularity, but in order to be a must-have, he needs to contend for top-fives. He shows a lot of promise at the beginning of the weekend with strong qualification runs, but that means he has lost place-differential points in five of his last six attempts. Last week, he advanced two spots in the race and still only finished seventh.

Matt Kenseth (2 wins / 633 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 7
Points’ Standings: 10
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 8.67
Richmond: 11.17
Chicagoland: 5.33

Kenseth should be fine at Darlington, but a quick look at his next three tracks’ average finishes suggests he is going to be at his best when the Chase launches. With a 5.3 at Chicagoland for the past three years, he knows the importance of a strong start and might be looking far enough down the line to cause fantasy owners to wait two weeks before activating him.

Denny Hamlin (2 win / 691 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 8
Points’ Standings: 7
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 8.00
Richmond: 16.33
Chicagoland: 13.33

Hamlin is arguably the best value in the game for the moment. His ninth-place finish in the Pure Michigan 400 last week was the sixth consecutive top-10. That streak includes flat tracks, short tracks, a road course, and a two-miler making him one of the best weekly threats in the field.

Jimmie Johnson (2 wins / 648 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 9
Points’ Standings: 9
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 8.67
Richmond: 15.83
Chicagoland: 9.33

For the first time since early in the season, Johnson scored back-to-back top-10s with a seventh at Bristol and sixth at Michigan. The frustrating thing about him at the moment is that predictable top-fives seem so far away even though he has sporadic ones in the past 18 races. Johnson should be treated as a week-to-week option, but it is going to be hard to place-and-hold him for some time.

Martin Truex Jr. (1 win / 652 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 3
Points’ Standings: 8
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 16.00
Richmond: 15.50
Chicagoland: 15.00

Truex has only eight top-10s in his last 18 attempts. Still, he is regarded as one of the top picks every week because of the strength he shows during each weekend. If this team learns how to avoid mistakes and Fate decides to forgive him for whatever past-life transgression is holding him back, Truex will be rocket to the top of fantasy rakings.

Joey Logano (1 win / 716 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 4
Points’ Standings: 5
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 20.33
Richmond: 7.50
Chicagoland: 15.67

More was expected of Logano last week than a 10th-place finish. The same could be said about his Bristol attempt, but there is a real sense that the driver is pacing himself for another run at the championship. Darlington has been tough on Logano in recent years, Richmond much kinder, but the real test is going to be how he performs in the Challenger round of the Chase.

Kurt Busch (1 win / 721 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 10
Points’ Standings: 4
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 17.00
Richmond: 9.67
Chicagoland: 5.00

Busch is not a bad value, but depending on his salary cap he might not be a great one either. His 12th-place finish in the Pure Michigan 400 last week was the sixth time in the past eight weeks that he failed to crack the top 10, which in stark comparison to the beginning of the season. Consistency got him this far, but it will not get him into the third round of the Chase without some top-fives to his credit. The most recent time he finished that well was in the Quaker State 400 by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway.

Kyle Larson (1 win / 582 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 13
Points’ Standings: 15
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 11.00
Richmond: 11.50
Chicagoland: 5.00

Larson went from being an also-ran to a favorite to clear at least the first round of the Chase. Many of his best tracks host races in the final 10 weeks of the year, but the trick in his first two full seasons was in getting there with shot at the championship. Larson will almost certainly fall out of contention following the Contender round—as the victim of a "Big One" crash at Talladega, we predict—but he is going to make a lot of noise in the next seven weeks.

Tony Stewart (1 win / 420 points)
Power Ranking: 18
Points’ Standings: 26
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 13.00
Richmond: 25.80
Chicagoland: 21.50

Stewart has softened in his last two races. He did not challenge for a top-15 in either race and ultimately settled further down the order. There were no extenuating circumstances; the team simply failed to perform to the level fantasy players had so recently grown to expect. Without a top-10 average on any of the next three tracks, his downward trend will probably continue.

Currently Eligible on Wins

Chris Buescher (1 win / 334 points)
Power Ranking: 34
Points’ Standings: 30
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: NA
Richmond: 34.00
Chicagoland: NA

The same affliction caused the No. 34 and 88 cars to finish well down the order last week. It is notable that one of the marquee teams and a Cinderella both had ignition problems, so fantasy owners cannot read too much into Buescher’s poor finish. However, it raises questions about whether this team will actually stay in the top 30 in points since one more catastrophe could sideline them.

Currently Eligible on Points

Chase Elliott (0 wins / 628 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 11
Points’ Standings: 11
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 41.00
Richmond: 14.00
Chicagoland: NA

Elliott was disappointed when he failed to win the Pure Michigan 400, but he got one race and one position closer to the Chase. By passing Austin Dillon by six points, he put some distance between himself and the bubble. Now he needs to stay within three spots of Dillon, six positions with Jamie McMurray, and 13 with Ryan Newman to make the playoffs—unless, of course, there is another one or two unique winners to reset the bubble in the next two weeks.

