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Chasing the Cup

Chasing Sonoma

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

Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500; Brad Keselowski took the checkers at Talladega SuperSpeedway in the Geico 500, but NASCAR has five wild cards in play during the regular season and one of them is on deck.

In the past two years, four different drivers have won on road courses. Carl Edwards won at Sonoma Raceway in 2014, AJ Allmendinger took the checkers first at Watkins Glen International later that same season, with Kyle Busch and Joey Logano scoring victories last year.

Only one of these drivers enters the Toyota / Save Mart 350k without a victory, which says something about the validity of calling road courses wild cards.

The winner tends to come from marquee teams; only Allmendinger and perhaps Martin Truex Jr. in the 2013 Sonoma race could be considered dark horses, but the top 10 is often filled with fresh faces. If any of the currently winless drivers are in contact with the leader in the closing laps, the gloves will be dropped and all bets are off the table.

Sonoma is a wild card—but then again, all 11 regular season races could shuffle the order just as much.

Regular Season Races Remaining: 11 (Maximum points per race = 45)
Unique Winners in 2016: 10

Locked In

Kyle Busch (3 wins / 417 points)
Power Ranking: 4
Points’ Standings: 9
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 20.33
Daytona: 15.80
Kentucky: 2.67

Busch has had a miserable time in recent weeks. A blown engine at Michigan International Speedway and three consecutive accidents have him entering the Toyota 350 with four straight results of 30th or worse. He has earned negative points in the NASCAR Fantasy Live and Draft Kings games, but his record on road courses last year makes him interesting nonetheless. He won this race and finished second at the Glen.

Jimmie Johnson (2 wins / 441 points)
Power Ranking: 2
Points’ Standings: 7
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 7.33
Daytona: 11.83
Kentucky: 9.33

Johnson enters the weekend with a seven-race streak of top-10 finishes at Sonoma. If he wants to extend that to eight, he is going to have to avoid costly mistakes that have plagued him all season. Sonoma is a technical track and there is very little margin for error. One misplaced wheel could put the No. 48 into a tire barrier.

Brad Keselowski (2 wins / 480 points)
Power Ranking: 6
Points’ Standings: 3
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 20.67
Daytona: 22.00
Kentucky: 13.33

After finishing fourth at Michigan last week, Keselowski seemed a little frustrated. He thought he had a car to beat and a top-five finish was not good enough for his team, but fantasy owners with him on their roster for the past six weeks have been overjoyed. His Geico 500 at Talladega victory kicked off six consecutive top-10s in which he has an average of 4.8.

Carl Edwards (2 wins / 472 points)
Power Ranking: 8
Points’ Standings: 4
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 14.67
Daytona: 25.33
Kentucky: 14.00

Edwards finished 40th in last year’s Toyota / Save Mart 350 because of an accident on lap 78 of 110. He crashed the following week at Daytona as well, so he might not be a little nervous in the coming wild card races. He was back in top form at the Glen in August, however, and scored his fifth top-10 in the most recent six road course races.

Currently Eligible on Wins

Kevin Harvick (1 win / 426 points)
Power Ranking: 1
Points’ Standings: 1
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 11.33
Daytona: 10.83
Kentucky: 8.33

Harvick has not seemed nearly as dominant in 2016 as he did in 2015, but he still leads the Fantasy Power Rankings, Points’ Standings, and has the best average finish of the pack. Winning by a meter or a mile counts the same and Harvick has made the race interesting for everyone else. With top-fives in 47 percent of his starts, he has made a little room at the top for the competition.  

Martin Truex Jr. (1 win / 433 points)
Power Ranking: 3
Points’ Standings: 8
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 19.33
Daytona: 24.50
Kentucky: 14.33

Truex has finished outside the top 15 only three times in 15 races this season, but he was not going to count 2016 as a success without a victory. That came three weeks ago in dominant fashion at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but it is one of only two top-10s in the last six races. Now that he has a win to his credit, hopefully the team will settle into a more consistent pattern.

Joey Logano (1 win / 455 points)
Power Ranking: 5
Points’ Standings: 5
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 10.67
Daytona: 16.17
Kentucky: 5.00

A weight was lifted from Logano’s shoulders last week. He entered the FireKeepers Casino 400 eighth in the points’ standings and with 12 races remaining, there was still the possibility of 16 or more unique winners in 2016. In all likelihood, there will still be several drivers who qualify for the Chase on points, but no one wants to take that chance. Logano finally has the sense of security 15 races into this season that he started with in 2015 and his Daytona 500 win.