Austin Dillon (0 wins / 622 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 14
Points’ Standings: 12
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 16.50
Richmond: 24.20
Chicagoland: 29.50

In another season, being the driver with the second-most points among the winless throng would be enough to feel pretty safe right now. Dillon is only three positions per race ahead of the bubble, however, and there could easily be at least one more winner from outside the top 13 in the final two races. Richard Childress Racing could go from two drivers in the Chase to none in the space of two races.

Jamie McMurray (0 wins / 616 points)
Cannot fall out of the top 30
Power Ranking: 17
Points’ Standings: 13
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Darlington: 15.33
Richmond: 9.00
Chicagoland: 14.67

Both Ganassi guys finished well last week, but McMurray’s top-10 finish at Michigan did not do enough to get him off the bubble. It was his third eighth-place finish in a row. If he can finish that well in the next two races—and there are no more unique winners—he will join teammate Larson in the Chase. 

 

Power
Ranking

Points
Standings

Driver

Wins

Power
Avg.

|

Michigan

Darlington

Richmond

Locked In

2

6

Kyle Busch

4

7.71

|

34.80

6.33

8.00

5

2

Brad Keselowski

4

9.41

|

6.00

17.00

9.67

1

1

Kevin Harvick

2

6.60

|

8.00

3.67

8.00

6

4

Carl Edwards

2

9.73

|

14.00

7.00

10.50

7

10

Matt Kenseth

2

10.42

|

14.20

8.67

11.17

8

7

Denny Hamlin

2

10.95

|

17.00

8.00

16.33

9

9

Jimmie Johnson

2

11.24

|

16.80

8.67

15.83

3

8

Martin Truex Jr.

1

9.02

|

18.20

16.00

15.50

4

5

Joey Logano

1

9.29

|

5.00

20.33

7.50

10

3

Kurt Busch

1

11.73

|

15.00

17.00

9.67

Eligible on Wins

17

27

Tony Stewart

1

18.81

|

16.75

13.00

25.80

35

30

Chris Buescher

1

30.48

|

20.00

NA

34.00

Eligible on Points

11

12

Chase Elliott

 

13.76

|

2.00

41.00

14.00

13

11

Austin Dillon

 

16.66

|

16.80

16.50

24.20

19

13

Jamie McMurray

 

19.61

|

11.60

15.33

9.00

20

14

Ryan Newman

 

19.80

|

12.60

11.00

11.50

Drivers Outside Chase Contention

12

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

 

14.48

|

12.60

6.33

10.67

14

16

Kyle Larson

 

16.85

|

16.80

9.00

13.20

15

 

Ryan Blaney

 

17.05

|

21.67

30.00

28.00

16

 

Alex Bowman

 

18.80

|

34.50

26.50

33.75

18

 

Kasey Kahne

 

19.19

|

12.80

22.00

12.17

21

 

Jeff Gordon

 

20.50

|

11.25

8.67

5.40

22

 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

 

21.19

|

24.40

25.33

24.00

23

 

AJ Allmendinger

 

21.40

|

24.80

19.00

17.67

24

 

Paul Menard

 

21.98

|

9.20

28.67

18.33

25

15

Trevor Bayne

 

22.06

|

21.20

35.00

21.33

26

 

Greg Biffle

 

22.58

|

21.60

12.00

18.67

27

 

Ty Dillon

 

22.74

|

19.00

NA

NA

28

 

Aric Almirola

 

24.87

|

22.60

18.33

15.33

29

 

Danica Patrick

 

26.35

|

19.40

30.67

24.67

30

 

Casey Mears

 

28.09

|

25.60

28.00

26.00

31

 

Landon Cassill

 

29.10

|

31.20

25.00

29.50

32

 

Clint Bowyer

 

29.25

|

18.00

13.33

20.50

33

 

Michael McDowell

 

30.03

|

NA

42.00

38.67

34

 

David Ragan

 

30.04

|

27.40

37.00

25.83

36

 

Regan Smith

 

30.60

|

35.00

24.00

32.00

37

 

Brian Scott

 

31.42

|

36.00

NA

28.50

38

 

Matt DiBenedetto

 

33.02

|

34.33

25.00

34.33

39

 

Cole Whitt

 

34.19

|

27.80

40.50

36.25

40

 

Michael Annett

 

35.26

|

30.80

40.50

36.40

41

 

Jeb Burton

 

35.57

|

35.00

31.00

40.33

42

 

Alex Kennedy

 

37.50

|

34.00

NA

39.00

43

 

Josh Wise

 

37.72

|

32.40

34.33

39.50

44

 

Jeffrey Earnhardt

 

37.74

|

37.00

NA

39.00

45

 

Joey Gase

 

37.81

|

NA

NA

43.00

46

 

Reed Sorenson

 

38.40

|

33.50

39.00

37.17

47

 

Justin Allgaier

 

38.75

|

28.50

28.00

23.00

 

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.