Matt Kenseth (1 win / 409 points)
Power Ranking: 7
Points’ Standings: 10
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 27.33
Daytona: 21.83
Kentucky: 3.33

Kenseth snapped a four-race, top-10 streak last week when he finished 14th at Michigan. That should have been a good track for all of the Gibbs’ guys, but Edwards was the only one to finish with the leaders. Still, Kenseth avoided the ill-Fate that plagued Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, so his week was a qualified success.

Kurt Busch (1 win / 496 points)
Power Ranking: 9
Points’ Standings: 2
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 6.00
Daytona: 9.00
Kentucky: 9.33

Busch is the only driver this week with a better-than 10th-place average finish in the past three years on the upcoming three tracks. He expects to be on most fantasy rosters and very few players will deny him that honor. For owners lagging in points, now is a good time to pass over Busch and take a look at some of the sleepers or less popular marquee racers.

Denny Hamlin (1 win / 380 points)
Power Ranking: 11
Points’ Standings: 13
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 22.33
Daytona: 8.67
Kentucky: 26.67

Hamlin’s accident last week in Michigan was the sixth time in the past 10 races that he sustained damage. Given that, it is remarkable that he has the 11th-best Fantasy Power Ranking or that he sits 13th in the standings. Inconsistency is a difficult thing for fantasy owners to overlook, but Hamlin has the capability to rebound. That probably will not happen at Sonoma, however, so he can be left on the bench for the moment.

Currently Eligible on Points

Chase Elliott (0 wins / 453 points)
Power Ranking: 10
Points’ Standings: 6
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: NA
Daytona: 37.00
Kentucky: NA

Elliott keeps scoring major points as he stalks his first Cup win. He enters the weekend with six consecutive top-10s and an average finish of 5.2 in that span of events. Sonoma and Daytona are obstacles that need to be overcome since anything can happen on wild card tracks, but once the field gets to Kentucky Speedway, he will be one of the most popular picks once more.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (0 wins / 383 points)
Power Ranking: 12
Points’ Standings: 11
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 7.33
Daytona: 10.50
Kentucky: 12.67

Earnhardt is five away from the bubble. If six drivers currently lower in the points overtake him or win races, he is in danger of missing the Chase. Each week that goes by elevates the tension for drivers without a win because there are a myriad of ways to lose races in the NASCAR Cup series and far fewer ways to win. Last week’s FireKeepers Casino 400 accident was the third time in the past six weeks Earnhardt failed to finish a race.

Ryan Blaney (0 wins / 364 points)
Power Ranking: 13
Points’ Standings: 16
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: NA
Daytona: 29.00
Kentucky: NA

Blaney slipped a position in the points’ last week, but he maintained his spot in the Fantasy Power Rankings. He has been stronger than three drivers who are ahead of him in the standings and that is actually good news for fans of the newbie. If he can keep panic at bay, he should be able to rebound and advance a position or two. One does not want to be on the bubble with three wild card races still in play.

Austin Dillon (0 wins / 381 points)
Power Ranking: 13
Points’ Standings: 12
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 17.00
Daytona: 8.80
Kentucky: 21.67

Dillon has not been the most consistent driver on the circuit, but when fantasy owners guess correctly he has been one of the greatest values. He scored a top-10 in the Daytona 500 and earned six more in the last 14 races. Unfortunately he has been able to back one up with another only twice and he has not yet scored three consecutive. That makes him difficult to place-and-hold on any roster.

Ryan Newman (0 wins / 369 points)
Power Ranking: 19
Points’ Standings: 15
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 11.67
Daytona: 18.83
Kentucky: 12.33

Newman advanced one spot in the points last week on the heels of his 11th-place finish. He is still seeking his first top-five of the year, but has four top-12s in the past five races. He rounds out a fantasy roster nicely and can be counted on to run a mistake-free race every week.

Jamie McMurray (0 wins / 374 points)
Power Ranking: 20
Points’ Standings: 14
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Sonoma: 13.33
Daytona: 18.33
Kentucky: 17.67

McMurray is only 10 points ahead of Blaney and the bubble. He is 21 points in front of 17th-place Kasey Kahne, but he cannot ignore the fact that a driver outside the top 16 can still win and change the bubble spot. Tony Stewart has his eye on Sonoma, Allmendinger is prepping hard for Watkins Glen, and anyone can win at Daytona next week. 

 

Three-Year Average Finish, Next Three Tracks

Power
Ranking

Top
16

Driver

Wins

Power
Avg.

|

Sonoma

Daytona

Kentucky

Locked In

4

9

Kyle Busch

3

8.68

|

20.33

15.80

2.67

2

7

Jimmie Johnson

2

8.24

|

7.33

11.83

9.33

6

3

Brad Keselowski

2

9.75

|

20.67

22.00

13.33

8

4

Carl Edwards

2

10.39

|

14.67

25.33

14.00

Eligible on Wins

1

1

Kevin Harvick

1

5.24

|

11.33

10.83

8.33

3

8

Martin Truex Jr.

1

8.65

|

19.33

24.50

14.33

5

5

Joey Logano

1

8.94

|

10.67

16.17

5.00

7

10

Matt Kenseth

1

9.81

|

27.33

21.83

3.33

9

2

Kurt Busch

1

10.51

|

6.00

9.00

9.33

11

13

Denny Hamlin

1

12.24

|

22.33

8.67

26.67

Eligible on Points

10

6

Chase Elliott

 

11.57

|

NA

37.00

NA

12

11

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

 

13.85

|

7.33

10.50

12.67

13

16

Ryan Blaney

 

15.32

|

NA

29.00

NA

14

12

Austin Dillon

 

16.19

|

17.00

8.80

21.67

19

15

Ryan Newman

 

20.50

|

11.67

18.83

12.33

20

14

Jamie McMurray

 

20.55

|

13.33

18.33

17.67

Drivers Outside the Top-16 in Points

15

 

Kasey Kahne

 

18.11

|

6.67

24.00

15.33

16

 

Kyle Larson

 

18.69

|

21.50

30.80

37.50

17

 

Brian Vickers

 

18.91

|

NA

NA

NA

18

 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

 

19.08

|

26.00

21.50

17.67

21

 

Trevor Bayne

 

20.91

|

23.00

26.33

13.00

22

 

AJ Allmendinger

 

21.25

|

37.00

27.67

23.33

23

 

Paul Menard

 

22.85

|

10.67

25.00

20.00

24

 

Ty Dillon

 

22.97

|

NA

26.50

NA

25

 

Aric Almirola

 

23.66

|

19.00

23.17

22.00

26

 

Greg Biffle

 

23.70

|

14.67

19.67

21.33

27

 

Tony Stewart

 

23.72

|

19.67

26.60

21.33

28

 

David Gilliland

 

23.78

|

NA

NA

NA

29

 

Michael Waltrip

 

26.54

|

NA

NA

NA

30

 

Danica Patrick

 

26.59

|

23.67

25.50

26.00

31

 

Landon Cassill

 

28.11

|

39.50

24.33

32.00

32

 

Clint Bowyer

 

29.21

|

6.00

17.50

15.00

33

 

Casey Mears

 

29.30

|

22.33

12.00

20.33

34

 

Bobby Labonte

 

29.46

|

NA

NA

NA

35

 

David Ragan

 

30.10

|

36.00

22.67

25.00

36

 

Regan Smith

 

30.15

|

NA

12.00

NA

37

 

Michael McDowell

 

30.77

|

29.00

28.00

38.00

38

 

Brian Scott

 

30.88

|

NA

33.75

NA

39

 

Chris Buescher

 

31.95

|

NA

39.00

NA

40

 

Matt DiBenedetto

 

32.11

|

29.00

33.00

42.00

41

 

Cole Whitt

 

34.95

|

24.50

30.60

32.50

42

 

Michael Annett

 

35.70

|

31.50

27.00

24.00

43

 

Joey Gase

 

37.81

|

NA

NA

NA

44

 

Josh Wise

 

37.87

|

33.33

32.33

37.00

45

 

Jeffrey Earnhardt

 

37.96

|

NA

NA

NA

46

 

Robert Richardson Jr.

 

38.17

|

NA

NA

NA

47

 

Ryan Ellis

 

38.33

|

NA

NA

NA

48

 

Reed Sorenson

 

39.04

|

32.00

31.00

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.